Saturday, January 18, 2014

“Where The Hell Is My Monkey?”

This is the anguished question of Dr. Doreen Boyle, the quirky down-home veterinarian scientist in Syfy’s new show Helix.  The cadaver table is immaculate, swabbed with formaldehyde to destroy any evidence of the pathogen that is spreading though out the polar research base run by Arctic Biosystems.  The monkey’s remains might have provided the source of a vaccine for the stricken scientists—as of the second episode last night, about a third of the base is now infected.  Who is behind this sabotage?

Last week viewers learned that Arctic Biosystems is running a top secret, unauthorized, unregulated genetics laboratory somewhere near the North Pole.  There are over 100 scientists there—or were until last night—conducting research with mutagenic agents, which increase the mutation rate in living tissue.  They have developed an experimental virus called Narvik-B.  Peter, the brother of Alan who is leading the CDC investigatory team, has been exposed to it, and has the most advanced case.

Exposure to Narvik-B turns its victims’ blood into revolting black slime, gives them superhuman strength, causes nasty ulcerations of the skin, changes the physical structure of their eyes, and appears to lead to a kind of zombification, judging by Dr. Sulemani’s condition before she was shot dead in last night’s episode.  Paranoia and inexplicable rage seem to be early warning signs of infection, as does a queer tremor and pulsation in the throat beneath the larynx.  Those who are infected are called ‘vectors’—in the same sense that a mosquito is a vector for malaria.  In last week’s climactic shower scene with Peter and Julia, fans learned that Narvik-B is transmitted orally, via a form of French kissing.

The show’s writers excel at parceling out incomplete revelations and loose ends that leave viewers with many intriguing questions.  Why does Sarah, the earnest intern from the CDC have a mysterious scar running down the back of her spine?  Who is on the board of Arctic Biosystems, an international venture?  What is the actual mission of the facility?  Why is there a nuclear reactor in the basement?  Why was the satellite uplink tower blown up just before the suspicious Dr. Hatake was to confer with the board members?  What is the “army engineer” Balleseros up to?   

The second episode was as impressive as the premiere on the 10th.  A strength of the show is its set of complex and unpredictable characters, whose often furtive activities generate ongoing mystery and interest.  It is clear from the beginning that the ‘bad guys’ (Dr. Hatake and his henchman) may not be thoroughly bad and the ‘good guys’ (Sarah and Belleseros) may not be entirely good. 

There was powerful symmetry in two scenes involving Alan, the CDC team leader and the hapless Dr. Sulemani.  In the first, Alan chastises the security chief for shooting at Sulemani as she approaches Dr. Hatake—he has used deadly force against a patient!  (Sulemani survives after the bullet is removed from her.)  Later on, Alan must shoot at Sulemani himself to kill her before she can attack Julia. 

There were a couple of other strong and disturbing  scenes:  a test for the virus allows the team to separate the healthy from the infected staff, who are then relegated to Level R, the new basement quarantine—an echo of our own sometimes inhumane segregation of the ill and disabled.  Julia joins the afflicted downstairs, removing her white coat as a symbol that she is now also one of the damned.

New viewers of Helix may be overwhelmed by the number of different characters in the show, as well as the numerous subplots and meaningful, if incoherent clues scattered about in the subplots.  For them, SyFy has created what amounts to an online ‘study guide’, which is fun to explore in itself, (see Helix | Syfy).  Helix is on SyFy Friday nights at 10:00.

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