So Many Monkeys: SyFy Original Series “Helix”

No monkeys here. Too many monkeys here. Is that a monkey? Frozen monkey field. These are not the monkeys you’re looking for. Look, we’ve been at this over an hour and still no monkeys.

Helix, SyFy’s newest original series, is an experiment in extremes: viral containment, climate, human isolation and monkeys. Set in a cutting-edge research facility in the Arctic, Helix could easily be a next-generation, X-Files spin-off, picking up after any one of the Black Oil Mythology episodes, or even Scully and Mulder’s Alaskan exploits in “Ice” (S1e7).

It is safe to say, should you be an X-Phile, you will once again enjoy the glacial-blue light of Friday night, sci-fi-thriller TV. So, grab some snacks, zip up your Snuggy and leave a hand free; you’ll need it for your chocolate-covered frozen bananas and a handily-placed stun baton. It’s Helix time.

It makes sense. Steven Maeda (X-FilesLost) serves as Helix executive producer alongside Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: TNG ) and Lynda Obst (Contact, The Fisher King), as well as Jeffrey Reiner (Friday Night Lights, Trauma) and Brad Turner (24, Hawaii Five-O), both of whom direct episodes: “Pilot” (S1e1) and “Vector” (S1e2), respectively. “274” (S1e3) is directed by Steven A. Adelson (Haven, Sanctuary).

Psychologists suggest the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Naturally, Helix is bound to exhibit influence from so many involved, experienced and august, above-the-line raconteurs; Maeda’s past simply shines through the brightest, at least thus far in the series. SyFy tenderfoot and Helix creator/writer/co-executive producer Cameron Porsandeh finds himself very fortunate in his professional company.

Like many a thriller, our secretive, U.S. government provides unwitting and reluctant heroes plucked from deep within federal cubicle farms. This time, it’s the CDC; to boot, the protags, de rigueur, have a bevy of personal and interpersonal issues compiling their newly assumed duties. All this makes working in a lockdown facility full of sharp, shiny, metal instruments, and possibly run amok with infected monkeys, situated on an merciless, frozen tundra, if one could escape, extra fun.

Shot on-location in Montréal, Québec, including on a sound stage dubbed “The Freezer”, Helix effectively presents viable, unsettling, virtual feelings of claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Add what Maeda calls “an invisible villain”, and you’ve got fear and panic factory-sealed in an icy gift box.

“You can’t touch it. You can’t taste it. But it’s there,” Maeda added in a SyFy press call with Helix actress Kyra Zagorsky (Smallville, Soldiers of the Apocalypse) who plays the emotionally severe yet painfully professional Dr. Julia Walker.

Zagorsky concurred about the fictional virus:

  • This virus … it’s something that they’ve never seen and that, in itself, is quite frightening in a story because this is something that happens all the time, a real life epidemic scare, you know. I mean, I think there was just a couple reported cases this last week in Vancouver of some deaths of people passed away with H1N1. You know, it’s something that’s really out there for people.

At the Ilaria Corporation high-tech research facility, Arctic Biosystems, the true menace is neither simian nor even meteorological in form; although the agoraphobic nature of nothing but white death for leagues and leagues does present itself as its own, haranguing character.

Banking on mankind’s truest fears, like recurrences of the Black Death, Spanish Flu, Chernobyl and even the still-worrisome Fukushima Daiichi fallout, Helix writers, and actors, understand they are straddling a very fine line between fiction and reality. Audiences like to be scared by the likes of Paranormal Activity and Fire in the Sky because it feeds some primal need for adrenaline in our luxurious, SUV seat-heater, caramel double-latte, fingerless cashmere iPad-gloves, modern world. Audiences know ghosts and aliens won’t actually harm them, mostly. Yet, a mysterious illness, emerging out of nowhere, killing indiscriminately and painfully at a near 100% mortality rate whilst fueling its autonomous need to propagate? That’s not just terrifying, it’s possible.

Interviewing Helix actors Catherine Lemieux (Blue Violin, White House Down), who plays Dr. Doreen Boyle with a hard realism, and Mark Ghanimé (Soldiers of the Apocalypse, Emily Owens, M.D.), who brings a confident approachability to the role of Major Sergio Balleseros, I was afforded an opportunity to chat with them about the story devices of fear and hope, human nature and dealing with mankind’s paramount fear of the unknown.

