Jan 17 2014
One time, I made the heads of so many Battlestar Galactica (aka BSG) fans explode.
While Syfy’s program was in its infancy, I posted in one forum something to the effect (but not exactly) that I wasn’t all that impressed with Ron Moore’s ‘interpretation’ and that, if pushed to the max, I still preferred the simpler “good vs. evil” tone of the original.
Suddenly, I was the subject of much scorn.
Folks treated me as though I’d made some huge faux pas, like I threatened the life of a sitting President or that I’d said I didn’t get the internet’s collective orgasm over all things Joss Whedon, J. Michael Straczynski, and Guillermo del Toro. (In fact, if you don’t know whom those three folks are, you’re possibly better off.) Heck, I can remember getting forever banned from one website for saying something as benign as “Firefly just isn’t my cup of tea.”
Methinks fandom and scorn are not a match made in Heaven.
But, hey, back to Ron Moore
All I’d stated about Moore’s writing was that it seemed too heavily reliant on contemporary events and modern times. As such, it might prove to be a great barometer for today but might not have great re-watch quality for future generations of TV viewers in syndication. In other words, Moore’s BSG meant plenty to us, but it may not mean much to our kids, grandkids, or great-grandkids.
To clarify, consider M*A*S*H.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, M*A*S*H was a very successful TV show depicting the drama and antics associated to the doctors, nurses, and general staff of 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Although it was set during the Korean War, everyone and his mother’s uncle knew that the writers constantly commented on the conflict in Vietnam, something fresh in the minds of its audience. (Interestingly enough, I pretty much said the same about M*A*S*H, and friends and family thought I was crazy back then, too.) Like BSG, I don’t feel that M*A*S*H has great viewing significance to today’s audience except for a study of that generation – namely, the 60’s and 70’s.
This isn’t to say that M*A*S*H didn’t tell good stories. It did. And M*A*S*H’s characters are some of the most sharply drawn in all of TV history. My argument is that because of its narrative focus M*A*S*H won’t have the cultural longevity and impact of other series. M*A*S*H meant plenty to audiences of its day, and it probably meant something for its next generation of viewers … but, as times change, so do tastes and mores and morality; thus, the program’s relevance dips with each successive generation.
Star Trek, by contrast, told stories much the same – used allegory to explore contemporary social themes – but it did so in such a way as to preserve the “good vs. evil” aspect of whatever conflict represented. As Roddenberry often said, Trek was about the ‘human adventure,’ and he and the writers took great pains to stay relevant and universal (not limited to one culture’s breadth of experience). Consequently, Trek has arguably had the strongest legs of any TV creation.
Which, hey, brings me back to Ron Moore …
Moore and Syfy have now launched Helix. It premiered last week to fairly consistently critical praise. Once again, I find myself it that uncomfortable position of wondering out loud (and in print, no less) if I watched the same show everyone else did.
The premise – a team of Centers for Disease Control (CDC) specialists are called to an arctic research facility when the release of a possible retrovirus defies containment – sounds eerily similar to 1951’s The Thing From Another Planet (which John Carpenter remade in 1982 as The Thing): you’ve got the virus-like creation … you’ve got the arctic … you’ve got a secret research facility … you’ve got the threat to mankind if it gets out, etc. Perhaps this working similarity is what show creator Cameron Porsandeh wanted to capitalize on – “Why, it’s been 31 years again, and that means it’s time for another look at this story!”
The sci-fi drama stars genre favorite Billy Campbell, who I’ve been told was nearly cast as Commander William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Campbell appeared on TNG as a guest star; he also headlined Walt Disney’s The Rocketeer and was a regular on The 4400. His Alan Farragut character leads the CDC research team in investigating what went wrong at the base while also trying to stop the spread of infection. The rest of the cast is populated by not-necessarily familiar faces.
The premiere was, essentially, two individual hours cobbled together to make a pilot movie, and, if it’s any indication of what’s in store, then I suspect Syfy has ‘more of the same’ on its hands … which is to say it isn’t very good.
In crafting a successful program, I’ve always argued that a show needs three things without exception:
(A) A solid premise;
(B) An idea relatable to viewers; and
(C) Characters the audiences care about.
Considering I’ve already established the reliability of the premise by drawing its similarity to previous works, let me explain why I don’t think Helix relates to viewers.
Unlike The Walking Dead (TWD) – which presents a reality wherein even those of us who haven’t become Walkers still carry a dormant strain within us – Helix’s germ needs to (apparently) be spread by mouth-to-mouth contact with an infected carrier. Well, since very few of us have any desire to head to the arctic wastelands and lock lips with these scientists, I think we’re in the clear. Some critics I’ve read immediately drew comparisons to TWD – i.e. a virus, a contained area, Helix’s own version of Walkers, etc. – and all I can repeat (again) is that they clearly watched some other cut than I did. I wouldn’t even call Helix’s Walkers ‘walkers’ because it’s clear that they’re possessed of their own faculties, unlike the zombies who are only interested in eating human flesh, not spreading their disease.
So, in my estimation, Helix is an idea foreign to viewers.
Lastly, I couldn’t relate to any of Helix’s characters on any level except for my personal fear of being exposed to some incurable contagion. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, then I would’ve suggested that Helix’s writing is more akin to the ‘soap opera’ than it is science fiction. There’s a love triangle between two brothers and their inappropriately shared gal-pal (all scientists?!), and this conflict drives the show’s central themes. There’s the older female scientist’s dislike of the younger female scientist because of that old tried-and-true “men want younger women” argument. And within the squad of scientists working at this secret high-tech facility there apparently isn’t one of them who had any trouble lying to the CDC or the greater world outside about whether or not monkeys were used in their experiments!
See what I mean? For a show presumably centered on science, none of these scientists are acting very much like Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, or even Mr. Spock for that matter.
Still – because I’ve learned my lesson of talking trash about BSG and Firefly – I won’t dismiss Helix as a total failure. It’s decidedly out-of-shape and had better right itself quickly or I suspect it’ll lose whoever boarded it from the start. Billy Campbell’s a nice guy and all; Ron Moore’s got game (he’s billed as the producer, and no doubt Syfy is expecting returns from his participation); but this thriller is short in the ‘thrills’ department, though it has ‘chills’ in spades
(Chills? Arctic? Get it?)
I’ll let the passage of time prove me right or wrong.
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