Being the sort of character who enjoys watching monsters snacking on the general public, clanging around in air vents and generally spreading alarm and despondency, I’ve been looking forward to watching Helix (Channel 5, UK; SyFy, USA).
For those who didn’t partake, the show’s premise is something like this: scientists in a top-secret research facility (is there any other kind?) performing highly questionable and risky research (ditto) in a remote and inaccessible location (of course) have accidentally unleashed a virus that is both pretty deadly and conspicuously disgusting in its effects. Oops. Butterfingers. So the CDC, catching wind of this, turn up to take a shufti. It’s probably unnecessary to mention that nobody will tell them what’s going on, and since it is practically de rigueur in these circumstances for half of the principal characters to be deeply embroiled in long-standing emotional warfare I won’t dwell on that either.
Visually, the place certainly looks the part. Anyone thinking of building their seekrit hive of super-villainy in the Arctic could do worse than look to this show for unrealistic inspiration – the air-conditioning vents alone are majestically scaled, ready to accommodate Batman plus whichever variant batmerchandise is ripe for marketing this year. Perhaps the architects who designed the place were under the comforting misapprehension that airborne viruses fear large empty spaces, or perhaps they made the understandable assumption that like just about every supervillain ever, the director of this research facility secretly yearns to be beaten up by the object of his obsession (if he does, it’s his lucky day).
The first hour of this show has a game mechanic remarkably similar to that of Dead Space in that every few corridors the characters wander down contain Something Nasty screaming, scuttling or secreting something black and putridly infectious. Dead Space’s space-suited playable character, Isaac, may be a man of few words (like most FPS protagonists, he’s essentially mute) but he keeps the player entertained by cheerfully subjecting his former colleagues to dismemberment with plasma cutters, improvised flamethrowers or popular handheld woodworking implements. Here, in place of Isaac’s casual brutality, we get a CDC doctor who spends most of his time asking questions and getting no answers; they don’t actually blame this on the Data Protection Act, but it would hardly reinforce the sense of futile bureaucracy any further if they did. The rest of the doctor’s time is spent angsting over his social network, most of whom unaccountably seem to have come along for the ride.
I find it easy to forgive Aliens or the Resident Evil movies for featuring many of the same short-cuts, such as preposterously mutant-friendly crawl spaces and an obligatory businesslike Burke wearing a sinister air of ulterior motive. Such productions aren’t about logic; they rely on action. This show reacts with horror when a guard goes so far as to wave a firearm at an out-of-control victim of the not-a-zombie-apocalypse-honestly, which is a little frustrating when you’re perched on the edge of your sofa shouting ‘Are you daft? Aim for the head!’
These characters have the characteristic flaw of horror protagonists everywhere: most of them don’t have enough personality to make the viewer want to care and most of them are too persistently stupid to be believable. Chekhov’s RFID tag/dismemberment is a case in point. Also, there’s a particularly irritating use of a novel diagnostic test: let’s test this out on a couple of people and then let’s just assume it works well enough to base our quarantine strategy on it, yeah? Yes, of course this is just a TV show, but if you’re looking for tension then you would probably find more in a slightly more realistic approach to containment. Introducing plot elements based on the idea that your characters are too stupid to do their jobs properly is okay, if and only if you want the audience to disrespect the characters in question.
As it is, we’re in waters similar to those navigated by The Walking Dead during the flu sequence early in Season 4.
1. All these people may be dying and if so will shortly develop into ravenous zombies.
2. All these people are currently dossing down in a prison cell.
3. What say we make a habit of locking all their doors?
4. …no, that’d be ridiculous.
Okay: The Walking Dead does not benefit from a sophisticated diagnostic test, so characters are not able to take the ridiculous decision to trust it absolutely. And, okay, in this scene from TWD at least all the flu sufferers have been locked in together. They’re not chucking people out of quarantine on the grounds that they’ve tested them for flu using a test that somebody just invented five minutes ago and didn’t bother to test. They’re just not being very clever about protecting the flu victims from one another. So TWD still wins on points. Without taking anything away from TWD, it is probably reasonable to suggest that when your medical horror/thriller has been outthought by a TV show dedicated entirely to the premise that the dead rise and eat the living, it may be a sign that your script could yet do with a little further work.
Helix may yet threaten the stratospheric supremacy of the BBC’s fabulously awful 2010 effort, The Deep. The Deep, being set in part on nuclear submarines, rapidly came to treat nuclear fission as a get-out-of-plot-free card. When Helix introduced a segment of the research facility as an abandoned lab previously used for ‘controlled fusion’ experiments, it did not bode well for the show’s upcoming denouement. Even so, none of that would matter at all if the show provided an appropriately powerful distraction. Such as, and don’t think I’m recommending it, but have the producers considered featuring a taciturn bloke in hazardous environment gear enforcing quarantine with a rotary saw?