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Review: Syfy’s Helix

Before I delve into SyFy’s new original show Helix, I must first express my deep and abiding look for epidemiology. While I love all the sciences, and I’m fascinated by medicine, epidemiology is my first and truest love, because the study of the spread of disease is so intricate and amazing and sociologically as well as historically important. Plagues have shaped human history, and so has the study of same—key discoveries about how and why bacteria and viruses spread proved to be crucial in the understanding of societies, cultures, and the spread of disease.

I love reading about epidemiology in the nonfiction realm, and many of my favourite nonfiction books are dedicated to the subject; a great masterwork and introduction is Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague, a fantastic overview of emerging diseases in the 20th century that provides in-depth history as well as a medically-oriented overview of how epidemiologists responded to them. While it was written in the previous century, much of it still applies today, or you can read her followup, Betrayal of Trust, for more recent commentary. David Quammen’s Spillover is another intriguing treatment of the issue, focusing specifically on zoonoses, diseases that make the leap from animals to people. If you prefer more personal accounts, texts like Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC offer a glimpse into what it’s like to be dispatched to emerging epidemics.

This is why I loved Regenesis, a Canadian series that sadly lived for only four seasons. It followed employees at a fictional epidemiological research facility called NORBAC that monitored North American epidemics from a Toronto office, and while the science wasn’t always perfect, it managed to maintain a tight and fascinating balance as a show that was simultaneously thrilling, terrifying, and fascinating. Regenesis was also, of course, character and plot driven, with a diverse, dynamic cast that brought a lot to the story, and it delved deep into serious issues of bioethics and medicine in the modern era.

It is in this context that I approach Helix, a series set on a remote Arctic base. CDC scientists are called to respond to a distress call from the base after a mysterious virus breaks loose, and when they arrive, they discover that while company officials have promised full transparency and access, there’s a lot in hiding on the base—including several infected and dangerous patients who have gone to ground among the 160 scientists who live on site performing unregulated research.

As is common with SyFy, the science and the politics on Helix aren’t entirely accurate, which is sometimes frustrating, but the show is focused on being a good old fashioned epidemiological thriller in the spirit of Contagion, Outbreak, and The Andromeda Strain. The goal isn’t to provide viewers with a realistic minute-by-minute depiction of what a real epidemic looks like, but rather to play with some old and familiar tropes: people isolated far from help, trapped with a deadly virus on the loose, struggling to survive in a climate where anyone, or anything, might be carrying the disease.

Helix is already focusing heavily on unregulated medical experimentation, gene manipulation, and sinister doings with monkeys, making an embedded commentary on medical ethics and research regulations, although that might not have been the goal. In the narrative of this story, companies are allowed free rein so long as they’re willing to work in the harsh conditions above the Arctic Circle, and in a relatively unwatched environment, they can do anything they want, in any way they want, with disastrous consequences as demonstrated here. This should be fun, right?

Unfortunately, there are some significant social problems with Helix, even though I want to love it as a purely candy and popcorn epidemiology show, which is the sort of thing that is exactly my cup of tea. While it features not one but three badass lady scientists, two of them are remarkably similar-looking conventionally attractive women, while only one differs from the norm. As a larger woman, Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux) at least represents some body diversity, but it’s notable that there are no explicitly identified people of colour among the heroes, yet already we’ve met one cartoonish Japanese villain.

I was hoping that Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada) wouldn’t turn out to be as cartoonish as I suspected when I saw him, but, sadly, I was wrong. He’s behaving like someone out of anti-Japanese World War Two propaganda with his suspicious slinking, creepy eyes, and general air of Bad News Bears. While I would like to pretend that open casting slotted Sanada into the role, it’s unlikely things turned out that way, given that the good guys all “happened” to be white. Notably, the half-Lebanese Mark Ghanimé may be with the CDC team, but he’s very clearly not one of the good guys; go figure, of course the Middle Eastern guy would be a corrupt, murdering Army official.

The ruining of what would otherwise be purely pleasurable pop culture is something networks seem able to do with aplomb, much to my irritation. Would be it too much to ask for someone to at least try to think about these issues during development and casting?

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s.e. smith

s.e. smith is the Editor in Chief at Global Comment, with publication credits including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Rewire.