It is a good question. Really, television has been rather lacking when it comes to science fiction shows. The likes of pay cable networks (HBO, Showtime, Cinemax) rarely venture into such niche material, and when the major networks try to make a foray into sci-fi, it often comes wrought with cliches and horribly over-stretched narratives meant to fit the 20-24 episode network series framework (the exception being Fox’s Fringe, but that show received very little love from its home network). Then there are the SyFy Originals. The Sci-Fi network has had some success in the past, certainly Battlestar Galactica was one of them, but it’s narrow audience has always forced budgetary constraints and this has resulted in some very mediocre programming. That is why it is so satisfying that Helix is as good as it is. Certainly it has the pedigree behind it. Helix is created by newcomer Cameron Porsandeh, but helping him form his vision is Battlestar creator and showrunner Ronald D. Moore and Steven Maeda (Lost), both serving as Executive Producers on the show.
One would be forgiven if, after watching only a few minutes of the series opener, they thought it was a television remake of The Thing. There are many shared ideas between Porsandeh’s Helix and John Carpenter’s cult classic. Both take place in the isolated environment of the arctic (okay, Antarctica in The Thing but put them side by side and you are not going to know the difference unless a penguin walks by). Both work around the idea of a quarantine as they try to keep whatever it is that is haunting them from breaching out into the outside world. Both focus their narratives heavily around the sense of paranoia one feels when shut into an isolated environment. In The Thing, the paranoia was a product of not knowing who is real and who has been replaced by the alien stalking them. In Helix, the paranoia revolves around a deadly infection that seems to do one of two things. Either it a) cooks your insides until you are a pile of bone surrounded by a black tar like goo, or b) it turns you into a walking nightmare, genetically re-coded to spread the virus as quickly and to as many people as possible.
And such is the premise of Helix. This is bio-epidemiological horror. This is a wonderful genre that has brought us such classic pieces of fiction as The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak, and most recently, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Perhaps it is my inner germaphobe, but this type of medical horror makes me squirm more than most, and Helix moves its plot forward with many such squirm inducing moments. While the second hour of its premiere focuses much more on that sense of paranoia I was describing above, and thus deals more with the human element when trying to control the outbreak of a contagion, it ends with one of the most squirm inducing moments of modern television.
Then there are the stars of the show. The cast is very well-rounded with strong pro-and-antagonists. Hiroyuki Sanada, who many will recognize from this past summer’s The Wolverine, but who also gave great performances in The Last Samurai and Sunshine) is very unnerving as a sort of mad scientist running only god knows what up in his unregulated laboratory. And Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) does an excellent job as Dr. Alan Farragut, the seasoned CDC scientist looking for both reason and cure in the face of a fastly spreading outbreak.
I have a lot of hope for Helix. In its first two hours it has managed to be more compelling than any science-fiction television show I have seen in years. After many disappointments in the way of Revolution, Marvel’s Agents of Shield, and most recently Intelligence, I am happy to say that Helix is science fiction done well. We will watch a few more episodes before we can safely claim it is the best since Battlestar/Fringe, but I eagerly await what comes next for Dr. Farragut and his crew.
One last point, well more like a question. What is the deal with that elevator music? It is so bloody unnerving. I may never feel comfortable shopping at a Sears again!