"The worst part is all the waiting. Death should come out of nowhere. You shouldn't have to stare it in the face."
Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), a researcher for the Center For Disease Control, is called in, along with his team, to a research facility near the North Pole to investigate an outbreak of a mysterious virus. Alan has faced many outbreaks in his career, but this one is personal: the only survivor of the disease is his estranged brother, Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), who he has not seen since walking in on Peter and his now ex-wife Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky) in bed together. Complicating matters further, Julia has been requested for the assignment as well, not to mention Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), Alan's newest assistant, and possibly his next romantic partner as well. When Alan, Julia, Sarah, and the rest of the crew, including tag-along US Army major Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanime), arrive at the base, they are greeted by the man in charge of the compound, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada). Almost instantly, two things become clear: this virus is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before, and Dr. Hatake knows more than he's telling them.
Advertised as a show fueled by a brain trust of writers and producers who helped spawn the contemporary "Battlestar Galactica" (Ronald D. Moore), "Lost" (Steven Meada), "24" (Brad Turner), and Contact (Lynda Obst), "Helix" has quite a bit to live up to. Unfortunately, the finished product is frequently schizophrenic, dull, and never quite gives itself over to the over-the-top mad-scientist silliness at the core of the story. Perhaps the folks at SyFy are too aware of the B-movie reputation of the "SyFy Original Movie" brand, but "Helix" frequently reveals itself to be a show too serious to take seriously, wanting to achieve dramatic legitimacy while skating over gigantic, canyon-sized plot holes and inconsistencies. Were the ambition of "Helix" more broad, it would be easier to forgive the show of its faults, but instead, the show dies a slow creative death. I relate to the quote at the top of the review -- it's tedious watching the show creep toward failure.
Although some to-do was made about opting out of the flashback structure of "Lost", "Helix" still inherits one of that show's most frustrating structural details: the methodical, almost mechanical method of revealing twists and turns in the story. Watching 13 episodes of "Helix" brings up the same feelings of monotony as a sitcom, in that each episode follows an extremely similar pattern of dramatic builds and breaks, down to the cliffhanger ending. To a degree, it's understandable that a drama, especially a short-run like this one, can't change things up with an episode that does something stylistically different, but all too often it feels as if the writers and directors are just killing time before beats, following a series of dots that will create a picture of a modern TV program. The soundtrack builds, a wild twist occurs, and cut to credits -- only for the next episode to slowly burn away the more extreme ideas presented in the cliffhanger as the next one rounds the corner. It's the kind of show where a brief, obviously imaginary sequence of the characters acting sort of detached in an unexpected setting -- such as the cabin Thanksgiving dinner hallucination in one of the episodes -- is the height of stylistic deviance.
Still, a rigid structure might be forgivable if what was happening was more interesting. Too bad "Helix" has caught a nasty case of idiot characters, who frequently act illogically so that the story can continue. The first couple episodes of "Helix" are fairly average, with some promise that the story will get better or more interesting, but a bunch of squabbling doctors in episode 2 give way to the appearance of That Asshole Character Who Serves No Purpose But to Stand in the Way of Progress in episode 4 (in this case, a guy who shuts off the air supply for the entire compound), and the show begins to spiral out of control. One character is revealed to be malicious and on the hunt for a certain item, and yet a second character who is fully aware of this and does not want him to succeed walks right to the secret place where that information is stored, is predictably followed, and knocked out. Hallucinations provide information the characters could not have otherwise with minimal consistent logic. Alan and his entire team constantly take bizarre risks around the contagion that make little sense.
Such stupidity is not exclusive to the characters, either. The writing of one episode creates casual conflicts with another; nothing monumental, but certainly noticeable when watching the episodes back-to-back. In Episode 3, Sarah gets extremely upset at Julia's assertion that she would intentionally allow an infection to spread to save her own skin, then turns around and does exactly that two episodes later. On one hand, Episode 3 plays a similar game with Alan, but there are no character moments that emphasize that this contradiction is intentional. At the end of another episode, Alan and Sarah share a somewhat intimate scene, and then in the next he accepts her explanation that "there wasn't time" to inform him of an incident. A hugely relevant scar on a person's back somehow doesn't come up when that character sleeps with another. The base's communication system is destroyed, but when helicopters arrive with the Ilaria Corporation's Constance Sutton (Jeri Ryan), they leave before anyone explains the satellite has been destroyed.
