There's something about Helix that I immediately like. I don't know if I can precisely locate it—certainly, the more times I rewatch this episode, the more I can find things to criticize. But it has a feel that makes me want to keep watching. Helix feels like watching a video game—or, I guess, watching someone next to you play a video game. That's how I “played” Portal, and there is a lot in common between the atmosphere of that game and this show—right down to the upbeat ‘60s music echoing through the sterlized, white hallways. Both situations are science labs gone horribly wrong, and both know how to milk the horror for all that its worth.
That type of terrifying atmosphere is very compelling, but hard to bring to life. In this way, at least, Helix succeeds admirably. Entering into the story is very much like loading a saved game—the play is already in motion; but you've only just shown up. The show depends on the slowly unfolding mystery, the creeping horror that lurks around every corner. Overall, I like it. I like being thrown into the action, and I like that Helix isn't afraid to cut to the chase. That work with suspense is what Ron Moore distinguished himself with in Battlestar Galactica.
But there are also ways in which it hinders our investment in the show. Helix starts so fast that it's necessarily flat—the background story exists for us (and our band of just-arriving heroes) to romp through, and the romp is more important than what the story is and who our characters are. That laserlike focus on the story can create for gripping, dramatic narrative. But if it's used too much, that intensity doesn't come through. If the characters and backstory doesn't exist enough, the story itself isn't powerful, no matter how dramatic it is.
It puts me back to video games again—I think one of the reasons we've seen video game writing get better and better is not just because games are more technologically advanced, but also because a story creates a game worth investing in. Portal succeeds not just because of the novelty of the challenge, but because the physics is embedded in a waking nightmare.
Helix is scary, but it's a terror that verges more on scary-funny than it has any right to. These first two episodes rely on a figure sneaking up behind someone else for terror value way more than it ought to, and at times, the screaming when a monkey jumps out of nowhere or the CGI throat-pulsations of a dying rat are just straight-up campy. It is Syfy, after all, and camp is a mode of expression they're very familiar with.
But Helix wants to be more than that. There are a few things that it has down that are going to serve it well in the season to come. There are other gaps that stand out glaringly by comparison. The infection itself has a symbolic quality to it that would make Susan Sontag nod knowingly—there's a lot of subconscious anxiety built into how the mutagen is spread, for example (a particularly terrible kind of kissing). But that kind of complexity is juxtaposed with character work that is so weak it relies on soap opera devices just to make it through the first two hours. Julia Walker has been romantically involved with both Farragut brothers (she left the one for the other), and the way it comes out is in a forced kind of character exposition that would work better if we had like, 10 more minutes with all the characters. As it is, Helix pushes its actors into postures of love, understanding, or expertise without ever proving those postures are backed by something real. Very little in Alan's interactions with his lady love Julia, for example, speaks “chemistry” to me; similarly, his young mentee is supposed to have a crush on him, but it's impossible to read. No one in a position of authority seems like they radiate expertise, and no one who is coded as dangerous feels particularly threatening.
The only exception to all of this is Hiroyuki Sanada's Dr. Hatake—Sanada manages to translate a sinister darkness from Hatake without breaking a sweat, and his evil charm, coupled with the setting's inherent alien mystery, is what makes Helix feel like the suspenseful sci-fi it's intended to be. He's also the only character whose name I can reliably remember; everyone else gets muddled into “main guy,” “woman who looks like Noomi Rapace,” “way-too-young-for-him girl,” “Helix-equivalent of Pam from Archer,” and “requisite evil soldier guy.” It sounds like a little thing, but I've noticed that the shows that manage to stick characters into your mind make those names indelible. First and last names. (I was in an airport once where someone named Sydney Bristow got paged; a small collection of people's heads popped up in sudden recognition.)
The last scene of this episode is in my mind a perfect encapsulation of everything this show is doing well and everything it could stand to improve upon. After lurking in the shadows for the entire episode (mostly in air ducts and vents), the infected brother Peter comes out and confronts Walker while she's in the shower. He's got some stuff to say to her; probably something like “I can't wait for the audience to find out the real reason you're here,” before clamping his mouth on hers in a gesture that should be sexy and romantic (they're lovers; she's naked; it's a shower) but is instead disgusting. He is assaulting her... by vomiting black bile into her mouth, which will inevitably make her a vector for the disease.
The moment remains strong because we'd previously seen characters explain that's how the disease is spread; and the acting is passable enough from both our hapless scientists. But alongside its emotional impact is an inconvenient desire to laugh. So he's like... a zombie? But instead of biting, it's spitting that transmits the disease? And of course, it's capped by the insane strains of “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” and a brief scene where we realize Dr. Hatake's eyes flash silver! They flew too close to the sun!
Shows can't exist on atmosphere alone, but Helix's atmosphere is good enough that it's going to try. I know already that I am caught up in the world of these ridiculous doctors in a science-opera, and though I'd love to see Helix tone it down a tad, I also find myself enjoying its freewheeling approach to drama. It may find its way as a powerful drama. It may also find its way as a sillier, splashier soap. Either way, I'm looking forward to this season, if only because it seems like this might be another show that warrants the elusive F+.
- Welcome to the weekly recaps of Helix. In case you missed Todd VanDerWerff's take on the season as a whole, check it out. I'm very curious to hear what you guys think about this show, because I do think it's such a weird one. If you get a chance, leave your thoughts in the comments.
- These first two episodes don't even have separate title cards. Unless you're watching your clock, it's hard to tell when the pilot ends and “Vector” begins.
- Sonia's Speculation Corner: My guess right now is that Hatake said he was experimenting on rats or monkeys but was actually experimenting on the people in the facility, and that's why in the video Peter made that signal to Alan to “run like hell.” But I would be very surprised if Hatake remained the bad guy for much longer than a few episodes.
- Walker's dead, right? Right? I think the show wants us to ship Billy Campbell with the 26-year-old MIT-double-masters-and-Ph.D.-in-I-can't-even finish typing her description without laughing.
- Where's the white room? Does it have black curtains? Is it at the station?!!