Sunday, January 12, 2014

Helix, Season 1, Episodes 1 (Pilot) & 2 (Vector)

Since this is a double episode, it's a long recap: skip to the end for my first thoughts on Helix.

2 days ago

It was apparently very cold and windy (in a place that looks like it’s always very cold and windy) and we have an isolated underground bunker and people in Hazmat suits and a computer voice over saying “contamination over and over.” Well that’s set that scene. 2 Haz-mat clad people calmly walk down the halls, elsewhere a man, not wearing plastic, runs in sweaty panic; until someone grabs him from behind.

The Haz-mat suited people arrive in a room full of dead people – messily dead people, a jaunty tune playing on the Ipod shows the director has his art-schools staples down. There is one survivor, suffering on the floor with prominent veins and black goo coming from his mouth. When one of the haz-matted men offers him water he seems afraid – when he calmly squirts some down his throat the ill man starts convulsing and his throat bulging nastily.

Eerily clam and disturbing haz-matted man calls this “progress”.

To the CDC in Atlanta – possibly the present. Introducing Dr. Alan Farragut (giving a lecture on historic cholera outbreaks, epidemiology and John Snow whose name doesn’t appear in the history books nearly enough. He also loses things) and Dr. Sarah Jordan (finding the things he’s lost). He has a flare for the dramatic, throwing vials of cholera around to teach his new class of CDC operatives what’s at stake if they fumble. The drama and joke afterwards is interrupted by a woman entering with a very serious look on her face. She’s Dr. Julia Walker

He’s lead to a conference lead by Major Sergio Balleseros about a private company’s arctic research facility having an outbreak of some kind which is a Bad Thing. People are dead, he wants to take a CDC response team to the site: for extra problems, because it’s about the 89th parallel, there’s apparently no jurisdiction and they’re getting access because Artic Biosystems is generously allowing it – yeah that sounds very very very bad (shouldn’t the WHO be called then?). Now for some personal bombshells – Dr. Walker was specifically requested, but she wants Dr. Alan Farragut (everyone’s going to end up being called by first names by the end of this, I’m too lazy to keep this up) because one of the infected is Peter – Dr. Peter Farragut. Alan’s brother.

I hope there’s a reason for giving Alan the personal connection – as a CDC member, as he already dramatically lectured, it’s his duty to do this stuff anyway. Does he need motivating with a family connection

Day 1
Back to really cold place (yes I see the personal motivation to get him there now – that place is really cold). They helicopter into the zone, all the people we’ve seen plus Dr. Doreen Boyle who Does Not Like pharmaceutical companies. Or, well anything else for that matter since she gives grief to Sergio as well – but she takes grief back as well – I think I’m going to like her.  Extra personal drama, Julia is Alan’s ex-wife and Sarah, Alan’s protégée has an epic crush on him – or so Doreen guesses (she quickly uses this knowledge to quite cruelly tease Sarah). That sounds like enough personal drama, let’s focus on the illness now… oh wait, no Alan doesn’t mention Peter or Julia because he caught them in bed together.

Oh dear.  That’s far too much romantic personal drama established in the opening minutes of the pilot. This doesn’t bode well.

They’re greeted by Daniel Aerov (head of security) and Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (head of research and the sinister guy in the beginning with the water bottle). They’re perturbed to find that Hiroshi hasn’t initiated quarantine but there’s only been three infected, all of which worked in the same lab; it hasn’t spread so no quarantine (there were only 3 people in the big room o’ bodies?)

They have ID chips implanted into their hands to give them access to the base and, ominously, the helicopter leaves because it’s too cold for it to stay. And we see how big the place is – huge – employing 121 people

They suit up (Alan and Julia having a “we still have feelings” moment and confirming that she and Peter are not together) and Alan sees Peter – the man who was given the water at the beginning of the episode. He does not look good. While they try to treat Peter, Sarah talks to Daniel learning that they only get 1 hour of satellite connection (internet connection) a day and that Daniel is Hiroshi’s adopted son. Peter is somewhat aware, says something about a “white room” and surprising Julia by having black blood – and surprises everyone by going berserk and trying to stab Alan. He yells “everyone lies” before Julia manages to sedate him.

Brief sad-music-look-how-upset-we-are scene before joining Doreen and Sergio swabbing down Peter’s lab. Daniel is very cagey about Peter’s projects and even tries to discourage Sergio checking some things – Sergio’s not impressed or willing to take the hint. Doreen also doesn’t believe Daniel’s claim that they have no monkeys, only lab rats (that has been engineered to have no sex organs).

Meanwhile, Julia, Sarah and Alan go check out the body bags of the other two victims – they’re just skeletons in bodybags full of black, viscous fluid (Sarah vomits in her face mask which is probably one of the most awful things I can imagine).

Doreen confirms the pathogen isn’t airborne – staking her life on it by taking off her mask and we learn some of Sergio’s military history as Doreen pokes and prods him – and she finds monkey hair.

Julia sees Hiroshi in his awesome office trying to pin down what Peter was working on – and is snowed under by 20 boxes of research. When she presses for an actual answer, he says Peter was working on mutagens. Which is so wonderfully specific.

