SyFy’s Helix: Tired Plot, Bad Science, Fun

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128px-Enveloped_helical_virus.svgLast week  I trashed Dan Brown’s Inferno for its poor use of science in the plot. But Inferno earns an A- in originality compared to the SyFy TV series Helix that debuted last Friday night, January 10. It’s another escaped-virus situation, but with a less creative setting than Inferno’s eerie indoor lagoon.

However I liked Helix, mostly because the first episode ended with the best shower scene since Norman Bates offed Janet Leigh in Psycho.

My gripe isn’t that popular fiction and TV base plots on science, that’s great. But why can’t they take the trouble to get details right? The plots of medical thrillers like Inferno and science fiction like Helix can fail when writers change or oversimplify scientific facts. This inevitably leads to breaking Isaac Asimov’s rule: change one thing.

THE PLOT
As Helix opens, a contagion is spreading in the lab facilities of mysterious underground biotech company Arctic Biosystems. A minor character refers to it as “big pharma,” but a lab under ice with a few dozen people running around isn’t like a huge corporate campus in New Jersey.

Is the mystery virus Ebola?

Is the mystery virus Ebola?

Like in Inferno, the protagonists in Helix know right away that they’re dealing with a viral pathogen, but are confused over the identity. At first they call it a retrovirus, and how this is determined from a bunch of dead bodies and an oozing live one isn’t clear. Maybe it just sounds cool. But soon a character states, “We have no idea what this thing is.”

Names are dropped. Ebola. Rabies. Marburg. Then someone suggests it is an Elisa virus, which I chalked up to being an intentional nerd joke. The reference goes by quickly, so perhaps the biologists in the audience won’t think of ELISA, the common technique to detect molecules that elicit an immune response.

Whatever the virus’s identity, it apparently causes rodents to develop without sex organs, and then to frantically hump one another. This developmental anomaly, we are told, is due to a defect in signal transduction. I don’t recall ever reading about that pathway.

Anyway, the facility is in the part of the Arctic that is international so the FDA can’t institute those pesky regulations. My husband Larry, a PhD chemist who does some mining work and knows about things like geography and geology, pointed out that such a lab, given the map shown, would either be land and part of Canada, Russia, or Greenland, or ice and prone to sinking when things warm up a bit.

How would you build it? There are no roads, no ships. How would they get all that shit up there?” Larry wondered. I’m sure we’ll find out in future episodes.

The researchers at the station have access to various areas using implanted identity chips, like my cats have.

Part of the plot is a love triangle. The head of the CDC’s Special Pathogens Branch, Dr. Alan Farragut, races to the mysterious station to check out his infected brother Peter, who “works in mutagens,” according to the show’s website, which I imagine must be very dangerous indeed.

More importantly, the infected brother beneath the ice floe bedded Alan’s wife, Julia (Jules) Walker, in the recent past. Dr. Walker is a senior scientist and co-head of the CDC’s Rapid Response Team. Barbs and bickers lingering from the affair annoyingly intrude on the plot amid annoyingly loud music.

Adding a dose of tension is the nubile young Dr. Sarah Jordon, about whom the website states, “What she lacks in experience she makes up for in audacity and medical knowledge.” More on her in a moment, but her advanced degrees are not as important as the fact that she will surely turn the romantic triangle into a quadrangle.

Love triangles get in the way in good sci-fi, although I suppose they might expand the audience. If Dana Scully and Fox Mulder had made out, for example, the X-Files  would have suffered an early death. (And I’m an expert here. I had a letter published in the end-of-the-year issue of the journal CBS Soaps pointing out that the ongoing plot on The Young and the Restless about one character dying to provide corneas for another because they are a tissue match doesn’t make sense because corneas don’t need to match.)

The virus-ridden Peter inexplicably becomes very strong and starts traipsing around the facility, rocketing up air vents like Spiderman. That’s dangerous. “Peter may have antibodies! We gotta find him. No one is safe from the virus until we contain him,” laments Alan. But Peter has been infected for under 48 hours, and it takes at least 5 days to make antibodies. Anyone remember when early HIV tests detected antibodies three months after infection?

Of course, there’s a bad guy. He looks like the artists’ depictions of human bodies in the human anatomy and physiology textbooks I write – people who represent every possible ethnic group. His name is Hiroshi Hatake, head of the Arctic Biosystems frigid facility. Near the end of the first episode, he removes his contact lenses to reveal alien eyes, reminiscent of the scene in V in which the supposedly human woman peels off her face to reveal the shimmering green reptilian integument beneath. Nice touch.

I’ll mention a few specific things I found disturbing with the pilot episode.

Death by Dionne?

Death by Dionne?

DIONNE WARWICK AND THE BROAD STREET PUMP

The episode opens with a scene of devastation in a small laboratory, with a few dead people and, most alarmingly, an iPod playing “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” One guy isn’t quite dead – that’s Peter. Rivulets of black fluid ooze from his mouth, meandering down his neck. This seemed familiar, so I googled it and discovered the insidious black goo from last year’s Prometheus. That black goo was an agent of instant genetic change.

As the black ick drips from the sides of the victim’s mouth, we see something reminiscent of another Ridley Scott film, Alien, bulging from Peter’s neck. Or is it a moving goiter?

The famous Broad Street Pump, which any epidemiologist would recognize.

The famous Broad Street Pump, which any epidemiologist would recognize.

The next scene flashes to Alan at the CDC lecturing to a group of newbies. He’s dramatically telling the Broad Street Pump story, of how Dr. John Snow traced the 1854 cholera epidemic in London to a water pump, founding the field of epidemiology. It’s a classic tale, yet the audience of new Epidemic Intelligence Officers, who are mostly MDs, gasp in astonishment as their fearless leader holds up a piece of the pump. Music soars.