On one hand, many of these details are minor, yet on the other, each one calls into question the overall logic of the show and frequently shatters the suspension of disbelief. A story about the top scientists in the world begins to fall apart when none of them act intelligent, and so the frustrating elements build and build until the show struggles to hold the viewer's interest. The fact that it took the series creator (Cameron Porsandeh), the four headlining producers, plus seven other talented producers to cobble "Helix" together in the sloppy form it's in only adds insult to injury, not to mention the show wastes a fairly talented and charismatic cast (the show establishes strong relationships between a bunch of actor pairs, then torpedoes almost all of them almost immediately). A season 2 is already slated for 2015; hopefully the numerous cooks in this kitchen go back to formula.
Modern TV shows seem to love an excess of advertising artwork, resulting in a gallery of stylish single-frame imagery to choose from. "Helix": Season 1 comes with one of those pictures, a person I don't recognize from the cast peering into a microscope with a plume of black, stringy liquid blasting out of the back of his head. The back features a similar promo shot of the cast sitting together in a laboratory. The set arrives in a double-thick Vortex Blu-Ray case with two stack hubs, with two discs on one side and the third on the other. Inside the case, there is a leaflet with the set's Digital UltraViolet HD code and another promising a second season of the show in 2015 (with Blu-Ray-ready artwork!), and the entire thing slides into a slightly rubberized slipcover, which has another sticker advertising the show's return and the UVHD code.
The Video and Audio
Predictably, "Helix" looks and sounds fantastic in HD. Black levels can be a touch anemic but that's clearly part of the original photography. The show has a somewhat simplistic look, with tons of clean rooms and blank concrete hallways, but fine detail is excellent and colors, when they appear, are wonderfully saturated. I did not notice any artifacting, and any extremely mild banding is limited to fade-out transitions (not to mention, it might just be my over-sensitive imagination). Compared to the picture, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio might get a touch more of a workout, with all sorts of distant roars and unusual animal noises echoing throughout the compound to get the sound system working on the quiet and directional end of things, and some up-close-and-personal attacks for the big action stuff. Music sounds very nice and dialogue is always crisp. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, English subtitles, and French subtitles are also provided.
A fair amount of supplementary material is offered with the set. First up are audio commentaries, on the pilot and season finale, "Danse L'Ombre", both with Billy Campbell, accompanied by creator Cameron Porsandeh on the pilot and producer Steven Meada on the finale. These are enjoyable little conversations between Campbell and his producers, which both feature a nice rapport between the two speakers. In particular, the idea of actors on commentary tracks can be very hit-and-miss, but Campbell is a lively conversationalist, making these enjoyable to listen to even given my underwhelmed reaction to the show itself.
Four standard featurettes are offered: "Ronald D. Moore: The Outlier of Science Fiction" (7:13), "The Future of Disease" (5:28), "The Art of Isolation" (5:52), and "Dissecting the Characters" (10:32). These are supported by two featurettes exclusive to the Blu-Ray edition: "Writing the Tension" (5:42), "Fabricating the Plague" (6:25). Look, I'm sorry if you're a "Battlestar Galactica" fan (and I'm not knocking that show, as I haven't seen it), but there's a strong sense from basically every one of these featurettes that everything wrong with "Helix" stems from Moore, who may just not have been the right fit for this material, despite being Porsandeh's "pipe dream" collaborator (it suggests Moore is responsible for the deliberate release of information and the grounding of the show's crazy ideas. This is only highlighted by the "Future of Disease" featurette, in which Porsandeh briefly talks about the inspiration for the show, which is far more fascinating than anything that actually occurs in "Helix." The most interesting of these is probably the second exclusive featurette, which covers the make-up design, but these are pretty surface-level, packed with clips and interviews from the set.
The set wraps up with deleted scenes (Disc 1 - 3:22, Disc 2 - 1:06, Disc 3 - 2:36) and outtakes (5:38). As usual, the deleted scenes are generally inconsequential, and the outtakes are worth a chuckle.
Trailers for "House of Cards", Afflicted, and Deliver Us From Evil round out the third disc. All of the video extras are in HD.
"Helix" only has small problems, but as anyone involved with a show about molecular biology and viruses should know, small problems can balloon into big infections. The assignment of producer Ronald D. Moore seems to have hamstrung the show with overly repetitive structure and an air of self-seriousness that sucks the fun out of the frequently silly premise. The Blu-Ray release is nice, but the show itself is a mess. Skip it.
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