Genre TV: a golden age or too much of a good thing?

It is a sad fact that there are too many great books in the world, of all genres, that I will never have time to read. I’m sure that I’m missing out on some life-changing classics, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Star TrekWhen it comes to TV, though, there used to be a time when you could be up on all the great TV shows. For fans of all things sci-fi/supernatural/horror like myself, it wasn’t that hard, because there were so few TV shows that had a sci-fi or supernatural theme. Back in the 1950s you had The Twilight Zone and in the 1960s came The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and in England, Doctor Who. Along the way there were a smattering of other TV shows, notably the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the ’90s, but with only a handful of networks (and the BBC in England) the options were severely limited.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s all changed. Now there seems to be a new network popping up every week, along with new TV shows. When Lost premiered, it reinvigorated the genre by making it commercially and critically viable. As flawed as Lost was, the emmy-winning series showed the powers that be that genre shows could make money and win awards.


Since then, there’s been an explosion of genre shows. A few decades ago, who would have predicted that two of the most hyped television shows would include dragons and zombies? These two shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are worldwide cultural events. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead bring more than just supernatural/fantastical/horror elements: they have high production values, are well acted, and have great writing.

Walking Dead

And these are just two of the latest and greatest. The past couple of decades have given us so many great genre shows, from SyFy’s Farscape and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to BBC’s relaunched Doctor Who and BBC America’s Orphan Black. I should be happy, right?

Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany

In a way, I’m not. There are SO MANY genre shows out there I can’t keep up. And neither can the people who are writing them. The Walking Dead has given us the derivative Z Nation. The second season of SyFy’s Helix was a mess (a glorious, batshit crazy mess, but still a mess). And Netflix’s Hemlock Grove was half-baked camp. We’ve got a glut of genre shows out there, some of which should have never been made, and others that could have used a little more seasoning.

helixNot to mention that I don’t have the time to watch the vast majority. I’d love to watch The Strain, and there’s a new Salem TV show with Lucy Lawless that looks interesting. But between work, writing, play, family, how could I possibly fit all these shows into my life?

Maybe Hollywood needs to scale back a little — if not in the number of shows, then at least in the number of episodes. In the UK, it’s a common practice for TV shows to be short runs. Each season is perhaps six episodes, and the TV shows only run for a few seasons, if that. What you get is concise storytelling that does not require a lifetime commitment of the viewer. I’d fully support this idea; even the best shows suffer from episode bloat and could use some trimming (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead).

Ascension — a fatal bait-and-switch

I have to give the SyFy network some credit. After taking a strange turn away from all things sci-fi several years ago, they’re making an effort to cultivate new sci-fi programming. Helix, for example, is a solid, if not great, show.


I was excited to see the promos for SyFy’s new miniseries (and possible series) Ascension. Not just because it stars Battlestar Galactica alum Tricia Helfer, though that’s a plus. Mainly I was ASCENSION-HELFERintrigued by its plot. This is what we were told Ascension would be about:

A spaceship is launched in 1963 to colonize the far reaches of space. Halfway through their 100-year journey, they’ve been isolated from Earth, yet continue on with their mission.

Wow. So many thematic possibilities. The obvious question, what would a society be like that never saw advances such as civil rights and feminism? And how would this society have evolved over a full generation with nothing to rely on but their faith in their mission? Space operas tend to focus on the larger mission, that is, surviving in space and getting to the planet. Few genre shows get into the nitty gritty of day-to-day survival. In my opinion, that’s one reason why The Walking Dead is such a successful show. When it comes to zombies, it is wholly conventional — nothing new to see there. But what it does different than every other zombie show we’ve seen is focus on the mechanics of survival. Ascension, based on its premise, seemed like it could be the sci-fi equivalent.


Unfortunately it did none of this. Instead, what we got with Ascension was one of the biggest bait-and-switches I’ve seen on TV.


At the very end of the first night of Ascension‘s three night run, we discovered that the spaceship was not in fact traveling in space. It had never left the ground. The whole thing was a planned, covert experiment.


So, you mean to tell me, the last two hours I’ve invested in these people and their mission was wasted? And there are four hours left?

Now, I’m all for dramatic twists, but this one undermined the whole premise of Ascension. I was lured to a show about space exploration, not a show about a Truman Show style social experiment.

