written by Cameron Porsandeh (1.1) & Keith Huff (1.2) | directed by Jeffrey Reiner (1.1) & Brad Turner (1.2)
I enjoy a good contagion thriller, but I'm not convinced that genre's perfect for television. A movie can go about its business of entertaining you, even if clichés begin to stack up, but it's all over after two hours and you're hopefully left with good impressions in terms of storyline, characterisations and enough unexpected twists to make it feel worthwhile. Helix is telling its story over thirteen episodes (each representing a different day), so it's going to be much harder keeping audiences engaged unless the characters alone are endlessly fascinating (unlikely), or the story goes against expectations and gives us something much deeper, richer and crazier than any movie could achieve in a fraction of the time. It's too early to tell if Helix has an aces up its sleeve, but on the evidence of this double-bill premiere I'm just happy it has some merit.
Helix concerns a crack team working at the Centers for Disease Control, headed by Dr Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), who takes his ex-wife (Kyra Zagorsky) and protégé (Jordan Hayes) with him, are sent to a remote Arctic research facility to investigate a bizarre viral outbreak that's claimed the lives of two scientists and is close to killing Farragut's own brother, Peter (Neil Napier). Arriving at the base, Farragut's team soon realise they're facing a deadly contagion unlike anything they've ever seen, and that Arctic Biosystems were involved in pioneering but dangerous experimentation that facility manager Dr Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada) isn't keen to talk about.
It's the kind of set-up you'd read on the back of a video-game cover, which is actually how Helix comes across—only it's a passive experience, where you feel in relative safe hands. This isn't a terrible show based on these opening episodes, it's just exactly what you'd expect of it. The production values are decent (this is produced by Sony Pictures Television), the acting is fine, and there are some satisfyingly gruesome sequences and a few ad-break cliffhangers that make you raise an eyebrow (the best involving dozens of frozen monkeys).
I guess the main reason I'm reticent about embracing Helix is that contagions stories are almost impossible to do without clichés; and, while that's acceptable in a limited narrative, for a show I'm assuming Syfy want to run for multiple seasons, where on earth can this go? It just feels destined to get progressively more ridiculous in a desperate attempt to find story where none should exist. I'm not even completely sure Helix will last a season without struggling, but it helps you can assume this series wouldn't have been made without a strong outline for its first season at least. We'll just to have see how well they spin things out, and these first few episodes certainly aren't calamitous in that regard. It even has a certain 1970s flavour, perhaps in deference to genre classics like The Andromeda Strain.
Overall, Helix steals a great deal from classic entries in the outbreak sub-genre, but also other shows that have proved popular recently. The use of upbeat "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" as counterpart to sinister visuals, is straight from the Lost playbook, for instance. There's even some Aliens thrown in, as one "good character" clearly has an evil agenda that serves the base's leader Dr Hatake. Ronald D. Moore's also involved as a producer (explaining one use of Battlestar Galactica profanity "frakking"), and Helix ultimately has a certain level of glossy quality to carry you through. But if it's still doing much the same thing by episode 7, I'm not sure how about its long-term future, although Helix will probably justify a season-long commitment... so a lot rests on what the finale will be: a fitting end, or a doorway for a ludicrous continuation.