Helix: "274" (Season 1, Episode 3)


“Where the hell is my monkey?” That’s an actual line of dialogue, folks.


Still, this episode is better than the two-episode pilot. Better stagecraft all around: the sets look more colorful, the camera work sharper, and the scene context and pacing crisper. It’s not great, but it no longer feels dangerously close to a SyFy movie. And a big part of that is the sidelining of infected Peter. That gives then a chance to do an actual attempt at a story instead of a blurry riff on better movies. 


Confession.: SPOILER ALERT. I watched this on Wednesday. SyFy has it streaming on their web site in an attempt to drum up interest. Seems like that could be a dual-edged sword, though, as it could hurt the episode’s actual ratings. Take me, for example. No way I’m getting anywhere near a TV at 2200 hours on Friday to watch this again.


As you may or may not recall, we left infected Peter doing his herky jerky, disgusting and amateurish slobber frottage on Dr. Julia Walker in the shower. If that description offends you, I’m sorry, but I had to watch it. So you’re still doing better than me. We pick up with Allan Farragut, our presumptive good guy, finding Julia passed out in the shower. Naturally, she remembers nothing. He assumes she passed out from exhaustion and insists on walking her to her quarters, because it’s not safe to be out alone with Peter on the loose. But I guess it’s safe to shower alone. Since his blood is black, maybe they think Peter is turning into a Nazgûl (ha ha--cheap fear of water joke—get it?)    


After seeing Julia to relative safety, Alan hears a noise. He wanders around looking for it, only to be surprised by infected Peter appearing behind him. Peter whispers “Help me” and passes out. This, to me, is a noticeable positive development. Peter was a collection of clichés wandering around sucking the life out of the pilot. He made me laugh out loud last week in one scene where he’s supposed to jump up into a ventilation duct; the effect was so bad he literally levitated. Worse, in order to allow him to wander around and infect people, all these supposed scientists and security people had to attempt no integrated set of responses. They just meandered around, repeatedly splitting up like a gang of dim, horny teenagers in a Friday the 13th movie.


With Peter out of the way, people are free to do things that, cliché or not, actually make sense. Scenes develop momentum. For example, Dr, Hatake finally remembers that the lab has an isolable basement with its own secure ventilation system that is divorced from the rest of the lab. Massive concrete walls, too. Precisely the kind of place that would make a good quarantine ward. That leads to a variety of scenes setting up the ward, bringing people to it, etc. They look like honest-to-God adults with functional grey matter. A little of that buys you a lot in storytelling.      


The through arc for this episode is Alan arguing with the head of security about the use of lethal force. When they’re first down in the basement, the party is approached by an infected scientist. She looks normal and keeps asking for help. She also keeps advancing. The security chief shoots her, ostensibly to protect Dr, Hatake. Alan saves her life by singlehandedly removing the bullet, after which “she’ll be okay.” I always thought if there was a slug in your abdomen, they needed to do a little more than just remove the bullet.


“The Needle and Thread one day were wed”—you know, that kind of stuff. 


Alan is furious. They all debate the shooting. The security chief says the only reason Alan didn’t shoot her is that he wasn’t holding the gun. Please remember that line. There will be a test at the end of the review.


They also set out to develop a detection test for the infection. This development is raw cliché. Julia and young Sarah Jordan say it will take 8 hours to develop a test, which seems pretty optimistic to me. Alan orders them to do it in four. They look like they do it two. Young Sarah has the kind of intuitive, non-trial substantiated intuition that clichéd TV characters have, and voila! Sarah’s hand shakes a little, too. Julia rather ungraciously asks her to run the test on herself, rendering them both snippy (remember—Sarah has a crush on Alan, Julia’s ex-husband). After Sarah stalks off, Julia runs the test on herself and is relieved to see it come back negative.


Uh-oh. Too bad she has a convenient memory block on Peter and the shower. I can’t really blame her for that, however, since I’m actively trying to build such a block myself.  


Evil military guy goes with Dr. Doreen Boyle to do an autopsy on the monkey they killed last week. Either this guy likes her, or he just doesn’t want to miss out on a good monkey autopsy, or he figures this is a prime opportunity for some surreptitious evil action. The little autopsy table is there, little bright lights beaming down, and… wait for it… “Where the hell is my monkey?” It’s gone.


Evil military guy (can I just use the acronym—EMG—from now on?) says he can get her another monkey. Cuz’ nothing woos the heart of a woman like another monkey. They go outside to the field of terra cotta frozen monkeys EMG discovered last week. He drills samples from one. Doyle then wants to know how he found this. He tries to pawn off some lame story about checking the stability of the ice pack around the base. She doesn’t buy it for a second. Centuries of social evolution have taught women to be suspicious of men offering monkeys. EMG tells her some people in the army don’t believe this outbreak was an accident. He needs her help to prove it.


