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

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.

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?


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)


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 …


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.



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.



  1. THANK YOU for this. The whole thing was a big face palm. I’m pretty sure that the blond vet in the basement at some point said she had to run ‘PRC tests.’ what? I guess no one making the show caught it/cared?

  2. The thing that bothered me was how there could be both the bright high sun drenched daylight shown in several scenes, and the deepest dark black night, when the guy goes outside to make his secret satellite call, at Latitude 85+, in the same 24-hr period. I’ve never lived or ventured to the Arctic (or Antarctica) but my understanding of “endless night” in winter and “sun never sets” in summer is that it impossible. Please, someone correct me if I am wrong.

  3. You’re right, Lucy. Any middle-school science teachers out there? Dissecting this TV series might be interesting for your students. Perhaps one of them could become science advisor to the show. The deepest dark bother me too, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

    And the comment about the vet talking about PRC! Flew right by me, the dialog is so fast. Yikes!

  4. I think you got the part about the sex organs wrong. The way I understood it, the labs rats don’t have any because they were specifically engineered that way. It has nothing to do with the virus.

  5. I started to watch as Helix appeared interesting. However I’m gushy to keep watching because I’m afraid it will be like all the other syfy shows in the recent past. Many story lines will open, none will be closed. I’ll be left hanging. Or else ratings will drop and show canceled leaving me hanging. Lost got so far fetched in story lines I “lost” interest. V was great, and ended due to ratings, thus it was left unfinished for us viewers. Helix has potential, but will it go way off the chart in stupid story lines or just disappear… What to do, watch or not watch?

  6. I loved V too. I watched Helix again. They got green fluorescent protein backwards and did a procedure in 3 minutes that would have taken days or weeks, but CSI and House do that all the time. I’m continuing to watch Helix to see where they go with the characters. The fact that the Sarah character is not who she appears to be has me intrigued. If I can ignore the scientific gaffs and the characters and plot are ok, I can stomach it. I think.

  7. Just binge-watched the first two (one?) episode. Googled “Helix” and found your blog. Thank you Dr. Lewis–I think I’m in love! I just bookmarked you. Keep ’em coming. As a non-scientist, even I figured out that the scientists must be cringing. I’ll keep watching, however. Because, well…I like it. Upon recovering the unidexterous (apparently, I made that word up) body of the security officer, Dr. Farragut ponders: “Why would Peter cut off his hand?” Moron! I silently accused. Obviously to use his security chip. I know this is a writing technique used to make the viewer or reader omniscient, but, really? A stay-at-home mom with a bachelor’s degree is that much more astute than a guy with the alphabet following his name? Further, why are they doing these floor by floor manhunts? Shouldn’t they be able to track everyone using the chips? Even if their security access has been stripped? At the beginning, when they embedded them in the CDC people, I figured that’s what they were for.

    Thanks again Dr. Lewis, you’ve given me much Google fodder in just this one post. Unfortunately, even a SAHM can’t sit in front of the computer all day so I’ll have to come back another time. You’ve just created your biggest fan.

  8. Danielle, let’s get one thing straight — being a stay-at-home mom is THE hardest job in the world. I’ve been there. 3 little kids while writing my biology textbooks at 2 AM when they were racing around. You can’t even go to the bathroom alone, yet everyone takes you for granted and thinks you are taking the easy way out. Someone recently compared being retired to the ease of staying at home with little kids and my brain nearly exploded.

    Alas most of my posts are pretty serious, but I do love TV and movies. I’m keeping to Helix too. The plot’s ok. I still miss the X-Files. Thanks so much for your note!

  9. guessing you don’t watch lost girl? it is on syfy mondays and they closed the big ancient fae eater storyline and now getting close to the second storyline ending. also, what other syfy shows that don’t close their storylines? ghost hunters has no storyline, because it lasts one episode. face off is a contest, make no sense for a storyline. stargate SG1 ended the goa’uld storyline with the freeing of teal’cs people and ended the ori (sci fi version of the dark age christians) with the ark of truth movie. mind telling me what you mean by “all other syfy shows”? because it sounds like you only watched a few of em and got bored with them.

