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Sanctuary: The Complete First Season

(Sy Fy; US DVD: 15 Sep 2009)

Sanctuary: The Complete First Season

“There are things in this city, in this world, that no one wants to admit are real.” – Dr. Helen Magnus, Sanctuary


Amanda Tapping spent 11 years portraying the much-loved Samantha Carter in Stargate SG-1 and its spin-off Stargate Atlantis. She was offered another year on the latter but instead chose to star in the untested new challenge of Sanctuary. Originating in May 2007 as eight 15-minute webisodes and picked up by Sy Fy as a full series, it offers an intriguing premise about the “abnormals” living among us. Instead of cruising through another year, Tapping gets the chance to show her British origins while leading a rising project.


Sanctuary uses the innovative RED camera, which provides much-improved resolution over the typical HD footage. This device is a necessity because the series is shot almost entirely on green screen. While some material is obviously computer-generated, most of the effects create a believable environment. It’s amazing to see the minimal sets used to compose this show. Stargate SG-1 alums Damien Kindler (creator) and Martin Wood (director)  take a different approach here to craft an inventive original series.


Premiering in October 2008, the first season expands the world of strange beings and the main character’s back stories. The 13 episodes include an engaging group of stories with only a few missteps in the mix. Tapping plays Dr. Helen Magnus, the mysterious proprietor of the massive Sanctuary, which houses all types of fantastic creatures. With a mission statement of “sanctuary for all”, she takes in both hostile and friendly abnormals to shield them from humanity (and vice versa).


The modern-day stories mirror our society’s uncaring treatment of outsider groups without being too blatant. The main plot and fast-paced action are the focus each week, with the allegory falling into the background. While direct connections to our culture work brilliantly on a complex drama like Battlestar Galactica, it would seem forced on this smaller-scale production.


Our entry point into Magnus’ world is Dr. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne), a former police investigator with a keen sense of what’s hidden beneath the surface. His recruitment gives us the chance to discover the Sanctuary along with his character. As Will grows accustomed to this new world, the mysteries deepen and reveal other players competing for high stakes.


The most intriguing figure is John Druitt (Christopher Heyerdahl, Stargate Atlantis), a vicious enemy who shares major history with Magnus. He’s more than a one-note villain, however, and becomes involved in the season’s major arc. Heyerdahl brings a casual grace to the powerful Druitt while injecting a formidable presence into each scene. The multi-faceted actor does double duty as Bigfoot, the Sanctuary’s hulking butler who rarely speaks. Similar to his work as the Wraith Todd on Atlantis, Heyerdahl reveals surprising emotions behind loads of makeup.


The season begins with the two-part “Sanctuary for All”, which introduces us to Magnus, Zimmerman and the other key figures. It also presents the first conflict with Druitt when he infiltrates the Sanctuary. The early stories expand the universe while giving us a few “monster of the week” tales. “Fata Morgana” establishes The Cabal, the corporate-like entity that becomes a key enemy. Their goals are definitely not as heroic as Magnus’ team. “Kush” provides an intriguing minimalist story in a remote cold landscape.


Following a plane crash, Magnus, Zimmerman and others try to survive attacks from a hidden monster. Less successful is “Nubbins”, which has goofy creatures multiplying rapidly in the Sanctuary. While it contains some silly moments, the tone shifts too far in that direction.


A classic mid-season episode is “The Five”, which expands the mythology and delves into Magnus’ back story. We meet the vampire Nikola Tesla (Jonathon Young), a suave villain with his own nasty aims. Druitt and the Cabal also return and show the wide array of possibilities for the series’ future. Another exciting story is “Instinct”, a purposeful Cloverfield rip-off that still manages to deliver a fun ride. Battlestar Galactica‘s Rekha Sharma guests as an ambitious news caster looking for her big break. The season concludes with the two-part “Revelations” and offers the predictably stunning cliffhanger. There were some missteps, but this 12-episode collection reveals serious promise for the upcoming year.


Sanctuary builds the characters’ histories deliberately without reverting to lengthy exposition. Magnus’ past is the big mystery, but we also build interest in her stunning daughter Ashley (Emilee Ullerup). Beginning as the Sanctuary’s muscle, she develops into a full-fledged individual. Tapping brings the star power here, but Ullerup, Dunne and Heyerdahl are equally strong. Familiar supporting players from the Vancouver acting scene also lend more weight to each story.


This DVD release’s best attribute is the original webisodes, which run longer than two hours. They’re fascinating because certain scenes were pulled into the first two aired episodes, while other were reshot. The Druitt storyline plays out completely differently here, and Zimmerman joins the Sanctuary in another way. Pretty much all the changes improve the television episodes, which is a relief. The Cabal also doesn’t appear in the “Fata Morgana” scenes, though the three witches only change a bit.


The other major difference is the effects, which are less believable in the original webisodes. Even the identical set-ups have been enhanced considerably and aren’t obviously computer-generated. I’m still impressed by the quality of the 2007 versions, which still go well beyond the typical web series. 


The other major extras are commentaries on every episode, with most including Kindler, Wood and Tapping, plus other participants. It’s refreshing to hear all three executive producers discussing the show, which makes them less typical. Viewers with less time should enjoy the brief featurettes, which provide a total of 15 minutes. All the major players discuss the show’s beginnings, visual effects and the Sanctuary’s residents. There’s also a three-minute blooper reel that just offers the expected flubbed lines and on-set silliness.

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Dan Heaton has written about film and music for more than 10 years for both print and web publications, including DigitallyObsessed.com and ErasingClouds.com. You can check out his current work at his blog, Public Transportation Snob (ptsnob.com). Dan earned Bachelors degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1998. His writing covers a wide array of genres, with a particular interest in sci-fi movies and television. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and toddler daughter.


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18 Nov 2012
The ensemble acting here elevates a rather silly premise into something that is at times emotionally gripping, which is quite a feat for a show that features Nikola Tesla as a vampire.
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