This review contains spoilers.
1.1 Pilot & 1.2 Vector
After sitting through the pilot of Syfy’s new thriller Helix, I really wasn’t sure if those behind it found the whole exercise a personal massive joke, or this was seriously the best ideas they could come up with. The two pilot episodes welded into a single screening provide both highs and lows along with the occasional scare and a little mystery along the way.
The show laid its paper-thin premise down in the previously aired first fifteen minutes. Nasty goings on in an Arctic research facility attract the attentions of the US CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), which despatches their best people in the form of Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell, The Rocketeer), his ex-wife Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), other infection control experts along with, predictably, a member of the military.
Once they arrive at the secret facility they soon realise that they’re dealing with a biological problem they’re not prepared for, and those who work there aren’t at all cooperative. If this sounds vaguely familiar, then you’ve been awake in the last few decades, because I’ve seen this idea presented at least half a dozen times before.
In the first part of the pilot, we’re introduced to the characters and the dynamics between them, before chaos breaks loose in ‘Vector’ and they spend their entire time running for their lives or looking mildly confused.
What I found especially impressive is how many other science fiction movies, TV and even computer games they could manage to pillage over the 84-minute running time (that felt like 3 hours…). In retrospect, with generous amounts of exposition, Helix just spliced successive scenes and ideas borrowed from alternative sources.
The Abyss, Godzilla, X-Files, Alien, Doom, The Thing, Resident Evil, Outbreak, The Andromeda Strain and Half-Life are all inspiration for various scenes, among others. Some are more subtle nods, where others are almost verbatim copies. There’s a bug hunt in ducting that’s almost a complete copy of the death of Dallas from Alien, and even the relationships between the various parties in the CDC crew seems to mimic those in The Abyss. Every writer is influenced, but some things got assimilated wholesale.
As this is Syfy, I was also expecting some butchering of the normal rules of physics or anything vaguely scientific in origin. It didn’t take long for them to do this, because they couldn’t decide very early on where exactly where the Arctic systems facility was. They showed a map with Greenland on it, then that as the facility was north of the 83rd parallel, and told us that the US military had jurisdiction there. No wonder the United States gets itself into sovereignty issues with other countries with those geography skills. The map listed a location as Daffin Bay, which apparently is as close to Baffin Bay that the intern who created it could get.
Unless I’m wrong, North of the 83rd parallel above Greenland is open ocean, over which the US doesn’t have any control, it’s Denmark’s territorial waters. But as we get to see more of the research complex as the story unfolds, there are numerous levels descending well below the surface. This is super-clever, because sea ice normally only covers the North Pole by just 12ft. So does that mean the complex a massive submarine?
Nobody questions this oddity, irrespective of their qualifications. If it had been on the South Pole this might have made sense, but where they placed it made utterly none. Also, using wind turbines in the Arctic (notorious for low visibility) around somewhere supported by helicopters seems moronic, as does building a huge facility without a heated hanger to support aircraft.
I’m being picky I fully accept, but creating a believable universe is about more than finding the least convincing CGI effects you can and hoping the characters distract people from your lack of any scientific or geographic research.
What didn’t help this exercise along was some of the diabolical dialogue that various characters were forced to exchange. It came out like third graders exchanging overheard sexual information than people with PHDs discussing potential pandemics.
In fact some of the smartest people seemed remarkably dumb, given the credentials they supposedly had. In the opening scene Alan throws a vial to Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), which he’s hinted contains Cholera. She reacts like he threw her a live hand grenade, when her dual PHDs should have told her that unless she opened and drank the contents she’d nothing to fear.
Later on Alan himself admits he’s confused why his infected brother Peter would remove someone’s hand, entirely forgetting that he’d been injected with an RF Tag in the hand less than a day before that controlled security access. These people are supposed to be Sherlock-smart, yet they couldn’t control a foot fungus.
My favourite dumb piece of dialogue was the idiot who told Alan that they use the 2ft long electric batons on Polar Bears. Given the reach of a fully grown male Polar Bear weighing 1700lbs must be at least 5ft, that’s something I’d like to see. No, really, show me how that works.
So having been generally scathing about Helix, was there anything here worth sticking around for?
Well, despite some clunky writing, and the Vector episode’s lack of narrative structure, there were a few cool things in here I really admired. One of these was the cheesy elevator music, proving the audio equivalent of the Alien nodding bird toy. It created a nice normality vs. unearthly juxtapose, and its repeated use throughout provides some genuine creepiness. Not original, but fun.
The character the stand-out for me was Dr. Doreen Boyle delivered by the excellent Catherine Lemieux. She was both natural and believable, which is more than could be said for some others. I really hope they don’t kill her off, because most of the other female characters are painful to watch. I also liked Major Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanimé) who kept his military/company man character relatively cliché free. Though personally, I’m rooting for the black goo, if asked to take sides.
At the end we get thrown a couple of narrative bones when they reveal that Dr. Hiroshi Hatake is far weirder than anticipated, and that Julia just can’t resist a snog when it’s offered, even by her genetically mutating ex.
Any show of this kind at this stage is all about the future possibilities, and given the grade of those behind it there should be some interesting directions and diversions ahead. Helix needs to explain how you can have a facility like this in just 12ft of ice, and exactly how many different teams are there. Because already I can tell that this isn’t just a two-handed game, and probably more than three agendas are at play in the snow.
Helix didn’t infect me immediately, but it did perk my interest.
The third episode was screened directly after the first two, come back for our review later this week.
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