  10. Dear Ricki… Thanks for your web site
    It’s Shelley Winters, not Rosemary Clooney… sorry, but that might grate on aficionados of both actors and singers…
    My ex-wife was a geneticist, I co-wrote her paper with her… I did the stats part, more or less… that’s back in ‘77…
    Haven’t even finished Episode 1 yet, but I felt like balking at having an RFID Chip installed, by an “uncontrolled” “unregulated” organization, where I am not sure how sterile any of this is, in the midst of a unidentified horror disease outbreak… Nobody is going to inject me with anything, not identified and verified, I don’t much trust doctors outside of my own… If they want security, they will have to rely on biometrics, as far as I am concerned

    Peter’s early show of strength, is immediate warning to even an imbecile, to have him very securely attached, to something very secure….
    Not being a Doogie Houser fan, I’m not much of a fan of young geniuses, except for Temperance Brennan, so Sarah is just excess weight for me, with me now only 29 minutes into the show.
    Fact checking of any kind is abominably poor in any show, series, movie… so it’s just a matter of how much ignorant garbage one will be able to bear, but even the simplest of us groan constantly as the writers obviously get so much wrong, in any movie or series, be it engineering, weapons, ballistics, geography, history, basic sciences and mathematics… It’s just a matter of how much intellect insult we can bear… best borne with such as Fringe or X-files, Star Trek, etc, where it’s a given that the laws of physics will be suspended
    The moment we introduce Aliens, we are at Faster Than Light Star Ship Drives, and so we know to consider this only as total fantasy.
    Romance has worked for such series as Fringe, Bones, and Castle, so that needn’t be a kiss of death for this…

  11. Enjoy it for what it is. This is waaaay overcritical of everything and just comes off as pretentious. Anyone who has watched any science fiction understands it’s not all “hard” and is catered to those without extensive knowledge in the fields presented. If your letting an optical microscope bother you that much, you aren’t even close to getting the just of what the show is trying to put over. Go read fiction.

  12. No need to be so harsh. The name of this blog is “DNA Science: Genetics in Context.” So the genetic gaffs are indeed important, in my context. Why not get it right if you can? Even if it is fiction? And some of the errors were indeed ridiculous. In our science-phobic society, I think going the extra mile to not confuse an electron microscope with a light microscope is okay. Films have budgets. Hire an underemployed scientist or a grad student to get the details right. The plot and characters can remain. Knowing a field is not the same as being pretentious. If I commented authoritatively on something I didn’t know, the sort of thing that celebrities do all the time, well, that would be pretentious.

  13. Thanks for this blog Ricki, you have certainly observed a lot of the awful non-science in that there Helix. I downloaded the first four episodes … for some masochistic reason.
    Forgive me but I think you got eyebrows-girl and young-perky-ponytail girl mixed up a bit (You know their names, I do not, nor want to) in who barfed and who showered.
    Now the ONLY good character is dead, and he has a name : Peter. Say it enough and he drops from the ceiling and snogs you!

  14. I tried to like this show and watched the first three episodes back to back. But by the end of it, the stupidity was just too much. With a violent, infected person on the loose, you would think they would have security watching camera feeds for all the hallways and that no one would be allowed to go anywhere in the facility alone.

    But the real laugher for me was when Billy Campbell’s character tells the Japanese man that he’ll tell the NY Post about what’s going on there. I was thinking, “Seriously, the NY Post of all papers? Who wrote this friggin’ script?”

    I guess the only unresolved question that intrigues me is what is up with the Japanese man’s eyes? That was pretty creepy when he took out the contact lenses and you see his eyes glowing blue.

  15. I was so looking forward to this show and now I am done with it. I used to work for the CDC and the opening scene with the Epidemiology people was preposterous. No one tosses around tubes of viruses. What? Do the writers think they just leave this stuff sitting in the hallways?

    I immediately made a prediction about the one cast member I (and apparently others really liked) , and unfortunately I was right. She was the only interesting character on the show.

    Now I am waiting for “The Strain” and after reading the book I am hoping for great show.

  16. Sorry for mixing up the barf barbies. I like the female veterinarian whom someone pointed out did a Polymerase Reaction Chain. One of the barbies used fluorescent green protein. I’m a week behind …

  17. I was hoping not to be the only one complaining about that 15 nm virus crap!

    Actually, when they show the 15 nm (!!) virus with an optical microscope (amazingly), the scale bar of the viewer is 8 micron. They did not even bother to change calibration…

  18. Okay, so I’m a big fan of science fiction, and have no letters behind my name, just an undergrad degree in history, a voracious appetite for reading, and a willingness to suspend disbelief.