A number of pipette and centrifuge shots later, Boyle adds growth factor to a liquefied monkey sample. It immediately grows into a black-green, seaweed-looking mass that threatens to burst out of the glovebox Boyle is using, but she floods it with some kind of killer gas. EMG has the best line of the night: “Is that supposed to happen?”


After the weed dies, Boyle wants to tell Alan. EMG tells her not to, because as soon as Hatake gets wind of this, her monkey stuff will disappear again. Boyle says: “I still don’t trust you, but when you’re right, you’re right.” Oookay. So I guess you can be a crack CDC researched and an idiot at the same time.


Everyone is making plans for who they’ll contact when the satellite uplink window opens in six hours. They’re also testing people for infection and moving those who fail to the basement. Sharon stumbles. Julia rags on her again to take the test herself. A pissed Sharon does. She passes. As that whole exercise is winding down, the lady the security guard shot earlier shows up in fill-on vector mode (the term used for aggressively active infectees). She does some snarling screech at incredible decibel levels and attacks a guard.


Yeah, she does the whole Peter routine on him. At least they’re down on the ground this time so it’s not as visible. Everyone in the basement panics. They run to mass up against locked doors. This causes the head security guy to drop his gun, which gets kicked around all over the place like a hockey puck. The panic also causes Julia to remember what happened with Peter. She sees black blood oozing from her hand and stands there, dumbstruck.


The infected lady finishes with the guard. She gets up, her face covered with black secretion, and races forward. She’s headed for Julia. We never know if she would have recognized another infectee and bypassed her. A gunshot to the head takes her down first.


This is the test—who shot her?


If you were paying attention earlier, the answer you will give is… Alan. The security guard retrieves his gun and gives Alan a knowing look. The two events aren’t really the same, though. In the first, the woman was pathetic and asking for help. In the second, she’s a snarling, black-faced freakazoid who just did something bizarre, socially awkward and disturbing to some hapless guy. The truly fascinating thing is who knew Alan was such a good shot? Dead center in the forehead on a fast moving target. Right between the eyes.    


Julia shows Alan her hand. She goes to find a cot in the basement. Alan and Dr. Hatake argue about losing control of the situation before agreeing to seal off the basement completely for now. There’s enough food down there for a week. Alan says they can’t handle this--he’s calling in the army as soon as the satellite uplink window opens.


Alas, young Sarah. Her hand shakes some more. We watch her swallow pills when she’s alone. She also takes off her shirt to reveal a big ugly scar between the shoulder blades. It’s yet another mystery afoot.


The title of this episode? Alan monologues to Boyle about the 274 lives he’s lost as a CDC field operative. What’s different now is that it wasn’t the disease this time. He killed someone himself. Okay, but you’d think he’d be ready for this moment if he’s practiced enough to shoot that well.   


In the close, Julia is in the basement. As she settles into her cot, she finds the test she took earlier in a pocket. It’s still negative! She does a quick check on the positive tests they kept from others--a lot of them are now reading “not positive.” The test doesn’t work!


EMG is outside attaching an explosive to the satellite dish supports. If EMG isn’t bringing the military in, no one else is, either. Julia gets on the phone to Alan. Just as she’s about to tell him the test doesn’t work, EMG blows the satellite dish. The phone system goes out. Julia is sealed in the basement without phones and can’t warn anyone.


Hmm. Who designs an internal building phone system to run through an external satellite dish? As a single point failure no less. Not any engineer I know. Oh well, they’re trying so hard for cutting edge drama this week that I’ll spot it. 


All in all, not bad as TV goes. With infected Peter out of the picture, they’ve got their pieces moving around in a reasonable manner. Some of it is dumb, but then lots of TV is dumb.


One oddity, though. They really do seem to be mimicking Battlestar Galactica hard. The pilot first. Then an episode titled with a number: 33 vice 274. A big deal about a detection test that doesn’t necessarily work (detect Cylons vice infected). Young Sarah with a disturbing secret, like a sleeper Cylon. The overt emphasis on treachery and paranoia.


I suppose it could work. But Battlestar Galactica benefited enormously from the post 9/11 zeitgeist, which made it seem highly topical. Not to mention that a spaceship aircraft carrier is also inherently more interesting than an Antarctic-bound lab. Still, a show that seemed hopeless last week at least has a spark of life.


We’ll see what they can do with it. And if the ratings will let them.


Note: I did get a chuckle out of the SyFy press release for Helix last week. To paraphrase:  “THE #2 CABLE ENTERTAINMENT PROGRAM AMONG ADULTS 25-54 FROM 10-11 pm FRIDAY!” If you like Ron Moore, hope that’s not in the highlight reel for Helix when all is said and done.