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Sanctuary: The Complete Series

(SyFy; US DVD: 23 Oct 2012)

Sanctuary is a SyFy channel TV series that ran for four seasons from 2008 to 2011. Mashing together the semi-comic tone of Firefly with the occult/otherworldly concerns of, say, Buffy or The X-Files, and throwing in thematic elements reminiscent of the X-Men movies—i.e., just being different doesn’t make you a monster—Sanctuary is a show that manages to incorporate just enough originality into its DNA to be worth watching, but not enough to be called groundbreaking. Some episodes are cringe-inducing, others manage to be genuinely suspenseful; most have a few chuckles and “oh wow” moments. In other words, It’s the perfect low-impact fare for a science fiction channel that prefers its programming to be just formulaic enough to be unthreatening.


Now the entire series had been released in a handsome box set, comprised of 59 episodes on 18 discs, housed in a nifty faux-antique box and accompanied by a 16-page pamphlet that easily brings newcomers up to speed. Strictly speaking, these Cliffs Notes are unnecessary; Sanctuary is not a terribly complex piece of television, and new viewers can simply start at the beginning and follow along with minimal confusion. Game of Thrones this ain’t, for better or for worse.


The eponymous sanctuary is a research institution run by one Dr. Helen Magnus, a woman who is (ahem) older than she looks—just how much older becomes apparent in the course of the first season. For reasons of her own, Magnus has a keen interest in the mythical, unloved beasts of human legend—the mermaids and basilisks, werewolves and sasquatches of humanity’s collective nightmares. She’s also fond of numerous other creatures that most people would call “monsters”, that have been created specifically for this show: brain-controlling parasitic grubs, giant poisonous South American insects, and so forth. She uses her facility as a “sanctuary for all”, in which she can study these creatures—referred to in the show as “abnormals”—while simultaneously protecting them from the unwanted attentions of ordinary human beings.


Except that things are rarely this simple, of course.


Dr. Magnus has been at her work for quite some time, and she’s remained unnoticed because she takes precautions. Assisting her in her work are Henry, her wisecracking tech aide (strongly reminiscent of Firefly‘s wisecracking pilot, Wash), tough chick-with-guns-Amanda, and new guy Will. Will provides the viewer with a way into the series, as he becomes involved with Magnus in the pilot episode, and learns as he goes along, taking the viewer with him.


All four seasons of the show have been released previously, and this set adds no new features other than the booklet and packaging, so fans of the show will have little reason to shell out for this. Curious newbies might be interested, though, as the show does overcome some early hiccups to become a consistently entertaining, if not essential, piece of television.


At its best, the acting on the show is competent and unspectacular—we’re not talking Breaking Bad or The Wire levels of excellence. Amanda Tapping plays Helen Magnus as smart and self-assured, but her supporting cast is shaky throughout the early episodes, which the exception of Ryan Robbins’ Henry. Later additions provide much-needed color, including Jonathan Young as an over-the-top Nikola Tesla. It must be said, though, that the series survives its actors rather than drawing strength from them.


The same might be said for the visual look of the show, which relies heavily on blue-screen backgrounds and CGI effects, some of which work well enough, but which sometimes lend the show the look of a particularly impressive videogame. This is something that never really goes away throughout the four seasons, so viewers who find CGI an insurmountable hurdle will probably want to stay away.


Season One’s 13 episodes are devoted mainly to laying out the world and relationships of Magnus and the sanctuary, including family relationships that are rarely as smooth as one might like. Standout episodes include the nail-biting “Kush”, which resurrects the familiar but always effective bunch-of-people-trapped-in-the-mountains-with-a-monster trope. Even better is “Instinct”, an episode that relies on faux found-video footage, Blair Witch style, to follow the team as it tracks down a deadly abnormal trapped in a warehouse. The strength of these episodes lies less in the plot twists—which many will see coming from a mile away—as from the effective setups and skillfully acted relationships. On the other side of the spectrum is “Nubbins”, a fairly dumb episode which echoes Star Trek‘s “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode in its tale of cute fuzzy wuzzies which turn out to be more of a pest than anything else.


The second season turns things considerably darker, with a series of events that are surprising in their grimness—trying not to spoil anything here—particularly in regards to one or two of the major characters. The second season also features the single best episode in the series, “Pavor Nocturnus”, a gritty look into a Terminator-style dystopia. The other main development in this season is the introduction of new team member Kate, a woman who is a hard-assed bounty hunter, marksman and kung fu expert—and fond of a mirthful quip or two. Agam Darshi does the best she can with weak material, but like Robin Dunne who plays Will, is often left with little more to do than pose for the camera.


Season Three expands from 13 episodes to 20, and the attendant need to fill up seven additional hours of programming time meets with uneven results. The main story arc concerns Magnus and her team exploration of “Hollow Earth”, a vast underground land populated by both human and abnormal species. The episodes that focus on this storyline, convoluted as it is but ultimately inventive and satisfying, are the best of the season. Standalone episodes, such as the tiresome “Hero II”, are less satisfying. It must be said, though, that “The Bank Job” is an episode that manages to be consistently surprising, and even lends a little depth the the wafer-thin character of Kate.


Sanctuary winds up with a fourth season pared back down to 13 episodes, and a resulting tightening of focus. The season’s best episodes are those that focus on the fallout from events in season three, when an army of abnormals threatens humanity and Helen engages in some paradox-inducing time travel. Distractions are kept to a minimum, and the final episodes manage to wrap up the show’s major threads without feeling rushed or overly contrived. Is there a room for a sequel? Probably. Is one necessary? Probably not. Unlike, say, Firefly, this is not a show that feels like it was cut short in its prime; 59 episodes are probably enough for anybody.


Just in case they’re not, the extras included on the set are numerous, including audio commentaries from Amanda Tapping and the show’s producers for every episode of the first two seasons and a dozen from the last two—considerably lengthening the already-hefty running time of the discs. Also included are blooper reels, character profiles, and a wide array of making-of featurettes, which will delight the hardcore fan. While not, perhaps, essential viewing, the features are generous, providing hours of additional content. As mentioned, these extras have already been provided on the individual seasons’ discs, so viewers who already have those will have little reason to splash out further.


Sanctuary is certainly a show that sci-fi fans should look into. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with it, you are likely to be pleasantly surprised to some degree, notwithstanding the uneven CGI and dialogue. This was obviously a labor of love for those involved, and the commitment to a particular vision does show onscreen. The ensemble acting 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. Despite its flaws, and they are many, Sanctuary remains a show worth watching.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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