    That being said, Helix fails on so. many. levels. to help me keep my disbelief suspended.
    1. All of these research scientists are a little too casual over the apparent super deadly, horrible way to die, turns you into black goo bug. No one but the CDC team even attempts to take precautions, because, hey, it isn’t airborne.
    2. Anyone with even nominal brain function would either employ a buddy-team mentality or hole up in a secured room.
    3. The head of security (I can’t remember the character’s name, I’ll call him Lumpy) has the job… because he’s the weirdly adopted son of the director of the facility.
    4. The faility director knows a helluva lot more than he’s letting on about what is going on, but doesn’t want to share it with the CDC team. The one that he called in.
    5. Don’t all of these DNA/Gene tests take lots and lots of time?
    6. Why do you need to have an RFID tag implanted for access to the facility? Wouldn’t a less-invasive biometric system work? (Especially since random visitors seem to be a non-issue, what with them being at the arctic circle and all.)
    7. More of a military thing, but the evil sergeant stabby drives me nuts on so many levels. Improper wear of the uniform (Army Combat uniforms are not worn with the shirt tucked in. We don’t wear the collars up mandarin-style unless we wear body armor over it. It takes a LOT more C4 than he had to blow up a satellite dish that big. Why would they need a dish that big in the first place? Are they collecting data from outside the solar system? Do you know how many of USAMRIID’s doctors know how to use C4? A non-zero number, I’m certain, (not terribly hard, really) but how many also have the engineering knowledge to emplace and destroy that dish?

    This show has an interesting (although not exactly novel) idea, but they really do the story a disservice by not bothering to check on any details, and they further insult the viewers by assuming anyone would be too dumb to notice. “Use this word, it sounds science-y.”

    I can only imagine the deux ex machina they’ll craft to finally defeat whatever and wherever this bug is or is from. I can’t wait until they use transmogrifiers.

    I recently read through some of Heinlein’s early works, and although he didn’t get all the details about space right (or really, few) he made them believable, and the science he tended to base his stories on was the scientific understanding of the day, followed with logical projections of what that would mean in a few centuries.

  19. Thanks Chuck, what a great response. It seems readers are finding more and more errors — there is no end! I grew up reading Heinlein.

    This week I completely forgot to watch Helix and went back to Bill Maher. I’ll have to catch up.

  20. The previous commenter was correct. The lab rats are asexual by design. It’s unrelated to the virus…

    CDC veterinarian (looking at rats):
    Aren’t you a big girl. Or boy. They have no sex organs.

    Facility Security Chief:
    We’ve designed a way to inhibit the signaling pathway responsible for genitalia. Makes control easier.

    CDC vet:
    Got an ex-husband I wouldn’t mind trying that on.

  21. I liked the original V, but I saw that as a little kid. I’m sure I’d consider it super cheesy if I saw it today. I thought that the 2009 remake was pretty awful.

  22. Lost Girl isn’t an original Syfy program. It’s a production of the Showcase channel in Canada. It’s broadcast by Syfy in the U.S. It’s the same arrangement as Continuum.

    Syfy canceled Alphas after a cliffhanger and Caprica was cut short with only a tacked on ‘afterword’ for a conclusion. Stargate Universe was ended with a cliffhanger too. In three years (2010-12) they prematurely ended shows which were their flagship programs and which had significant fanbases.

    Granted, Syfy has done right by other programs. Battlestar Galactica and Eureka had full runs. They were fair to Farscape and Invisible Man. They haven’t cut Haven or Warehouse 13 short.

    Still, that 3 year period left sf fans distrustful of Syfy. I was afraid Defiant wouldn’t get a second season.

  23. I’m not a science person – just an sf fan with an interest in science. I was alarmed by the wiggly worm-like thing that they said was the virus. I thought it looked like a bacteria or parasite. I had two mental images of a virus. One was something roughly ball shaped, and the other is a faceted geometric shape attached to a pedestal with spidery legs at its base. Because of the show, I looked up ‘Virion Structure’ at wikipedia and learned that there are rod and filament shapes and that ebola is the latter- so I learned something about science because of this show. 🙂

    I still think, however, and you made the same point- that the thing on the screen appears to be propelling itself, and that is very bad. I often find that people don’t understand that bacteria and viruses are profoundly different. Depicting a virus as ‘swimming’ muddies the waters and is a public disservice.

