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Look no further than CBS’s Hostages for big ideas and good pilots that can go very, very wrong, and you now have to put a caveat on some series that might have ambition beyond their means.
And yet, that said, I’m all in on Syfy’s newest drama, Helix, about a disease outbreak in a high-tech facility in the Arctic — just out of the legal jurisdiction of prying noses — that ramps up the tension as a team from the Center for Disease Control arrives on the scene to help. What they find is — not surprisingly — something very bad. And very weird.
Created and written by Cameron Porsandeh, Helix comes from a fine brain trust of executive producers: Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Lynda Obst (Contact) and Steven Maeda (Lost, The X-Files). So, despite the ease with which many of these ambitious ideas go sideways, there’s certainly faith in those behind the curtain to pull something off that’s thrilling and more than just a version of Outbreak that doesn’t deserve a third hour.
STORY: The Complete Guide to TV Premiere Dates 2014
Helix stars Billy Campbell as Dr. Alan Farragut, head of the Center for Disease Control’s Special Pathogen Branch. If such a branch exists, that’s already worrisome. (I mean, hasn’t the idea of a devastating worldwide pandemic become the modern version of worrying about nuclear annihilation?)
In any case, Dr. Farragut is living a fine enough life teaching the best and the brightest at the CDC. Do the lovely and talented ones periodically fall for him? Sure, they do. (Hell, he’s Billy Campbell.)
The latest to seemingly be going down that path is Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), whose desire to impress Farragut can’t be ignored. Into this calm environment comes the government, saying they need to take Farragut and a team to the Arctic, where a private lab has had an outbreak. Who’s along for the ride when Farragut gets the notice? His ex-wife and former student, Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky). She’s a senior scientist at the CDC and head of its rapid response team. Farragut tells the military that they don’t need him if they have her. But the catch is that one of the people infected at the private lab is Dr. Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), Alan’s brother.
It doesn’t take Helix gone to go from zero to sixty and the emergency response team arrives in the Arctic where the private lab is a whole lot more sophisticated than they’d thought.
Arctic Biosystems is run by Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada), who just gives off that vibe that he’s up to no good. What makes Helix work quickly is that the premise is pretty easy (though it looks like there are layers to the mythology that viewers will see eventually, plus a lot of backstory mileage hinted at in the two-hour premiere). When Farragut and his team arrive, they realize how bad things are. His brother is alive but just barely. Others are dead or infected. And in no time the shady nature of Arctic Biosystems is becoming apparent. Also: Monkeys.
The first two hours go at a brisk, thrilling pace that allows for character development as well. A lot happens and there’s a desire for more. The question for Helix will be whether the self-contained nature can keep breeding stories over time. There are hints that things are bigger than they appear, of course, and so Helix could move its environs and expand its world. Or, like Battlestar Galactica, it can thrive on the claustrophobia and fear of something remote with peril afoot.
Too many big idea series have gone astray — we’ve all seen it and experienced the disappointment. But there’s something about trying. And something about good people involved. So I’m ready to give Helix plenty of time and hope it doesn’t falter. Setting the hook is hard enough these days, so let’s see what it can deliver.
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