Go Ahead, Let Yourself Be Sucked into the Vortex: 'Helix' Review
SyFy’s new series Helix is equal parts science fiction and thriller, marked by goofy music—and only a small misstep or two. It’s a spiffy, sleek production that quickly draws the audience into its frightening, isolated world; you’ll immediately be sucked into the mystery. Helix isn’t quite so layered as say, Battlestar Galactica, but it’s a fun sort of Walking Dead/The Thing/Alien hybrid that makes for perfect Friday night television.
Created by newcomer Cameron Porsandeh, and executive produced by Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore and Steven Maeda (Lost, The X-Files). Helix takes place at an arctic outpost where a private company—Arctic Biosystems, run by Dr. Hiroshi Hatake—has set up an unregulated research facility. After what appears to be some sort of viral outbreak at the facility, a request for help is sent through the military to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is where we meet up with head of the science team, Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) along with several other key players. To add a little more drama to the equation, turns out Farragut’s ex-wife Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky) was specifically requested by Arctic Biosystems, and Alan’s brother Dr. Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), is among the infected.
Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty…
The Very Good:
Pacing, Setting and Panic:
Helix wastes no time pitching us into its encapsulated world. After a quick introduction to the CDC team and not too much exposition, we’re fed just enough mystery-crumbs to feel as suspicious and concerned about the Arctic Biosystems goings-on as Farragut himself. While it’s immediately apparent Hatake and Co. are holding back critical information, we care more about—and we need to know—the why.
Arctic Biosystems’ frozen outpost is the perfect isolated location; falling under no particular government regulator or law enforcement agency means a possibly nefarious group can do whatever the hell it wants and get away with it. The landscape is also handy for hiding runaway critters…or people.
Futuristic labs and quarters give a similar vibe to a spaceship—where we’d usually be sent to experience that isolated feeling. Endless corridors, multiple sectors, and doors that require identification to be accessed provide the same kind of cutoffs and hidden or secured areas; there’s separation within the isolation, and plenty of corners from which anything could pounce. That random fear we associate with the unknowns of space is found in a visually similar environment; the same dread, through the threat of an uncontrolled virus or mutation standing in as the alien(s).
Billy Campbell as The Earnest Leader, Dr. Alan Farragut:
Campbell has perfected a type that’s well-suited to scientist and CDC team leader, Alan Farragut. He’s serious, reasoned, caring and honest—the man everyone can trust. Campbell’s solid performance anchors everyone around him, and evens out the sporadic fantastical, silly or overly simplified elements that sometimes jolt.
Hiroyuki Sanada as The Man We Know We Shouldn’t Trust, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake:
In the pilot’s first minutes, Arctic Biosystems Research Facility head, Dr. Hatake discovers Farragut’s brother Peter undergoing some sort of physical mutation and calls it “progress,” a clear sign of his duplicitous nature. Though Hatake called for the CDC’s help (with what he describes as “only three infections”) and promises full access and cooperation, he’s clearly harboring plenty of secrets, both business and personal. Why is he so interested in Julia Walker, and why does he have a photo album full of her photos? Lost and Revenge veteran Sanada is perfectly cast as the mysterious man with everything to hide.
Jordan Hayes as The Girl Everyone Underestimates, Dr. Sarah Jordan:
Anna Kendrick-y Jordan Hayes is the “youngest doctor hired by the CDC in over a decade,” whip-smart, young and pretty, she’s out to prove herself an invaluable asset to Dr. Farragut. Hayes is a natural and she handles the character’s quick dialogue with ease and wipes away our own suppositions as easily as those of her new colleagues. Hayes and Campbell have a nice rapport that may or may not be indicative of a more personal relationship between their characters.
Neil Napier as The Monstrosity, Dr. Peter Farragut:
As a mysteriously transmuted “vector,” Napier manages to make Peter Farragut both sympathetic and terrifying. After he’s discovered by Hatake, then tested by his brother, Peter makes his Alienesque escape into the vent system, and begins stalking the regular folk—seemingly not at random. But the brother Alan once knew isn’t completely gone, and has periods of lucidity—trying to communicate—in between a couple of invasive, violent attacks. And after Alan discovers a video-log of Peter using a distress signal they shared as boys, evidence against Dr. Hatake’s explanation of Peter’s experimentation mounts.
The Not Quite As Good:
Kyra Zagorsky as The Drama Queen, Dr. Julia Walker:
Alan Farragut’s ex-wife, who coincidentally (and unnecessarily) had a one-time affair with Alan’s brother Peter, seems—at least in the first three episodes—more like manufactured drama than important character. The most interesting thing about Julia is Dr. Hatake’s interest in her, and as of the third episode, 274, we still have no real information on why he requested her by name. Zagorsky (The ABCs of Death) isn’t more than serviceable until 274, when she seems to come alive—hopefully she’ll only improve as the show goes on.
Catherine Lemieux as The Tough Chick, Dr. Doreen Boyle, and Mark Ghanimé as The Soldier, Major Sergio Balleseros:
Both Dr. Boyle and Major Balleseros are written as oversimplified—and frankly, stupid—caricatures, sent to find easily uncovered creatures or information. In other words, they go on completely expository missions wherein everything that happens is fortuitous, simple, and without any real motivation other than to pass on information to the audience. At least Major Balleseros is hiding something, which makes him infinitely more interesting than Dr. Boyle’s cynical, dimwitted veteranarian routine.
Despite a few underdeveloped characters and a shortcut or two (Hey, give me that piece of drainpipe with the instantly identifiable clump of monkey hair I’ll readily retrieve…), Helix is undeniably intriguing right from the outset. After the two-part pilot aired Friday, I immediately followed up with episode three and given the chance, I’d have kept going. Hopefully the writers will tighten things up as they go. For now, Helix is quintessential Friday night entertainment: not too heavy or light science fiction to go along with popcorn-eating, beer/wine imbibing—mystery-solving, slightly heart-pounding fun. Just don’t take a shower alone, okay?