  24. “Do you know how many of USAMRIID’s doctors know how to use C4? ”

    That reminded me of something. Tim Guinee (Revolution, Hell on Wheels) starred in a show called Strange World about an investigator from USAMRIID. It sounds interesting, but I’ve never seen it.

  25. I thought right away it looked like Ebola, but it would have been a super gigantic one able to dance in a vacuum. I am often amazed at how common it is to not know the profound difference between bacteria and viruses. I email the Today Show every time they screw that up.

  26. I have to admit, I don’t know what ‘signaling pathways’ are. To a certain extent the name seems self-explanatory, but I’m sure that there are different ways that chemicals send a “signal” and that that term probably refers to something specific. When I watched the show, the idea didn’t trouble me because I thought to myself that (hopefully I won’t mess up how to say this) the process by which hormones cause genitalia to develop to become male is sometimes disrupted in nature, so it seems plausible that the same thing could be done artificially. I was thinking that the researchers could have made something that would block a receptor and prevent hormones from binding to them. I guess that isn’t the same as blocking a signaling pathway, but I didn’t know that. (Maybe the writers didn’t either.)

    After the show was over and I thought about it a little, I realized that while that seemed plausible if you just wanted to prevent there being male genitals, it wouldn’t prevent female genitals! It’s a long time (Clinton was president) since I took a biology class, but the way I remember it is that the hormones were necessary for male genes to express themselves, but that the genitals would become female by default in the absence of that. (Again- forgive me if I’m screwing up the science.)

  27. I think they wanted it to appear to be swimming. Even if it were in a moving liquid rather than a vacuum, I’d think it’d move differently if its movement was entirely passive. It looked to me like it was moving -a bit erratically- in what a pilot would call a corkscrew. While I can’t think of any animals that swim like that, it would make sense for a worm-like organism. Wouldn’t it be more efficient than a side to side motion? (Snakes and eels probably only swim that way because of their spines.)

    That’s why (not knowing what you do about microscopes) the image aggravated me. I thought it at least implied that it was an organism. BTW- is a virus considered to be alive? I don’t really see how the qualities usually taken as defining ‘life’ apply to viruses. I was thinking that being alive is usually about a continuing process, and a virus could not be killed in any normal sense- it seems to me it can only be broken or destroyed.

  28. PS: I just remembered that someone told me that sperm corkscrew their tails rather than shake them side to side like a dog. (If that’s true, then every film I saw in school was wrong.) So, that wouldn’t be an example of an organism swimming that way, but it’s something. Actually, the sperm itself is probably more like a virus than an organism now that I think about it :/

  29. I’ve had enough, I’ve stopped recording Helix. After six episodes I know less than the first day. I’m tired of every single person acting as if they are hiding something for a greater pupose, and each feeling they are justified enough to kill for it. I’m really sick of the Asian doctor who thinks he’s God and never tells the truth about anything, I’m normally all for a good mystery but this is gotten do out of hand that I just lost interest and I am a hard core sci fi nut. Similar to Defiance, I gave up on that for the same reasons. Somebody please bring back another Star Trek series. Or stick to series that each episode has a beginning and ending, enough of all these dragging shows like LOST.

  30. Uhmmm
    Not everyone agrees with you. or needs to.
    I’ve been into science and sci-fi for 60 years, so I do consider that I have some idea, and it doesn’t have to agree with yours.
    There are times in sci-fi for total suspension of all the laws of physics, and there are times when a bit of scince would would suit.
    This is one show, that should have some science based content.
    That’s my opinion, you are entitled to yours, but you are not entitled to tell any of the rest of us how we must perceive the show

  31. Yes, but not that great a rip off…. I started to find the show unbearable, for 50 cents they could have tried hard to get it right.
    The political situation comes out silly, and the involvment of teh CDC seems premature… but I can easily imagine that the Russian and US Departments of Defense will quickly nuke the joint, with all therein, for obvious reasons.
    Given that no one behaves in a sensible manner, even disregarding the science flaws, I have returned to totally fantasy, Sleepy Hollow.

  32. Your tone of admonishment is misplaced. I never claimed to be “entitled to tell” anyone anything. Public Library of Science asked me about 18 months ago to blog about different perspectives in my field, genetics, and that’s what I do. Sometimes I venture from the usual serious topics about research or living with genetic disease to write about the media. Nowhere have I claimed that anyone must agree with me — in fact just the opposite is desirable. That’s the entire point of having a conversation and comments, which I welcome. I’m not sure why you’re so critical of me.

