Never screw around with DNA. Tampering with God's handiwork can lead to disastrous results -- and that's certainly evident in the freshman TV series, "Helix."
The compelling thriller follows a group of Centers For Disease Control (CDC) experts who venture to a secluded Arctic compound to investigate a potential disease outbreak. What they soon discover is a deadly virus that mutates those infected into something almost inhuman. Isolated, scared and paranoid, the scientists must find a cause and cure for the biological hazard before it spells doom for the human race. Naturally, nothing is at it seems...
Back in September of 2013, HuffPost Canada TV participated in a press tour of "Helix"s remarkable Montreal sets. The soundstages are a perfect blend of some hi-tech labs, a few cramped living quarters and a haunted house. Winding corridors lead to an ominous isolation room for sick patients. An adjacent, sterilized lab contains microscopes, test tubes, syringes and a connecting decontamination air lock. A portion of a ventilation system and smashed ducts stand in the corner of the studio. Director/executive producer Brad Turner warns: "Spooky, curious things go on in there."
At another location, an hour away, fortified doors slide open to reveal a subterranean level. Winter gear hangs on hooks. A freezing cold, green-screen room with fake snow on the ground is lovingly referred to as "The Fridge." It's here where any exterior scenes are filmed.
Upstairs, bigger, dimly-lit labs line the hallways. One area full of hospital beds serves as an emergency patient treatment centre. With no sign of life anywhere, there's definitely a sense of dread and despair in the air. Later on, creator/co-executive producer Cameron Porsandeh and the "Helix" cast settled down to discuss pathogens, production design and high stakes.
A Germ Of An Idea
A former economist at The World Bank and Federal Reserve, Porsandeh is the brains behind "Helix." When he initially conceived the concept, there were a few ingredients he felt necessary to incorporate.
"One, I wanted to tell a virus story," says Porsandeh. "I think each generation has a fear. The one before us [had that fear] that computers were going to take over the world. Before that, there were nuclear weapons. I feel like for our generation, viruses are really in the zeitgeist as a threat, and unlike the other two things I just alluded to, viruses are everywhere. They are everywhere in this room. They are inside of us right now. I think that was terrifying, and I still do.
"I knew I wanted to set 'Helix' in an exotic location," Porsandeh continues. "I don't know how many of you have been to the Arctic Circle, but in my opinion, it's the closest place to the moon on Earth. It's desolate. It's hauntingly beautiful and it's mysterious. I knew I wanted to create a faculty that was like a maze. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with labyrinths. When you walked through this facility, you probably saw how different parts were. The mythology of the base goes hand-in-hand with the mythology of the show. That was really important to me.
"The final thing was I wanted it to be fast-paced," he adds. "When you get into it, one episode equals one day. And what I really love about that is you're going to start out show and end our season in less than two weeks. Those are really the bones of our show."
There's no doubting the pedigree behind "Helix." The show boasts an impressive list of genre veterans serving as producers, ranging from "24"'s Turner to "The Middleman"'s Javier Grillo-Marxuach, "Alpha"'s Stephen Welke and "The X-Files"' Steven Maeda. Perhaps the biggest coup was snagging Ron Moore, who turned the "Battlestar Galactica" reboot into a gripping, socially relevant TV event.
"Once I had the structure and the story filled out, we brought in Ron Moore," recalls Porsandeh. "I was over at Sony and they said, 'If you could work with anyone, who would you want to work with?' I said, 'Ron Moore,' sort of the way a boy says 'Santa Claus.' They sent the script to Ron and he was very gracious and wanted to be involved. What he brought to it, quite masterfully, in my opinion, was he really created an overall mythology that not only connects our persons, but connects all our seasons in a really beautiful way, that I think is akin to what we saw in 'Battlestar Galactica.'"
Then there's leading man Billy Campbell, who has racked up extensive science-fiction credits with "The Rocketeer," "Bram Stoker's Dracula," "The 4400" and "Eureka." "Helix" casts Campbell as Dr. Alan Farragut, leader of the Centers For Disease Control's field unit.
"When I first read the script, I got terribly excited because it reminded me of several different things which were long-time favourites," explains Campbell. "'John Carpenter's The Thing.' The very claustrophobic, stuck-in-the-Arctic thing. 'The Andromeda Strain,' which is one of my favourite movies of all time. I'm a fan of the genre. I love science-fiction. I loved the characters. I loved pretty much everything about it."
"Helix" introduces an intriguing team of individuals to deal with the impending catastrophe. Trust issues, hidden agendas, hurt feelings and clash of personalities are just some of the juicy bits that will amp up the tension and internal strife. Besides Farragut, the main roster of characters includes:
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There's nothing like a scandal to liven up a dysfunctional family reunion. In "Helix"'s case, it involves the Farragut brothers and the woman who comes between them. According to Porsandeh, that bad blood provides "the core of the emotional story."
"I was in an elevator in Manhattan and I get in and there's my ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend," explains Porsandeh. "We probably went up 22 stories and it felt like 22 years. I thought, 'How can we reconstruct that in a television setting?' So here's what we did. These two gentlemen are brothers and they've had a huge falling out because Alan was married to Julia and Peter slept with her. They haven't spoken in years and all of a sudden, they get a distress call that says, 'Peter is sick,' and they're supposed to go up there together."
Who's The Boss?
When the CDC arrives to clean up the Arctic Biosciences' mess, they assume they're in charge. Hatake disagrees. The doctors, Army and government all have different priorities and protocols. So who is truly running the show is anyone's guess.
"That's what I think is the beauty of the show, is that the chain of command isn't very rigid," offers Porsandeh. "It's Dr. Hiroshi Hatake's facility. The CDC has a type of jurisdiction, but it's never entirely clear who is in charge. Yes, we have a military figure there, with his own agenda as well. If there were a rigid hierarchy, a lot of these processes would move in a more efficient way, but because there isn't, these characters are at odds with each other. And there's really no way to enforce the hierarchy regardless. It really is the Wild West in a sense, because even if there were rules, they wouldn't follow them once the shit hits the fan. And shit is about to hit the fan, so all rules are off."
Secret Of The Goo
Ewww ... black goo. Peter gets covered in it. The disgusting substance oozes from orifices. It's obviously tied in to the virus, but whether the dark gunk is man-made, purely scientific in nature or possibly an artificial intelligence remains to be seen.
"Part of the journey of the show is figuring it out," notes Porsandeh. "A helix is part of a DNA strand, but it also implies a duality of everything that is going on in our story. What we come to find out is this virus is much bigger than they initially thought. It does have a second side to it, but that's part of the journey too. That's actually what they spend most of the first three or four episodes trying to figure out."
Trapped for 13 days in this claustrophobic and high-pressure environment can drive even the most level-headed person crazy. Porsandeh promises the writers will play into those psychological conventions. But, there will also be moments when the unit exits the base ... and other parties enter.
"There are things going on in the surrounding area and yes, we will be introducing a couple of characters over the course of the series, but it's in a way that's very organic to the story," concludes Porsandeh. "That was always the intention. But having said that, this is very much a show that takes place in the Arctic Circle and the same sort of isolation you felt in things like 'The Thing,' those emotional currents are going to be here too. And we're going to explore them in ways that, quite frankly, a movie can't, because we have a lot longer to play with them. I'm really excited about that."