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Spring 2014 Review: Helix

15 Jan


I’ll be honest. I like science fiction as much as the next person but I’m not a hardcore sci-fi guy, and SyFy as a network has more or less flown under my radar in terms of scripted shows for the past few years, largely since BattleStar Galactica. I have been making an effort since I started this blog two and a half years ago to watch the vast majority of new scripted shows, and until now I haven’t watched a SyFy show, which speaks both to its absence in my peripheral vision and the relative lack of general buzz built up behind any of their shows while networks like FX and AMC are churning out talked about programming. SyFy finally appeared again on my radar with the debut of a show called Helix created by who else but BSG creator and showrunner Ron Moore, and I decided there was no matter time to give a SyFy show a shot. I’m not the biggest BSG fan, and I probably like it less than most people who have watched it all the way through, but it has definite merit and I’m glad I’ve seen, so I was at least intrigued to give Helix a shot.

Helix is about a super secret private science lab complex in the arctic that, because of its location, is not controlled or governed by any nation. Because of its unique position, no one exactly know what the scientists up there are doing and what kind of crazy experiments they’re conducting. It’s run by a veteran PhD, Dr. Hiroshi Hitake. Unfortunately, there’s a problem; a couple of people die from an unidentified virus and the base is concerned. The army calls on CDC expert Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell, the most famous name in a largely lesser-known cast) who brings a small team (three doctors and an army member) up with him to check out the infection, figure out what’s causing it, stop the spread, and decide how to deal with the infected. This guy is just one of a few potentially qualified experts in running these disease control operations, but he’s called upon because his brother is one of the infected.

Ron Moore’s previous SyFy hit BSG featured plenty of action, but the action in Helix is of a very different stripe. It’s a thriller-horror, most closely in the mold of John Carptner’s classic The Thing. The most basic reason for the comparison is obvious; The Thing is set in an international base in the antarctic, while Helix is set in the arctic. Helix, like the Thing, features the terrifying premise that we may not at anytime know who is infected and who isn’t, and that a strange and never before seen virus (it’s an alien in The Thing, but still) turns some of those infected against other humans, removing their humanity. Helix actually has a bit of a zombie vibe in that way as well in the way humans with the virus are programmed to infect other humans, and gain super speed and strength; think 28 Days Later.

The show is tense and fairly terrifying. The characters don’t appear that interesting at first anyway, but honestly that’s not that important. The best shows do everything well, but shows that do even one thing well can still be well worth watching, and while Helix isn’t aces so far on characters or dialogue (don’t even talk to me about BSG characters or dialogue, but that’s for another day), the tension and pacing absolutely do the trick of making you terrified but wanting to know what happens next. Helix unfurls fairly quickly, and a bad situations continues to get worse. No one has ever seen any infection like this at all before, and for every step forward the scientists take, they seemingly end up two steps back.

There’s some science mumbo jumbo, and there’s a not particularly necessary possible romantic triangle between Farragut, his ex-wife, who is a scientist on his team (who cheated on with, of all people, his now infected brother), and his new younger protege seems to have a crush on him. This show might better be done with characters that had less previous relation to one another, without the soap angle, but while probably best removed, this doesn’t really take that much away from the show, simply because that’s not really what the show is about or why you’re watching the show to begin with.

The intrigue in Helix is real and present. I want to know what the virus is about, but less because I actually care about the meaning behind it, but because minute-to-minute I want to see if they have any chance at surviving one more episode. Additionally, unlike in the The Thing, there are villains, people actively preventing the scientists from doing the best job they can from stoping the virus. This makes their job far more difficult, makes contact with world outside the insane arctic ice complex nearly impossible, and places them in a land with no laws and men and women running around like crazed zombies. This could easily go off the rails, but it’s an intriguing premise, and good shows on this genre are hard to find on television. I love deep character studies as much as the next person (you won’t find a bigger Treme fan) but there’s a place for tense thrillers as well.

Will I watch it again? Yes. I’m very concerned the concept could get tired, or feel drawn out after a season or more, and without a set end date, it’s hard to see it ending well. But after I watched the first two (they aired back to back on the debut day), I was at least kind of hooked, which may not sound like a resounding endorsement but it’s already more than most shows.