What is Helix, exactly? It’s as much science fiction as horror. It’s got as much of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica in its blood as it does John Carpenter’s The Thing. And yes, there are echoes of the zombie genre to be found in Helix, but make no mistake: this is not another zombie show. At all. Judging by the Helix premiere event (which consists of two episodes, “Pilot” and “Vector”), Helix is a layered, extraordinarily well put together piece of television that will reward repeated viewings. We’re keeping this as spoiler-free as possible, and should we get into spoiler territory, it will be clearly marked, so no need to worry.
Helix‘s arctic setting is front and center from the opening moments of the pilot, showcasing the vast, white expanse broken up only by the high-tech biological research facility. Ominous is the order of the day, as the first people we see are in sealed and immaculately white biohazard suits, tracking down a potential “contamination.” The opening moments of the Helix pilot are wordless, with some intentionally disjointed musical cues offsetting the mood. When a survivor (but not the source) of the contamination is found, well…that’s your first indication of what Helix might be about, and an even better indication of what this show is capable of.
The victim is Dr. Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), who is clearly ill with something you don’t wanna catch. The makeup and special effects here are top notch, particularly as the feverish, flop-sweat coated Doctor begins to exhibit some awful throat convulsions. The rivulets of black blood add to the gross-out factor nicely, as well.
Dr. Farragut is the brother of another Dr. Farragut, Alan (Billy Campbell…we’ll always remember him fondly for The Rocketeer), a top pathologist for the CDC. Alan is estranged from Peter because Peter had an affair with Alan’s wife, another CDC pathologist, Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky). As you can imagine, this could get awkward when the two of them have to pull a rapid response team together to go to Arctic Biosystems to try and save Peter and figure out how to contain the horrific contamination running wild up there. Joining them are Army liaison Major Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanime), Dr. Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux), and Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes).
Billy Campbell’s Alan Farragut is one of the more perfect examples of the science hero we’ve seen in recent years. Think of him as the guy who wants to understand Godzilla but ultimately ends up building whatever gadget it is that has to take him out. Farragut has treated ebola outbreaks and lived to tell the tale, so he’s clearly prepared to do whatever it takes to help the folks at the Ilaria station. Were Helix made 50 years ago, he’d look right at home smoking a pipe or sporting a Reed Richards hairstyle.
Adding to the sketchy factor is the fact that this Arctic Biosystems is owned by the Ilaria Corporation (“Big pharma” as Doreen quips), making them somewhat resentful of government presence. If Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Daniel Aerov (Meegwun Fairbrother) are the villains of this piece (and we bet they are) it’s going to be in classic slow-burn Ron Moore fashion. Are they hiding something? Well, of course. But just how much are they hiding? We’re gonna find out.
Now the side-effects of infection by this horrific virus (which everyone insists is NOT airborne, but the profuse sweating and excretion of black blood from any available orifice make it virulent enough) are profound. While zombies simply become zombies, those infected on Helix will either a) drop dead or b) become “vectors,” meaning that the sickness drives them to aggressively seek out opportunities to spread their disease. It also gives them enhanced strength and reflexes and serious trust issues.
So, I’ll spare you any tedious blow-by-blow, as Helix deserves to be given your full attention. Now, with this being a Ron Moore show, the comparisons to Battlestar Galactica are inevitable, so let’s address those. There is a certain claustrophobic similarity to the setting, with the inhospitable arctic subbing for the cold vacuum of outer space. That “slow burn” I mentioned earlier with the villains (who might not even be villains in the traditional sense of things, much the way that the Cylons ultimately weren’t), and the absolute certainty that the virus/threat itself isn’t what it appears. Really, folks…does anyone honestly think that this is a simple bio-horror show? Of course not. The mystery behind the monkeys alone should be enough to clue us all in that there’s more going on here.
Oh, but there’s plenty of horror, don’t worry. There’s at least one proper “jump scare” in both of these episodes, and a couple of good old-fashioned gross-out moments (one is just as simple as seeing what happens when someone has the misfortune of puking into their containment suit). As the episodes progress, there’s definitely that essential sense of “uh-oh, what’s next?” with each uncomfortable revelation, which means even the most sterile laboratory scene feel like something horrible is lurking under the next petri dish. It probably is.
There’s also the “are they/aren’t they” infected situation (which recalls the Cylon issue from Battlestar Galactica) which will certainly play out throughout Helix‘s entire run. The added complication here is that even with those who are infected, we don’t know if they’ll simply croak or become superpowered disease spreading machines. Helix isn’t a zombie story where, if you die, you turn. You might die. Or you might…evolve? Is that what this is? That is, of course, if you consider evolution to involve vomiting black blood and hearing voices in your head, in which case, I’m quite happy remaining in a comparatively primal state, thank you very much.
Between the virus, the taciturn corporate masters who run the place, the presence of the army, and the 150 or so scientists who are now trapped in the research station and increasingly aware of their dire situation (you really think the CDC is going to let anyone leave with something like this spreading?), the inevitable paranoia sets in. Again, this recalls Battlestar Galactica, but there’s something more intimate about people fearing an immediate, horrific death rather than the general threat of war or subversion of ideology that was the basis of BSG‘s more paranoid moments.
So, despite these similarities…would we even be looking for them if Ron Moore’s name wasn’t attached? Probably not. While it might be easy to spot these bits and pieces, the reality is that there are at least ten more episodes of Helix coming, and it’s clearly going to take all of this into completely unexpected directions. You know, sorta like how Battlestar Galactica (let’s not turn this into a pissing contest about how it ended, please…I just mean the show in general) turned its whole space opera framework completely on its ear by the midle of the first season.
It’s difficult to find any genuine weak links, here. The cast ranges from very good to excellent. The production values are as good or better than anything else on the air right now. The promise of a genre-bending If anything, it’s the setting itself which hinders them somewhat. While Battlestar Galactica (sigh…I PROMISE that I will stop doing this in future reviews) allowed for more traditional day-to-day human moments to play out from episode to episode (in no small part due to the much larger cast and scope of the show), Helix opens with the needle already seemingly in the red. And that’s really the key, isn’t it? If we’re already in the middle of a horrific, insurmountable crisis, there’s nowehere to go but all the way up to absolutely insane (and potentially surreal) crisis levels, right? Bring it on.
Alright, let’s just talk a FEW spoilers. SPOILERS AHOY!
While Peter Farragut is certainly the main “vector-at-large” I’m a litte unclear if there is one other from the outset. After all, we see him running from someone before he’s grabbed in the pilot’s opening. Unless he was simply running from the folks in the containment suits…but then who was it that grabbed him? The other scientists in that lab that appear to have succumbed to infection? I suspect this is left deliberately vague.
I liked the simple, methodical, and direct method that Peter used to gain access to other areas of the base. Everyone has a chip in their hands to determine where they’re allowed to go. Need to get somewhere you shouldn’t be? Just take someone else’s hand off!
Peter’s assault of Dr. Walker in the shower was disturbing. There’s plenty of horror in this show already, the mouth-to-mouth bodily fluid swap as infection method is icky enough, and the rape allegory here may have been a little too heavy handed to be truly effective. Then again, the question of whether this is real or not and what kind of effect it will have on Dr. Walker in future episodes is certainly intriguing. Nevertheless,
So…those monkeys. Or the lack of monkeys. If this mystery means what I think it means, then Helix is definitely a MUCH different show than it appears to be.