Tag Archives: Helix

Infinity

Technology, Entertainment, Design: SyFy’s Helix

DESPITE SOME B-grade acting and melodramatic character back stories which do not inspire me to take their emotional depths seriously (i.e. Alan’s (Billy Campbell) childhood and his dull flirtation with Sarah (Jordan Hayes), whose secret cancer seems another tired cliché), SyFy’s Helix continues to fascinate me with its world building. This week we saw some significant changes in alliances and a deepening of the mystery about just exactly what Ilaria Corporation is up to in its arctic research station. New clues to this mystery include the abduction of children, the cryo-preserved head of a missing scientist, and information that suggests Julia (Kyra Zagorsky) was herself the object of Dr. Hatake’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) research when a child. Although Julia’s back-story sounds tediously like a reboot of Olivia’s (Anna Torv) story on Fringe (2008-2013), more promising are the introduction of Intuit police officer Anana (Luciana Carro) and her missing brother Miksa, whose twin just happens to be played by Meegwun Fairbrother, who also plays Daniel, Hatake’s adopted son/feudal vassal. While sinister corporations who treat people as expendable are a familiar theme from cyberpunk fiction and film, and form the basis of a number of cyberpunk digital games such as Deus Ex and Resident Evil, we’ve lacked a good SF television series working in this mode, although James Cameron’s briefly lived Dark Angel (2000-2002) gave it the college try.

Part of what makes Helix work for me are its ancillary texts on their Access Granted website, which provide additional clues and documents that committed fans can review as they try to unravel the show’s mystery. Such multi-media storytelling is nothing new in science fiction, or indeed in television broadly, as stations compete to generate the committed and engaged fan base that made shows such as Lost (2004-2010) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013) such phenomenal successes. It also seems natural for a show like Helix to have such an involved website, for it is designed to appeal equally to science fiction fans and those accustomed to the puzzle solving of digital games, two communities known for their committed engagement with the worlds of chosen texts. So, Helix is very much a text of our age.

Yet as I visited the Helix website, I was struck by a contradiction between its presence as a marketable commodity (television show), the use of the show’s narrative to market other commodities (a Verizon advertisement branding the company as about “powerful solutions” to contemporary challenges), and the show’s narrative, which casts Ilaria Corporation in a sinister light.

Here are some of the intriguing things you can find in the Access Granted documents. First is a calendar for an Ilaria executive named Philip Duchamp. Among his activities are: a “pharma competitive intelligence conference,” an event that raises questions for those thinking about science and social justice as well as the role of pharmaceutical corporations in what Vandana Shiva has called the continued colonial exploitation of biopiracy; second, Duchamp is scheduled to give a TED talk, a genre that promises to help us imagine and build better futures, but whose emphasis on entertainment often substitutes inspiring visions for viable research, as Benjamin Bratton brilliantly skewered last year in the best TED talk I’ve ever heard. One of the things Bratton calls for is “design as immunization,” using imaginative power to prevent certain dystopic futures from materializing. Science fiction has a long history of performing this kind of cultural critique, and the cyberpunk-inflected future Helix channels is widely regarded as a key expression of this more cynical attitude toward the future produced by technological innovation. In Neuromancer (1982), for example, William Gibson describes the dangerous urban Night City as “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button” (7). Technology displaces people in such futures, and Helix explores this terrain in its new story arcs about missing children, evidence of which is expanded considerably on the Access Granted site that includes a list of some 30 missing children, mainly from the global south, and most with Inuit-sounding names.

In his essay “SF Capital,” Mark Fisher critiques the conflation of narrative, advertising and commodity product in much science fiction, in which the power to imagine the future and to inspire readers to invest in such visions is channeled into the purchase of products that simulate this future and take the place of real social critique and political change. The advertising rhetoric of this sf is much like the futurist rhetoric of TED talks, and the relationship between such visions of the future and corporate market-share is much like the relationship between Star Wars as text and the sale of Hasbro action figures.

These systems collide on the Helix website. To enter the website at all, you first must click through a page noting that Arctic Biosystems is a division of Ilaria Corporation, whose slogan is “stop existing, start living.” One of the ancillary texts you can access on this website is the advertisement above for Ilaria Infinity lenses. The aesthetics of this poster conveys all the promise of the future as entertaining design embodied by TED talks, and Ilaria evokes the usual inflationary rhetoric of living better: “See clearly. See freely. See the world through different eyes.” Yet the larger type on this poster asks, “Do your contact lenses make you feel like you’re dying?” Presumably Ilaria lenses will solve this problem in the usual way of corporate futurism, yet the fine print of the poster suggests instead that this corporatized future is the problem – side effects of seeing the world through Ilaria’s eyes include “feelings of yearning” and, in rare cases, “general disinterest in living.”

