New, original sci-fi series Helix has now aired 4 episodes in the US, and we are not far behind in the UK, where Channel 5 are broadcasting it on Mondays at 10pm (or you can catch up online here).
The series caught the eye of the sci-fi community when it brought Ronald Moore on board as executive producer and script superviser. Moore is best known for his work on the Star Trek series Next Generation, Deep Space 9 and Voyager as well as Roswell and the remake of Battlestar Galactica (AND the very under-rated Carnivale), so brings with him an impressive pedigree. He is joined on the project by Lynda Obst, who famously left the film industry (after producing, among others, Contact and The Fisher King) after saying that the studios were averse to producing anything challenging. They are joined by series show-runner, Steven Maeda, who worked on Lost and The X Files, so to say hopes for Helix were high would be an understatement.
“Play God, pay the price” says the tagline. One part The Thing, one part Outbreak and one part Romero zombie thriller (with more than a sprinkling of The Andromeda Strain), Helix follows a group of scientists from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) who are sent off to a remote research facility in Antarctica to investigate the outbreak of a mysterious virus. It emerges that one of the earliest victims of the disease is Peter Farragut (Neil Napier) the brother of the head of the Special Pathogen branch of the CDC, Dr Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), who had also had an affair with Alan’s ex-wife Julia (Kyra Zygorsky), who also happens to be one of the CDC scientists. So we start with a family drama and potential soap opera set against the outbreak of a deadly virus. It sounds a bit daft, and at times it is, but so far Helix has been an enjoyable addition to the dystopian TV drama canon. No, it is not going to join the likes of great modern TV series like The Wire or Breaking Bad, but it’s been enjoyable to date.
Episodes one and two were broadcast together as a kind of mini-movie, and it was an intriguing introduction. Not only did we meet the thoroughly dysfunctional Farragut brothers, but we also met the mysterious head of the research facility Dr Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada), a man who on the surface is co-operating with the CDC’s operation, but clearly has his own motives. There is also Major Balleseros (Mark Ghiname) the army officer who bought the CDC to the base, but seems intent on making sure they can’t communicate with the outside world. There is clearly more at play in the research centre than a simple disease outbreak, which is soon evidenced by the peculiar virus the scientists find, which liquifies some victims into black goo, and turns others into super strong 28 Days Later-style zombie infection machines.
Alongside Julia and Alan are two more scientists- Dr Sarah Jordan (Jordan Haynes) and Dr Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux). Yes, that’s right people, three LADY SCIENTISTS. Yes, one is the ex-wife of our leading man, and there are hints that another may have been his potential love interest, but on the whole these are just characters who happen to be female. They talk to each other about things other than men, things like, you know, SCIENCE and VIRUSES. Why is it that sci-fi series seem to be so much better at the portrayal of female characters than regular shows? I am sure many a film student has tackled that one, so I will digress…
It’s a clever premise, as the Antarctic location means there is a static location for the drama to play out, and already there are hints that there may be a Lost-style mythology at play. Yes, the scientists do some stupid things like crawling through air vents with infected patients on the loose with no back-up, but without the stupid decisions there would be no tension (see: every horror film ever made), there would just be a neatly contained outbreak that expires inside a contained area. What fun would that be? Instead we have frozen killer monkeys, odd naked rats with visible black veins attacking each other, a man with luminous eyes and gallons of black goo.
The dialogue is more than a little clunky at times, and some of the performances would not look out of place in a soap opera, but the early episodes of Helix hint at a much more interesting story arc than many recent TV series, one which may take an even darker turn. Here’s hoping they can deliver on this initial intrigue.