When Syfy debuts a series (and to a lesser extent, one of its movies), you can usually bank on there a lofty concept that will ultimately get blown apart without any subtlety. The two-part premiere of Ron Moore’s contagion thriller Helix did not buck that trend in the least, filling 90-minutes with damn near every sci-fi trope you can imagine in a series that isn’t just called Science Fiction TV Show. Derivative though it may be, Helix manages to contain just enough intriguing moments to make up for the stilted dialogue and lazy writing.
Instead of just rattling off each and every thing that happened in the two episodes, I’d rather just talk about the things that worked and the things that didn’t. No one here at GFR expected Helix to revolutionize the genre, but there was at least one bit that I can safely say blew my mind more than nearly anything else on TV in the last year or so. In keeping with that optimism, let’s start off with the good stuff. Oh, and be warned about SPOILERS. I won’t spell everything out, but I may ruin a surprise or two along the way.
What Helix Did Right
Though I derided it for hitting on so many stereotypes, Helix used so many that there aren’t enough left to spread out over the remaining episodes, so it might actually be able to break new ground moving forward. It didn’t take long for me to put The Thing completely out of my head, as the two really only share surface traits, such as the cold and the fact that mutations play a key role. Billy Campbell will never be Kurt Russell, but I’m fine with that and I’m really glad that the show feels like its own separate thing entity. It may sound insulting, but I mean only good things.
Campbell’s CDC hoss, Dr. Alan Farragut, leads his team into the Arctic Biosystems research base, run with mysterious scrutiny by Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada). His scrutiny amounts to nothing once Dr. Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), Alan’s brother, takes his mutagen research too far and creates some kind of dangerous virus that kills most of the people it infects. But not Peter, who runs amok all over the base spouting off repetitive sentences and leaping into air vents.
Even though I don’t understand why Hatake acts so shady and untrustworthy to the people he says he helps, Sanada pulls off the evil villain role well enough, especially when he leers at Alan’s ex, Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky). His secret experiments include making rats look more disgusting than normal rats, along with turning monkeys into supersmart hairless creepshows.
The super awesome scene I referred to earlier involves one of the characters walking around outside in the snow, finding one frozen monkey before soon realizing he’s standing in a field full of frozen monkeys that were obviously running away from the lab. We’d spent enough time wondering where the monkeys went, and I truly didn’t expect the reveal to be so effective.
There were also a handful of scenes that featured some really good gore and practical effects. The best of these moments was the rush of thick, black blood rushing out of a body bag, leaving only a skull behind, making one character throw up in her helmet, which is swell. There was a pronounced lack of CGI, which is always a welcome surprise. Even the music choices are solid, juxtaposing tense onscreen action with Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”
What Helix Got Wrong
Well first, they use that “happy music over bloody stuff” just about every time there was gore, so that gets old pretty quick. The writers and directors will need to limit themselves in episodes going forward.
Almost all of these characters began to grate my nerves midway through the second episode. The relationship between Alan and Julia is B-movie romantic comedy through and through, though it’s spiced up by the young genius Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), who has eyes for Alan. There’s also Dr. Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux), the antisocial character whose surly comments are only outweighed by her eye rolls. (Luckily, she takes a monkey to the face, which is a genius shock moment.) A few more characters are held in quarantine because they could be infected, but even though everyone is a smart doctor, they all act like petulant children, demanding to be released out into the rest of the base.
Though I like when there are hints of mysteries yet to be revealed, nothing is more annoying to me than when a character who is obviously capable of communication just says a bunch of nonsense. Each reference to the “White Room” feels forced, and hearing Peter run around saying, “Everyone lies!” and “You’re here for a reason!” was completely groan worthy. Let’s add Hatake’s glowing eyes reveal to that groan list, too.
Then there are just the random moments that feel so fake. At one point, Doreen notices that a monkey’s cage was broken open from the inside; yet earlier in the episode, Peter escaped a room by breaking into the air vents, and the damage looked as if someone had burst out of it, not into it. And in another scene where two characters are denied access to a room, one of them just happens to find a canister of liquid nitrogen sitting around, which he uses to freeze and break the lock. That’s just ridiculous.
Considering that I was expected a non-stop flood of crappy storytelling to wash over the halls of Arctic Biosystems, I was pleasantly surprised to be so engaged with the unknown elements behind Hatake’s research, and by how quickly these characters are into danger. Though I could use a dose of dark comedy to go along with the black blood, I’m not looking a gift horse-monkey hybrid in his genetically modified mouth. I’ll definitely be back next week to see where the story goes, but I can’t say the same for Julia. (Cue dramatic music).
Those who have the appropriate cable or satellite provider can go to Syfy’s website to check out the third episode right now. And then find me next week to catch my thoughts on it. I’ll sneeze them all over you.