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Helix Pilot Review: All Your Clichés Are Belong to Us

My love of Battlestar Galactica is somewhat new, but it’s intense enough that I was very much looking forward to Syfy’s Helix, the new show by BSG creator Ron Moore. In it killer robots have been swapped out for a killer mystery disease, and instead of outer space we get a research facility in the Arctic. And hey, all things equal I’ll always prefer killer robots to everything else (except maybe robots with personality issues), but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t get over Helix‘s obscene lack of robots and have a rip-roaring good time when I watched its two-episode season premiere on Friday.

I didn’t.

My problem with Helix isn’t its lack of robots—I’m of the view that every show should have robots, from sci-fi epics to fantasies to historical teen dramas on the CW, and since most of them don’t I’ve pretty much gotten used to that inevitable disappointment. It’s not even the show’s premise, that a mysterious lab with a loose view of scientific safety standards has created an ultra-dangerous super-disease that it’s up to a team from the CDC to contain. I’m down with plagues. I’m down with ~secret government-sponsored experiments~. I’m particularly down for a sci-fi horror show taking place in a contained, isolated setting.

What I’m not down with is Helix‘s characters, specifically how they’re all ripped straight from TVTropes. Our main character is Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), a square-jawed, stoic, senior CDC scientist whose difficulty maintaining a work-life balance resulted in a failed marriage before the show started. He’s also white, naturally, ’cause you’ve gotta tick off all the boxes on your boring, white bread hero Bingo card. Dr. Farragut’s ex-wife Julia (Kyra Zagorsky), another CDC bigwig, is on the team, as is his protégé Sarah (Jordan Hayes), who at one point proudly proclaims herself to be the youngest person every accepted to the something-something program at MIT. I’d have caught it but I was too busy rolling my eyes. She also has a crush on Farragut, by the way. The only female team member not in some way defined by their relationship to the strapping hero is animal expert Doreen, whom I’d like a hell of a lot more if she weren’t the cookie-cutter “quirky” team member. You have the CDC crew coming up against some requisite friction when the scientists at the lab refuse to cooperate with quarantine procedure and demand to be evacuated, despite the fact that they’re freaking scientists and therefore shouldn’t need Farragut to step in and give a speech about why quarantines are a  good thing to have when there’s an infection winging its way around.

There’s also Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada), the scientist in charge of the lab, and its military liason Major Balleseros (Mark Ghanimé), both of whom—and I bet you never saw this coming—are working for some undisclosed group to secretly create a weaponized plague. But Dr. Hatake has something else up his sleeve, as we see in the scene where his eyes are revealed to be an unnatural, glowy silver.

I have no problem with Hatake and Balleseros having ulterior motives—a show has to have its antagonists, after all, and if the foreboding-organization-working-on-a-dangerous-project-they-won’t-tell-anyone-about isn’t exactly original, well, neither are robots trying to wipe out humanity. (They could’ve used something besides black goo, though. C’mon, make it a different color.) Any plot can be handled well, and with the number of plot twists in BSG I wouldn’t presume to predict which direction Helix is heading in. Hataka looks like your stereotypical sneaky/evil scientist, with a calm demeanor masking utter creepiness that manifests itself most in an almost stalker-esque interest in Julia. And Balleseros looks like your stereotypical government henchman whose affiliation with the bad guys you’re surprised by because he just looked so sweet!

But both those characters could easily develop into something less typical and more interesting. So could the others. Doreen will likely evolve from one-note quirk. The base’s head of security, who’s also Hatake’s adopted son, could sidestep the boilerplate “conflict of interest” subplot that I can see lurking on the horizon after his surrogate father’s true motives start coming to the fore. Helix could step back from making Sarah moon after Farragut and give her an emotional arc that revolves around something other than unrequited love for the show’s lead. This is only the pilot, after all. The question, for me, is this: Do I want to stick around long enough to watch these walking clichés maybe develop into something more interesting? Do any of the characters give me enough now to keep me hooked?