I watched the remaining four hours of Ascension, though my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t care about the power struggle among those running the experiment, and I no longer cared about what was happening on the spaceship, because their mission wasn’t real anyway. And all I could focus on were the flaws: the boring angsty teen subplot, the annoying child actor who played a girl with mystical abilities.


By the time the ending came — a convoluted, inexplicable mess of a thing — I was glad it was over, and I was also sorry that I never got to see the show that I was originally promised.

Helix: the autopsy

This unexpected SyFy show proved to be worth the journey.


When I first saw the promos for the SyFy channel’s original series Helix I was intrigued. The premise: a group of CDC scientists travel to a remote arctic lab following a zombie-like outbreak. Initially what drew me were the zombies. What turned me off was the soap opera subplot: team leader Alan Farragut is joined by ex-wife Julia Walker, who slept with his brother Peter, who coincidentally is one of the infected.

It turns out I got it all wrong, and that was probably intentional on the part of the writers. (WARNING: spoilers ahead)

About the zombies. They were not zombies. By definition, zombies are the reanimated dead. Or, at the very least, they are not able to be cured, only destroyed. The writers kept us vague about the nature of the illness throughout, and once we saw the cure take effect, then I knew that these weren’t zombies. Instead they were a hive-like virus. Still damned scary.


It turns out this whole zombie plot was nothing more than a MacGuffin. Simply put, a MacGuffin is a plot device that instigates the action, but in reality bears little importance to the story as a whole. One of the most famous MacGuffins is in Pulp Fiction. What was in that briefcase? We never knew, and its identity was irrelevant. Likewise, in Helix, the outbreak was a larger distraction from what the story was really about.

And what was it about? That’s hard to tell. On one level it was all about Julia Walker, the pouty, surly cheating scientist. She became the focal point of the storyline. And it worked. Julia was complex enough to be fully believable. She, along with Sergio Balleseros, a good/bad guy, were some of the more interesting characters in a show that suffered from weak characterizations.

Not only was Helix about Julia and her relationship with her estranged father Dr. Hatake, and missing mother (who showed up all too briefly), it was also about the cryptic Ilaria Corporation, which may not really be a corporation, but a collection of 500 immortals. It turns out that Ilaria, and not the outbreak, is the true focus of this show.


So what does any of this have to do with that viral outbreak in an arctic lab? I’m not entirely sure. They hinted at population control, but that doesn’t explain the hive-mind of the infected.

Too many questions. Previously I doubted Helix would be renewed. It looks like I was wrong. In 2015 these questions may be answered (or not).

In the meantime, kudos for the writers for crafting a tightly wound puzzle of a show. There were no flashbacks, each episode consisted of a single day, and it was filmed in such a tight, claustrophobic way to keep you hooked. And it was not afraid of science. It was well worth my time.

Helix: the last spasm?

The SyFy original was more than I thought it would be, but will the lack of character (and viewers) be its downfall?


One episode left for SyFy’s 13-episode sci-fi series Helix. No word yet on whether it will be renewed. Knowing SyFy, we may never see Helix again, which would be a shame.

When Helix was first launched, I was intrigued. Was it a zombie story? A medical procedural? Knowing it was produced by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore was a plus, but so what?

Over the past 12 episodes I’ve been surprised. It was not at all what I expected. The writers of Helix have seeded intrigue steadily and consistently, with more than enough plot twists to keep me coming back.

–About those “zombies” – I would liken them more to vampires in the sense that the infected don’t die and come back to life, but turn. And what do they turn into? A sort of hive collective. Think bees, or ants – parts of a whole. A snippet of dialogue explained that the virus appears to be acting in concert, across the bodies of the infected. Kind of like Star Trek‘s Borg collective. It’s a cool twist on an old trope. I loved when one of the infected spit a mouthful of blood into the Keep Calm mug.


–The writers have built layers of mythology, the most notable being the identity of the company that is funding Dr. Hatake’s research: the Ilaria Corporation. Their rep was Constance Sutton, overacted by Jeri Ryan, who didn’t fare too well against a desperate Hatake. Now we know that Ilaria is populated by 500 “immortals.” Like Hatake. And… his daughter.

–And that would be Julia Walker. Sure, it was a soap opera move reminiscent of Star Wars, but I bought it. The reveal of Julia Walker as Hatake’s daughter was telegraphed, and it made sense in terms of Hatake’s motivations and actions. It explained his preoccupation with her, as well as the fact that he rescued her from the infected-zombielike fate by making her “immortal” too.


