Syfy has trended silly the last few years, with a programming slate filled with light-hearted semi-procedurals. 2009 was Year Zero: Battlestar Galactica ended four seasons of critical acclaim and low ratings; Warehouse 13 began five seasons of good ratings and zero acclaim; the channel changed its name to Syfy, which still looks like a word somebody wrote on the whiteboard as a joke. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about the rebranding: At its best, the channel suggests the USA Network with more greenscreen and more semi-repressed Canadian accents. Like, lots of people like Haven. I haven’t met them, but I still believe they exist.
But Helix is something different. Quiet, shot mostly indoors under bright lights, the two-hour premiere of Helix sends a crew of CDC professionals to a remote research base beyond all jurisdiction, where a mysterious black-stuff outbreak is turning people into melting spider-man zombies who keep using the royal “we” and talking about some mysterious White Room somewhere. The CDC team have their own interpersonal issues: Billy Campbell is a brilliantly tortured scientist, Kyra Zagorsky is his ex-wife, Jordan Hayes is the young scientist who looks likely to become his next ex-wife. (The lead victim of the Mysterious Outbreak is Billy Campbell’s brother, who coincidentally helped turn Billy Campbell’s wife into Billy Campbell’s ex-wife.)
The first hour of Helix quickly maps out the basic narrative obstructions of the show. The research base is 200 miles away from army relief. They only get a one-hour window to reach the outside world via communication satellite each day. It goes way below freezing outside every evening. One of the show’s executive producers is BSG‘s Ron Moore, and like that great series, the show immediately establishes the local population: 106 scientists, 15 support staff, the CDC team, probably a few mystery guests. There’s also an outright BSG reference, when comic-relief scientist Dr. Doreen anticipates “one frakked-up family reunion.”
Once they arrive at the research facility, the CDC team meets Hiroyuki Sanada, whose Hiroshi Hatake is a mysterious man with a mysterious agenda. Sanada has played this role so much frequently — in the final season of Lost, on Revenge, in The Wolverine — and although he gives good Mysterious Grimace, I hope that Helix gives him more to do as the season advances. (Ken Watanabe stole The Last Samurai from Tom Cruise, but Hiroyuki Sanada stole The Last Samurai from Ken Watanabe.)
There was a lot to like in the first hour of Helix. The show’s concept sounds a bit like The Thing — remote snowy location, black-stuff mystery — but it plays more like a doctor-show reboot of Event Horizon. Every character has a secret. (The nice military guy? Not so nice.) The frozen monkey-graveyard is the freakiest thing I’ve seen all season. (If the show is a success, they should put “#NoMonkeys” on a T-shirt.)
And there’s a great scene between Campbell and Zagorsky where they wrap each other in hazmat suits while carefully addressing their shared history. That scene is the best demonstration of the weirdly lyrical visual storytelling you get when you watch a pilot directed by Jeffrey Reiner. Reiner handled some of the more memorable early episodes of Friday Night Lights. In the last few years, he directed the series premieres of Caprica, Trauma, and The Event. I mean it as huge praise when I say that, with each of those pilots, Reiner took steadily-worse material and crafted excellent TV-hours. I have long theorized that there’s a side-universe where Trauma is the most popular show on television, and NBC is CBS for young people, and the ’90s never ended.
But Caprica and Trauma and The Event never really lived up to their pilots, and the second half of Helix feels dangerously same-y. There’s more digital-animal shock and more air-duct crawling, though in fairness, Helix at least pays fealty to the Air-Duct Emperor with a Die Hard reference. Let’s assume Helix knows where it’s going — that it’s going to turn into a slow-burn psychological thriller with groovy sci-fi concepts, and not a repetitive Scary Corridor Fun Hour. (Basically, let’s assume it’s Orphan Black and not Defying Gravity.) Right now seems like a perfect time to come up with a Ridiculously Early Helix Theory. Let’s run down what we know:
-When the virus takes over a person/monkey/mouse, it turns the carrier into a superhuman/monkey/mouse, with one apparent purpose: Pass the virus along to another being via mouth-to-mouth regurgitation.
-Carriers of the virus have spasming throats, almost as if some mysterious thing is inside of there.
-Young and ridiculously overqualified doctor Sarah Jordan announces that it’s a super-small virus, so it might be/is probably very ancient.
-Major Balleseros is sending mysterious messages via satellite. He also tells Hatake: “The people you and I work for aren’t happy, and now I have to clean up your mess.” He also kills a scientist who is trying to escape. Props to Mark Ghanime, who in the first two hours of the show lies to everyone and kills somebody and really for all we know is the most evil person, and still turns his character into the most charming person on the show.
-There’s a White Room somewhere.
-Hatake has an album filled with pictures of Julia.
-Hatake’s eyes look weird.
Given all of that, here’s my theory. The virus isn’t just an ancient disease. It’s actually an ancient species, molecule-sized living beings who used to dominate the world. Millions of years ago, the combination of continental drift and the whole meteor-that-killed-the-dinosaurs thing banished them deep beneath the surface of the Arctic ice. This species functions as a collective — that’s why one infected scientist keeps referring to herself as “we” — and although they have no real physical form, they can take over other physical forms and symbiotically supercharge them.
Having discovered this virus, Arctic Biosystems is attempting to weaponize it for those mysterious people that Balleseros and Hatake work for. Let’s say, for the sake of argument and transgressive sci-fi pulpiness, that it actually is the American Government, working to develop biological weapons. (Drones are so 2013.) Arctic Biosystems performed their experiments in some deep subterranean corner of their research facility, called the White Room. Unbeknownst to anyone, however, Hatake has been infected by a different virus: A kind of counter-agent, a different molecule-species from millions of years ago, the yin to the evil virus’ yang. (This is why Hatake’s eyes are pale, while the bad virus is black.) We’re going to think he’s a bad guy for like half the season, but his ultimate end goal is to defeat the bad virus. Yes, he was introduced happily describing the viral infection as “progress,” but that was just theater, because his security enforcer has already been infected with the bad virus. For whatever reason — something to do with her father, briefly mentioned? — Julia is the key to Hatake’s plan.
So, in conclusion, Helix is about molecular angels fighting molecular devils. Also, in season 3 or 4, we find out that the research facility is built directly above the ancient location of the Garden of Eden. [Drops mic.]
What do you think, fellow viewers? Did you like Helix? Post your own outlandish theories in the comments! Props to the first person to convincingly argue that it’s all just stealth marketing towards the Prometheus sequel.