(Spoiler Alert for potentially all 8 Helix episodes to date.)
I loved the Andromeda Strain, both the book and the movie, and so I’m always willing to give a good plague story a try, which is why I really wanted to like Helix, the new series on SyFy, about a CDC team sent to investigate a mysterious situation at a biological research complex somewhere in the Arctic.
Unfortunately, Helix has turned out to be one of those shows that I only keep watching because I hope it will eventually get better. Mostly it just irritates me, and I feel like ranting about all the ways it kinda sucks:
- Helix starts so promisingly, with Doctor Alan Farragut (played by Billy Campbell) at the Centers for Disease Control holding up a pump handle and talking about Dr. John Snow’s famous investigation of the Soho cholera outbreak in 1854. That’s a terrific real-life story about solving a public health crisis with science and ingenuity. Too bad the plot of Helix is nothing like that.
- Helix is a zombie show that doesn’t want to admit it’s a zombie show. People infected with the mysterious virus become deranged and go wandering around the complex attacking other people, who then become infected themselves. They may be a little smarter and faster than the walkers on Walking Dead, but call them whatever you like (Helix uses the epidemiological term “vectors”), they’re still zombies.
- Ducts. A great deal of the plot depends on the fact that the zombies can move around the entire high-security complex in spacious, well-lit ventilation ducts that have no internal supports or grates or anything else to get in their way. This is such a hackneyed plot device that I’m surprised anyone would still use it seriously outside of video games.
- They killed off my favorite character, Doctor Doreen Boyle (played by Catherine Lemieux), a veterinary pathologist, who was the only person on the show with any detectable personality. She seemed like she’d be fun to talk to at a party, and she brought some badly-needed levity to the situation. And so the writers killer her.
- Every other character seems earnestly serious and deadly dull. Except when the plot needs them to be stupid.
- One of the key story elements is that the complex is completely cut off from the outside world because of an unstable satellite connection that stops working altogether when someone blows up the big dish outside the complex. This makes no sense in a world where Iridium satellite phones are small enough to fit in a jacket pocket and work all over the planet. Also, has nobody at Arctic Biosystems (or the writers’ room) heard of shortwave radio, which ships at sea and Arctic explorers have been using for years? Wouldn’t you think a CDC team would want to have good communications?
- Thin depth-of-field. That’s where the image on the screen is focused tightly at something a certain distance from the camera and everything in front or behind thrown out of focus. With modern cameras and lighting, there’s no reason for the depth of focus to be as thin as it is in Helix, except as an artistic choice because it looks dramatic. And the drama wears thin when you do it in every single scene.
- Speaking of annoying artistic choices, I realize the bland elevator music on the soundtrack is supposed to create some kind of ironic contrast with the story, but that trick gets old fast.
- The exterior of the Arctic complex is monumentally boring and unimpressive. I don’t know how much CGI goes into creating it, but the lack of detail or any sense of scale always makes it look like a cheap model. (The artificially thin depth of field contributes to this, since a thin depth of field is an optical cue for something close to your eye.)
- The interior of the research complex is no better, looking alternately like an office building or the basement of an office building. There’s no sense of how the parts of the complex are related physically to each other — which rooms are adjacent, and which are far apart — and there’s no sense of where any of these locations are in relation to the exterior shots.
- At one point, Dr. Farragut needs to break into another part of the complex and he mixes up a batch of thermite which he uses to burn through a grated floor. Thermite could certainly burn through a metal floor, but it’s a powder, so most of it would fall through the grate, and it’s hard to see how the combustion reaction could spread between the little piles that remain on the grate. Also thermite has a really high ignition point and there’s no way he could ignite it with an ordinary flame. There’s a whole science to igniting thermite. It’s a small thing, but it makes me think the biology and medical science are probably just as bad.
- There is already a B-movie subgenre of we’re-all-trapped-in-an-underground-facility-with-monsters-and-scientists-and-military-types-who-all-have-secret-agendas. It’s a popular story with straight-to-cable releases because you can film the entire thing in an abandoned factory and all the conspiracy dialogue (a) makes for easy-to-write plot twists and (b) kills time between the more expensive action shots. Helix differs only in style.
- Despite being set in the Arctic, the show never gives me that sense of oppressive, dangerous cold. I don’t know why that is.
- The writers have decided to build the story around an ever-deepening layer of conspiracies. Every character seems to have at least one secret agenda. The base director, Doctor Hiroshi Hatake (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), is very secretive about the base’s mission and he also seems to have an equally mysterious personal agenda. Then we meet his superior, Constance Sutton of Ilaria Corporation (played by Jeri Ryan), and she seems to have an even more mysterious mission. (And even though she’s clearly evil, she’s also the only other interesting character, which is probably why the writers killed her too.) And then there’s a reference to her even more mysterious “masters” who have a mission so mysterious that…well, it’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma stuffed into a vague promise that it will all make sense someday. Which brings me to my next bullet point…
- There was no Cylon plan. Ronald Moore is one of the chief creators of this show. At the beginning of his Battlestar Galactica reboot series, every episode started with an intro sequence that explained the premise: “The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. They look and feel human. Some are programmed to think they are human. There are many copies. And they have a plan.” Do any of you fans remember what that plan was? Anyone? No. Of course not. Because there was no Cylon plan. The writers were a bunch of lying liars who had no idea what the Cylons were up to, so they just made stuff up as they went along and never pulled it into a complete story. It’s probably wishful thinking to assume we’ll get anything better from Helix.
- Doctor Alan Farragut is on the CDC team because his brother Peter works in the Arctic Biosystems complex and is one of the infected patients. He’s also brought along his colleague Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky) who happens to be his ex-wife, who once had an affair with Peter. And to square the triangle, Farragut is assisted by young Doctor Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), who is secretly in love with him. I can only assume the show’s writers added a relationship drama because they thought that deadly viruses, maniacal zombies, corporate psychopaths, military conspiracies, and Arctic adventure might not provide enough story to hold our attention.
Oh well. Maybe episode #9 will be better…