Sanctuary: “Sanctuary for All”

Dr. Doolittle, I Presume?

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall


Fridays at 10/9 C on SciFi Channel

“Sanctuary for All”

Written by Damian Kindler and Sam Egan

Directed by Martin Wood

It’s difficult to know whether Friday’s two-hour episode of SciFi Channel’s Sanctuary can be considered a “premiere”, since this episode originally debuted in May last year. However, it did not air as part of a television broadcast—it was the first in a series of webisodes. This “new series” is the SciFi Channel’s attempt to expand the online show into a full fledged broadcast series. Let’s call it a co-pilot.

The concept of the show teases the imagination with possibilities: Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping, Stargate SG-1) runs a secret foundation in which “abnormals” human and otherwise find refuge—or prison. “It’s not a zoo,” she tells her guest, forensic psychologist Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne, NCIS), “But it isn’t a prison, either.” Well, yes it is. She imprisons “elementals” and other beings who are too dangerous to be allowed to roam around loose. But her approach is mainly scientific and compassionate, and her own warmly sympathetic manner eased me over whatever ethical qualms the idea of a prison/zoo/sanctuary roused in me. One might argue all night over whether, for example, Quasimodo lived in a prison or a sanctuary.

The pilot follows Zimmerman as he is called into a murder investigation. We’ve already seen what really happened; a young boy with a disturbingly phallic-looking appendage has killed three people apparently in self-defense, and runs away into the subway. When Zimmerman spots him and tries to follow, he is sideswiped by a girl on a motorcycle, and then hit by a black Caddy driven by Bigfoot. Dr. Magnus is the passenger, and later shows up at the hospital to tell him that there is more to life than meets with his philosophy. He succumbs to curiosity, visits the Sanctuary, and takes the aforementioned tour. Eventually he, Dr. Magnus, and Magnus’ daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup, Blood Ties), the girl on the motorcycle, team up to rescue the boy and help him deal with his lethal reactions. A subplot involving a long-lived Jack the Ripper, a traumatic childhood experience of Zimmerman’s, and Magnus’ real age (hint: it’s in triple digits) complicate the story somewhat without really adding to the entertainment value. At this stage, we’re just getting acquainted with the premise and the characters; we don’t need no stinkin’ relationships.

The look is gloomy and, at times, cheesy. From what I’m reading, most of the show is shot against green screen, with exteriors, cityscapes, buildings, and most of the monsters matted in later with CGI. The danger here is that this gives actors literally nothing to work with—no fellow human to play off of, no actual monster to react to, no location to orient themselves in or, as Tapping herself has noted in interviews, any sense of scale. Kudos to any actor who can work this way without a net; the actors in this show are all veterans of this kind of cutting-edge production. Unfortunately, the CGI needs work. Too many scenes were dark, even for a dark narrative, and the city looked frankly computer generated. The entire production looked low-budget. I shudder to think what it would have looked like if they’d actually tried sets and locations with this budget, but even so, I expected a little more bang for the buck. Computer-generated sets do not have to look like someone shot out all the lights; Pushing Daisies is a fine example of how CGI can give depth and realism to a show even as it reminds us it’s a fable.

The direction on this episode was almost glacial. This really felt like a one hour show stretched into two. It’s a little late in the day to be introducing the hero as a social outcast who suddenly discovers the secret cabal who Understand Him, let alone share his fears. We can see that coming a mile away. That entire aspect of the story could have been condensed with no loss. In fact, I liked the secondary story, of Ashley and her friend/arms dealer Sylvio (Panou,Andromeda Strain) much better. When a killer named John Druitt (Christopher Heyerdahl,Stargate: Atlantis) shows up and wounds Sylvio as they are arranging a buy, Sylvio asks Ashley to leave him because he’s about to cry like a girl and doesn’t want any witnesses. Yes, witty repartee in the middle of a fight scene never grows old. Too bad the fight scene in the dark and murky warehouse went on forever. And the chase scenes in the dark and murky tunnels went on forever. And the final fight in the monster exhibit was even darker and murkier. I am going to be charitable and assume that some of this is due to editing together a bunch of webisodes that were not shot to be seen on television; perhaps after a couple more episodes, the producers will have earned enough to pay the light bill. Or move the show from Vancouver to some place where the sun shines.

The special effects are not that special, the story plods, and the characters (particularly Zimmerman) have yet to achieve more than one dimension. However, the premise is intriguing enough to keep me coming back for more. Sanctuary‘s first full TV run garnered 2.7 million viewers, making it the top ranking primetime cable offering on Friday, the top ranking primetime program among adults 25-54, and the number four among adults 18-49. An auspicious debut, especially considering that everything we saw Friday night was not new, but a “rerun” of web delivered content. The future is here; good thing the WGA negotiated those web residual clauses just in time. We’ll see next week if Sanctuary can stand on its own, with brand new material.