Reality check: the folks in the Epidemic Intelligence Service know the Broad Street Pump story. Consider eligibility requirements. This is too transparent a device to educate viewers – preaching to a group of tourists would have made sense. (On the subject of cholera, one of my favorite books is The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson and the CDC has a short account of the London outbreak.)

(Dept. of Energy)

(Dept. of Energy)

THE BIOGENETICIST

Last week I lamented the poorly-defined genetic engineers running around Italy in Inferno, wondering why they hadn’t gotten degrees in molecular biology or genetics like the rest of us. Helix is worse.

The Scene: young and precocious Dr. Sarah Jordon, clad in white jumpsuit and blue visor, has corralled two resident scientists, a nondescript 40-ish white male hematologist and a pretty light-skinned black woman with great hair who’s a biochemist. Kudos for logical specialists. But they’ve been exposed to the virus, so Sarah, age 26, is lecturing them on the danger, like they wouldn’t know. The biochemist says “What are you? 15?

And so Sarah reels off her list of accomplishments: 2 masters degrees and a PhD in biogenetics from MIT!

Biogenetics? What the heck is that? My degree is in genetics, no bio. Can one get a degree in abiogenetics where you study only DNA outside of organisms? But wait a minute — viruses aren’t organisms. Which leads to …

THE BINOCULAR ELECTRON MICROSCOPE

Next we see biogeneticist Sarah watching Jules, who’s peering through what looks like a binocular light microscope, the type you use in Bio 101.

Anything from the first set of cultures?” serious Sarah asks.

The cells are heavily damaged. I see filaments, cylinders, spheres, even icosahedrons!

Sarah makes a speech about ancient viruses from Greenland from 140,000 years ago. I googled this one – the virus can indeed be deadly, if you are a tomato. And 140,000 years ago doesn’t seem that ancient.

Look at that – right there .. it’s only 15 nanometers!” exclaims Jules, and Sarah runs over and they gaze enraptured at a computer screen that shows oscillating wormy things, shaped like helices. (Hence the show’s name – a helical virus, not a double helix, although the subtle purple of the “X” in the show’s logo suggests a future dual meaning.)

Here’s the problem. A 15-nanometer virus is considerably below the resolution of a light microscope, with which Jules is apparently working, yet anything placed in the vacuum of an electron microscope would not be gyrating. And the contraption doesn’t look anything like an electron microscope.

(CDC)

(CDC)

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE DISGUSTING

Helix gets some things right. The outfits are quite nice, in appealing shades of teal and maroon, and the female characters look like Zumba instructors. Their make-up is perfect. The blue visors are attractive, but hardly barrier enough to keep out the black viral-ridden upchuck splash hurled from the infected.

In some scenes the female characters trade their Zumba outfits for clingy low-cut tank-tops. Is it important, when attending a viral outbreak beneath an iceberg, to expose cleavage? When Sarah donned such an outfit, her hand began to shake, reminding Larry (my husband, bravely watching Helix with me) instantly of the Gene Wilder character in Blazing Saddles.

The show has the typical illogic of characters venturing into dangerous situations alone, something even Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’s Olivia Bentson does. If I were in a lab under a glacier occupied by virally-infected zombies, I’d support the buddy system.

128px-Biohazard.svgIn one scene a veterinarian (an older, overweight blond woman destined for the Rosemary Clooney role from the Poseidon Adventure), who is alone in the scary animal facility full of escaped pissed-off oddly human-like monkeys (after all, a large sign says “transgenics”), encounters a missing infected crew member, who begins to babble in science-speak, so we can grasp some of what’s going on. “ .. activate replication cycle, add some genes! The perfect bioweapon. You can’t make a virus and expect it to follow instructions!” The zombie attacks the blond vet and throws up black on her, then rolls around moaning “What’s wrong with me?” So we’re on the road to another bioweapon story, like Inferno.

Elsewhere, some crew members inexplicably venture outside, where it is of course well below zero. No face coverings, gaping collars, for minutes on end, yet their visages don’t crack and slide off. The camera pans back over a landscape of frozen transgenic monkeys captured mid-scream, like the famous painting. I liked that. But I live near Albany, New York, where the below-zero temperatures that threw New York City into a tizzy last week can persist for weeks. We don’t stand around outside exposed.

The grossometer ranking for Helix is pretty high.

Larry’s favorite part, aside from the cleavage, was when Alan and Jules open two body bags to reveal skulls and black goo. These are Peter’s unfortunate colleagues. In response to the finding, Jules barfs into the biohazard suits that they’ve finally put on. As the chunks fly, splatter and ricochet, you can see that she had rather recently eaten.

Finally, we come to the shower scene, for which I noted foreshadowing. Earlier, to build the blooming tension between Alan and Sarah, she has a close encounter with the black-goo-dripping Peter, who does a Spiderman and vanishes through a ceiling vent. Alan grabs her shoulders in panic. “Did he get any secretions on you?” I nearly fell off the couch laughing.

So Jules is in the shower. But who is in there with her? Is it Bobby Ewing from Dallas, as in last week’s DNA Science post? Is it the disturbed Norman Bates from Psycho? Is it Dionne Warwick? No, it’s Peter, of the black spit. Weird music plays, a little like the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, to create surrealism. Peter moves in to kiss Jules, salivating ebony. And then in a smooch worthy of The Young and the Restless, the black goop comes pouring out of their adhered oral cavities.

As I await Jules’ vagina to seal and Peter’s peter to drop off, courtesy of the evil helical virus, I realize, with startling clarity, that Arctic Biosystems must have created the infertility-inducing virus from Inferno.

 

 

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