First impressions: Helix (“Pilot” 1.01 / “Vector” 1.02)

(image via cinemastatic.org (c) syfy)
(image via cinemastatic.org (c) syfy)

 

“BEHIND YOU!”

Now before anyone begins to worry that the use of that delightfully hoary old pantomime ritual is a sign that Helix is some sort of over the top homage to English musical comedy stage shows, let me assure you that the use of that phrase has more to do with the fact that there is a great deal of suspense in syfy’s gripping new thriller.

A great deal.

Almost from the word go, when a team from the Centre for Disease Control, led by the sensible by-the-books Dr Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) arrives at a remote Antarctic base to investigate an unusual viral outbreak, you’re on the edge of your seat as mysteries, engimas, riddles and conspiracies pile up like crashing cars on a German autobahn in winter.

Everyone it seems has something to hide, and while the show does take a little while to find its rhythm and pick up the pace, when it does it is full throttle ahead with all manner of intrigue in play.

From from being a normal containment situation with an easily traceable virus, Farrgut and his team, comprising strong-headed ex-wife Dr Julia Walker (Kyra Zagrosky), brilliant but naive Dr Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes) and feisty Dr Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux), soon discover that both the location and the virus are unlike anything they have come across before.

 

The team walk into the Antarctic base when really they should walking in completely the opposite direction and flying the hell out of there ... but then how exciting a show would that be? (image via syfy.com/helix (c) syfy)
The team walk into the Antarctic base when really they should walking in completely the opposite direction and flying the hell out of there … but then how exciting a show would that be? (image via syfy.com/helix (c) syfy)

 

To complicate matters further, there is a personal element to the whole endeavour with Alan’s brother, Dr Peter Farrgut (Neil Napier), one of the first people infected and the man who slept with Alan’s then-wife Julia ending the marriage, racing around like the facility like a man possessed.

Far from rendering its victims as catatonic, intuitive zombie-like creatures, this virus leaves higher reasoning intact allowing the infected to act on their viral impulses to further spread the disease with all the reasoning that made them great scientists, albeit ones with questionable morals and suspect career paths, intact.

Yes, people, we are talking highly aggressive, thinking zombies.

OK, they’re not zombies really but they are driven by a frightening mix of intellect and instinct and almost super human strength making an almost uncontainable threat.

By the end of the first two episodes, each of which comprise one 24 hour period, things are decidedly spiralling out of control with paranoia rampant, hidden agendas emerging and the number of infected seemingly mounting by the minute.

 

Oh Julia! Did no one tell you not to shower all alone in the enormously big bathroom when an infected super humanly strong scientist is running amok? (image via syfy.com/helix (c) syfy)
Oh Julia! Did no one tell you not to shower all alone in the enormously big bathroom when an infected super humanly strong scientist is running amok? (image via syfy.com/helix (c) syfy)

 

None of which oddly seems to overly bother either the man in charge of the facility Dr Hiroshi Hatake (whose photo album seems to contains some interesting pictures of one particular team member), who is both acquiescent and obstructive to the team in equal measure (despite being the one who called them in) or the military man who accompanied the CDC team, Dr Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanimé).

Connected in some way, with the possibility they both work for the same hidden but unnamed interests, both men seem willing to do whatever it takes to clean up the mess without revealing a damn thing.

Such as the fact that there were research monkeys.

Lots and lots of infected, now mostly frozen, research monkeys.

Or that the virus, which turns the human body into a container of sickening black goop, does strange and violent and DNA-altering things.

Did I say there were mysteries, enigmas and riddles?

Yes indeed and then some.

 

And so it all goes pear-shaped in spectacular fashion with exposed scientists not reacting to well to being cooped up in the isolation ward (image via syfy.com/helix (c) syfy)
And so it all goes pear-shaped in spectacular fashion with exposed scientists not reacting to well to being cooped up in the isolation ward (image via syfy.com/helix (c) syfy)

 

While it was not a perfect beginning, with the show needing a little bit more narrative flesh on the bones, and a little less reliance on the stock-in-trade cliched characters (the bickering ex’s, the belligerent fearful person, the ingenue, the wise-cracking go-it-alone team member … yes Dr Doreen Boyle I am talking about you!), Helix shows a great deal of promise, executing on its breathtakingly scary and far-ranging premise well.

That likely has a lot to do with the fact that it comes partly from the hand of Ronald D. Moore, who layered all manner of social issues into his re-imagining of the cheesy 1970s space opera Battlestar Galactica, creating a powerful vehicle for incisive social commentary and a gripping drama in the process.

He is helped along in this instance by Cameron Porsandeh who created Helix, and showrunner Steven Maeda who manages to take a been-there-done-that scenario – a viral outbreak which could wipe all life as we know it, destroy civilisation, make it hard to get a decent macciato yada yada yada – and invest it with quite a few tantalising layers before the first two episodes are out.

The team behind the show is clearly aware that with big, exciting premises comes the risk that, like the viral outbreak it features, that things could get wildly out of control, verging into the melodramatically histrionic, and so while the tensions, and implications are ramped up throughout the first two days, there is also a sense that the storyline isn’t veering too far off course.

Quite whether they manage to stay within the narrative lines in the next episode, which looks like it ups the ante to an almost uncontainable degree, is another question entirely but things are looking good so far for Helix to be the sort of show which will have people lining up to possibly watch the world end all over again.

 

Here’s the promo for episode 3, “274” (aka When all hell breaks loose):

 

 

* Read an interview on hollywoodreporter.com with showrunner Steven Maeda who is adamant Helix is not about zombies but rather an “outbreak show”, and on blastr.com, where he talks about his “sick and twisted show”.

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