As scientists and soldiers in the new Syfy series "Helix" race-crawl through air ducts and dark corridors to hunt down muck-spewing mutants, viewers will be reminded of other iconic science fiction productions.
"Alien," "The Andromeda Strain," "The Thing" and other tales of people trapped in terror-filled isolation inform the 13-episode series, but series creator Cameron Porsandeh and executive producer Ronald D. Moore still manage to surprise and scare with their tale of paranoia at an Arctic research facility.
"Helix" (9 p.m. Jan. 10, Syfy; 3 stars out of 4) may not be all that original, but it's the best show Syfy has premiered in a long time. It's a welcome return to serious sci-fi for a network that lately has filled its slate mostly with fantasies, fairy tales, monster mashups and far too many reality shows.
The series stars Billy Campbell as Dr. Alan Farragut, who leads a team from the Centers for Disease Control to a remote polar complex run by Arctic Biosystems where scientists are performing grisly experiments with a deadly virus that has infected Alan's brother Peter Farragut (Neil Napier) and two other researchers.
Alan's team includes his ex-wife, Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), star virologist Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), snarky veterinary pathologist Dr. Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux) and Army security expert Maj. Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanimé), who seems to have shifting allegiances.
The center's director, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada), offers the CDC team unlimited access to the base and any research to help them corral the virus. The team begins studying Peter to learn why he is still alive—although with black blood coursing through his body—while the other victims have been reduced to bones and tarry muck.
Hatake keeps his distance, spying on them and hiding vital information as Alan and his team uncover horror after gross-out horror in the maze of labs. (Beware the test monkeys!) Tension builds to a breaking point before a new revelation resets the action and the slow-boil starts all over again.
"Helix" isn't without faults. Bad dialogue and its less-than-stellar supporting cast can be distracting. Soap-opera subplots—Julia was involved with both Farraguts and Sarah has a thing for Alan—often derail the action. But the series hits its stride in the third episode when the outbreak spins out of control, forcing Alan to make difficult decisions that challenge his personal sense of morality.
Hints of a deeper mythology are revealed, too, suggesting that "Helix" will move beyond its stop-the-virus story into something even more intriguing. In the meantime, it's a suspenseful, scary thriller.
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