The character of Julia is the best example of that. She was introduced as a BAMF scientist, but shortly thereafter a lot of her screentime was taken up by her relationship with three male characters. The first is Alan; despite Sarah (and therefore the audience) being reassured that he and Julia are adults who can keep it professional despite their history, over the course of the episode they cannot stop arguing about their personal issues. Maybe I’m still burned out on BSG’s Adama Drama, but I’m sick of it already. One of those issues is that Julia slept with Alan’s brother Peter, who just so happens to be Helix‘s Patient Zero. (The brothers’ relationship was subsequently strained, but Peter didn’t hate Alan so much that he didn’t warn him by using a special signal from their childhood in one of his video diaries. I’m sorry, but does something like that ever happen in real life?!) After the virus turns Peter into an ambulatory, super-strong, human-shaped plague he takes an interest in Julia that appears to go beyond the fact that he might still be holding a torch for her. The third character is Hatake, who keeps staring at her and keeps a scrapbook full of pictures of creeper pics.

So clearly something’s up with Julia. But how much by-the-book characterization can I make myself sit through before we get to what that is? That’s not even getting to my biggest problem with the pilot: The last scene, which saw Peter attacking Julia in the shower. It was previous established that Peter infects people by tackling them and putting his mouth on theirs, essentially breathing the disease into them. So when Peter comes after Julia when she’s naked in the shower, he’s not intending to sexually assault her. But that’s sure as hell what the writers of the show made it look like. It left a very, very bad taste in my life. The writers could easily have had that scene take place with Julia not naked, and it could’ve been just as scary. Do not use sexual assault, or the threat of sexual assault, for shock value, for the love of God.

So that’s what I thought about Helix. Barring a barrage of rapturous comments in the future saying how good the show’s gotten, I don’t think I’m going to keep watching. How about you?

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  • Troy Lenze

    I liked the creepiness of the first episode. However, I agree with you about the stereotypicalness of the main characters.

    I saw the next episode on demand this weekend, and I thought it got better. Some tough decisions are made, but Farragut is still a dumbo. Give it the next episode before writing it off.

  • Anonymous

    It did look cliched, maybe they wanted it too look like she was getting raped, deliberately? But maybe it develop

  • DarthRachel

    yea, i’m sick of these “don’t mess with nature” “people aren’t god” “science is evil!” tropes.

  • Troy Lenze

    How does “Aliens did it” grab you? My guess is we’ll see that swerve at some point.

  • Anonymous

    I had the same angry reaction to the people wanting to get out of quarantine. In any case, it was lessened once they involved the whole, “people are trying to get out” thing along with the monkeys and the person that broke the glass. Apparently, even when they have the goop inside them, they can still communicate and are actively working towards a goal. I haven’t watched the 3rd episode that’s up on hulu yet so I don’t know if it turns out that those two end up being infected or not. I’m hoping they are and their attempt to get out of quarantine makes sense with the logic of the infection.

  • DameB

    I really wanted to like the show. I did. Just like I wanted to like Almost Human. I want new sci-fi. Sadly, I gonged it after about 50 minutes for mostly the reasons above — the lead is a blandly manly Hero with daddy/brother issues, the women talk about the sex and the men, the fat chick is snarky, the person of color is the nominal villain. Also, i was hoping for sci-fi with a horror gloss and it seemed mostly horror with a bare sprinkling of sci-fi.

  • John W

    After I watched the show I kept thinking this is Prometheus all over again.

  • Anonymous

    I liked Doreen more than the reviewer did. She really connected with me in the scene where she’s alone with the infected Dr. Tracey. Both actresses were very strong there.

  • Anonymous

    Pretty much what I thought of it and the subsequent episode did nothing in term of characterization to improve on any of its weak points, nor did it get any distance from all the clichés dragging the plot down, quite the opposite. And the female characters are getting thinner and thinner. Meh.

