Like the beings offered a safe haven in Sanctuary, Sci Fi Channel’s latest original series has yet to establish what it is before it can truly be comfortable in its skin and accepted on its own terms. In trying to be too many things at once, the show relies on cliches and loses the ability to actually entertain.
On one hand, Sanctuary wants to be an action-packed spectacle, full of fight scenes and splashy special effects. On the other hand, it plays up an intellectual moodiness that delves into questions of what makes an entity worthwhile through our skewed lens of humanity. Yes, the show can be both, but it hasn’t figured out how to balance the two sides cohesively. Toss in lines that are ambiguously humorous, confusing caricatures instead of characters and an ever-growing menagerie of creatures, and it all becomes a dull muddle of too many ideas.
In the two-hour premiere, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) is called to a crime scene where he deduces not everything is what it seems. Quickly we realize that the little boy who lived in that room is what Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) terms an "abnormal," one of the many beings who lives on the fringes of society.
Helen and her team — including her badass daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup) and sarcastic techie Henry (Ryan Robbins) — track down these entities and provide a safe place for the benevolent/misunderstood ones and protection from the dangerous ones. Will is recruited because he has an uncanny ability to see beyond what’s accepted as reality and to what’s actually there.
Here Will is supposed to be the everyman, the character with whom we should sympathize, which is quite a bit to rest on his slim, bookish shoulders. He’s a pleasant-looking, non-threatening sort who, like us, is being introduced to this strange world of hitherto fictional creatures and is filled with a healthy amount of resistance, doubt and awe. Unfortunately, he’s not entirely likable … yet. Will has his quirks — an almost anal-retentive attention to detail that lacks the delightful charm exhibited in Monk — and appears to be there merely to react. No doubt he’ll exhibit more chutzpah and personality in later episodes.
Similarly, Helen is too detached, with her Mona Lisa smile promising, but never fulfilling, the need for warmth. She’s also rightfully mysterious. After all, she is revealed to be 157-years-old, so apparently there’s something about her that makes her one of those "abnormals" that she protects, but she is on occasion exasperating when she speaks in riddles or withholds vital information from Will. In addition, Tapping is at times a bit too reserved, perhaps which is why when Helen is upset or angry, she seems almost laughably melodramatic. (For more, check out Zap2it’s Amanda Tapping interview discussing Helen Magnus)
It ought to be noted, however, that of all the visual effects on the show, Tapping’s transformation with just a hairstyle and color change is the most impactful. Sci Fi fans may know her — but have difficulty recognizing her — as the blonde and brilliant Col. Samantha Carter on Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis. Somehow with a little chestnut dye and time to grow out her locks makes her into a completely different person and yes, even takes years off.
The look of the show, with computer-generated sets and backdrops a la 300 or Sin City, creates a suitably otherworldly feel. It’s a shadowy landscape that works for the most part, considering the massive amounts of post-production needed and the imagination of the actors when interacting with the sets. Strangely enough, the darkness creates an intimate, almost claustrophobic atmosphere that belies the scope of the story. Perhaps this is the result of originating from webisodes, where the intimate nature would play more intensely.
Sanctuary also has difficulty with tone. It is serious, yet is difficult to take seriously with lines and attitudes that stretch suspension of disbelief. Some lines, such as when Will tells Helen, "Thanks, but if you’re looking for resumes, try Monster.com. I already have a job," fall flat. The sarcasm and wink at the "monster" element to the show are apparent, Dunne’s delivery is fine, but something about how the line just hangs in the air cancels any humorous effect.
Overall, Sanctuary should fill the viewer with a sense of wonder, but it’s all too familiar, from the ragtag group of people with an unusual mission to the cliched mansion/lab/zoo where all are housed. The secrets the characters harbor fail to intrigue, the fight scenes are cheesy instead of stimulating and the odd creatures neither frighten nor fascinate. Worst of all, the show lacks the oomph and sense of fun of shows like Doctor Who or even its spin-off Torchwood.
Sanctuary is by no means a bad show, but it does feel like it’s trying so hard that it never settles on a single voice or vision. But as Helen says, "Sanctuary for all is not just an empty motto," and the show certainly deserves a chance to prove its potential.
Sanctuary comes home on Sci Fi beginning Friday, Oct. 3. Also, check out Zap2it’s Sanctuary photos.
What’s your take on the show? Was I too harsh? Could it replace any of your favorite sci fi shows?