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Sci-fi series pits scientists against a sinister bio-threat in an Arctic outpost

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The environment is impossibly inhospitable -- a deep-frozen polar outpost where fierce, frigid winds make the mere act of stepping outside for a few moments an almost-certain death sentence.

Remaining inside, however, is hardly a better option, after an ill-considered genetic experiment gone awry has unleashed a horror that, if unchecked, could pose a threat to the entire population of the planet.

And quite frankly, there's no place on Earth that Billy Campbell would rather be.

Of course, it isn't the deadly cold or the even more deadly bio-threat that appeal to Campbell -- those are, after all, fictional elements in the storyline of the new speculative-fiction adventure drama Helix, in which the 54-year-old actor plays a starring role.

It's the prospect of a continuing role in a sci-fi genre series that has Campbell more than a little bit excited.

"I'm a huge fan of speculative fiction, and have been most of my life," Campbell explains in a telephone interview. "If I had my druthers, I'd never do anything but sci-fi or fantasy or period films. I love genres in general, but I'm particularly fond of the sci-fi genre."

In Helix, which premières Friday on Showcase, Campbell plays Dr. Alan Farragut, who leads a team from the U.S.'s Centers for Disease Control to a privately owned bio-tech research facility in the high Arctic after a possible infectious-disease outbreak is reported.

Once the team gets there, however, they discover something far more sinister and dangerous than a nasty flu-bug mutation. As it turns out, the scientists at the remote facility -- which has intentionally been built outside the jurisdiction and regulatory restrictions of potentially meddlesome governments -- have been dabbling in areas of genetic engineering that are ethically questionable and, especially now that things have gone very wrong, exceedingly dangerous.

It's this kind of storyline -- a wild, thrilling adventure with a basis in scientific fact -- that Campbell finds particularly intriguing.

"This kind of storytelling is all about pandering to our primal fears," says Campbell, who is perhaps best known for his role opposite Sela Ward in the ABC series Once and Again (1999-2002). "And the fear of predation -- whether by lions or tigers or by something so small you can't see it -- is one of the most basic primal fears.

"In a general sense, that's the attraction, for me, in science fiction and speculative fiction -- that there are unlimited possibilities. You can entertain any notion and extrapolate any circumstance into both the future and the past. That's the real joy in it."

The wide-open narrative of Helix represents a marked departure from Campbell's last big TV role, in which he played U.S. president Abraham Lincoln in the movie adaptation of Bill O'Reilly's book Killing Lincoln.

Not only was the actor tasked with playing one of the most beloved and scrutinized figures in American political history; his TV-drama rendering of Lincoln hit the airwaves not long after Daniel Day-Lewis's big-screen portrayal was deemed Oscar-worthy.

"In most circumstances, playing a fictional character is an easier job," Campbell admits. "But the thing that was in common between these two jobs is that I was hired very much at the last moment for both. With Lincoln and with this (Helix) role, it was almost precisely the same amount of time between finding out I had the job and having to go to work, and that was just in excess of a week.

"I had zero time to prepare for Lincoln, and looking back on it, I think that might have been one of the best things that could have happened, because I might have thought myself into a kind of paralysis otherwise. It's a loaded thing to play Lincoln, and when I was offered the job, I thought, 'What? Me? That's absurd; I'm not even remotely right for it.' But they convinced me that they believed I had something that was pertinent, so I went for it.

"All I had time to do was put on the clothes and spend a bit of time walking around Richmond (Virgina) in order to get a feel for it. I had no time to prepare, but they were very happy with the way it turned out, and in fact, I was pretty darned happy myself." Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2014 D1


Updated on Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 6:48 AM CST: Changes headline, replaces photo, adds video

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