Sunday, January 12, 2014

Intelligence and Helix: New Science Fiction TV for 2014

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 12, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

A scene from Helix, now airing on the SyFy Channel

For the television audience, January sometimes brings some belated Christmas presents. TV's mid-season is no longer the place where networks dump the shows not quite good enough for September, and cable networks never really much cared about the old schedules anyway. This past week, two new science fiction dramas premiered: Intelligence (CBS/CTV) and Helix (Syfy). Both shows boast some familiar faces in front of and behind the camera, but whereas the former feels uninspired and derivative, the latter shows some real promise in its early episodes.

Meghan Ory, Josh Holloway and Marg Helgenberger, in Intelligence
Intelligence, which premiered on CBS and CTV last Tuesday, is a cyber-themed spy thriller set in the not-too-distant future. The series stars Marg Helgenberger, fresh off of 12 years and 264 episodes as Catherine Willows on CBS's still-ticking CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Josh Holloway, best known for playing Sawyer on ABC's Lost. Holloway plays Gabriel Vaughn, an intelligence operative with a fancy computer chip in his head that plugs him into the worldwide grid, giving him instantaneous access to real-time information from databases, satellites, the DMV, and probably everyone's iPhone. Helgenberger plays Lillian Strand, his boss and the director of the United States Cyber Command (which, Google has just informed me, actually exists!). Described as "reckless, unpredictable and insubordinate", Vaughn is a textbook loose cannon given, for example, to going off-mission in search for his long-missing, and presumed dead, wife but as luck would have it, he's also one of the fortunate few who possesses the rare genetic mutation that lets the magic WIFI chip work. Joining the team in the pilot episode is Secret Service Agent Riley Neal (Meghan Ory, Once Upon a Time) who's been given the thankless task of keeping an eye on Vaughn, presumably to protect the tech in Vaughn's head more than his life. The series, created by screenwriter Michael Seitzman (North Country), certainly has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel: drawing on our post-Edward Snowden paranoia and directly referencing the 2011 Mumbai bombings. But while the special effects offered in the first episode are often as pretty as the show's leads, the series brings very little that is new to the high tech spy procedural genre. Throw Chuck and Person of Interest into a blender, and once you drain off all that needless fun and any genuine intrigue, you'll probably something that looks an awful lot like Intelligence.  

To be sure, Josh Holloway remains as charming as ever, but there is little about the character he's playing that is compelling. The writing and dialogue is straight-ahead and unsubtle (though characters seem to do far more punching than speaking anyway), and even the show's particular spin on its conceit the superspy with the computer in his brain doesn't really fly. It's implied that the technology is a game changer, which makes Vaughn as much the hunted as he is the hunter. (The Chinese, or at least some version of them, seem destined to be our team's main adversaries.) But so far it isn't clear what precisely cyber-Vaughn can do in the field that a Bluetooth headset, a satellite uplink, and a couple of techies in Portal 2 t-shirts couldn't do just as well given a few extra minutes. In the end, however, not making any sense isn't the deal breaker it used to be (see: Sleepy Hollow). Intelligence's real crime is far more unforgivable: it simply isn't very much fun.

Billy Campbell as Dr. Alan Farragut, and Hiroyuki Sanada as Dr. Hiroshi Hatake, in Helix

However 2014 still brings some good news for television's science fiction fans, and it comes from a most unexpected source: the SyFy Channel. After a long drought (beginning when the channel cancelled Eureka back in 2011 because of budgetary concerns) where it seemed as if original science fiction programming was the last thing one would find on its formerly-eponymous channel, SyFy has added another compelling speculative drama to its rolls with the 2-hour premiere of the viral outbreak thriller Helix this past Friday. With Helix, last year's Defiance and the Canadian-produced Continuum airing its third season in March, SyFy may once again become a genuine destination for viewers seeking out complex and intelligent science fiction television.

Created by newcomer Cameron Porsandeh and co-executive produced by Ron Moore (marking his first real return to TV since the end of Battlestar Galactica in 2009), Helix stars Billy Campbell (The Killing, Killing Lincoln) as Dr. Alan Farragut, the lead CDC scientist called to investigate a mysterious and very deadly virus that has infected an isolated Arctic outpost.  Further complicating the story: not only is Alan's brother Peter (played with bug-eyed menace by the incomparable Neil Napier, Bullet in the Face) the sole surviving victim of the initial outbreak, Farragut's team also includes his estranged ex-wife Julia (Kyra Zagorsky). Soon after arrival, the CDC field officers quickly suspect that this was no accidental outbreak and that little is what it appears to be in this privately-owned research facility which has researchers from almost 3 dozen different countries and operates outside of all national and international regulation and that tracking down the truth will be as difficult, and as dangerous, as finding a cure. With its inhospitable, almost lunar landscape, and set almost exclusively inside this futuristic outpost, Helix has the tight, claustrophobic tone of a deep space drama. It shares the intensity of the many post-apocalyptic shows that have emerged since Galactica went off the air, but it does so without that often perky problem of having to actually end the world. It borrows knowingly from Outbreak, 28 Days Later (anger-prone rhesus monkeys and all), the original Alien movies, and John Carpenter's The Thing, but with its unique pacing and tone Helix rarely feels derivative of its source material.

Zyra Zagorsky as Dr. Julia Walker in Helix
The disease itself has physical and mental components: it kills some instantly, leaves others paranoid and delusional, and a few (like Napier's Peter Farragut) survive in a kind of self-aware waking zombie state.  But what feels particularly refreshing is how genuinely competent and intelligent all the characters most often are. The facility is after all a universe populated almost exclusively by doctors and research scientists, which means that not only our CDC heroes, but practically every victim of the disease is him/herself potentially capable of curing it. (And even our one expositional proxy a military engineer/observer with little medical knowledge, played by Canadian Mark Ghanimé is quickly revealed to know a lot more than he initially lets on to the others.)

In the end, however, it will be the show's pacing that likely will most impress you. At first the story seemed, to this viewer at least, almost self-indulgently slow moving. But by the end of the first hour the intensity ramps up considerably, especially as the show's structural conceit is revealed: every one-hour episode will take place over a single day ("Day 1," "Day 2", "Day 3" etc.), which means that by the end of its 13-episode first season, fewer than two weeks will have passed. The overall effect of this is that the action within every episode feels simultaneously compressed and telescoped, a temporal claustrophobic feeling to parallel the physical one. 

The inescapably melodramatic circumstances (as their own lives are literally at stake every minute) are moreover regularly undercut by the one explicitly playful feature of the production: the soundtrack. The tone is set with the show's opening scene: an inappropriately peppy rendition of "Do You Know the Way To San Jose?" plays on tinny speakers echoing around the bunker-like laboratory as we make our way among the recently dead and dying. The dark humour of this juxtaposition is repeated at the beginning of every episode with a brief, jaunty opening theme that accompanies Helix's intertitle. (The only other example I can recall of popular music being used to such successfully ironic effect would be Breaking Bad.)

I watched the first three hours of Helix in a single sitting, and found myself eagerly looking forward to seeing more. You can watch the third episode of Helix this coming Friday at 9PM on SyFy. I'm confident that you will find it similarly .... infectious.