–But what about this immortality? Is it a fact? Why? Where did it come from? And what does it have to do with the Narvik A virus, the one that’s creating the hive-minded people? Could it be that Ilaria and the 500 want to rid the world of those annoying mortals forever? But is that the best way?

–Speaking of pesky mortals, we’ve got a mixed bag of semi-developed characters, which is Helix‘s glaring weakness. Crusading CDC researcher Sarah Jordan has been on death’s door for a few episodes now, and honestly I don’t care. Peter Farragut was healed, but he was more interesting as a viral. Alan Farragut is noble but cardboard. The only characters who have moderately interested me are Julia Walker, Hatake, his stolen/adopted son Daniel, and the evil-but-trying-to be good Sergio Balleseros. Compare Helix to Lost: Lost made you care about the characters, whatever nonsensical craziness happened on that island. Helix struggles to make us care.


–But then there’s the storytelling. While Helix fails in characterization, it excels in plot and pacing. It is consistent in giving me just enough to hook me. The plot twists keep me off-balance. The visuals are stilted and creative. The music is moody and disturbing. Helix is a quickly moving story. Each episode spans single day, and it’s told with no flashbacks. The structure is bound and wound.

There is something subtly different about Helix. It’s not perfect, but few TV shows are. There’s only one episode left, I suspect not just for this season but for good. If this is the case, then Helix was a great experiment in tight, daring storytelling.


Helix spins a tantalizing, twisted tale

The SyFy Channel’s latest original series Helix, which airs Friday nights in the US, is turning out to be a multilayered labyrinth of a show.

When SyFy first began promoting Helix, I was captivated by the (literally) mind-blowing poster.Since then, I tried toHelix- 1 unravel what exactly it was about. Zombies? Scientific procedural? Lost-style isolation tale?

Several episodes in, I’m still not sure exactly what this science-heavy show all about, and that’s half the fun.

To recap the set-up, a team of CDC scientists is flown in to a Helix - Season 1remote Arctic lab to contain a mysterious viral outbreak. Once there, they are trapped. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) is the lead scientist, and his brother Peter is one of the Arctic lab’s scientists, who also happens to be infected. Alan Farragut’s team includes his ex-wife Julia Walker, who had an affair with Peter. Soapy and confusing. Luckily this aspect of the story has taken a backburner as the plot churns on.

The series is getting a lot right.

–We know the outbreak was engineered by lab head Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuke Sanada, a Lost alum), but we’re not sure what exactly it is, or why it was created.

–The writers on Helix aren’t afraid to play rough with the characters. No one is safe. Farragut and Hatake isolated scores of researchers they suspected were infected, giving them essentially a death sentence.

–Major characters are also at risk. I was shocked what happened to Doreen Boyle, a member of Farragut’s team. Likewise, big bad Constance Sutton (played by Star Trek: Voyager‘s Teri Ryan) proved less threatening in the end than she seemed. (And I loved the scene of her filing her own teeth down. Why??).


–Julia Walker, Farragut’s ex-wife, could have been an annoying distraction. Instead she’s become fascinating. Infected by the virus, then mysteriously “cured” by Hatake, Helix eyesshe’s revealed depth and determination. Adding to the mystery – is she really Hatake’s daughter? And what exactly has she become?

–One of my favorite characters on Helix is Major Sergio Ballaseros (Mark Ghanime). He’s duplicitous, murderous, and maybe even a touch remorseful. It’s a great portrayal of a mostly bad, complex character.Helix - Season 1

–Likewise, Hatake isn’t quite the villain he seemed. He reminds me of Lost‘s Ben Linus – a flawed man for whom the ends justify the means. His motivation is still unknown. It’s compelling to watch.

Another interesting aspect of the show is technical: the editing and the music. The scenes often seem a little off. They cut away too early, or they come in and out of focus, which keeps you slightly disoriented. It’s hard to understand without watching it;  this article at explains it better than I can. And the music choices, well, just watch the opening credits, with the 1960s bossa nova soundtrack.

I’ve referenced Lost a few times. That’s because Helix is similar to Lost in key ways. The mysteries unfold gradually, and the layers are onion-like. Character motivation is always in question, and the isolation heightens the drama. While it doesn’t have the emotional impact that Lost had, Helix is proving to be a fun addition to the sci-fi universe.