  • EleniRPG

    My boyfriend and I had to pause the show almost every five minutes to point out how dumb something was. We have to pause-to-snark during other shows that we watch and enjoy (e.g. Grimm), but very rarely more than twice in one episode. This one has to be some kind of record. And it’s really a shame because my boyfriend in particular was looking forward to it–he loves horror, and he studies viruses. Unfortunately, this show is not for people who actually study viruses. Some choice moments of stupidity:

    1. Basically everything about looking for the virus in the samples. You cannot see 15-nm viruses (or whatever that worm thing was supposed to be, because viruses are not squirmy) in a simple desktop light microscope. Before we could continue on, I had to convince my boyfriend that this takes place in the near future, after a HUGE advancement in microscope technology. We also had a good laugh when Laura explained that she had checked the samples for a long list of virus shapes, mentioning at the end of this list that she looked for “even icosahedrons.” As if she almost didn’t bother checking for icosahedrons because it seemed so farfetched, when it is THE MOST COMMON viral shape. The line just screamed “Ooh, this is a big, special, rare word, I’ll bet it’s a very special and rare type of virus.” Nope. Not to mention that you don’t look for viruses by viral shape. I mean, you can scan an (electron microscope) image for likely viruses, but you’re not going to look for viral shapes one by one.
    2. The liquid nitrogen “rearranges the tensile strength”. What? No, tensile strength is not something you “rearrange.” It can be changed, but rearranging tensile strength is not a thing.
    3. OK, so Doreen sneaking into the monkey room without protection was sort of believable because she knows the disease is airborne. But as soon as it was clear the monkey cages were BROKEN, I could not believe that they wouldn’t turn around and come back with protection. So it was UNBELIEVABLY ridiculous when, after finding a clearly diseased monkey, she tried to COAX IT OUT. What??? Monkeys jump. Even non-diseased monkeys jump. If the writers wanted a diseased monkey jumping on her, they should have done it right after she realized the cages were broken, before they had ruined every shred of credibility in her character.
    4. Another cliche that really bugged me despite being a throwaway line: When we get the short little one-line clips of the three scientists who were quarantined recounting Peter’s attack on them, the woman’s line is, “I’ve never felt so violated in my life.” Uuuuuggggghhhhh. Right, because when a diseased man with super strength who has clearly lost his mind jumps you, pins you, and breathes over your face, and you’re not sure if he’s going to tear you apart or try to infect you with a freaky virus, your first thought is, “I feel violated.” At least it is if you’re a woman, because women are always rating situations by how violated they feel. Amirite? So, so bad.
    5. That bit about Sarah being super qualified even though she’s 26, because she has “Two masters and a PhD from MIT…and was the youngest doctor hired by the CDC in over a decade.” OK, so she doesn’t have an MD, I take it, or she would have mentioned it. But they seemed to be treating her as if she is a medical doctor. It just made me wonder whether the writers know that a PhD in disease-related fields does not make you a medical doctor. Seriously, that’s how little I think of this team after the pilot.

    OK, I need to stop ranting. Basically, this was a big disappointment, and there was not enough interesting in the show to redeem all the major fails. I won’t be bothering with the show anymore.

  • Samuel

    Both my girlfriend and myself are in the medical field, she is a Lab Manager and I am going to nursing school. Thank you for this heads up, we will probably be avoiding this show. I love sci-fi and I can suspend disbelief, but seriously, it’s not -that- hard to write smart sci-fi.

  • Troy Lenze

    I agree with almost everything, but the “I feel violated” part isn’t because he was breathing on them, but because he was basically tongue-kissing them with whatever it is that lives in his throat. There was oral violation going on.

  • Foxfire

    Thanks for a nice accurate review from someone who understands the big words and how they aren’t actually that special (because I have no idea about that stuff). You should do science review analysis of more shows :D

  • Rebecca Pahle

    The “I feel violated” line rubbed me the wrong way, too. Coupled with the final scene, it’s like they were trying to equate getting infected with rape. Just… don’t do that.

