Saturday, January 11, 2014

Choose Narvik B!

Fans of horror-science fiction know that right now there are dozens of secret, unauthorized, unregulated laboratories all over the world.  They are filled with brilliant scientists creating new and improved horrors, either for the military or for personal glory, or both.  This is what they do for a living.  But who pays for these expensive institutions?  Almost certainly it is an unholy triumvirate of evil corporations, the military-industrial complex, and clandestine government agencies.  And they expect big results with a minimum of public disclosure.

The staff of these operations are always top heavy with experts in science, technology, and military security. We assume that they have a pretty good benefits package, and that health care is covered.  (It would need to be, given what typically transpires in these facilities.) These technocrats seem to do just fine without any support staff whatsoever.  Who makes the coffee?  Who sweeps the floors?  Who answers the phone?  Does anyone ever eat? 

The personnel of these secret, unauthorized, unregulated laboratories, (SUULs) are all drawn from the same social and economic class, and this oddly depopulated monoculture tends to reduce the overall credibility of the story.  But that said, in horror and science fiction, you cannot go too far wrong with an unauthorized experiment that spins wildly out of control.  Helix, which premiered on SyFy last night, is the latest offering in this subgenre.  It is a lot of fun—fast paced, never dull, with some interesting, complex characters.  It gets a lot of points simply for having wildly incongruent theme music:  Dionne Warwick’s Do You Know the Way to San Jose.

Arctic Biosystems, (“a division of Ilaria Corporation”) is running an SUUL in the Arctic, just outside of any national jurisdiction.  There are over 100 scientists there, representing many nationalities.  The scientists are doing genetic research with mutagenic agents, which increase the mutation rate in living tissue.  They have applied their findings to an experimental virus.
‘Narvic A’, the prototype, is a gruesome failure.  Exposure to Narvic A converts its victims into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity” as Poe would say.  But ‘Narvic B’ is a hideous success, but with terrible implications.  Narvic B is not fatal, but remarkably life-changing.  You can probably guess what has happened at the laboratory.  A team of doctors, led by Alan Farragut, are sent by the CDC in Atlanta to investigate an outbreak of the contagious material.

Farragut’s team includes his young protégé Sarah Jordan, an irascible veterinarian, a military specialist, and Farragut’s ex-wife, Julia Walker, among others.  Walker is Farragut’s ex-wife because of an affair she had with his brother, Peter.  Coincidently, Peter is one of the scientists who have been exposed to the virus called Narvic B. The points of this romantic triangle are considerably sharpened by the end of the pilot episode. 

Because the research facility is an SUUL, the staff, led by the suspicious Doctor Hatake, are not helpful or informative to the earnest CDC team—until a series of security breaches puts everyone’s life in danger.  The episode is strengthened with some graphically intense and memorable scenes which I will not divulge here.  One particularly eerie scene involves something the military specialist discovers in the snow outside the research center.

It is an interesting twist that doctors—pretty much the only personnel at Arctic Biosystems—are the principle victims of the man made virus.   Anyone who has been kept waiting a long time in a doctor’s lobby might derive a sense of schadenfreude at the plight of arrogant physicians succumbing to the vile pathogen.

Fans of horror-science fiction will quickly notice features and ideas reminiscent of several other horror films, among them Alien, The Thing, and even Psycho.  Parts of Helix strongly reminded me of the episode from X-Files when Mulder and Scully investigate the outbreak of a contagious brain parasite at a polar research station.  There is nothing wrong with this recycling of horror concepts—certainly H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries shared each others' ideas in their stories back in the 1930s. 

From a socio-historical perspective it is interesting to see how certain ideas emerge and recur in horror entertainments.  In Helix, for example, why do so many people wind up having to crawl through narrow claustrophobic ventilation shafts, as in many other films of this kind?  (The ‘crawling through the ventilation shaft after the monster’ motif predates Alien—it is traceable all the way back to the excellent 1958 film It, The Terror From Beyond.)  Part of the fun is seeing how images and notions are recombined in new settings. 

But I am definitely hooked on Helix.  The first installment left a lot of intriguing questions unanswered:  What happened to all the research monkeys?  Does Julia Walker also have a connection with the evil Dr. Hatake?  Who is behind the research mission and the cover-up?  What is the long term prognosis for exposure to Narvic B?  And why are they playing a Burt Bacharach hit song from 1968?

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