  33. I am sorry. I found your blog, and after reading , I really wanted this show to be good, for your sake, and mine and everyone else’s. It would be a nice thing to share… but I’m now watching old Law and Order re-runs.
    Even the android cop show, has been more fun…

  34. Dear Ricky,
    the comment was not aimed at you. it was aimed at Alex, and that’s because Alex reminds me of my own 45 year old son, who tells me I can not be critical of any show or movie, because, it all supposed to be make-believe, and so I must suspend any critical faculties… and only live within the confines of the film or show’s reality

    He of course can crit anything he likes because he “knows” more about the medium than I do.

    I actually did get the feeling that you aren’t (repeat ARE NOT) a totalitarian, and I have written that I appreciate your blog and wish for your sake this show had been more fun.

    If you check you will see that my comment is not indented as a reply to you, but indented as a reply to Alex’s.

    Not fighting with you, my comment would make no sense at all , as a riposte to what you wrote, and I actually agreed with everything you wrote…

    Oh well, one of thsoe days when nothing works out… time for lunch

  35. what the??? do you know what syfy is? science… i think youre ok with that part you know your stuff. the other part is fiction. Do you know what fiction is? It means its not real. Its invented. Its from the ideas of the writter. Cant imagine you liked fringe much then…. its practically all nonsense…. but some of us that like to enjoy fiction shows know that we have to cast away many things about reality otherwise we would become as bitter as you are.

  36. Why don’t you take a look at what this blog is all about? It is about genetics, a science. And I’m a writer, not a writter. I read a great deal of fiction and have attempted to write it, which I am not very good at. It is possible to write terrific fiction yet get as many facts correct as possible — historical fiction does this quite well. Presumably Helix has a large enough budget to hire one of the many underemployed PhDs out there to vet the scripts. That wouldn’t have cost very much. Why get things wrong if you can get them right? The mixing up of the light and electron microscope, that and many of the other errors I and others pointed out, could have been caught by a sixth grader — as one of the comments mentioned.

  37. Dear Ricky
    I hope you did get the message that I was not attacking you, at all, and I appreciate your work at making this site available to us, to meet upon.

  38. Thisisscyfy
    1) you are a troll, and work at being offensive
    2) You are naturally that way
    3) you are having a bad day

    4) you might even learn something from people who have been into Scifi since Olaf Stapledon, since long before it was respelled as SciFy
    5) By being pleasant you might make friends,and be creative, constructive and productive rather than destructive
    6) you find some other people somewhere else to gratuitously attack.
    7) you are projecting, obviously, you rare the one with the bitter mouth.

  39. News flash: no one is forcing you to read my blog. Many people have an expertise. Mine is genetics. This particular program gets the genetics wrong, repeatedly, in irritatingly idiotic ways. I am simply pointing out those instances. Read it or not.

    You have misjudged me, and done so publicly. Not cool. Google me. I’m not who you think. A blog is a public forum to share ideas. You hurled the first insult. When I am attacked, comments are cut off. It happens.

  40. Dr. Lewis,

    Have you read “The Cobra Event” by Richard Preston? It was our fun summer read this year for book club…I really enjoyed it, but got the feeling it was written specifically with the movie version in mind.

  41. Well lets all get used to it, to a computer engineer this is nothing different than watching people(even aliens) cracking passwords instantly, reprogramming robots on the fly, mysteriously connecting anything (walls, clothes, food, universe) without any interface, and even worse finding exactly what you want in someone else’s system in seconds! Without fiction, it would be very hard to sell science shows to air on the TV 🙂

  42. I’m a science fiction fan, and understand how to suspend my expectations of earth-based science for imaginary opportunities. But I also appreciate when the genre writers try to maintain realities. Example: David Weber’s descriptions of space battle is so much more real than Star Wars and Star Trek. And I have enjoyed medical science genre – Andromena Strain (sp?). I sure hope some of that science was ok; but if not, I will plead ignorance and enjoy it anyway. I will give science-based, science fiction and science fantasy TV a solid try, every time a new show comes out. But I gave up on Helix after 2 1/2 episodes.