Through these supplementary texts then, Helix continues its narrative vision of a critique of corporations that sacrifice people, the same vision we see in Gibson’s sardonic description of Night City, the same vision expressed through more hyperbolic sarcasm in Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), and the same future we presumably will see in its remake by José Padilha opening this week. Padilha’s Robocop, however, is already inevitably bound up in the economics of contemporary Hollywood that make it half narrative film and half vehicle for product placement and advertising for future action films.

What of Helix’s corporate critique? One of SyFy’s sponsors is Verizon, and as soon as one visits the Helix website a video advertisement launches. In the mode of contemporary infotainment, this short video at first seems to be yet another ancillary text (an Ilaria advert for an antidepressant is remarkably similar in tone). Only gradually does it become clear that this “discover innovation” campaign to solve “the world’s biggest challenges” through “even bigger solutions” is a slogan for Verizon, not Ilaria. Clicking through to Verizon’s website, one discovers a Powerful Answers web series with episodes about the various ways Verizon is working to make a better future of sustainability, public safety, improved healthcare, and access to education. The series shows the work of “innovators” who competed to partner with Verizon to bring their ideas to life, a contest that required these “empowering solutions” to emerge from “Verizon’s unique combination of technologies.” This website, merging science fiction with corporate advertising with the production of material futures that direct the flows of venture capital seems the apotheosis of the process of commodifying the future diagnosed by Fisher more than a decade ago.

Helix is thus a fascinating science fiction text, as much for its context as for its content. Inside and outside blur, as Ilaria and Verizon overlap as antagonist and sponsor. The website lets one preview the first five minutes of the next episode, “Survivor Zero,” which show the arrival of Constance Sutton (Jeri Ryan), CEO of Ilaria Corporation at the research base. Within these five minutes she metamorphoses from a smooth and overtly helpful resource in public, to a violent attack on Hatake’s failures in private. Is her public face a version of Verizon, whose polished futurism hides its complicity in Ilaria-like conspiracy?

Or am I just “reading too much” into science fiction?

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Revolution

The Future, As Seen on TV

In 1982, cultural critic Fredric Jameson published “Progress verses Utopia: or, Can We Imagine the Future” which argued against the commonplace belief that science fiction was about the future. Instead, he suggested, the role of science fiction is “not to give us ‘images’ of the future” but “rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present.” Moreover, he suggested, what science fiction frequently demonstrated was “our incapacity to imagine the future,” or rather, a future that was very different from the present, a future of radical alternatives and utopian promise. So how do we see this dialectic between future and present play out in this week’s science fiction television?

Fox’s new cop drama Almost Human opens with a voiceover explaining its premise (all humans cops are now teamed with a MRX android cop) and announces that this is because “evolving technologies can no longer be regulated.” Hence, they can only be policed. Hence, a science fiction police drama. The technologies investigated in each episode are futuristic (this week it is bullets that can target you by the tracking devices we all carry around with us), but they are also obviously clear extensions of existing social practices and the crimes that go with them.

SyFy’s new Helix introduces its key characters not in the Biosystems Arctic research base but rather in the CDC, taking great pains to establish continuity between business-as-usual for the CDC and the world of this series, in which research on a pan-viral vaccine has resulted in a medical catastrophe with hints of posthuman genome manipulation. Such care with establishing plausible premises is reminiscent of publicity surrounding Ron Moore’s acclaimed Battlestar Galactica and claims that it was more political drama than science fiction.

CBS’s Person of Interest has only gradually moved into clear science fiction territory in this, its third season, with the open discussion of The Machine as artificial intelligence, building on previous seasons whose plots seemed closer to the thriller genre. Since the Patriot Act, Wikileaks and more, you don’t have to be a science fiction fan to believe that the government is spying on you all the time, or to accept the fantasies of ubiquitous information via surveillance technology. The network’s short-lived Hostages (2013) had a similar computer system lurking in the background, and its conspiracy to kill the president was in part motivated by the military’s desire to unleash more of this machine’s potential.

And finally ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reorients this super-hero universe away from otherworldly heroes and toward the ordinary agents trained in special ops and high tech that are able to battle threats to national security, natural and supernatural. This week’s “Seeds” featured a visit to the science division of SHIELD’s training academy, which has its roots in the post-WWI Strategic Scientific Reserve, in which science and technology are imagined as key weapons in the fight against evil.