  • Catherine Lemieux:   Wow. Wow. I think that that’s just a reflection of life really like life is a balance of those two things in a sense of fear and hope through that and of conquering the fears that we get. So I think that’s kind of like a true reflection, the show kind of reflects the balance of life that we all try to achieve. And we all have fears and we all have to face them in that sense. So it’s a very, very human experience in that. It also being a Sci-fi experience and having this disease be completely unknown and completely from out of this world maybe, who knows.
  • Mark Ghanimé:    Exactly what Catherine says, and also the fact that if you look at some of the characters as we develop the story in the season some of the infected – the people that get infected in the base there is – there is the fear and the hope that these people from the CDC can help them. And, I mean, that kind of – it’s a very important story line on the secondary and the guest star characters in the show. A lot of times you don’t see too too much of the fear and the hope on the surface of the hero characters. But, we have that support from the guest stars on our show. You really get to see what the true feelings are of these people in the space. And I think, yeah, it is exactly human nature.

Does Helix face a difficulty down the line, putting a fictive slant on such a sobering subject? Mark Ghanimé espoused the following:

  • We’ve echoed this a lot on our previous interviews. The fact that what we’re doing in this show is not fantastical, is not supernatural, is not beyond the reach of the real world I think that in itself lends a built-in fear in that it can happen. You look outside your door and those things can occur. And I think that itself is enough to put the fear of God into people. Yeah, for lack of a better term.

Catherine continued with the idea of character-identification, linking that sympathetic emotion of fear between actor and viewer.

  • The possibility, I think, of it – the possibility of any situation that’s on television or on film or what have you is definitely the link with the audience in that sense. If an audience member can identify and see themselves in this problem that these characters are having then you really do have a connection.

“The primary goal,” directs the CDC’s head of Special Pathogens, Dr. Alan Farragut, played sternly by Billy Campbell (The O.C., The 4400) “identify the pathogen.” Narvik is the mystery pathogen. Narvik is its name, killier black goo is its game. Whether you get strain-A or -B is when the game comes afoot and that is up to fate, and the writers: Cameron Porsandeh (Helix), Misha Green (Heroes, Sons of Anarchy), Keith Huff (House of Cards, Mad Men) and Ronald D. Moore (Caprica, Star Trek: First Contact). Moreover, climate conditions at Arctic Biosystems are so heinous they wreak havoc on helicopter mechanisms, making it futile to depend on, or even hope for, outside help, thus adding desperation and panic to fundamental fear and those oh-so-gelled, previous feelings of claustrophobia and agoraphobia everyone is experiencing, including the pathos-brimming rats and monkeys.

Fair warning to the squeamish and the animal-empathetic. Animal lovers might spend a good deal of each show watching through closed hands. Lab rats and monkeys make regular appearances in various stages of distress and infection. SFX, MUA, CGI and robotics they might be; still, the visuals are disturbing and one wonders how much animal suffering some viewers will stomach before switching over to a much-needed dose of happy and silly via Archer or Bob’s Burgers on Netflix? It would be funny if the animal testing was conducted at Springfield’s “Screaming Monkey Medical Research Facility”, as seen on The Simpsons episode “HOMR” (S12e9). Alas, it is not. Still, Catherine Lemieux assuaged the concern about the animals on-set, assuring viewers everyone is well-cared for, without a doubt.

  • I just wanted to point out that we also had a vet on set. And she was great. She’s somebody that I could use a total resource. Her name was (Ev) and I don’t know her last name. but I considered that such a gift from production to be able to speak to somebody who actually is a veterinarian and who deals with that on a day to day basis. So that was really, really a great help.

Do your contact make you wish you were dead?

At the end of the interview, I asked both Lemieux and Ghanimé about an ad for Ilaria’s Infinity contact lenses. How does it link to the untenable situation at Arctic Biosystems. The query was originally posited by, of all people, a Chair of Ophthalmology at U.C. Davis. The good doctor and I wondered if it could have something to do with the inhuman, silver eyes of Dr. Hatake (played astringently by Hiroyuki Sanada). The question was responded to with an immediate aaahhs and hmmms; one could almost hear them shifting in their seats as they pondered my question. All to no effect, though; Ghanimé’s answer was curt.

  • I have a huge answer. It’s a juicy one. Are you ready for this? No comment. We cannot talk about that … said with all humor of course.

New episodes of Helix air on SyFy, Fridays @10p/9c

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