Style over substance but infectious nonetheless
Well, Ronald D. Moore is back on TV. It took long enough. No, I’m not counting Caprica because as far as I’m aware he wasn’t really very involved in that and even if he was, I’d rather believe that show’s lack of quality wasn’t anything to do with him losing his mojo. And I should say, I’m not entirely sure how big his involvement with Helix actually is, since he’s credited as an executive producer and nothing else. SyFy have however been marketing this as a Moore joint, whether this is pure advertising bait or not, I don’t know. Regardless, his return to televisual sci-fi drama seems to me particularly important at the moment because since Fringe ended (and before that came along, since Battlestar Galactica ended) there hasn’t been a genuinely quality science fiction series to fly the genre’s flag. Sadly, judging from the first couple of episodes at least, Helix isn’t quite going to fill that considerable gap but it does have enough of its own strengths to make it worthwhile.
Helix isn’t shy about its influences. The premise sees CDC scientists called out to a remote Arctic location to deal with some kind of new, terrible, and unknown virus, the cause of which seems to be man’s old hubris induced downfall of playing God. A bit like oh, say The Thing? Or that episode of The X-Files? Yep. But look, you can’t exactly hold it against Moore too much; it’s a setting so ripe for a story of this kind so as to be almost irresistible. The gloomy steel corridors and white frozen landscape are certainly the strongest parts of Helix, an integral part of making up what is quite a well established sense of place and atmosphere.
SyFy, known for their often hilariously (deliberately so at this stage one would have to assume) low budget affairs, clearly believe in Helix, given that the production levels demonstrated range from ‘passable’ to ‘actually quite good’. While the lab design doesn’t scream unique or exude a massive amount of personality, its cold blue lights and gentle hum in combination with some really solid cinematography, are enough to create the general sense of unease and claustrophobia one can only assume Moore was aiming for. There are a couple of lingering shots in the first two episodes that are usually reversed for cable shows, who have the luxury of less restrictive running times. They’re very welcome here and succeed in letting the viewer further soak the location in. Sometimes they’re coupled with some odd depth of field work, one shot in particular being completely blurred for about five seconds before someone finally steps into frame and clarity. The peculiarity and discomfort of such moments reinforce the feeling that something here isn’t quite right. As the show goes forward, I really hope these little stylistic flourishes remain. Parts of the soundtrack, which cements the tone well enough, are very Blade Runner era Vangelis, which can only be a good thing.
While Helix does pause more often that you might expect, it by no means moves slowly. That’s probably for the best because the cast of characters it lays out are, for the most part, quite bland. The fact that I can’t remember any of their names surely speaks to this. I think the protagonist is called Alan? Either way, none of them have any really interesting defining traits and come off as a little shallow. This isn’t any fault of the actors in involved. Billy Campbell is pretty great in the central role and Hiroyuki Sanada (Dogen from Lost) as the shady lab boss is similarly well casted. I suppose I should give the show bonus points for having what seems to be a live action version of Pam from Archer too.
Despite solid performances, they don’t have that much to work with. Which, to be honest, isn’t that big a deal in a show that seems to be more concerned about rapid burn plot than any type of character study. Hopefully they’ll get better fleshed out in the future.
There is also something undeniably video gamey about the whole set up, as Sonya Saraiya over at The AV Club points out, which is likely subconsciously influencing my judgement of the show in a slightly more positive manner.
There’s a fair amount of irritating contrivances that aren’t very believable and clearly just exist to push the narrative artificially in a specific direction. I’ve no doubt the 1 hour communication window with the outside world once a day is going to come into play soon and create eye rolling tension. And for a bunch of supposedly intelligent and highly qualified doctors, they don’t exactly make the most logical decisions, with some classic ‘oh right these are characters in a work of fiction and not actually real people’ stupidity going on. Still, the show isn’t positioning itself as smart but rather something more pulpy, so I personally don’t find them to be deal breakers although some folks might.
The way SyFy has talked about Helix makes it seems like this will be a single season story arc, which begs the questions as to where it may head should it get renewed. It could very well be turned into an anthology series, a trend which has recently come back into to fashion thanks to the success of the ludicrous but highly entertaining American Horror Story. That sounds like a potentially great direction as it would mean we’d essentially be getting a new Moore miniseries every year.
So Helix isn’t the return to genre transcendent science fiction, choosing not to walk the same path BSG did, something many might have been hoping for. It does however, have enough of its own strengths, at least two episodes in, to merit recommendation. If HBO could just finally go ahead and commission a mature cyberpunk series with lots of neon and rain and save us all that’d be great.