While she’s only getting vague clues there, Alan is checking Peter’s office, having some angst moments and watching his brother’s video diary where he laments about his poor relationship history (you’re living in the Arctic. This is not conductive for dating). It’s not an entire waste of time though, on the video Peter makes a hand signal from their abusive childhood, signalling him to run like hell.

Investigation stalls because Peter has escaped – cut through his restrains and opened a hole in the roof (no-one is shocked by this so I imagine the roof isn’t that strong). Hiroshi wants to gas (knock out gas) the vents rather than risk contamination spreading while Alan wants to take Peter alive ostensibly so they can test what protection he has that stops him becoming goo and bones. Hiroshi wins the argument – and Alan insists on searching the vents with Daniel.

Doreen and Sergio are having great fun searching the whole base for monkeys using the chips they were given (well, Doreen is enjoying herself anyway). Until they find a door the computer won’t let them through – not exactly unrestricted access they were promised. They decide to break through using liquid nitrogen… wait... what… you don’t think confronting Hiroshi before breaking possibly very important doors MAY be the better idea?

They enter the ruined lab/storage room where the bodies were picked up at the beginning. The room is full of empty monkey cages – including one that was broken open from the inside.

And they hear movement in the dark lab. A monkey creeping around and evading them in a way Doreen calls “too smart”.

Up in the vents, so small Alan has to crawl, Alan finds black mucous which he takes to be signs of Peter… and then he hears something moving. It does the classic, horror movie, crawling through a pipe behind him.


The monkey leaps at Doreen. It’s completely hairless and goes for her face, though Sergio manages to get it off her and unconscious on the floor. They check her for cuts but she’s fine. The monkey looks… awful

In the vents Alan finds a body. It isn’t Peter’s. It’s one of Daniel’s security people and it looks like someone – Peter? – has cut off his hand. Alan wonders why (for the security chip) and at the super-strength Peter seems to have. Alan calls for a full lock down and security procedures.

Sarah and Julia brainstorm (and touch on Alan and Sarah though Sarah insists they have no relationship) and find a super-duper-teeny-tiny virus. They show it to Alan and declare it “not natural” at least not to this century. Also a very small percentage of the time the virus doesn’t just kill people, it mutates them; hence why Peter is changing and not dead.

And Sergio cuts something out of his rucksack… something he had hidden. It’s a little satellite dish. He goes out into the snow and uses it to receive and send some data. As he walks back he sees the snow is littered with hundreds of frozen monkeys, all twisted and contorted

Yessss… that’s creepy.

He goes to see Hiroshi and they talk about a delivery – Hiroshi thinks it can go ahead but Sergio thinks it has to change because of the CDC presence. And the people they work for are Not Happy.

And whatever Peter’s changing into he’s walking around in stolen clothes and using the guard’s severed hand to open locks (I would say “I told you so” but this was really damn obvious and why hasn’t that guard’s info been removed from the system?). Inside the room he enters there’s a scream and a spatter of blood.

Day 2 I think this is the beginning of episode 2: Vector. Did I mention how much double episodes annoy me.

They interview 3 people who were in the room – Peter held them down and put his mouth other theirs possibly infecting them. There were also 3 more people in the room… and they’ve gone missing.

Leaving Sarah to watch isolation, Alan intends to go room to room with Sergio to find the 3 escaped people. Hiroshi has equipped his guards with restraints and stun batons, much to Julia’s disapproval. She’s also not thrilled to be left in the lab rather than tracking patients leading to an argument before he invokes his authority and sends her to the lab (despite him having less recent field experience than her). The first escapee they check, Dr. Tracy, has a ransacked room and a damaged window – she, unsuccessfully, tried to break out to the snow.

Doreen dissects a monkey – and is joined by the missing Dr. Tracy – she’s confused and suspicious and refers to herself as “we”, she fears the white room, fears what “they” will do and she wants off the base. Doreen tries to convince her to go with her, but Tracy doesn’t buy it

She begins arguing with herself – talking about how easily the virus was weaponised and she should have known, then shouting at herself for playing dumb and pretending she didn’t realise it was a weapon. When Doreen tries to leave, she lunges at her and tries to spit black gunk into her mouth. Doreen dodges and runs – but stops when Tracy collapses

Julia has been hearing things in the vents and watches a CCTV feed with Hiroshi and sees 2 huge metal shelves fall over with no-one touching them.

During all this, Sarah has to keep the three doctors in isolation calm as they become varying degrees of agitated and one of them gets sick, making Sarah re-suite up. He also becomes paranoid about his two fellow isolated patients.

Alan, Sergio and Daniel track down another of the escapees – Leclerk, but when they tackle him they attract an audience of scientists who question their roughness, his being infected, why they haven’t been evacuated and in general want to know what’s going on. Alan has to explain why evacuating a whole base full of infected people is a bad idea, and the concept and need for quarantine. The scientists clear out in time for Julia to arrive and explain what she saw and have an argument with Alan which basically comes down to “you will respect mah authoriteh!” and drag their relationship drama out all over the place.

