Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Hand of Man

“I don’t know how to say this, but things have gone downhill since you got infected.”

Dr. Allen Farragut offers these cheery words to his brother Peter, who is stretched out on a table in the isolation room at Arctic Biosystems.  In that top secret laboratory near the North Pole, an outbreak of the strange Narvik-B virus is in its fourth day.  Peter was one of the first individuals infected, and has endured extreme pain, uncontrollable rage, paranoia, the conversion of his blood to black slime, and zombification.  But he has also experienced superhuman strength and possibly a preternatural enhancement of his sense organs.

In the last episode of the Syfy channel’s new series, Helix, Sarah Jordan had developed a test for the disease that allowed staff of the research base to be divided into healthy and infected camps, with the latter banished to Level R, in the basement of the facility.  But the test was later found to be inaccurate in the worst way:  it either fails to detect the active virus in all cases, or yields false positive results in otherwise normal individuals.

And there have been other disasters while Peter drifted in and out of consciousness in the isolation room.  Belleseros destroyed the satellite uplink, severing communications between the base and the outside world.  Rebels among the banished scientists on Level R have found a way to shut off the air supply to the upper level, in order to blackmail Dr. Hatake and his minions.  (A wonderful touch:  Dr. Hatake’s red coffee mug displays the words “Keep Calm and Carry On”.) 

Viewers learn that Sarah, the beautiful and earnest young intern, is dependent on gabapentin, and later morphine, to stave off the pain and tremor caused by her cancer.  Ironically, she is diagnosed by a fellow doctor whom she is treating for the Narvik-B infection.  The stricken doctor happens to be an oncologist.  The show is full of these intriguing ironies.

Meanwhile—and there are a lot of “meanwhiles” in this complex, ambitious series—Dr. Doreen Boyle, the curmudgeonly veterinarian makes a remarkable discovery.  Not only are the infected humans a vector for the Narvik-B virus, the virus itself is a vector for a completely unidentifiable strand of DNA.  The purpose of the virus—the mechanism of the disease—is to deliver the genetic material into the human victim, who then undergoes horrific mutation.  “Say hello to my little friend”, she says to her buddy Belleseros, gazing at a schematic on the computer screen.  “We’re looking at the hand of man.”  

(At this point, my wife and I disagreed about the origin of the unusual DNA strand.  I think it is extraterrestrial, but she thinks it was engineered by scientists at Arctic Biosystems via gene-splicing techniques.)

Meanwhile, downstairs Julia has come under the protection of a woman who first appears with a gas mask covering her face.  They rummage through food lockers in the basement in order to survive Dr. Hatake’s cruel isolation of the infected staff on Level R.  In one of the cabinets Julia discovers irrefutable evidence that she has been at the lab in the distant past.  Besides excelling at leaving behind many unanswered questions, the show’s creators are adept at introducing mystery after mystery to engage their viewers’ imagination.  The plot resembles one of those Russian Matryoshka dolls: within one doll is another, and inside that doll, another, and so forth.

What is the real purpose of Narvik-B and its companion, the unidentified strand of DNA?  Is it for biological warfare?  Was it an attempt to develop a universal anti-viral agent, a cure-all for all of humanity’s ailments?  Or is its purpose something completely different and unanticipated?  Was the outbreak at Arctic Biosystems an accident, or planned?  And one final question—to the creators and writers of Helix:  Why did you kill off one of my favorite characters, in such a gruesomely ironic way?

Check out the ‘study guide’ at Helix | Syfy.  Helix is on SyFy Friday nights at 10:00.

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