    And the thing that got me about the liquid nitrogen is that this is a high-tech base with a TON of security… and a canister of the stuff needed to break into this very super-secret room is stored right outside the door?! C’mon now.

  • Anonymous

    If everybody has an RIFD chip in their hands why isn’t it super easy to track the infected people through the base?
    Why’d the millitary guy tell the CDC about Patient Zero’s message if he doesn’t want the CDC at the base?
    Why do people keep walking out into subzero temperatures without face protection?
    Why haven’t they heard of the Buddy System?
    I liked the way Hiroyuki Sanada is playing his character like Mr. Sinister. He’s so enthused in the progress of the viruses. Even if it’s a bit cliche too, it’s a cliche that usually gets shortshriftd in favor of “hero” cliches. This show would be so much better if it was told from his point of view instead of the dull CDC crew. I don’t want a penultimate monologue of why he did it, I want to see him do it whilst outwitting the boring interlopers. I wonder what’s up with his eyes.
    The teaser showed Jeri Ryan & some weirdness but I don’t think it’s enough to keep me watching.
    The field of frozen monkeys was the best visual on the show.

  • Troy Lenze

    He was forcibly putting something (whatever lives in his throat/black oozy blood/something like that) into their mouths. At the very least it was forced mouth-to-mouth contact. I’d feel violated.

  • Gary Keyes

    Don’t you and your boyfriend think it’s time for filmmakers to get some scientific scenarios and fact right? C’mon, Moore…what were you doing? Dialing this one in from your fancy office in downtown Burbank? Just as long as SyFy (man, I hate this channel) can say:”From the award winning creator of Battlestar Galactica…Ron D. Moore”. No excuse. I expected better from him.

  • Gary Keyes

    That cleared that up. Boo Hoo, poor Ronny!

  • Bethany C.

    The one thing that really stuck in my craw (besides the not needing to
    be naked out of the shower scene) was the one part where Julia did
    something she thought was best and Alan got all cheesed off and said
    something to the effect of, “look, you’re just going to have to defer to
    me here.” I was like, wait-wasn’t Julia specifically asked to be part
    of this mission, and she just brought him in because of his brother?
    Without her he wouldn’t be there at all, why does he get to automatically be in charge?

  • TokenOfficeGoth

    Plus it’s Andromeda Strain with zombies. And Andromeda Strain was actually scary.

  • TokenOfficeGoth

    The funny thing is, sometimes the best way to write “smart” sci fi is by omission rather than with trying WAY too hard to write authoritatively on something you don’t understand.

  • TokenOfficeGoth

    NAILED IT. It’s sci fi written by and for luddites.

  • Samuel

    True, and I have no problem with that. I enjoy lots of sci-fi that handwaves and omits science, one of my favorite films this year The Europa Report, is technically impossible because they would all die from interstellar radiation in one month, and there are no feasible workarounds we know of, so the writers just made very sure to NEVER BRING IT UP. So it worked, disbelief, suspended, movie enjoyed.

    It’s when they try to bullshit their way through science that it really pisses me off. The problem here is the tagline for the show is the tired, stupid, trope of “man playing god” and getting smote for it. Which is all well and good if you have smart science in it, but it doesn’t. It honestly just reminds me of that god-awful movie Splice, which had the same “moral” and just as bad of a “science” premise.

  • ntguy

    This movie is a disrespect to the sci-fi community!

  • Kol Drake

    When I first heard of this series, I thought — original Andromeda Strain (the book or movie) meets the origins of the Walking Dead infection…

  • Kol Drake

    I kept looking at the ‘virus’ which looked more like a worm like nematode instead of a virus… and the one animation which made it look more like sperm passing through a cell wall… the ‘science’ of this so far is non-existent… so I have to assume they had zero technical advisors to make it even half way believable.

