Sanctuary: “Fata Morgana”

Three Rings for the Elves?

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall


Fridays at 10/9 C on SciFi Channel

“Fata Morgana”

Story by Damian Kindler & Martin Wood; Teleplay by Damian Kindler

Directed by Martin Wood

“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

Macbeth (I, i, 1-2)

Does anyone else wonder about the ethics of someone just waltzing into a foreign country and “acquiring” three of its citizens (comatose citizens, no less, who can’t fight back)? And all this in pursuit of an elixir for immortality that the world has to be protected from? Within seconds of the opening scenes, this show has abandoned the moral high ground; what’s really sad is that the writers don’t even seem to recognize that there is a moral high ground to fight for. Apparently any kind of behavior is excusable as long as it’s exhibited by our heroes–even when Dr. Magnus and her cohorts indulge in the exact same behavior they condemn in others. A really great writing team could milk this situation for dramatic irony and a melancholy sort of self-awareness, the way Joss Whedon could make Spike and Angel broodingly self-aware. After all, a flawed hero is more approachable than a perfect one. But a “hero” who isn’t even aware that she’s crossed her own boundaries is not approachable–she’s stupid.

Dr. Helen Magnus takes her daughter and her pet shrink to Scotland to retrieve three women who allegedly have a secret to immortality. In a scene straight out of a Vincent Price/Hammer Films cemetery, the Sanctuarians fight off hordes of monsters while Dr. Zimmerman enters the crypt and un-tombs the three women inside. Awesome shooting and kung fu skills by mother and daughter entertain for a bit, but Zimmerman dawdles as if he has all the time in the world. The Keepers of the Dead look like nothing so much as guys dressed up for Halloween in cheap rubber masks. Which, as it turns out, they pretty much are. As long as the show is going to be spending so much money on CGI anyway, why not whip up a few non-humanoid monsters to really creep us out? Otherwise, the show risks turning these encounters into live action versions of shooter video game. Oh, wait, maybe that’s the point. I confess that I wondered more than once Fridaynight if this show was just one long promo for an upcoming game release.

Back in the Sanctuary, Dr. Z wakes one woman up; she seems to be unfamiliar with electric lighting and central heat. Under hypnosis, she claims to have survived something called the “miasmas”, which killed her whole village. Dr. Zimmerman deduces that the “miasmas” the awakened woman fears is bubonic plague–demonstrating his knowledge of Greek–but then states that the last major outbreak of bubonic plague was in Scotland in the ninth century–demonstrating his ignorance of medical history. Who doesn’t know that the Black Death wiped out one third of Europe in the fourteenth century? That’s a good four hundred years later than Dr. Zimmerman’s terminus. It is never a good idea to make your hero look like an idiot; Dr. Zimmerman just flunked Are You Smarter Than a Tenth Grader?

The awakened ninth-century Scottish lasses speak excellent colloquial English, and seem to understand Dr. Z’s science-speak: he says “medical facility” rather than “hospital” and she understands him. Convinced that the women (all three eventually awake) are suffering from a mass delusion and cannot actually be over a thousand years old, Dr. Zimmerman undertakes to treat them in a group therapy session (isn’t there an article prohibiting this in the Geneva Convention?). During the session, these alleged ninth century women, from a time when women usually could not even read, seem perfectly comfortable discussing 20th century concepts such as “psyche” and “diagnosis” with the doctor. Even if they had spoken Greek back in the day, and hence been able to recognize the words, they would have been completely unfamiliar with the meaning of those words as used today.

The doctor consistently refuses to speak in terms these women might be able to understand–indeed, in terms that ordinary laypersons of today would be expected to understand. He diagnoses them as having “delusional disorders” and speaks of post traumatic stress disorder, and not one of them blinks. Any mystery that might adhere to these women is instantly destroyed by their very banality. They look, speak, sit, and act like 21st century women in a consciousness raising session, not like lost, bewildered women out of their own time. A feeble attempt to pass this off as something called “telesthetic”, which allows them to learn English telepathically (and without a Scottish accent, apparently) fails. The more Dr. Magnus explained this sudden new theory, the less I believed it.

