Fear goes through phases; in the fifties it was the bomb, in seventies Britain it was terrorism which in the last decade it has become global terrorism, but always there is disease. Ebola and SARS, each carrying the possibility of pandemic, more easily spread and more swiftly fatal than the HIV virus which has entrenched itself into the population, or less exotic, common bacteria which have developed resistance to the standard antibiotics used to treat the minor infections they would once inflict.
Created by Cameron Porsandeh, Helix is the new show from the SyFy channel which has taken these fears and hopes to turn them into a compelling weekly drama. Executive produced by Ronald D Moore, whose credits include Star Trek The Next Generation, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Carnivàle andBattlestar Galactica, the show is led by Billy Campbell, once known for flying the skies as The Rocketeer and more recently for The 4400 and The Killing.
Following an outbreak of an unknown pathogen at a snowbound research centre run by Arctic Biosystems, the Centre for Disease Control has been invited to send a team to offer assistance to the infected and bring the situation under control. Leading the team is Doctor Alan Farragut, head of the Special Pathogens Branch; accompanying him are senior scientist Doctor Julia Walker, the highly qualified but inexperienced Doctor Sarah Jordan and veterinary pathologist Doctor Doreen Boyle, along with military liaison Major Sergio Balleseros.
Arriving at the remote base, the team are welcomed in frosty fashion by the head of the facility, Doctor Hiroshi Hatake, who promises cooperation but categorically states that any animal research has been confined to rats and that his teams have not been working with simians. “We get more accomplished without the distraction of the outside world,” Hatake states, explaining their remoteness, prompting Doctor Walker to question whether those distractions extend to interference from regulatory agencies.
Complicating matters, the sole infected researcher still alive is Alan’s estranged brother, Doctor Peter Farragut, who once had an affair with Julia, who is in fact Alan’s former wife; nodding to the pop culture juggernaut that was Moore’s Galactica, one character observes “This is going to be the most frakked up family reunion ever.” Possibly intended to increase the tension between the characters, this has the opposite effect of reducing the show from a science fiction thriller to the level of a soap opera with a medical aspect, more Casualty than Doomwatch.
Where the initial descriptions of Helix drew comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing and The X Files, and certainly the bodies of the infected dissolving into black goo are undeniably reminiscent of the latter, the show lacks the charisma and verve of the iconic characters associated with those. As expansive as the facility is, this is obviously to be a studio based show, static yet without converting that to a feeling of claustrophobia which given the situation should have been a priority of Jeffrey Reiner and Brad Turner, directors of the two opening episodes broadcast back to back.
Predominantly told through heavily expositionary dialogue, though there are brief moments which indicate the show is not to be taken entirely seriously – the extreme violence of the opening scenes contrasted with the innocuous comfort of Dionne Warwick singing of her longing for San Jose – for the most part the show is relentlessly glum. Of the core cast, only Catherine Lemieux’s Doreen deploys noticeable personality, her assignment with Mark Ghanimé’s Balleseros bringing out colour in both characters.
Blessed with the jaw line of a comic book hero, Campbell’s career never followed the trajectory it could have taken had The Rocketeer been more appreciated upon release; following a succession of ensemble pieces, supporting characters and guest roles, his return to leading man status unfortunately does him no favours, playing a tightly controlled character whose by-the-book approach seems unlikely to solve the mystery.
Though some work from his native country such as Ringu has travelled the world, veteran actor Hiroyuki Sanada is best known to western audiences for Sunshine and has more recently appeared in The Wolverineand 47 Ronin; as Hatake he is suitably inscrutable, an inflexible and unknowable opponent who cooperates only so long as it does not conflict with his own agenda, yet without openly obstructing the investigation.
Lacking the scope or scale of Battlestar or the unfortunate Virtuality, never continued past the brilliant pilot episode, the new face of science fiction is not adventure, and while the premise has potential, it runs the risk of becoming stagnant very quickly. A full season of thirteen episodes has been ordered, but it is hoped that this relative security has not allowed the writers to become complacent, and later episodes have already confirmed guest appearances by fan favourites Luciana “Kat” Carro and Jeri “Seven of Nine” Ryan.
In order to survive this show will have to rapidly demonstrate greater interest than the generic situations which have been offered so far, crawling through air vents, disputes over quarantine, the infection itself so far doing little to set it apart from its cousin over on The Walking Dead, the show only once demonstrating the potential springing from originality when Balleseros stumbles across the frozen corpses of the monkeys in the snow.