Helix Q&A: Showrunner Steven Maeda Weighs In On That Theme Song, Aliens, and When We'll Get Some Answers
One of the most fascinating series on TV right now is Syfy's Helix, a science-fiction thriller about a viral outbreak in an Arctic research lab that doesn't seem to follow the regular roles of what we expect from the genre. It is weird. It also happens to be scary and fun, and if you don't mind television that's a little off-kilter and you can ignore some flaws here and there, the show is very addictive.
In advance of former Star Trek: Voyager star Jeri Ryan's big guest debut in this Friday's episode, "Survivor Zero," I chatted with Helix showrunner Steven Maeda (Lost, Lie to Me, CSI:Miami) about what's ahead, whether there are aliens involved, and how far Helix can go.
TV.com: Okay, I've been dying to ask you this. What is up with that weird and oh-so-awesome intro music for the opening credits?
Steven Maeda: [Laughs] The intro music is awesome, I just love it. The music came to us as we were cutting the pilot, and we had talked about playing some music that was kind of counter [to the show], but it was when he hit on "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" in the pilot that we said, "Hey you know what? Let's not do main title music that's on-the-nose and is what you'd expect from a show like this. Because we've seen that before, let's try and do something different." Our composer Reinhold Heil came up with this great little bossa nova, and when we heard it we were like, okay that's weird, and then we fell in love with it. Some of my favorite sequences in the show are the ones we set to songs, whether they're ones we just kind of discover or golden oldies.
How did Syfy react to it?
They were supportive, there were a couple people questioning and going, "You sure?" And we were like, "We're sure!" The hardest part is finding the right place to break and place the main title, because it's all over the place where we want to put it. It was a learning process for all of us; the music, how we're telling the story, doing jump-cutting, we're doing a lot of things that aren't terribly conventional. Not just shaking the tree to shake it up, we want you to feel unsettled and watch the show and not know quite what to expect, and the music is part of that.
That music really sets the tone for the show, which I'm having a hard time putting a description to, because it's very dark, but it has a certain quirkiness to it.
Yeah, there's definitely some dark humor, and it's something we do when we can. But it's a pretty serious show, and we don't want to go too tongue-in-cheek, but we're definitely having fun with it. I think my favorite scenes are when we find a song that is playing counter to the scene, and we're not doing it in every episode, but we are in most of them. It takes you out of the moment, but I think in a good way. It's unsettling, like, "This isn't supposed to be happening this way."
I've always thought of the Arctic Biosystems lab as a main character, and I wondered if the series would be confined to the space with just its core scientists. But last week, you opened things up by setting some action outside the lab and bringing in new characters with that last helicopter shot. How far can you expand the show geographically?
I don't want to give too much away, but we definitely want to take advantage of areas in our proximity up in the Arctic. When you're up there it's very desolate and there's not many places to go, but we're starting to open that up and get into some of the locals, some of the indigenous people who live up there, and also bring some people into the show, as you saw in the last episode. We are opening up the world, and if we get a second season, we'll really open up the world.
Speaking of new characters, Friday's episode features Jeri Ryan as a guest star. What can you tell us about her character?
She plays Constance Sutton, and she is one of the corporate minders of Alaria Corporation, who are the main funders of Arctic Biosystems. She's coming in ostensibly to help, but pretty quickly we'll see she has another agenda, and she has a deep, dark background with Hatake and her own way of doing business.
How many episodes is she sticking around for?
We want to tease that and leave it open, she'll be around for a "number" of episodes.
There's a lot of ambiguity to each character on the show, except for maybe Alan. Will we see a divide between good and bad people, or is everyone operating within various shades of gray?
Definitely shades of gray. I say that unapologetically. When we started, it seemed fairly certain who was on what side of the outbreak and the situation. Then the goal was to take the people you think are bad and humanize them, and take the people you think are good and add some darker shades to them. I think there are few successful shows where you don't have those kind of dynamics. We're really trying to lean heavily into that. You know, if you thought you understood what Hatake was about, by the time you get to the end of the series, you should have a completely different perspective on him, and hopefully every character.
Based on some of the comments on my episode reviews, some fans aren't really into the "love square" between Alan, Julia, Peter, and Sarah, and I tend to agree. How is that going to play into the bigger story?
One of the things we wanted to do because we're telling the story in 13 days and we're not doing flashbacks, we had to really load people up and get them up to the base with a lot of baggage. And that's what got us into the love triangle, because it's tried-and-true, obviously. And the love square, where we had two triangles going, was a result of us trying to figure out different permutations of how things would work, and it led to some great storytelling that will become apparent in Episode 7, 8, 9, 10. Some people love the love triangles, and others are like, "Bring me the good twists!" Love triangles are an attempt to make these stories as emotional as possible by giving a lot of interconnected character backstory.
There are a lot of theories out there about aliens somehow being involved in Helix. Point blank: What do you say to people pitching that idea?
I say, "Continue to hypothesize!" For me, one of the fun things about the show is that you can throw a lot of balls in the air. As long as everything comes down and is resolved in a satisfying way, part of the fun of these types of shows is to play along and figure out what is going on. So I will neither confirm nor deny that there are aliens! One of our favorite theories, just by virtue of working with [Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald D. Moore] is that they're all Cylons. We definitely wanted to leave a lot of things open up until the point we resolve them. And we will [resolve them], in this first season. We were very, very clear from the beginning. We are going to open up mysteries, but we're going to answer them. The major mysteries will all be answered by the end of the first season.
So we will know what the virus does by the end of the first season?
What the virus does, why it was designed, we will have all those answers by the first season. In fact, before the end of the first season.
Another speculation out there is that Julia is Hatake's daughter.
That is also a great hypothesis that I will neither confirm nor deny! What we wanted was you to be really intrigued by what the nature of that relationship is. The more ambiguity it has the better, up until the point when we resolve it, and we're going to be resolving that relatively soon. We want all those theories out there to wonder, "What it the deal?"
Anything else you want to tease before you go?
I don't think there's anything I can give right now. We're happy we have a very dedicated fan base, we have lots of cool surprises and good twists coming up. We're especially excited about this back half of the season.
Helix airs Fridays at 10pm on Syfy. Star Trek: Voyager's Jeri Ryan guest stars in this week's episode, "Survivor Zero."
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