Great discoveries in science are usually—if not always—the result of synthesis. Einstein’s recipe for special relativity, for example, required his drawing on previous studies of motion, light, electricity, and magnetism in order to develop a theory that, while touching on all those fields, was also new.
The same rule applies, it would seem, to the best science-fiction TV shows—to make a great one, you need to assemble a range of material from the genre, mix it up, and hope that, when the smoke clears and the static dissipates, your creation is both familiar enough to draw an audience and novel enough to keep them interested.
Dearly missed Fringe did this well, but since that show’s finale a year ago, the sci-fi remix slot has been vacant. Happily, Syfy has stirred up a promising solution in Helix, the network’s new prestige series from executive producer (and Battlestar Galactica reboot virtuoso) Ronald D. Moore.
There’s a lot of familiar stuff here, much of it choice debris from Lost. A mysterious corporation with a New-Agey name (Ilaria) has set up an advanced research facility in the artic wilderness somewhere near Greenland. It’s not yet clear whether that spot was chosen solely for its isolation—legal as well as environmental—or for some enticing, Island-like local properties. Either way, “Arctic Biosystems” gleams with narrative potential.
Helix’s pilot gets going when the facility’s shady director, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (played with a muted mix of disdain and cunning by Lost alum Hiroyuki Sanada) calls in a team of researchers from the CDC and U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to investigate and contain a viral outbreak—about which, of course, he knows more than he’s telling. The group is led by Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) and Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsk), brilliant scientists and former spouses, the former part because Alan walked in on Julia studying biology with his brother—a man who, conveniently, is a researcher at Arctic Biosystems and the first victim of a violent infection seemingly of his own design. The military, embodied by Mark Ghanimé as Maj. Sergio Balleseros, is, not surprisingly, more interested in the new wounds promised by the research than in the old, emotional ones plaguing Julia and the brothers Farragut.
The first few episodes each cover a single (consecutive) day and show the team’s attempt to identify the source and nature of the virus, which looks like an aggressive black goo cousin of the one in Prometheus. This allows Helix to fiddle with our anxiety about superbugs, the decline of herd immunity, and rapidly advancing biological research in much the same way that Contagion did, though in the more gruesome, athletic zombie key of 28 Days Later. Speaking of music, the show juxtaposes upbeat elevator tunes and horrific events à la American Horror Story, to varying effect. (Helix’s aesthetic sensibility is definitely less sophisticated than that of the FX show at this point).
There’s still ample time for this bug to incubate and mature, though, and I’m willing to wait. One of the benefits of setting the drama in a large, mysterious facility is that the story possibilities—apart from the initial infectious emergency—are endless: There are potentially hundreds of mismanaged labs out there beyond the doors marked Transgenics. And only Dr. Hatake knows what freshly synthesized strains of horror they contain.