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Helix Review: "Pilot"/"Vector" (Episodes 1.01/1.02)

January 11, 2014  |  1:30pm
<i>Helix</i> Review: "Pilot"/"Vector" (Episodes 1.01/1.02)

SyFy’s Helix began Friday with a double dose of claustrophobic quarantine thriller, centered on a throwback virus running wild in a Greenland research station. The show benefits from putting multiple episodes together, as it needs the momentum generated to override its missteps. Two days into its outbreak, Helix just about keeps ahead of its logical inconsistencies and muted performances by ratcheting up the horror quotient. The most intriguing aspect of the series may actually be the contagion itself, a kind of “contained rage” virus that promises an intelligent (and equally malevolent) version of the enemies found in The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later.

The show skips any initial mystery about who’s behind the infection, with the lead villain—Hiro, the head of the Arctic Biosystems lab—identified in the opening scene. Hiro comes across one of his scientists, Peter, in the grotesque throes of the disease, which he coolly calls “Progress.” This intro features the first of one-too-many iterations of “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” on the soundtrack, whose Breaking Bad-style inappropriateness eventually palls. But the gory visuals grab the viewer enough to buy some audience patience for the exposition to come.

The official Day 1 of the outbreak gives CDC epidemiologist and raspy charmer Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) one chance to flash a little charisma for his staff, including admiring young assistant Sarah. The CDC scene then sets up the tangled relationships among the crew, as Alan’s ex-wife, Julia, who’s been asked by the research station to bring Alan to deal with the virus, had an affair with pre-virus Peter, who turns out to be Alan’s estranged brother…as the salty Dr. Boyle comments on the helicopter flight to Greenland, “This is gonna be the most fracked-up family reunion ever.”

That bit of Starbuckian dialogue is a nod to Helix’s executive producer, Ron Moore, the recreator of Battlestar Galactica. Moore also is listed as writer of three of the 13 episodes, including these first two (according to IMDb, although the onscreen credits differ). But the other half of the show’s double helix is official pilot scripter Cameron Porsandeh, and it remains to be seen if this is a passion project for Moore or just a way to keep his hand in at SyFy.

Team CDC arrives on the red-eye from Atlanta at what looks like a three-quarters-buried Premier League stadium. Soon Dr. Farragut is full speed ahead, bravely tackling the outbreak with a soul as white as the ice—or the portentous “White Room” alluded to later. The noble Alan’s one weakness seems to be for brilliant, beautiful women (not such a bad weakness as these things go). As the agendas among the CDCers, Hiro and his security force and the literal Army of One in Major Balleseros multiply, the love triangle early on is kept pleasingly cerebral. The early reveal of Jules’ affair with Peter could have impeded the central outbreak story, but in a nicely low-key scene between Jules and Alan, he simply hints at their history without rancor, saying, “You always did have issues with impulse control.” The Grey’s Anatomy doctors should behave so professionally. Likewise, Alan’s baby-faced protégé, Sarah, keeps her feelings for Alan fairly well-disguised, notwithstanding the familiarity with which she lays her hand on his pump handle.

In general, Helix doles out its backstory unobtrusively—except when Peter’s affinity for hiding in air ducts is chalked up to his childhood strategy for avoiding his and Alan’s drunken father. That’s just one of those things you really don’t need to explain. If hiding in ducts was good enough for Aliens and Dead Space, it’s good enough for Helix. One of the biggest actual thrills so far comes when Alan climbs into the ducts, discovering a mutilated dead body at the same time an infected monkey (or possibly Dobby the House Elf, the special effects are a bit murky at this point) attacks Dr. Boyle.

As the hunt goes on, Hiro (aka Arctic Actual), played with no undue warmth by Hiroyuki Sanada, often contrives to spend time with Jules, sizing her up like a lab rat. The mystery behind Jules’ parentage, as revealed in Hiro’s conversational probing (and Jules-dedicated photo album), hints the virus isn’t all Hiro’s been replicating. The Hiro-Jules connection deepens over the course of the two episodes and promises the most of any of the show’s relationships.

The episode climaxes with a pullback shot of a field full of dead monkeys outside the lab. Okay: so we know the monkeys had to be hidden from the CDC, but why aren’t they buried in a mass grave, instead of sitting up and oriented in the same direction, frozen mid-screech like the victims of Vesuvius? Even if these especially clever monkeys were fleeing into the wasteland (not too clever), did they really run headlong into an insta-freeze polar vortex? Here’s hoping that tableau turns out to mean more than a sweet visual.

If the pilot didn’t quite take, episode two of the back-to-backs serves as a booster. Even though the episode begins by revealing the conspiracy between Balleseros and Hiro, you don’t fear the show is giving away too much too soon, because there’s much more to come—in particular, Hiro is playing a deeper game, since despite his denial he seems to want the CDC there for mysterious purposes of his own. The episode steps up the stakes when a deliberate attack by Peter exposes several more staffers to the disease. The show’s mechanism thus far is rather like that of its virus—or perhaps a Ponzi scheme—where recruiting new victims keeps the whole structure from falling apart.

Because as the infections proliferate, so do the logical lapses. Alan in a moment of sterile heroism takes off his hood to confront those quarantined after Peter’s attack, even though we know that doesn’t mean anything, really, since the virus isn’t airborne. Though if it were, there’s no reason the CDC couldn’t provide the exposed with protective suits themselves. Or get them their own isolation rooms. The show’s otherwise serviceable science gets shaky when required to justify such unlikely drama. Still, most of the problems actually weren’t too hard to let go—but failing to at least attempt to restrain the one victim showing clear signs of infection is too weak to ignore. Maybe Sarah was too busy defending her competence to actually be competent.

An attempted escape to the nearest military base, while it suggests how the virus might break out of containment at the lab, also pushes the bounds of believability. Camp Eisenhower—a sly shoutout to the military-industrial complex—lies a tantalizing 200 miles away, which still seems too far for even the rashest escape attempt via snowmobile. It’s monkeysicle weather, for crying out loud! Happily, Major Balleseros puts an end to that bemusing complication before the swarming white does.

So Helix in its incubation phase repeatedly threatens to topple over the edge of implausibility. Still, heading into Day 3, the questions about the future outnumber those about what the hell just happened—though the margin is slim. What’s the secret of Hiro’s seagull eyes? Did he really adopt Daniel, or grow him in a vat? Have they given any thought to Narvik-2 polar bears? How long until the army wants their major back? Was Peter’s full-on Fredo the kiss of death for Jules, or does she have a Hiro-related special resistance to the virus?

Helix’s next episode is now available online, and it’s certainly worth one more exposure to see if immunity develops, or if this thing goes hot.

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