The biggest selling point to the newest series on SyFy is executive producer Ronald D. Moore, best known for Battlestar Galactica, the remake of the 70s sci-fi show that ran from 2004-2009. Moore has a long background in TV science fiction, going all the way back to Star Trek: The Next Generation. With such a pedigree, one would expect that his latest series, titled Helix, would be in good hands. And, for the most part it is, as it does deliver an interesting and suspenseful story with plenty of mystery to want you to return for future installments. That said, it also travels an awfully familiar road, with the show containing plenty of references to other sci-fi shows and movies, as well as a couple of nods to the horror genre and the 1995 Dustin Hoffman plague thriller Outbreak. It makes for some good, if not wholly original, viewing, but it feels as if it could be much more. But this is only the premiere, and the show is scheduled to run for 13 episodes, so there’s time to build into something.
The premiere was actually comprised of two episodes: “Pilot”, which was directed by Jeffrey Reiner (The Event) and written by executive producer Cameron Porsandeh (who originally pitched the idea to Sony Pictures Television, the studio that makes the show for SyFy), and “Vector”, which was directed by Brad Turner ((Nikita) and written by Keith Huff (Mad Men). The two blended together nicely, making for a seamless episode that served as a nice introduction to the series, providing a decent amount of exposition and a few thrills.
The story makes for a good setting for a sci-fi/horror series. A mysterious outbreak seems to be afflicting a research base in the Arctic run by the appropriately named Arctic Biosystems. A distress call is sent out, calling for Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky) to come to the base specifically. She is just part of a team being sent by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that includes ex-husband Dr. Alan Farragut (The Killing’s Billy Campbell), his young protege/possibly lover (hinted at but never fully confirmed) Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), an older, seasoned doctor (who seems to provide much of the show’s comic relief) Dr. Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux), and a representative from the US Army, Major Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanime). The team is greeted by the head researcher at the base, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (The Wolverine’s Hiroyuki Sanada) and his chief of security, Daniel Aerov (Meegwun Fairbrother). Two days earlier three victims of a mysterious malady were discovered, one being Alan’s brother, Dr. Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), who was also a former lover of Julia’s. The old triangle rears its head early in the show, leading Doreen to quip, “This is going to be one fracked up family reunion!” (You knew a BSG reference had to be included somewhere, didn’t you?).
From the outset, we know not all is what it seems at the research base. Even though the team is told they will have unrestricted access, they soon find places locked off to them. As they discover eventually in the episode, a man-made virus seems to be the culprit, making its victims violent and turning their blood into a black goo, and making them want to infect others. Peter is the only initial survivor of the first three victims of the outbreak, and he turns violent and escapes into the vents. Seems Peter has been injecting himself with something called Narvik-B. Hatake tells Julia that Peter was working on mutagens, and that both Narvik-B and its predecessor, Narvik-A, were part of Peter’s research. Thing is, Narvik-A kills its victims, liquifying all tissue and leaving behind a skeleton coated in black slime, while Narvik-B turns victims violent and makes them want to infect others. Of course, that doesn’t bode well for our team in an isolated facility in the Arctic, miles from any help. The episode ends with Peter assaulting Julia in the shower, and infecting her.
As I said, plenty of references abound. The vent crawls remind us of Alien, with Peter subbing for the xenomorph, even reaching for a camera the way the alien reached for Captain Dallas. Wrecked monkey cages found by Doreen and Balleseros seem reminiscent of the opening of 28 Days Later. Even the black goo that seeps from the victims reminds one of the black oil from The X-Files. And the bickering doctor and his ex-wife working for the CDC investigating a highly mutagenic plague nearly mirrors the characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo in Outbreak. Mind you, none of these things work against the show, but they do make it feel like we’ve seen this before, no matter how well done it is.
And the show is fairly well done, with some decent make-up effects, solid acting, and a nice use of music that adds to the atmosphere (evident in the use of the Dionne Warwick song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” several times in the episode, where the bouncy, upbeat music just contrasted nicely with creepy corridors and corpses in the base). There is a fair amount of suspense generated throughout, though a couple of CGI effects look cheap and take away a little bit from the shock of the scene. The cast does a fine job, though no one is outstanding in their role. All seem to play to type, with Campbell being the righteous doctor and Sanada being the obvious villain. There’s a decent mystery laid out for us, and it will be interesting to see how the questions raised in this opener are addressed over the next 11 episodes. We know that Hatake and Balleseros are working for the same people, but we don’t know who they’re working for, or why, only that they’re not pleased with the CDC being on site. The relationship between Alan and Sarah seems far too familiar to be interesting, and we’ve all seen the ex-spouses trying to deal civilly with each other before in a stressful situation.
In all, it’s a good start for Helix, even if it is heading down a somewhat familiar road. We’ll see if the show can provide answers to the many questions this episode raised: Who is Hatake and Balleseros working for? Just what is Narvik-B? How will the team deal with an infected Julia? What’s with all the frozen monkey corpses found by Balleseros outside the base? And what about the three possibly infected victims who have now escaped isolation? Hopefully all will be answered as the show goes on. At any rate, the premiere was good enough to make me want to see more of Helix, another good addition into SyFy’s decent line-up of shows.
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