By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
9:00 AM EST, January 10, 2014
"Helix," which begins Friday on Syfy, arrives under the flag of executive producer Ronald D. Moore, the re-creator of "Battlestar Galactica."
It's a step back for the network toward Moore's dark and deep drama from the semi-comical fantasies, C-movies and fairy-tale variations that have defined its slate of late; that is to say, it's a step forward. And if it doesn't match "Battlestar" for ambition or poetry or sparkling dialogue — to judge by the three hours available for review — it's well-made, solidly scary and disturbing all the same.
Still-boyish Billy Campbell is Dr. Alan Farragut, a big cheese at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, enlisted to investigate a strange virus that has infected three researchers at the remote polar research facility of a giant pharmaceutical company. (They are hard to swallow, those giant pharmaceuticals.) One of the afflicted is his brother, Peter (Neil Napier), who really does look terrible — though not as bad as his dead colleagues, reduced to bones and black muck.
"I've been around some nasty hot agents," Farragut declares. "But I've never seen anything like this."
Created by Cameron Porsandeh (with Steven Maeda, who served on "Lost" and "Pan Am" as show runner), it's a classic terror-in-isolation tale whose snowbound setting echoes "The Thing," though it also resembles endless other films in which victims-in-waiting are stuck out in a cabin, or a space ship, or an island, to be menaced by shadowy creatures and their own poor judgment and communication skills.
Claustrophobia, cabin fever and not knowing whom to trust are the standard features. There are strains of "The Andromeda Strain," Michael Crichton's tale of microbes gone wild, and as a story of spreading infection, it also has a little zombie in its black blood and mucus.
Indeed, to the degree that it pulls out the old tropes and sends us into the expected dark corridors or air ducts, it is just that much more suspenseful precisely because we've been there before. Just so, when a character says, "I'm not going to let anything happen to you, I promise," you know what that promise is worth, just as you know that a body laid out on a table, nearly comatose, is likely to pop up and raise a ruckus. We don't jump any less high for knowing this in advance
Accompanying Farragut on his mission are plucky young virologist Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), who says she doesn't have a thing for Farragut, which means she probably does; snarky veterinary pathologist Dr. Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux); Army liaison Maj. Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanime); and Farragut's ex-wife, Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), who, some time earlier, was sleeping with his brother.
When Walker first appears, breaking in on Alan giving a pep talk to a new crop of field agents ("You will witness horrors others cannot imagine"), she shoots him a look that says, "We were together once and have been apart but now something important is happening and we are going to have to get over whatever it was and work together, for the good of mankind if not ourselves."
In the confines of the research station, they meet Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada) — accurately described in the media-information book as "strikingly handsome" — who is in charge if not in control. He is not the only character who is clearly not telling the whole truth, and nothing but.
The fact is, as familiar as the elements of the story are, it remains hard to tell just how they're going to fall out, as one apparent plotline supplants another. The hint of an answer around the bend keeps you moving, fearfully, from corner to corner.
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times