Helix and the Trouble with Tropes

Good science fiction is tough to come by. There’re plenty of factors we could point the finger at for that, but more often than not, it seems the people who produce sci-fi just don’t quite understand how it works.

Science fiction is, at its core, a means of exploring some sort of political or philosophical or ethical question. The spaceships, the time travel, brave new worlds- they’re all framing devices for questions about what makes us human…

…how we treat others…

…or our place in the universe.

Unfortunately, the folks who wind up calling all the shots on TV and movies often mistake the teleporters and warp drives for being the substance of science fiction, rather than just the accessories. There are plenty of futuristic tools in James Bond, but you’d never consider a 007 installment a sci-fi flick.

And that’s really what my main concern was going into Helix. For all the claims of “produced by the people who gave you Battlestar Galactica and The X-Files”, the question is whether or not this show will be real science fiction, or just some action-thriller with monsters and big guns.

If you’ve seen the trailers for Helix, it’s more or less self-explanatory. Secret facility somewhere in the arctic has experienced some sort of contaminant breach and a crack team of CDC scientists are tasked with finding out just what went down, what they’re up against, and how to contain the whole mess. An evil corporation appears to have orchestrated the whole thing, so yeah, it does bear a lot similarities to the Alien franchise- black goo included.

The X-Files also had a thing for black goo, as I recall…

Evan will be pleased to know that one the characters is Asian.

And can rock a fur hoodie like nobodies’ business…

I was further pleasantly surprised to see that not all the characters from the CDC were somehow impossibly young, stunningly beautiful people (as seems to be the habit with so many shows). That said, they do pretty much hit all the tropes just as you’d expect them. They wind up conveniently cut off up there at the base, it turns out there’s all this history and tension between the team, the base’s staff are all being secretive about the nature of their work, and, yeah, the heavy-set middle aged woman is as snarky as it gets.

They’ve clearly put money into this, and they’re pretty good at creating the frightening, disorienting atmosphere, and plenty of elements are refreshingly realistic. The the military escort the CDC team gets admits that he “rarely left base” when stationed in Iraq and “never shot his gun since boot camp.”

And while all of that certainly speaks to the series’ favor as a thriller, I don’t know that there’s anything we’re actually looking at here, in terms of the big-picture question. The whole “Has Science Gone Too Far?” question has pretty much been done to death…

But as of yet, that’s pretty much all we’re getting here. There is a sort of “first moral question” that does kick in at the beginning of part 2, when the team has to decide whether or not they should use force when dealing with potentially infected individuals. Considering that the disease is like the bubonic plague meets rabies meets H.P. Lovecraft, the question seemed pretty clear cut- but maybe that’s just me.

Pictured: What doesn’t constitute a big moral dilemma for the author of this post.

There’s also a tougher question of how you deal with a crisis situation- mostly in regards to how much information you give out, how realistic you are with people, and so on. Still not the big picture questions you’d typically associate with sci-fi. Still, “unregulated experimentation” seems to be the principal issue being addressed. While it’s not a terrible issue, it oughta be examined fairly. Show the upsides to it instead of beating us over the head with the “thou shalt not allow scientists to play god” line over and over. My hope was that they’d somehow subvert the whole trope by turning it on its head (like what Splice did), and since we’re yet getting started, I guess I’m still hoping for that. I’m just not holding my breath.

Except for the freaky parts of the show, which they do pretty well. Credit where credit is due, eh?

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2 responses to “Helix and the Trouble with Tropes

  1. Solid analysis. I’m holding out a bit of hope, though, given the pacing of the show. Really, each episode covers a 24 hour period, so we’re only 3 days into containment, and they’re teasing a lot of plot twists yet to come. Perhaps a more respectable message is somewhere around the corner?

  2. Pingback: The Strain: It’s Nosferatu on Steroids | Culture War Reporters

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