SciFi Finally Returns to SyFy with “Helix”

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Billy Campbell (center) leads the cast of Helix.

There’s been a serious drought of serious science fiction programming on the one cable network which purports to be entirely focused on the genre.

Since Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica ended in 2009, SyFy has been bereft of high-concept dramatic science fiction (Defiance notwithstanding). Thankfully, the premiere of the new series Helix has changed all this, and (mostly) in a good way. Helix has an auspicious pedigree, which is one of the more reassuring facts about the program’s potential. The series was originally conceived of by Cameron Porsandeh, with the full mythology fleshed out in concert with science fiction powerhouse Ron Moore. Lynda Obst and Steven Maeda, both of whom have extensive science fiction experience, are also attached as producers.

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Look out for the frozen monkeys.

Helix borrows a number of familiar elements from the genre playbook, but manages to recombine them in a way that is intriguing and mostly fresh. Set in a massive and isolated private research facility in the Arctic, the series initially seems to borrow from John Carpenter’s The Thing, with doses of Resident Evil, Alien, and Battlestar Galactica. A viral pathogen has infected three scientists at the base, killing two of them, prompting someone on the base to request assistance from the CDC in the form of Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) and his team. Alan’s brother Peter (Neil Napier) is patient zero, adding a personal dimension to the outbreak that is exacerbated by the presence of Alan’s ex-wife Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky) on the CDC team. Rounding out the main characters are Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada), the stereotypically mysterious leader of the base, Major Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanimé), a US Army attaché to the CDC team who is also hiding ulterior motives, and Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), Alan’s young and brilliant assistant.

The premiere episodes of Helix succeeded in a number of ways, and offered hints at the potential the series has. The technical aspects of the production are top-notch, as is expected from Ron Moore. Cinematography, set and costume design are all exceptional, particularly when the show is trying for the sort of claustrophobic, paranoid thrills that worked so well for Alien and The Thing. The entirety of the show is genuinely tense – there are a number of occasions when I thought the show was offering a standard “thriller” scene, only to be shocked by an entirely unexpected twist. It’s clear that this show will thrive on its continued ability to create tense, slow-burn situations that leave the viewer uncertain, all without becoming predictable. In particular, the final scene of the two part premiere was immensely disturbing and brilliantly put together (I won’t tell you what it is). I was also pleased that the show seems to take science seriously – no tricorders and treknobabble here; our CDC heroes have to do real science and follow real procedures to learn anything about this virus.

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The central character, Dr. Alan Farragut, is immediately likeable.

The acting in the premiere was generally commendable. Billy Campbell is engaging, charming, and confident in the lead role, and seems like an adept casting choice. The rest of the cast of relative unknowns hold their own and never pull the viewer out of the scene, but are somewhat unremarkable (Mark Ghanimé is the charming exception). Hiroyuki Sanada, most recently seen in The Wolverine and The Last Samurai, does his job well, but his character errs in the direction of the stereotypical. My hope is that his character will become less obviously the villain, a la Gaius Baltar from Battlestar, so that his talent can be used in a more dynamic fashion.

If the premiere had weaknesses, they are in occasional poor characterization and a penchant for mystery over common sense. Some of the main characters are still vague and not entirely interesting at this point. Cliché drags down some of them – I groaned a little when we learned early on that Alan and Julia divorced because she slept with Alan’s brother, Peter. Similarly, the implications of potential romance between Alan and his young protégé Sarah seem outlandish. However, Catherine Lemieux’s smart aleck Dr. Doreen Boyle (who gleefully drops the Battlestar Galactica catchphrase “Frak” in the opening scenes of the episode) is fun and quirky, though also predictable. Nonetheless, these issues are likely to be addressed as the series progresses.

More concerning is the way in which characters seem to behave irrationally in order to service the mystery of the story. Given that this is a base full of research scientists, you would think that they would understand the need for strict quarantine of an unknown pathogen. Nonetheless, in order to ensure the plot has somewhere to go, escapes and non-compliance on the part of local scientists are inexplicably common. Similarly, in order to avoid giving away what I assume will become important points in the series mythology, conversations between characters are often stilted. When Dr. Farragut confronts Dr. Hatake over obvious deceptions which have been perpetrated against the CDC team, he responds with a vague remark, a dark glance, and that’s it. The conversation ends. One would think that Dr. Farragut would push a little harder in a life and death situation.

These points are all minor, though, and reflective of the difficulties of a newborn series. What matters most about the premiere is that it had me on the edge of my seat for an hour and a half, and laid the groundwork for a lot of interesting plots. One of the major concerns about this show is its sustainability – at some point, you can’t stretch out a viral outbreak any further.  Thankfully, Helix hints to the audience that there is a much deeper and more extensive mythology that will be uncovered as the series progresses, and therein lays the promise of the show. With strong writing and better character development, and if the SyFy channel can maintain its faith in a true science fiction drama for more than a season or two, Ron Moore’s new program Helix might fill the hole that Fringe and Battlestar Galactica left in our television line-ups.

Helix airs Fridays at 10:oo pm on the SyFy Channel. The first three episodes are available online at Syfy.com.

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This black bile is way scarier than anything Prometheus had to offer.

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