Helix is the new Fringe-style thriller series from Syfy, featuring an unregulated Arctic research facility, a black goo zombie virus, and menacing scientists with glowing eyes. Which sounds great. But it also suffers from some clunky, old fashioned scifi clichés. Let's ponder this show's possible fate. Spoilers ahead!
It's always hard to judge whether a show is going to be great based on the pilot, and last night's Helix debut hinted at possible future amazingness, and at possible Under the Dome craptacularity.
The Setup: Good
The setup is both intriguing and scary, with a team of epidemiologists from the CDC and the Army getting called to Arctic Biosystems, an Umbrella Corp.-like facility near Greenland. The mysterious company Ilaria set the place up there to be far from the distractions of civilization — and, incidentally, from government regulation too. It appears the 100 or so scientists and staff there have been doing everything from cold fusion and genetic engineering, to rat depilation and bioweapons. Unfortunately, one of their experiments has turned into a flesh-dissolving/zombie-making epidemic, which is where our team of epidemiologists come in.
Atmosphere plays a big role in this series so far, and it's clear the producers and designers thought a lot about how to give the whole facility a feeling of campy menace. There's a 1970s aesthetic to it, with gleaming white surfaces and wood paneling, while elevator music lends an air of cheerful menace to the most violent moments. All this retro-future gleam is juxtaposed nicely with the narrative arc, which takes us from labs full of diseased animals to infected people vomiting black goo into each other's mouths.
All the body horror in this show is spine-tinglingly excellent. One of the signs of the disease, other than blackened eyes and an urge to vomit goo into people's mouths, is a telltale fluttering of the throat. It looks creepy, as if the virus has taken over its victims' voiceboxes — just as it has taken over their minds, pushing them to hide and infect as many people as they can. The labs themselves, with their shaved rats and terrified monkeys, are also yucky-compelling.
The pilot sets up the right questions, asking first what this freakish disease is, and second why the hell Arctic Biosystems was working on it. We get hints that the disease may have come from an ancient microbe, and that Arctic Biosystems boss Hiroshi Hatake has some secret deal with the Army to work on . . . something. Plus, the entire research facility is basically a Cabin in the Woods basement, full of terrible objects ready to conjure up nightmares.
The Characters: Not So Good
So we've got this millennial scifi setup, with a shady government/corporate partnership to do Mad Science, laced with pandemic panic. But our characters feel like they came straight out of one of the cheesy 1970s movies referenced by the show's sets.
Our team of Good Guys from the CDC is led by a slightly grizzled white dude, Alan, whose manliness is telegraphed at every possible moment to the point of absurdity. He's been to scary places fighting disease! He delivers inspiring speeches! He drinks single-malt scotch! He has a hot ex-wife at the CDC named Julia, and is about to start boning his 20-something assistant Sarah! Alan is so manly that I kept expecting a voiceover to say, "He IS the most INTERESTING MAN in the world." Also, Alan's only flaw? He cares too much.
OK, fine, so our hero is blandly heroic. That's not such a big deal. But did I really have to spend the first hour of this two-hour pilot listening to all the major female characters, from Julia and Sarah to the snarky Doreen, discussing not the insane medical emergency that they are all about to confront as high-ranking specialists in their fields — but instead when Sarah is going to sleep with Alan, and how Julia slept with Alan's brother Peter? Who has that kind of conversation with a colleague they've never met, in the middle of a life-or-death situation? Nobody. Luckily, in the second hour, the women got to talk about science instead of how dreamy Alan is.
Now for the Bad Guys. Their leader is Hiroshi, who is not just emotionlessly scientific but also (yes) inscrutable. He's not just collaborating creepily with army guy Sergio — he also creepily hits on every woman who walks into his office. "Do you have children?" he asks Sarah, eyeing her ladyparts. Later, we find out that he has a Special Book full of pictures of Julia that he likes to ogle. Evil foreign man does science and tries to take our women! Plus, he has an adopted son/slave/security guard, Daniel, whose job is to shoot everybody. Over at Entertainment Weekly, Darren Frainch has a theory that Hiroshi will turn out to be a good guy, which I hope is right so that I can stop mashing my "yellow peril alert" button over and over again.
These problems aside, I like that Helix is trying to have characters with backstories and personalities, instead of just "I'm the engineer so I'm detail-oriented" and "I'm the army guy so I wear fatigues." There's good dramatic tension between Alan and his brother Peter, an Arctic Biosystems scientist who has turned into a black goo zombie and is running through the vents of the station. One of the best scenes is when Alan watches a video diary made by Peter before his transformation. In it, Peter makes a hand sign that Alan says the two brothers used to make to warn each other to run because their father had come home drunk. It's a menacing, quiet detail.
And I think the triangle with Alan, Peter and Julia works too, especially when Peter surprises Julia in the shower with a black goo kiss. We know why Julia doesn't immediately run when zombie Peter shows up — they have a history, and she can't quite see her ex-lover as a monster. And we know why it's awkward for her and Alan to deal with their grief over Peter together.
The main problem is that these kinds of adult, interesting relationships are sidelined by the "all the babes want Alan" configuration and the "evil inscrutable scientist" thing. My hope is that the show will outgrow the cheesy stereotypes and move into more interesting territory as the season goes on.
The Potential: Unknown
As I mentioned at the start of this post, there are two ways this show could go. It could develop its own mythology and dysfunctional scientist melodrama the way Fringe did. With our initial setup, plus all the other unexplored parts of Arctic Biosystems, we've got a nice, strong arc — and the potential for mind-bending monster-of-the-week tales.
The subplot about a secret government/private industry conspiracy between Hiroshi and Army guy Sergio is potentially rich, as is the uneasy truce between tough scientist Doreen and Sergio. I'm also eager to find out more about Hiroshi in general. Why does he have glowing blue eyes under his contacts? What is his real relationship with Daniel? WTF is he really doing running this insane lab?
Though Alan and Sarah are fairly boring, and seem to be facing a super predictable arc, I'm definitely down to find out more about Julia and Peter. That shower scene was intense — and the fact that Julia is now clearly compromised, but unable to admit it, suggests that the virus has an element of mind control. Who doesn't love mind control?
But here's the downside, kids. When you've got a setup that's as open-ended as Arctic Biosystems, it's all too easy to let your plot degenerate into "anything can happen" territory, just as it has on Under the Dome. Hey, you have alien technology, so why not suddenly have random mini-dome butterflies and pink stars and people killing everybody without explanation?
Suddenly it could turn out that Arctic Biosystems was also working on nanotechnology and sentient robots and whatever else you need to explain away your plotholes — or build new ones. Is that guy out of character? Oh, the virus is controlling him. I mean our brainwave technology got out of whack. Or whatever. That mystery you were hoping to solve about the black goo? Well, it led to a white room on level X and now it's actually A WHOLE NEW MYSTERY that will probably end in Purgatory or something.
Look, I'm not saying Helix will give us frustratingly unsolved mysteries, plot holes, and pink stars. It could really carry through on a tight, suspenseful plot and reveal something interesting about both its characters and the facility where they're working. The fact is that the pilot was uneven enough that it's impossible to say. But it's definitely worth tuning in to find out.