    Its been fun reading the comments, here, but as the tone of some has gotten disrespectful, I think I’ll stop reading them, and read your blog, instead. Something good came out of Helix —- I found your blog, Ricki, and hope you continue it.

  43. Dear Ricky Lewis, none of the comments that you have taken from me as attacking you, were meant for you, at all, and my last comment was for “Thisisscyfy”
    I made 2 comments critical of attacks on you, 3 comments that were directly supportive of you, and probably another 1 or 2 thanking you. I’ve written to explain, but somehow this isn’t getting through, perhaps replies 2 levels down don’t get notified or directed correctly.

  44. Dear Ricky Lewis,

    None of my comments were critical of you, those 2 that were critical were aimed at others, who you yourself alos responded to.

    I have written nothing but supportive comments of you, and this shows in the indenting structure of the comment trail.

    I’ve tried to explain that a couple of times, somehow whatever notification you are getting of comments must make it seem that 2 crits I sent out, were to you. But they weren’t.

    If you check the blog comments directly you’ll see I made not criticism of you, wrote 2 crits in response to what I though were attacks on you, and wrote a series of comments supporting you.

    I can’t be clearer than that or try ha
    none of the comments that you have taken from me as attacking you, were meant for you, at all, and my last crit comment was for “Thisisscyfy”
    I made 2 comments critical of attacks on you, 3 comments that were directly supportive of you, and probably another 1 or 2 thanking you. I’ve written to explain, but somehow this isn’t getting through, perhaps replies 2 levels down don’t get notified or directed correctly.

  45. Pity, I would think that Helix needs a reboot… In the field of medical sci-fi, that it might be best to try to keep to even just the vaguely possible science standard
    Owning 2 standard Student Microscopes, (one a stereo scope)from the need for fun back in 1980 ( I was a student, and wanted my own resource to be able to see at anything at my leisure) I was disconcerted to find that an electron mike, looked so startling like my stereo mike, and that the virus was mobile (perhaps we need to invent a new class of creature, semi virus, mobile, and with super abilities to intelligently mutate to meet Darwinian fitness standards..)

    The idea of Helix has possibilities, though one would have hoped for professional operational standards from the CDC people, the use of an obscure Island nation where you can actually buy the kind of privacy from International oversight evidenced in Helix, really Helix would have been much much better, if only if they had farmed out their fact checking to even just a High School Science class.

    Sure I like Star Trek, even the first SGU, Galactica, Fringe, The X files, but given with these was the total suspension of the laws of physics and Science, which you accepted because you fell in love with the characters.

    Helix is an idea that could have made it, it seems like there was a perverse need to get this show as wrong as possible, by it’s producers and writers.

    I did realize that you, Ricky, are a geneticist of the feminine persuasion as was my 2nd wife, who worked for Australian CSIRO and then Aus. Primary Industry for years. It was that experience that moved me to view many life scientists, as great fun, people often able to actually communicate what they were doing, but subject to the outrageous whims and fortunes of Administrations chasing funding, something which often resulted in the distorting the process of good science, by forcing that projects be ostensibly aimed at obtaining results with very small probability of wished for results…

    Any way, I have a weakness for the whole society of geneticists, Somewhat illegitimately, I did a lot of the Stats analysis for my wife’s Honour’s thesis, written to run on an handheld TI-52, and each small part would take many hours to get through a subset set of intermediate results.
    We had the help of the Melbourne University Stats Department and the Genetics department, but Stats people there didn’t understand Genetics, and the Geneticists weren’t such great statisticians, though population genetics history is littered with great statisticians. It was 20 years later, when I re-read the paper, I came upon a fundamental flaw in the work we had created, that had been missed…. Possible the result of too many passionate encounters in the lab late at night, when we should have been focusing on purely intellectual pursuit of the topic. That was back in the mid/late 70s

    Thank you for your blog

  46. As I say, make your own. One of the best ways to convey proper / realworld science is not so much bemoan a project you are not involved, but involve to make your own and let it play out in the court of public opinion as well. In this case, not a documentary but a science fiction piece that will get network exposure, finance to look accomplished, get the science right while making a story/characters worth audience investment, especially outside of the core scientific community. I find Helix Ok, better than a lot of what appears on SyFY, especially their made to be so bad its supposedly good movies. Rock on.

