I only got wind of SyFy's new show, ‘Helix,’ a few days before its premiere on the cable network on January 10, 2014. So far, I've seen three episodes and I’m hooked, eager to see what’s next.
The show is produced by Ronald D. Moore, the guy behind the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ reboot, and a mess of other creative guys from shows like ‘Alphas’ and ‘The X-Files,’ and movies like ‘Contact.’ The new show is the brainchild of Cameron Porsandeh, a writer who is new to me, but is who is now definitely on my radar. He brought it to Sony Pictures and they were able to pull in all this fantastic talent to flesh it out and connect ideas to make it cohesive, according to interviews.
In the first episode, the Center for Disease Control is approached by a private corporation, Arctic Biosystems, for help with an incident in an isolated research facility in Alaska. Alan Farragut, is a CDC doctor played by Billy Campbell (‘The Rocketeer’ and ‘Eureka’) who is asked to tag along. He’s told that his brother, Peter (Neil Napier), is one of those that have been infected with an unknown pathogen. Together with a team comprised of his ex, Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), his colleagues Dr. Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux), Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), and Major Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanimé) they head up to the arctic to find out what’s going on.
They’re met there by the director of the facility, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (played by the awesome Hiroyuki Sanada, last seen in '47 Ronin'), who is a shady bastard who isn't very forthcoming on the research being done in the labs.
I’m really glad that Sanada is getting more and more international work now. I've been a fan of his since I first saw ‘Twilight Samurai’ and when he played the captain in Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine,’ he became one of my favorite actors. He’s got a demeanor of unflappability that just kills me, and when he’s on screen I can’t help but be riveted. His inclusion in this series makes me hope that we’re finally at the point where we’ll see more and more Asians in roles that aren't "kung-fu master" or "ninja assassin". Not that I don’t enjoy the occasional ninja assassin. They can be pretty great company if you don’t piss off anyone who might pay money to see you dead.
To make matters worse for the CDC team, Hatake's head of security, Daniel Aerov (Meegwun Fairbrother) is kind of a dick, the kind that shoots first and never thinks to ask any questions. I've got a feeling that these guys are going to be glad he’s around later in the series.
The rest of the cast is pretty great, too, though I’m not familiar with anyone but Campbell and Sanada. Their conviction when playing against some of the stuff in the show really does a lot to convince you that they are actually in a life or death situation, and that the lives of 100 scientists with nowhere to go are depending on experience, knowledge, and competence which, I’m assuming, none of them actually have in real life. That’s quite a trick to pull off, but it’s done great.
It’s really helped by the fact that the mediocre CGI is bolstered by some really great practical effects. The on-set props, coupled with some very nice make-up effects really help you buy into the fact that the virus is turning people into vicious, blood-thirsty rage tanks, dripping thick, black goo from every orifice. There isn't any particularly elaborate transformation with infection (at least not yet), but it works as well as it did in ‘28 Days Later.’
Another great thing about the show is their choice of music. During one of the best suspense moments, near the end of the pilot, ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’ begins playing over the scene. The contrast to on screen content is fantastic, and I hope that jarring feeling of discomfort is kept throughout.
But then we’re only on episode 3, so everything’s still up in the air until we know more. The first three episodes did a good job of teasing us and giving us plenty of questions. How did the infection start, what’s that scar is about, what’s up with Balleseros, what’s the ‘white room’, and why silver eyes? Hopefully those are all answered by the end of the first season, or at least substantially addressed. We've got about ten more episodes to go, so… crossing my fingers.
I do hope that we’ll get some meatier scenes for the actors to play so that we start caring about the characters a bit more than we do now. I also want the CDC team to seem a little smarter than they are now. There’s a feeling right now that they’re in over their heads and they don’t know what to do, yet we never really got the scene that shows they really know what they’re doing; that they did all they can and that they spread of the contagion is out of their control. Everything they've done so far feels reactionary to me.
I mean shouldn't isolation chambers have been the first thing to set up in a case like this? And shouldn't the scientists have been sequestered right off the bat to prevent any further contamination? Yet that doesn't happen until day 3 (episode 3), after the shit’s hit the fan.
So while ‘Helix’ doesn't re-invent the wheel when it comes to contagion films (or series), it does provide some decent scares and builds the tension enough to make you want to come back and find out who did what. Virus movie tropes are used to great effect; cabin fever, paranoia, the I’m-not-sick-when-I-clearly-am-infected, all that is a pre-requisite when it comes to a story like this, but it’s all fairly well done. If pressed, I’d say it is heavily influenced by elements of Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and ‘The Andromeda Strain’ as well as other science fiction shows.
Anyone remember that “black oil” stuff from ‘The X-Files’?
My early thoughts about the show were that it’s an alien bio-weapon; a colonization tool meant to convert the indigenous population into a compatible organism that will begin the terraforming of the planet and the eradication of the natives before the mother ship arrives. Since some of the people involved used to be with that show, it’s not that far-fetched, and Moore’s already used colonization by aliens in ‘Battlestar Galactica’.
I guess I’ll have to keep watching to see if that theory is correct.