I sure wish the SciFi Channel made TV shows in color. As in Dark City, the sun never shines in this show. The pervasively dark look is downright depressing. The lighting looks shabby and cheap, as if the wealthy Dr. Magnus was cheating on the light bill or was used to candlelight only. The second episode of Sanctuary, the first not originally shown on the Web, should demonstrate the difference between a show written for delivery over the Internet in small bites, and one designed for continuous viewing at high definition. What we got instead was low lighting, mediocre storytelling, and more cheese than a plate of nachos.

Does everyone have to wear black leather? Ashley seems to be channeling Kate Beckinsale inUnderworld or Jessica Alba in Dark Angel. We’ve only had two episodes, and I’m already dying to see Ashley wear something other than paramilitary pornwear. And can she fight anything other than pixels? Now that they’re playing in the big league, the producers need to drop some of the green screens and open up the show to real locations, real actors, real dummies for Ashley to kick to smithereens.

Nor is there much historical research going into these beings. This story links the Morrigan, a three fold battle goddess of ancient Ireland, with the Arthurian legend. This is merely a confusion of like names, the Morrigan and Morgan La Fey (Morgan the Fairy), who is Arthur’s sister. Modern scholarship rejects any such link, as the Morrigan’s name derives from words for “terror” and “great queen”, while Morgan La Fey’s name derives from words for the sea. And none of this has anything to do with Scotland, where the Sisters were entombed.

The writing is bad because no one is thinking these things through. In one conversation, Dr. Magnus says of the three sisters, “What history defines as a witch, may merely have been someone with abnormal powers!” Uh, Doc, is that not the very definition of “witch”, historically speaking? This is a distinction without a difference. When the rings worn by the three women reveal the existence of the Illuminati Cabal, an ancient group dedicated to collecting “beings of power”, Dr. Magnus fails to see that what she is doing with her collection of weirdos in her Sanctuary is exactly the same thing. In a stunning demonstration of her lack of self-understanding, she decides the Cabal are bad guys. Pot, meet kettle.

When the Sisters finally wake to their own power, Dr. Magnus instantly concludes that they are too dangerous to stay in a facility which has been more or less built to house them–her own Sanctuary. Gee, Doc, maybe you should have considered that before you kidnapped them from Scotland? Has it never occurred to these blundering amateurs that someone who is in prison may be there because they belong there? That they may be a threat to public safety? Dr. Magnus decides to send the Ringbearers Sisters out of Rivendell Sanctuary, and lets the unarmed Dr. Zimmerman lead them to the catacombs of the Sanctuary. Here’s an example of the thrilling dialogue with which he demonstrates his leadership and insight:

Morrigan; Where are we going?

Will: Away from here.

When the Cabal showed up to reclaim their “property”, I was more than happy to see them reclaim it. Given a choice between staying at the Sanctuary which is in the process of kicking them out, or going back with the Cabal that has sheltered them for several thousand years, the Sisters make the obvious choice, to the consternation of the Sanctuarians. Yeah, that free will, what a bummer.

This is not to say that there are no redeeming moments or characters in this episode. I love the Two Headed Boy’s cannibal side. I love Bigfoot, who ably assists Dr. Magnus and makes suggestions considerably more intelligent than Will Zimmerman’s. I laughed when Will ran past a frightened, howling furry beast, and said, “Easy, Steve!” (Maybe this show needs more humor to make it real.) Henry the IT guy is completely wonderful and real. He takes medieval witches in stride but is thrown for a loop by Internet failure. I love it that it takes Henry longer to disarm than Ashley. And who wouldn’t enjoy watching Dr. Magnus unleash her killer kung fu in stilettos? The only advantage of green screen is the seamless transitions available, as when the deadly trio rise from their beds in the Sanctuary and step into a 9th century battlefield.

If I’ve gone on at length about the shortcomings of this show, it’s because I think it’s important.Sanctuary, for all its faults, is a pioneering show in both concept and execution. I don’t want to see these new ideas in presentation and production wither because they’re connected to a mediocre show. I want the show to get much better so that I can enjoy it (the premise is still very intriguing–who doesn’t like a zoo?) and so that other shows feel comfortable adopting the more Internet friendly format.

Sanctuary debuted to excellent numbers, and its second outing garnered 2.7 million viewers–very good numbers for this cable network. With very little genre competition on Friday nights, the SciFi Channel’s new offering should continue to do well. Looks like at least one show is glad Moonlight is off the air.