In the second “Dream Come True” scenario for first-time TV creators of the 2013-14 season, unproven Helix creator Cameron Porsandeh hooked up with the proven experience of Ron D. Moore (similarly, Sleepy Hollow‘s creator Phillip Iscove teamed up with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman – although I suppose Dracula‘s Cole Haddon teaming up with Daniel Knauf could also qualify), to develop a promising initial concept into ready-to-go programming. As with Sleepy Hollow, that means there’s some good news and some bad — strangely enough in almost the exact opposite categories as Sleepy Hollow.
Where the battle against ancient evil in New England suffers from horrible plotting and clichés too numerous to mention, it does have the benefit of charismatic actors and characters with a healthy dose of flair and dramatic histories to explore. Helix, on the other hand, has a fantastic concept, a fresh approach to pacing, and a serious storytelling style that is sure to disturb, but the characters are flat, boring, and suffer from ham-handedly cliché emotional lives.
It also doesn’t really have Moore on-hand beyond the development and producing phase. Steven Maeda is the showrunner and his experience with X-Files and Lost is on full display right from the outset as we focus on a select group of relative strangers forced together in an isolated situation where mysterious science is running amok. But to be quite honest, what it reminds me of most is 2005’s Threshold, which followed a crisis management team dealing with a first-contact scenario where the aliens were rewriting human DNA, transforming victims into stronger, faster, violent hybrid beings.
This worries me, because Threshold, while being similarly ambitious, boasted a stellar cast including Carla Gugino, Charles S. Dutton, Brent Spiner, and Peter Dinklage along with the all-star creative team of Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer. Despite that, nobody cared and Threshold was cancelled with four episodes left unaired in the US until the Sci-Fi Channel rebroadcast it a year later. And I could see something similar happening with Helix, although by starting out on Syfy in an environment that is much more open to science fiction television, that’s only a slight worry at this time.
But it’s still a valid worry, I think. After watching the first two episodes (aired edited together as a 90 minute premiere) I was decidedly underwhelmed. The third episode is available on-demand and on the Syfy website already, so a review of that will be up later this week, and hopefully things will begin to click. But as of right now, I found the lack of interesting characters to be almost too much of an impediment to really caring about what happens next.
Billy Campbell is sincere enough as Dr. Alan Farragut from the CDC, but his female co-workers are each saddled with problems. Jordan Hayes as Dr. Sarah Jordan could just as well be named Dr. He’s Too Old for You or Dr. Something to Prove Cause I’m so Young and Pretty, and Farragut’s ex-wife Dr. Julia Walker’s (Kyra Zaporsky) only defining personality trait is having cheated on Farragut years earlier with his brother, Peter (Neil Napier). Catherine Lemieux’s Dr. Doreen Boyle has a distinctive personality, for sure, but the wise-ass straight-talker persona is grating from the get-go — especially as she’s used to sarcastically info-dump backstory and plot points all through the first episode.
And so far, all of the scientists working at the lab are incredibly rude, awful people.
Our baddies are mostly just as lifeless as our heroes, with Meegwun Fairbrother as Security Chief Daniel Aerov and Mark Ghanime as the predictably double-crossy Major Sergio Balleseros. The only bright spot is Hiroyuki Sanada who plays the man in charge, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake, with barely restrained mustache-twirling and predatory reptilian seething whenever nobody’s looking.
As far as the plot goes, the basic idea is a great one and the effects are suitably gruesome and should lead to some startling revelations further on down the line. Each episode covers a single 24 hour period, so there’s a nice sense of sustained intensity that should keep things moving, despite the reliance so far on repeated trips up into the ductwork and jaunts outside into Arctic weather that is apparently cold enough to flash-freeze a horde of released lab monkeys, but not cold enough to require masks, gloves, or even zipped-up jackets for the actors.
I’m having a hard time figuring out if I want to keep watching because of the ideas involved or just because it’s so nice to have a straight science fiction show on the US airwaves again after too long having only goofy shit (Almost Human, I’m looking at you) and sci-fi-lite (the enjoyable, but cotton-candy Eureka, for example) to tide me over since Fringe crashed and burned in its final season. Regardless, I plan on checking out another episode or two. If I gave Almost Human that long to find its footing, it would be a crime to not to do the same for a real science fiction show.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.