What all of these series seem to have in common is a vision of the power of science and technology in daily life, its ability to change the world we live in, and even ourselves, and a clear sense that the future – as once presented in the ‘images’ of science fiction – is already here. Do these shows defamiliarize and restructure our experience of the present? I suspect they no longer do so in the ways that Jameson had in mind, in which science fiction encouraged us to experience our present as the history of a possible future and thus perhaps to think more critically about what this future might be as we actively make it.

Yet the new temporality of the science-fiction-present seems more likely to familiarize than defamiliarize our experience of technoscientific modernity. Almost Human concedes that new and sinister technologies will inevitably emerge and the best we can do is react to them. Person of Interest and Hostages barely seem science fictional at all, and instead ask us to question the very real fact that information technology monitors and shapes us in often invisible ways.

Partway through watching “Seeds” I had the excited anticipation that now, finally, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was finding its stride, that it had quelled network exec anxieties sufficiently that an authentic Joss Whedon vision – suspicious of centralized authority – was about to emerge. Following revelations that Coulson was revived despite begging SHIELD doctors to let him die, and that at least one of these doctors felt medical ethics were violated in this resurrection, the institutions of SHIELD began to look more like those of its enemies this week. For example, a lecture at the Academy by Agents Fitz and Simmons to the next crop of scientific geniuses – about how important it is to use their intellectual powers for good, since others were using them for bad and putting untested biology and technology in the wrong hands – was interrupted by an attack emerging from within these hallowed halls. Later, when details of Skye’s past emerge (spoiler: she is a 0-8-4, more to follow), Coulson decides to tell her the bloody history of the village destroyed to protect her rather than continue lying to her about her connection to SHIELD. Commenting on the venture capitalist who funded the technology used to attack the Academy, Coulson observes, “Quinn is not the only one who’s been manipulating people. We do it all the time. … We teach it at the Academy.”

Yet the conclusion of the episode was disappointing. Despite these hints that even those with “good” agendas manipulate and mislead, that SHIELD perhaps has no more right to be creating and controlling these technologies than do their antagonists, the episode’s conclusion shies away from these insights and returns to a reiteration of SHIELD as family and their vision of the future of technology as both non-democratic but also just. Praising Skye’s response to his revelations, Coulson insists she showed strength of character by refusing to be devastated by the knowledge that many people died to protect her, and instead to feel embraced by and fully a part of SHIELD, the family that was “always there” even when she thought she had none. John Reece’s recent return to the fold on Person of Interest – after a couple of episodes of cynicism during which he held The Machine did as much harm as good – follows a similar logic.

Jameson’s essay was written from a Marxist perspective, and a lot of social and political thinkers recently have noted the difficulty of imagining a future, any future, in these harsh economic times. No more for us the wondrous visions of World’s Fairs and Disney’s Tomorrowland. Our version of Tomorrowland would be a theme part of ecological crisis, absolute gaps between the rich and the poor along the lines of Elysium (Blomkamp 2013), and drone warfare over dwindling resources.

So, has the future become a thing of the past? Can we dream of a better tomorrow or do we simply imagine better technology to stave off the inevitable collapse of the present, but only for some?

One answer, it seems to me, is NBC’s Revolution. Revolution begins with the end of technology as we know it when the electricity goes out. Yet it quickly turns to the reinvention of technology, but a new and unanticipated kind of technology, the nanobots who are programmed but also have minds of their own. Like the rebels resisting the Patriot’s vision of faux democracy, a privileged elite, and programmed child-soldiers, the nanobots suggest the open possibilities of another future, a world that could be made completely otherwise.

The near-future sensibility of all these programs suggests a widely shared sensibility that America in its current configuration does not offer much of a future for many of its citizens. Whether science fiction can help us imagine better ones – as well as help us see more clearly the dystopian trends of our science-fictional present – remains to be seen.

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SF_column_11214 MG Original

The New Posthuman: SyFy’s Helix

THE BIG NEWS in sf television this week is the premiere of SyFy’s Helix, from producer Ronald Moore whose reboot of Battlestar Galactica did more than any other series to convince mainstream audiences that science fiction can be relevant to contemporary experience. The premiere event was organized to gain a mass audience as quickly as possible for this new series: the first two episodes aired back-to-back with “limited commercial interruption” – which translates basically to most commercials being pushed into the second episode once audiences were already hooked – and a third episode could be viewed online immediately after the first two aired. Devoted fans could thus be three “days” into the planned thirteen day-per-episode narrative of season 1. These first three episodes cover a lot of ground in terms of understanding the pathogen outbreak on the remote arctic base and also plant a lot of seeds for mysteries to unfold throught the season at the level of both conspiracy plot and interpersonal back-story. The SyFy site also contains additional short clips and “documents” that hint at more conspiracy to come involving sinister pharmaceutical company Arctic Biosystems, including an advertisement for an antidepressant that is “hacked” to show images of missing children, several redacted purchase orders, a promotional brochure for contact lenses that takes on menacing tones in this context, and – most intriguing – shadowy Board of Director members sipping scotch and watching the horror unfold via remote satellite uplink.

