Published On: Sun, Jan 26th, 2014

‘Helix’: One virologist’s take on the Syfy hit

Helix, the Syfy Channel’s hit thriller about a team of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control who travel to a high-tech research facility in the Arctic to investigate a possible disease outbreak has been setting rating records at the science fiction television channel.

One virologist is not to enamored with the science in the show. Australian virologist, Ian Mackay, PhD wrote the following on his blog Virology Down Under about the hit series earlier this month.

I’m not really here to critique TV shows but this one has some “virology’ in it, so I’m making an exception. 

Plus, I’ve been yelling at people about it. So time to rant in print and get it out of my system.

I was really looking forward to this show turning up in the iTunes store. I’ve given up waiting for TV shows to turn up and retain consistent air dates and times in Australia. 


Video Screen Shot

Video Screen Shot

Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed the tension and the creepiness of the first 3-episodes. I really liked the old school music counterpoint, the potential paleovirology which could make for a great premise for some really mystical creepy virus stories. I’m enjoying the 70s-style arctic accommodation somehow made made modern and I’m a fan of Billy Campbell, Hiroyuki Sanada and Ron Moore’s work. I’ve had many hours of enjoyment and great story telling from Lost, Contact, The X-Files, 24 and BSG. But Helix is not them because it doesn’t convey respect for its audience.

But mainly? Dude.

The “virology” is a major fail and really pulls me out of any willing-suspension-of-disbelief I’m trying (hard) to get going. I think that may also be a problem for a (majority) non virologist audience. A general audience knows what “feels” like professional science and what feels just plain flaky. 

I guess I’d been hoping for something more Contagion’esque; grounded in today’s reality, well informed, taking itself seriously and telling interesting stories using believable characters. Having watched 3 eps, I sum it up as more Outbreak-meets-28-days-later with dual-personality, but still angry, zombies. I reckon it needs to make the material stand apart or at least do more to improve on what’s come before. We probably have enough zombie+virus variations to not need another one unless it stands out. Maybe that’s what the unmoving snow-plow is for. Or maybe there are some huge twist coming that will make me look like like an idiot. Hope so.

Some (by no means all) nerdy comments and questions follow. Spoiler alert too, if you haven’t seen the 3 eps that have gone to air so far.

  • What is it about this, or any retrovirus outbreak for that matter, that shouts “hey, I’m a retrovirus and I’m breaking out” to Arctic non-virologists. What are retrovirus symptoms that are so acute and worrying that a CDC team would have been called in? What retrovirus causes you to bleed out and die? How did the Arctic guys identify it was a retrovirus before asking for help?
  • A “Spherical” worm virus? Clearly nothing like a retrovirus.
  • “The cells are heavily damaged almost totally deformed, it’s like..Armageddon down there.” says senior post-doc.
                        “But no sign of a virus?” says junior whizz-kid post-doc. Ouch. C.P.E.
  • 15nm (?could have been 5 or 150 – was hard to hear) on an electron microscope (EM) screen…that clearly showing a scale of 8,000nm…pretty good on-the-fly size estimation young whizz-kid post-doc.
  • Portable, real-time, high-magnification scanning electron microscope (SEM), adjustable with a focus knob, that can also show CG wormy virus entering cells that then instantly shrivel without the SEM killing/breaking down the cells or the virus? And unlike the Helix show logo which looked more like the cell, but was black yet not shrivelled. I’m so confused.
  • What’s with the unofficial CDC logo – or lack of the official logo? The show is not even supported by the CDC but uses “CDC” a lot?
  • “…screened for all current viral structures..”, “…even icosahedrons”. What are the chances hat the even looked for icosahedrons??? Its not like they are hugely common presence in the virus world or anything. Oh.
  • This unknown illness caused by a “retrovirus” or whatever, is to be worked with under Biosafety Level 4 conditions (BSL4) and yet considerable work is done on open benches without any significant personal protective gear, after the pathogen is defined as not being capable of spreading via an airborne route. Apparently there is just one type of airborne spread and droplets and aerosols generated by a number of techniques and procedures…and gunshots…don’t count)
  • You take off your BSL4 suit because a mouse doesn’t what? Die in a matter of minutes, perhaps hours? If wormy virus is enacting annihilation upon it’s human hosts then I’d like to at least see a monkey if not some decent primary human (because that’s the host we’re most worried about it annihilating) cell-culture results and inflammatory marker data before I started breathing thatair! We do see a monkey later, but the protective gear doesn’t go back on, or ever get put on in some cases, and then in later episodes it does, then it’s off again, then a non-sealing surgical mask turns up…argh! BSL4 being optional must be part of the working-without-regulations mantra up there in BigPharma Arctic world 
  • In a later Ep we develop a test using green fluorescent protein. GFP is  from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria our over-sharing young whizz-kid post-doc states; although she states nothing about how this bloody rapid bedside test works nor how she produced it without any cloning at all. It gets combined with an infected patient’s white blood cells. A huge volume of the GFP-containing, virus-sensitive, previously infected patient cell solution glows green (under normal light) just seconds after a huge volume of the infected patient’s sample is added. 96-well plate guys? Mind you this was all developed without validation and within half an hour or so; exemplifying how great the 26-year old whizz-kid post-doc with 2 Masters degrees is in the lab. She told us she was earlier. Later we see why unvalidated tests based on poor science and rushed to market fail so spectacularly. More on that in Ep 4 I suspect.
  • Hey, anyway, let’s go conduct a monkey autopsy with just a face shield that is in no-way sealed to our face. And what the hell, why even bother doing up that lab coat? It would just ruin the belligerent devil-may-care researcher vibe we’re aiming for. Aerosolized bits of diseased freaky-monkey tissue in your eyes/mouth/nose/lung anyone?
Where World War Z succeeded in providing a great story about a virus wanting to transmit by driving its host to infect more potential hosts, Helix fails by clubbing us over the head with a show that feels like it’s leveraged science thawed from an Arctic vault made in the 90s. While I don’t expect the general audience to know that centrifuging a drill core of frozen solid monkey butt will not just transform into a homogeneous black liquid in 5-sec (or ever), I do think they will notice something is amiss. Off beat. Out of  sync. 

Try making Helix smarter. I like that there is a story about DURC that may get to a wider audience. That and the suspense are probably the biggest draw-cards for me. Oh, and the Season Pass I bought.

This needed/needs an infectious disease expert on the advisory team. A virologist in this case. Just as disease outbreaks do in real life. Just as the movie Contagion had – and for that movie, it really paid off.
Dr. Ian Mackay, PhD is a virologist with The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. See more of Dr Mackay’s blogging at Virology Down Under
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  1. 'Helix': One virologist's take. And it's not go... says:

    […] 'Helix': One virologist's take … The Global Dispatch The “virology” is a major fail and really pulls me out of any willing-suspension-of-disbelief I'm trying (hard) to get going.  […]

  2. 'Helix': One virologist's take ... - The Global... says:

    […] 'Helix': One virologist's take … The Global Dispatch The “virology” is a major fail and really pulls me out of any willing-suspension-of-disbelief I'm trying (hard) to get going.  […]

  3. Anonymous says:

    I suggest before you post your opinion the internet, you first check for spelling errors.

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