Review: Helix 1×1-1×3 (SyFy/Channel 5)


Helix cast

In the US: Fridays, 10/9c, SyFy
In the UK: Mondays, 10pm, Channel 5. Starts January 20th

Normally, I do love a killer virus TV show or movie. Whether it’s The Andromeda Strain (original or remake), Outbreak, The Burning Zone, The Satan Bug or anything else, I loves them.

You know what else I love? I also love stuff by Ronald D Moore, the exec producer of Battlestar Galactica.

So I was thoroughly looking forward to his new show Helix, in which a brave group of scientists from the CDC in the US travel to a secret research facility in the Arctic to investigate the outbreak of a brand new ‘retro-virus’ (ooh, actual biological terms being used – count me in). Queue the paranoia. Queue the tension. I mean that’s The Thing (kind of), The Andromeda Strain (secret lab) and The X-Files episode Ice. Brilliant!

Except… as always, the devil is in the details and while everyone is trying ever so hard to make this scary and upsetting and horrifying, it’s all falling just a little bit short. Here’s a trailer.

Helix is an intense thriller about a team of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control who travel to a high-tech research facility in the Arctic to investigate a possible disease outbreak, only to find themselves pulled into a terrifying life-and-death struggle that holds the key to mankind’s salvation…or total annihilation.

Helix is the product of some of the biggest names in genre television, starting with Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica). Also Executive Producing are Lynda Obst (Contact) and Steven Maeda (Lost, CSI: Miami, The X-Files).

Is it any good?
On paper, yes (well, maybe not the dialogue). In practice, not quite.

The show does have a lot of strengths. It’s smart and caters to a geek audience with technical terms that it never explains – USAMRID, T1s, retro-viruses, Marberg, ‘hot agents’ et al all get mentioned and if you’ve read The Hot Zone, you’ll know what they’re talking about, otherwise you’ll have to guess.

There’s an interestingly large and diverse cast. The lead is male (Billy Campbell from Dynasty, Once And Again, The 4400, The Killing – and, fact fans, the second choice for William Riker in STTNG) but most of the hero scientists are female (Jordan Hayes, Kyra Zagorsky, Catherine Lemieux) and the show’s biggest name is actually Hiroyuki Sanada MBE (The Last Samurai, Ring, Lost), who plays the base’s boss and possible evil guy.

Given its closed base scenario, you’d expect plenty of thrills and scares, and there are, as well as some nasty techno possibilities, such as viruses that liquify cells. Ugh. But intellectually interesting.

However, let’s dispense with the pretence. Despite having a lot of big names attached to it, this is actually a show by TV newcomer Cameron Porsandeh and the likes of Ronald D Moore have minimal input into the show – they’re certainly not writing the scripts.

Secondly, a lot of shows have come in for criticism for dumbing down and having to explain everything so that the audience understands everything that happens in an episode. Helix is having none of that. Instead, it takes no prisoners and moves so quickly, it can only be assuming that in a world of DVRs, DVDs and instant replays, if we actually plan on understanding it, we’ll do that in later viewings.

As a strategy, I’m not entirely sure it works, since they’re also using it to essentially glossy over plot points that don’t work. Quick – move quickly and the audience won’t spot this makes no sense. For instance, our intrepid team of scientists comes up with a test for the virus that they discover. They administer it to everyone on the base and everyone whose test changes colour gets quarantined. One scientist takes the test and is much relieved that she’s in the clear. Except she later discovers she actually has the disease, despite the fact her test hasn’t changed colour.

Yet not until it’s too late does she work out that the test must not work. She even checks that big batch of results and yes, others who are quarantined have passed the test, too, and have clear test tubes. So why were they quarantined in the first place if their tubes never changed colour?

Quick! Move faster! Maybe they won’t notice.

And maybe they won’t notice that despite all the nice techy words, no one has much of a clue what’s going on. Level 4 containment of dangerous viruses? Or we could stick them all in one big test tube rack and hold them by a corner without wearing a biohazard suit. Sounds like what a trained CDC investigator would do, isn’t it?

Visually, there are problems, too. Apart from the CGI largely looking like CGI, rather than something plausible, the direction is less Stanley Kubrick (although there’s an obvious homage in the first couple of minutes), more made-for-TV movie, meaning many of the scenes that are supposed to frighten fall flat because of poor choices of angle, poor lighting, poor music and so on.

Let’s dwell on the music for a second or two. Because while it’s somewhat bold to have ‘lift music’ playing during horror scenes and over the opening credits, after a while – the second or perhaps third time. YMMV – it starts to get old and silly.

We’ll skip neatly over the icky fact that Jordan Hayes’ character (she’s 26) and Campbell’s character (he’s 55) are romantically linked and trip daintily past the fact that the other, nearly-as-young female character is his ex-wife, to meet the other big issue with the show: it’s really a zombie show. A sci-fi zombie show. Everybody just dying of an incurable haemorrhagic fever isn’t bad enough: they have to turn into self-propagating, super-strong zombies who orally rape people.


Whether it’s all being done by aliens, since the virus is unlike any other virus in the world and someone needs contact lenses to cover up his strange glowing eyes, I don’t know, but the zombie-ness of it all makes it a me-too show, rather than anything unique, which is a shame.

This feels like a show that needed a bit more money spent on it, a better director and someone a bit more experienced running it. As it is, it’s certainly not the next Battlestar Galactica. But it’s promising. Let’s see if the secrets promised turn out to be worth watching.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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