  47. I’ve seen (half of) the first chapter yesterday. what a great facepalm!!! my favourite part was something of the “paleoneurological” structure (?!?!?!) … I mean, as a biologist, something like that is a big turn-off… and you don’t need to be a big scientist to understand how idiotic it is that you can break a super-duper secure lock with liquid nitrogen, I mean, it was just like McGyver getting out of alcatraz with a paper clip… or having a bunch of people wondering WHY ON EARTH a person would rip out a hand, in a series where all the doors are open with a chip implanted in a hand … hello?? you have 893432 phDs and you cannot crack THAT enigma??

    it was a waste of time, but at least we laughed for a while. then it was just sad, so we stopped it, erased the files and moved on. some series have bad science but are interesting nonetheless, this wasn’t the case.

  48. What’s amazing is that the comments on this blog post are constantly picking up different errors! I actually enjoy shows like Helix, but I think I have a built-in error-detector that once the absurdities start flying too frequently, I go for the delete button too. Thanks for posting!

  49. No insult, I commend those who can convey both accuracy and entertainment, and to getting a show on television or a movie produced for theaters, I say that if one wants to see the most accuracy conveyed from Hollywood, one has to write it themselves, get it produced and see that vision realized. Now indie films with backing have a greater chance of creation/distribution than per say tv shows due to long term financing issues.

  50. We stumbled over here by a different page and thought I should check things out.
    I like what I see so now i’m following you. Look forward to
    looking at your web page for a second time.

  51. It may have it’s faults but considering what SyFy has served up lately(Atomic Tornado,Robot Croc etc) Helix is a mile in front of their usual fare but having said that the writer’s still have a way to go yet.
    Just for the record I don’t have a science background but have always loved the filed of Virology and it’s associated fields and that combined with the writer in me tells me they have fudged many details in this story.

  52. Love this blog post and just have to leave a comment since I haven’t seen it mentioned yet. This show looks like it is just a crapy rehash of Resident Evil ( an old video game series). They changed some details and have craped up the science, but the basic plot of evil corporation makes a virus then tries to hide the evidence is the same, even the use of government agents coming to investigate only to be captured in some way.

  53. I’m willing to chalk a lot of seemingly crazy behavior up to plot neccessity, with the optional excuse of the virus. I pretty much realized that the channel had jumped the shark when they changed their name to SyFy (syience fyction? – I bet they dot their “i”s with little hearts, too). I’m ok with cheesy entertainment if I know thats what I’m in for. But as a admin director of science research projects, I get constantly thrown off by things in Helix like:

    A building wide, un-filtered ducting system in a place that should have high levels of containment (including airlocks, clean rooms, proper bio-hazard suits, etc etc)…

    An automated intercom that frequently says “contamination” without any specifics of threat level, location, or instructions, or automatic lock-down…

    A huge, fancy, over-designed building housing over 100 scientists 24/7/365, with only 15 support staff, all of whom appear to be security – no cooks, janitors, IT, building maint, accountants, lab/inventory managers, etc…

    The bizarrely casual handling of bio-hazard corpses, combined with the foresight to build an elaborate, illuminated, geometric, head-in-a-jar-of-unfreezable-liquid storage area outside the building…

    A staff of scientists who seem to universally behave rashly and selfishly at all times – no methodical, overly analytical stereotypes here! The ones who get the most dialog are mostly middle-aged white men; no desperate young minorities from developing countries. Maybe the company only hires unstable, disgraced ex-faculty…

    A CDC with no apparent protocols or equipment of their own for diagnosing, containing, or treating. Apparently teams are dropped off without sat phones, transportation, lab trailers etc. And if the home office never hears anything from them, thats ok too….

    Wathcing the good and bad characters try to circumvent/effect most of the above list properly would help make the plot more interesting. The duct issue alone makes me crazy – talk about your trite tropes. Although it does make for cheap set building. At least we havent seen any visible infra-red beams yet.

    Thanks for your good blog – keep up the good work.

  54. I made it through most of one episode of helix, the scene where a sample is being examined through an optical microscope and the view cuts to a computer graphic of an animated worm and one character says “That is only 15 nanometres, too small for a virus” was where I gave up and switched off.
    I can forgive some bad acting and some not strictly accurate science, but idiotic errors like that, combined with bad writing and bad directing just show a lack of respect for the viewer.

  55. You said it better than I did Peter. That’s exactly the scene where my husband and I gave up — and that was the first episode! I think it was downhill from there. Anyone know if it got renewed?

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