How has there never been a TV series about the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention trying to tamp down a potentially threatening viral outbreak? The most basic answer is that such a story couldn’t possibly have more than a season’s worth of material. Unless, the series were going to abruptly become a post-apocalyptic one, but other shows from 24 to Buffy have taken that “a story in a season” approach and used it to great effect when building worlds and characters. Diseases are inherently terrifying, strange invaders that can tear apart the body from within, and they can make for gross yet involving television.
Helix, the first of Syfy’s many bids this year to reclaim the science-fiction TV throne it relinquished several years ago, takes this basic idea and gives it a dark, mysterious twist. The virus may not be entirely natural. The virus might be the gateway to some other story entirely, one with—say it with us now—a deep, complicated mythology that will take years to unravel. There are times in its first three episodes when Helix seems to exist primarily to service that mythology, rather than the nitty-gritty of telling a story about an overwhelmed CDC staff trying to shut down an outbreak above the Arctic Circle. Though, the show gets enough right to be worth a season pass for those interested in the genre.
The series’ pilot opens ominously enough, with men entering a room at an Arctic research facility whose occupants all appear to have died horribly, the strains of “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” increasing the horror via ironic juxtaposition. When the investigators lean over one of the men’s corpses, something strange appears to be wiggling in his throat, just beneath the surface of the skin, only for the episode to cut to the enjoyably jaunty title card. In these moments, the series underscores its central idea, one that will be familiar to science-fiction fans going way back: Institutions are not your friend, and they cover up murderous intent with happy surfaces that ultimately prove hollow.
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Investigating the potential outbreak is a CDC team led by Billy Campbell’s Dr. Alan Farragut, who has a personal connection to the team at the research facility. Joining him will be his ex-wife, Julia (Kyra Zagorsky); his potential new lover and former student, Sarah (Jordan Hayes); a military man with mysterious allegiances (Mark Ghanimé); and the usual band of investigative misfits, as though Farragut was intent on dragging an entire NCIS team featuring only characters played by Pauley Perrette with him to the farthest reaches of the planet. The team arrives to discover that all is not exactly as it seems and the research facility’s head, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada), may not have the best interests of everyone involved at heart. Sure, there are similarities to The Andromeda Strain here—right down to the inevitability of the outbreak coming from outer space—but any science-fiction fan worth his or her salt will be able to hum these choruses without a second thought.
Helix’s creator is a new writer named Cameron Porsandeh, who developed the project with famed Hollywood producer Lynda Obst, who made the move to television after very publicly denigrating the major movie studios for refusing to produce challenging product. (Among other sci-fi credits, Obst produced Contact.) Porsandeh and Obst have brought in a murderers’ row of TV sci-fi talents to make Helix work, not least of whom is executive producer Ronald D. Moore, whose Battlestar Galactica briefly created an appetite for more adult science fiction among the critical cognoscenti last decade. Moore’s joined by series showrunner Steven Maeda, who’s worked on such sci-fi hits as The X-Files and Lost, and co-executive producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who also worked on Lost and created The Middleman. Directing the pilot is Jeffrey Reiner, who worked with Moore on Caprica and also created the distinctive look of Friday Night Lights.
All of this talent seems to prop up a paper-thin plot that threatens to blow away at any moment. Porsandeh’s pilot script feels at all times like Character Introduction 101, and the dialogue too often falls flat, as the characters speak in simple, declamatory statements, rather than anything with spark. What’s more, the story too often steps aside in favor of pointless, mystery bullshit, setting up questions that aren’t as compelling as the drama of an unexplained plague breaking out in a place with no available hospital. The series desperately wants to make viewers invest in the larger mysteries. But it’s hard to do that when the characters are so flat, with too many played by actors who don’t rise to the challenge of giving them life. (Moore struck gold with a bunch of unknowns backing up Hollywood heavyweights on Battlestar, but he has far less luck with the same basic approach—if Billy Campbell can be called a heavyweight—here.)
Still, there’s something decidedly intriguing and exciting about Helix, particularly the deeper it gets into its run. The virus, in particular, proves to be perhaps the series’ most fascinating “character,” and the method in which it’s passed between hosts resembles nothing less than sexual assault, creating metaphors that Porsandeh teases out surprisingly well. By the series’ third episode—when the outbreak is in full swing and Farragut is forced to make judgment calls about how to isolate it before it overwhelms the facility and, perhaps eventually, the world— there’s a very real sense of mounting horror at the potential for cataclysm.
Helix already shows signs of moving in the right direction, backing off of the mythological aspects in favor of shifting character dynamics and digging deep into questions of how an outbreak like this could even be stopped. The series still has several marks against it—particularly in the acting and dialogue columns—but good sci-fi shows are thin on the ground right now, and there’s just enough that works in Helix to make it worth following for now.
Created by: Cameron Porsandeh
Starring: Billy Campbell, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kyra Zagorsky, Mark Ghanimé
Debuts: Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern on Syfy.
Format: Hour-long science-fiction drama
Three episodes watched for review