Helix is reminiscent of a lot of sf that has come before, but if Battlestar Galactica proved anything it was that Ron Moore knows how to revitalize familiar material by connecting it to contemporary political and social issues. The careful attention to virology and the epidemiology of outbreak is reminiscent of now-classic The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise 1971), based on a novel by Michael Crichton, whose name has become almost synonymous with medical conspiracy thrillers. The isolated arctic setting, the test for infection that proves unreliable, and hints that the virus is not only killing but also transforming the infected into a new species reminds us of The Thing (John Carpenter 1982), a much-loved film based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 story “Who Goes There?” and adapted to screen two other times (in 1951 and 2011), although Carpenter’s remains the fan favorite. Scenes of searching for dangerous infected through narrow ventilation conduits evoke the claustrophobic tension of Alien (Ridley Scott 1979), although the series itself opts to reference John McClane’s travels through Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988). And finally the drama feels most like watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), at least for these first three episodes, marking Helix as another sf series about how much the present resembles science fiction.

Science is front and center in Helix, both the virology of the outbreak and the conspiracy plot regarding Arctic Biosystems’ real agenda. This is a welcome return to a near-future that feels convincing and real, and to science fiction rather than the supernatural as the engine of a series.  Great care is taken with the details of the CDC personnel and the team’s background, and the characters feel like complete people with complex motivations, not merely cutout figures filling specific narrative roles. The head of research, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada,) is the only somewhat disappointing character, not because he lacks interest but because he is, at least thus far, the most unambiguous character, whose motivations are entirely sinister and whose Japanese ancestry makes him thus fall uncomfortably into the “inscrutable Asian” stereotype. Yet perhaps there is hope for how his character will be developed, because other characterizations are complex and avoid clichés, such as Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), previously married to the head CDC investigator Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), who avoids being either entirely committed to reunion with her estranged husband or entirely reconciled to their split. Dedicated sf fans may welcome the return of Billy Campbell, previously seen as cult leader Jordan on The 4400 (2004-2007), to sf television, and his Alan Farragut is a compelling lead, challenged by his ambiguous feelings about his ex-wife, his infatuated intern Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), and his brother Dr. Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), one of the first infected and estranged from Alan since his affair with Julia. All of this back-story allows for emotional investment in the interactions among characters, but never overwhelms the sf drama elements of the series with cloying melodrama. Like BSG, with which it will inevitably be compared, Helix gives us interesting human beings in a tense situation and has developed a sufficiently intricate set of interpersonal and corporate-conspiracy dynamics to sustain its pace for the full season.

Helix also has plenty of action that seems designed to draw in fans of The Walking Dead and similar series. Its infected are split into two kinds and those called “vectors” are compelled to try to infect others, vomiting black goo and rushing humans they encounter along the lines of the fast zombies of 28 Days Later (Boyle 2002). Yet set within a narrative that also has elements of corporate cover-up, mysterious army factions who believe the infection was intentional, and emerging posthuman characters, not all of whom are changed by the virus, the action is Helix is linked to an engrossing narrative. The Walking Dead was fun for a while, but its ongoing carnage has long since become tedious in the absence of much else going on in the series. Helix delivers a similar adrenaline rush, but promises a lot more, especially in its slowly unfolding exploration of the dark side of better living through pharmacotherapy. Perhaps this is a sign that the zombie craze is finally winding down. And perhaps this will offer some critical commentary on one of the key sites of the collapse of sf and reality into one another, the utopian fantasies of posthuman existence promoted by organizations such as humanity+ that often fail to take note of the role of corporate medicine in these brave new worlds.

If nothing else, Helix is one of the best science fiction television shows to emerge in a long time, one that offers complex narrative, absorbing characters, and reflective engagement with the science and technology of our everyday world. Really, my only complaint is that I hate its theme song, taken from “Do You Know the Way to San José” (1968), which worked well enough as ironic counterpoint to the action when used as diegetic music in the opening sequence, but is quickly growing tiresome. Helix embodies the promises of all that sf television can be, and I hope it can find the audience that will allow it to stay on the air and deliver on this promise over the multiple season arcs clearly planned for the story.

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