  • Anonymous

    I actually liked Splice. Its moral felt more like “sure, there will be tragic hiccups from new scientific advancements early on, but we’re not gonna let that stop us from milking progress out of it, dagnabbit!”

  • TokenOfficeGoth

    Agree, the man playing god trope is REALLY insulting in an age where people refuse to vaccinate their children, half of the American public believes dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, there is no manned space program, and people think climate change doesn’t exist because it was cold last week…in January…in the Northern Hemisphere.


  • Anonymous

    My biggest problem with the pilot was this: why would anyone make a show where pretty much every character is supposed to be brilliant and then make them all act like a stereotypical cheerleader receiving a scary phone call at 1 AM? What is the point? They might as well just set it in a Standard American Small Town and they would hardly need to change anything. You’d just have a team of Local Drunk, Football Coach, Grocery Store Owner and Angry Sheriff instead of Microbiologist, Geneticist, Virologist and Chief of Security. Bonus – more product placement opportunities and less long words which may scare away the viewers. Instant win!

  • clennon

    Yeah, okay, it’s a bit trope-y, but this is still a measurably better show than almost all of SyFy’s other craptastic fare. And I have to roll my eyes at the commenter who says they can watch Grimm (which I consider to be completely unwatchable after suffering through a handful of episodes in hopes that it would please stop sucking so hard) with less cognitive dissonance than this show.

    Anyway, after watching the first three episodes, I’m looking forward to more. It isn’t BSG, mind you, but sci-fi series of that quality come along pretty rarely.

  • clennon

    Agreed. Being forcibly infected with a plague through mouth to mouth contact? That sounds like a violation to me. Hard to rationalize any objection to it being termed as such.

  • Anonymous

    That’s a lot of stupid, and you haven’t even mentioned all of the other stupid actions that the characters take – for example, after it’s clear that the virus makes the infected extremely aggressive, they continue to be in rooms alone with them, not restrain them and continue to attempt to reason with them. It’s clear that the virus will escape the base at some point, and it will be because all of the CDC scientists are idiots. It will be hard to keep sympathizing with the characters.

  • Mike

    I’m so glad it wasn’t just me feeling like this, the review is exactly how I thought of it, I can breathe a bit better now… Such high hopes too, I was expecting at worst a somewhat likeable show! Red flags first popped up when in the first 10 minutes they rush in the drama and a slew of cliches.

    The atmosphere feels empty, never really seeing many other faces other than the CDC and inept security team. Halfway through I wished there were some normal characters I could relate to. Hatake was one of the worst for subtlety. Right off the bat you have the slow calculated talking, staring, hostile attitude that apparently always needs to be backed up by a typical low bassy track in case you didn’t get the idea. Supposed mastermind, yet blames Alan for the mess just before Alan has to point out the large laundry list of obvious problems and lies he made — shattering Hatake’s credibility. The only part I felt like a character was defending my common sense.

    All that said, I had to start fast forwarding at the first sign of drama after I was halfway through ep.2. I was hoping for fast and somewhat intelligent zombies, common sense, less ventilation systems with lighting better than daylight, strategies for containment that eventually fail, global politics and SURVIVAL. There is surely enough room in that to allow for proper character development.

    Sidenote: Doreen from CDC gives me the same vibes as Pam from Archer. Not sure if that goes towards a pro or con

  • Derek

    I did not like the show.. the lead CDC person was dumb beyond words. It really went downhill when he climbed up into the vents. We knew early on that patient zero was violent but off they go walking around alone.. then he tells security not to use weapons.. Then they put the 3 scientists in the same room even though one is far along. It was just stupid. I like clever shows, not ones that have me screaming at the tv..

  • Kelly McCoy

    I just felt the acting was sub-par, the writing was mediocre, and the editing and tone was typical of what SyFy puts out… cheese. And the worst part is I payed $2.99 to watch this piece of garbage. I want my money back iTunes!