Sanctuary – season one

cast: Amanda Tapping, Robin Dunne, Emilie Ullerup, and Christopher Heyerdahl

creator: Damian Kindler

585 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Contender DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Barbara Davies

mermaid tank in Sanctuary

bio hazard in Sanctuary

sin bin for Sanctuary

Sanctuary – season one

It’s a rarity for something that began life as a series of eight 15-minute web-episodes to make the transition to fully-fledged TV series, but Sanctuary has done just that. This four-disc set contains not only the 13 episodes that comprise season one of the TV series but also the original ‘webisodes’ that spawned it. The differences between the two, and the way both series and characters have evolved, make for fascinating viewing.

An original blend of fantasy, crime, and mystery, with a touch of The X-Files, this engaging Canadian TV series, created and partially written by Damian Kindler, follows the adventures of the enigmatic Dr Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) and her colleagues at a secret facility known as the Sanctuary. As Magnus says, “There are things in this city, in this world, that no one wants to admit are real… Some need saving. Others can’t be allowed to run free.” And the Sanctuary’s cells, with their specialised micro-climates, can either protect or cage these ‘abnormals’.

Magnus believes that Dr Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne), a forensic psychiatrist attached to homicide, would be the perfect recruit for the Sanctuary. His profiling skills, plus a stubborn and frequently inconvenient attention to detail, would be the perfect complement for her expertise in cryptozoology, xenobiology, and teratology. But he needs convincing. Thus begins their first reluctant case together, during which both an incredulous Will and the audience are introduced to the abnormals housed within the Sanctuary and to its staff: Magnus’s gun-toting, motorbike-riding daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup); butler Bigfoot (the actor’s secret identity is revealed in the audio commentary); and wise-cracking geek Henry Foss (Ryan Robbins).

There’s plenty of scope for a ‘monster of the week’ when abnormals can include mutant Ukrainian boys with lethal appendages, mermaids, men with two faces, autistic savants whose eyes shoot fire, ‘folded’ men, cute fluffy creatures that emit erotic pheromones, chameleon beasts, etc. Not content with this, however, Kindler adds other elements to the mix. British-born Magnus has had a long (and I mean long) life during which she and her scientist friends performed some rather dubious (to say the least!) experiments.

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Now that past comes back to bite her in the shape of a former, very dangerous lover with the power to teleport: the sinister John Druitt (Christopher Heyerdahl). Add to that a mysterious and powerful organisation known as the Cabal (also headed by a strong woman) who want to exploit abnormals for their own ends, and the stage is set for conflict and a tense but enjoyable rollercoaster ride. But be warned: season one of Sanctuary ends with a ‘to be continued…’ cliff-hanger. (Season two is currently airing on British TV.)

As with many TV shows first seasons, it takes a while for Sanctuary to find its feet. The necessity for explanation and exposition slows the opening two-parter Sanctuary For All, and a few inconsistencies and plot holes quickly become apparent. Magnus and Co are always gadding off to investigate the sighting of a new abnormal, yet there seem to be remarkably few support staff (i.e. none) around to run the Sanctuary in their absence. And then there’s the far less important question: why does the Magnus of the flashbacks have blonde hair yet in the present have brown hair? That aside, though, as the season progresses, it becomes more certain of what it is and where it’s going, and by the finish is really motoring.

Some episodes, such as the ‘bottle’ episodes Kush (set aboard an aeroplane) and Requiem (set aboard a submarine), are standalone, while others develop Sanctuary’s underlying ‘mythos’, which is, thankfully, much less tedious than the paranoid conspiracy mythos that underlay The X-Files, and involves the Cabal and some friends from Magnus’ Oxford University days, each of whom has a special power. Among my favourite episodes are Fata Morgana, with its exploration of what might lie behind the myth of the Morrigan; the amusing, innuendo-crammed Nubbins, which owes its inspiration to the original Star Trek’s The Trouble With Tribbles; and the two-parter Revelations, which ends the season on a terrific cliff-hanger involving Ashley. But I was far less interested in Warriors, a kind of ‘mutant Fight Club’ in which Will morphs into an unconvincing Incredible Hulk look-alike; and Instinct, told from a camera-crew’s POV, which irritates with its deliberately shaky camerawork and non-stop voiceover.

Sanctuary relies heavily on ‘green screen’ and CGI for its visual effects, and though some of the resulting settings and creatures are less than convincing (the mermaid and the beast that preys on the Nubbins being a case in point), others work extremely well. Tapping (Stargate SG-1), here with brown hair and a British accent that take a little getting used to, is a revelation, flexing acting muscles that there was little scope for on Stargate SG-1, and effortlessly carries the show. (I suspect it was largely her involvement in Sanctuary as actor and producer that led to its making the transition from the internet to TV.) The shaven-headed Christopher Heyerdahl is also excellent in multiple roles, particularly Druitt, a complex character that we are never sure whether to trust or not. Robin Dunne’s bespectacled Will initially evoke echoes of Stargate’s Daniel Jackson, and his character has the thankless task of being the means by which the viewers are brought up to speed. But once that’s out of the way, Dunne (Species 3, The Snow Walker) soon dispenses with his specs and turns in a nicely thoughtful performance as Will, besides being willing to show us his chest. Relative newcomer Emilie Ullerup is a little one-dimensional as the gung ho Ashley, but quickly grows into her role. Meanwhile for some reason Ryan Robbins (Passengers) doesn’t merit co-star billing as Henry, the geek with a secret, yet he is as much a part of the core cast as the others and adds some welcome comic moments. As for guest stars, Peter Wingfield and Jonathon Young give excellent, not to mention scene-stealing performances as James Watson and Nikola Tesla respectively.

DVD extras: this boxset is extremely well endowed with extras. Every single one of the 13 TV episodes comes with a cast and crew commentary. In addition, the original webisodes are here in full, plus three making-of featurettes covering Sanctuary’s cast, characters, and visual effects. And finally there are bloopers, a behind-the-scenes photo gallery, and a sneak peak of what’s to come in season two.