Helix: so much for zombies

Helix is Lost meets 28 Days Later with a little CSI thrown in. I’m in.

I was skeptical after seeing the previews. It seemed as if SyFy was trying to craft a CSI-style drama by grafting some vague sci-fi elements. The 15-minute preview wasn’t exactly encouraging. It relied heavily on a complicated backstory exposition involving lead Alan Farragut, his infected brother Peter, and his ex-wife Julia Walker (who became his ex because of Peter). Too soapy.

But… the premiere and the following episode delivered more than I expected.

The basics: Helix, which airs in the US on SyFy Friday nights, follows CDC scientists who travel to a remote Arctic lab to contain and identify a mysterious viral outbreak. This being TV, not everything is what it seems, and you never know the true identities/loyalties of the characters.

The big question: is this about zombies? Well, not in the dead-then-brought-back-to-life-to-eat-brains sense. Instead, think 28 Days Later, the great British horror flick (that also featured Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston). In Helix, as in 28 Days Later, the “zombies” are people who have been infected with some sort of pathogen. It doesn’t kill them. Instead, it makes them not quite themselves, as well as violent, aggressive, quick. There’s more, of course, which we’ll understand as the show goes on.

As for the rest of it, the soapy aspect that showed up in the first 15 minutes was quickly quarantined as subtext. After 3 hours of Helix, we’re already on Day 3. There simply isn’t enough time in the story for that type of boring drama. Good move by the writers.

The characters: We’ve got some complexity here, which is a requirement in books but seems to be optional in film and TV. The villain is nearly mustache twirling (and something else too…), but there are plenty of characters in Helix who are not as good (or bad) as they seem.

The setting: An undetermined number of people are trapped in an isolated, mysterious location. Sounds like Lost. I loved Lost, mainly because the writers focused on character. The writers of Helix have incorporated many of the best elements of Lost: the claustrophobic isolated location, unknown motives, mystery upon mystery. Let’s hope they don’t bog it down with crazy mythology too.

Bottom line: I’m hooked. Helix is fast paced, intriguing, and geeky enough to appeal to my science side. I raised an eyebrow at the angry black woman trope in one scene, but I’ll give them a pass on that one. Watch and enjoy.


Helix: sci-fi or scientific procedural?

If the first 15 minutes are anything to go by, with their new series Helix, SyFy is trying to blend the procedural with science fiction.

Zombies? Not zombies? Hard to tell based on the previews released by SyFy. Here’s what we know for sure:

–It follows a group of CDC officials who travel to a clandestine Arctic lab following reports of an outbreak

–The pathogen is a retrovirus (maybe)

–The side effects are black blood and enhanced strength (maybe)

–The side effects may have been intentional

–It was developed by Ronald D. Moore, the genius who tortured us with Battlestar Galactica

As far as the characters, the preview that SyFy has up throws a good chunk of expository back story at us, including a broken marriage. Conveniently the lead, Alan Farragut, is not only the ex-husband of fellow scientist Julia Walker, he is also the brother of infectee Peter Farragut (who slept with Julia). Kind of soapy. Hopefully that won’t be the focus.

And, it seems to be a sort of CSI: Arctic Circle, with a crack team of scientists battling a mystery illness (or is it a crime?).

So based on what little is out there, it’s hard to tell what the hell is going on. But, if the reviewers at are right (and they’ve screened the entire pilot), Helix marks a strong return of the dark horror to SyFy. In fact, they call it SyFy’s best new show in years. Then again SyFy has produced very little worth watching in years.

Helix: more zombies coming to television?

Previews are cryptic, but it’s from Battlestar Galactica‘s Ron Moore, so who knows?


SyFy is promoting their new show Helix, set to air in January. It’s about a team of scientists fighting a viral outbreak in an Arctic research facility. This virus, from what I can tell, turns people into faster and stronger zombie-like creatures.

But aren’t zombies overdone? What’s left to do with them?

The promo for Helix focuses on the scientific process. Um, okay. Then what?

The good (or bad) news is that it’s exec produced by Ron Moore, the genius who resurrected Battlestar Galactica and then steered it into a wonderful mess by the time it ended after four seasons. Where will he take Helix? Based on his track record with BSG, it’s anyone’s guess.

Hell, he might not even know for sure.

I’ll give it a shot.