Sarah goes seeking morphine for the sick quarantined man and finds the med cage open – she goes in, closes the door and Peter appears, banging on the bars and declaring she’s “here for a reason.” She says she’s there to help but he says “not you, Walker” (that would be Julia) and scrabbles up into the vents again with super-creepy speed.

Alan arrives to comfort Sarah and finds several empty morphine vials – Peter is taking pain killers (which shows he’s rational enough to medicate himself which Alan takes to be a good thing). Peter went into the vents, leaving a trail so it’s time to explore again – only Sergio this time with Alan following by camera below. And after much crawling he runs right into Peter who just APPEARS

Yes it was a fall out your seat moment – arrrgh, in the narrow pipes with things coming from any direction and you can’t even turn round!? I’m going to have some inarticulate flailing over here just thinking about it.

They get Sergio out, he’s fine – apparently just hit with his own stun baton. Which didn’t seem to do a lot to Peter

Julia returns to Peter’s research with Hiroshi and he continues to be incredibly vague and unhelpful. She decides to replicate what Peter last did – injecting rats with the same unknown experimental substances A & B. A kills nearly every rat, B kills some but infects them all – leaving them hairless. She and Hiroshi talk a little – until one of the infected rats hits the glass, damaging it – then charges through the glass to the next cage to pounce on an infected rat and spit black goo into its mouth. Extra extra creepy

Sarah continues to work on the quarantined until Bryce loses his shit and holds her hostage to try and make her let him out. Hiroshi tries to talk to them but, of course, it’s Alan who suits up and goes in with them and takes off his suit to show how determined he is… he’s now personally dedicated to solving this problem.

This… seems dubious since he then breaks quarantine but since there’s no airborne transition, it’s not quite as bewildering as it seems.

Outside, Sergio finds someone trying to make a run for it – he talks about the transgenic unregulated research they did and what an abomination they created. (Apparently unregulated research sounds awesome until you do it. Personally, I have to disagree – unregulated research sounds epicly horrific on a truly horrendous scale). The man is determined to tell the world what they’re up to – so Sergio stabs him.

Back in the labs, Doreen arrives dragging Tracy. Because Doreen is awesome. They take Tracy to the isolation room – but the three inside use the opportunity to escape. Damn, they need more Doreens.

Hiroshi and Alan lock horns over whose fault everything is before Alan goes to Julia and has a “I can’t lose you again” moment to explain why he was keeping her safe. Quick cameos – Sarah is all shaking and Hiroshi has a photo album full of pictures of a woman… is that Julia? He’s been stalking her – is that why the call went SPECIFICALLY for Dr. Walker? Then then removes his contacts to do some work – and has odd, translucent blue eyes without them. Ok, random…

Julia has a shower… and is joined by Peter. The Head Goo Zombie. She’s shocked and frozen and nearly lets him kiss her before she comes to her senses and pushes him away. He grabs her – and forces the black goo down her throat.

First Thoughts! 

They do a real good job of setting the scene without being clumsy – the helicopter leaving and the satellite reference to how little contact they have with the outside world shows how isolated they are without making it ominous when it has no reason to be, or without really overdoing it. It’s a good stand in

We have a little problem with overdramatic camera work. But it’s not too bad, but rather than being dramatic it does tend to make me smile (they’re walking down a corridor BEHOLD DRAMATIC CUTS OF THE WALK!) which breaks the otherwise excellently developed tension of the show

I think the overly personal nature of the storyline irritates me on a few levels. I don’t see why Peter needs to be Alan’s brother – I don’t see why professional dedication and duty isn’t enough to get him out there, I don’t seen the need for the extra pathos – or the old relationship, the cheating or the blatantly-crushing Sarah. None of these elements are necessary, they’re distractions. And really, why does everyone CARE?! Given the situation why is this on anyone’s minds?

Characterwise… DOREEN. Doreen I love. Doreen I want to have a little party for. Doreen rocks.

She’s the only one who does. Alan is a Big Damn Hero full of dramatic speeches and Epic gestures and tersely issued orders to everyone around him completer with angsty past (honestly does he mention his father was an abusive alcoholic to everyone?).

Sarah could be compelling, the whizkid proving herself and determined to impress – but too much of her story is wrapped up in potential-Alan-love-interest and/or being the scared one Alan gets to rescue/reassure. Julia, again, is too wrapped up in being Alan’s ex. We need more character elements from both of them

And inclusion? Yeah the ball has been badly dropped here. Hiroshi came from central casting for a sinister Asian scientist (frankly, World War 2 propaganda was less subtle). Daniel is another MOC and basically an extension of Hiroshi. Sergio, also POC, could be an interesting character, but sinister military guy isn’t original and we need to see more

And what do they all have in common? If you said “they’re all villains” give yourself 10 points. We have some other POC in the background – but they’re infected so either going to die or become monsters. Effectively that leaves us with all the POC actual characters being villains and ALL THE VILLAINS being POC.


So where does it leave me? I love the concept. The direction, the atmosphere, the plot – love ‘em. Really well done. The characters? I don’t like any of them (except Doreen).

I worry that, by episode 6, if that doesn’t improve I’m going to end up on Team Goo Zombie. The characters need to really improve.