A lot of shows can be described as labors of love, but Sanctuary is one that undeniably earned the title. It was created as a webseries that was filmed between Amanda Tapping's commitments to Stargate and released with no real expectation anything would come from it.
When Sanctuary premiered, the self-dubbed "terrible trio" - writer/creator Damian Kindler, director Martin Wood and actress Amanda Tapping - acted as executive producers but didn't receive compensation for the job. They were only there to get the show up and running, and they felt the executive producer fees should go toward making the show since they weren't backed by a studio. The show was filmed with a heavy reliance on virtual sets, which allowed them to give their world a scope and depth unlike anything else on television. The Sanctuary was truly a dark, Gothic place with branching corridors and dark nooks and crannies where anything could (and probably was) lurking.
Sanctuary was the story of Dr. Helen Magnus, a teratologist (a real doctrine: it's the study of abnormalities of physiological development) from Victorian England whose experiments with vampire blood granted her the gift/curse of longevity. When the series begins she is 157 years old and "hasn't aged a day" since 1888. She's used her extended lifespan to continue her father's work of seeking out creatures called "Abnormals." Her mission is to protect these creatures from humans, and vice versa.
Throughout history, Helen has had a myriad of people assisting her in this goal. At the turn of the last century, she worked with James Watson (the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes), Nikola Tesla (yes, that one), Nigel Griffin (who inspired The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells), and her fiancé, Montague John Druitt: Jack the Ripper. She acquired wealth and connections that have made her a very dangerous person to cross.
One of the most intriguing things about Sanctuary was the scope of its history. For each season, the main title was adjusted to show a photograph of Helen standing beside a different historic figure. Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all spotted on Helen's desk, and countless other historic figures were name-dropped through the series. Helen didn't treat these as brushes with greatness; they were just people she once worked alongside. Joe DiMaggio taught her how to play baseball. She was aboard the *Titanic during its doomed voyage. She watched the sun rise with one of the Beatles (George Harrison, as confirmed later by Tapping).
Characters like Nikola Tesla, John Druitt and Adam Worth had their origins in real-life Victorian and Edwardian newsreels. Just like Stargate SG-1 sneakily taught mythology and ancient Egyptian history through alien overlords and epic space battles, Sanctuary inspired its fans to dust off their history books (okay, fine, Wikipedia) and read up on the real people their favorite characters were based on.
With all of that put aside, Sanctuary was an extremely rare show in that it featured as its lead character a woman whose mission in life didn't involve finding Mr. Right, getting married, having a bunch of kids. She effortlessly held her own with the men. In a situation where Helen is being held hostage, her male companion gets the drop on the enemies and uses his advantage to take out the henchmen at the back of the room. Helen handles the guy with the knife to her throat on her own.
The show took risks. When a same-sex kiss was written into an episode, Amanda Tapping asked for the scene to be adjusted to make it clear Helen wanted it. With one moment, the show confirmed their main character was bisexual, territory rarely explored by other mainstream television series. Amanda had long told anyone who would listen that Helen was bisexual, and that she'd romanced women (including a dalliance with Amelia Earhart), but to have it confirmed so completely was an amazing thing to see. Sanctuary for all is not an empty motto.
With conventional thinking, Sanctuary should never have existed. A show with no studio backing, powered by the creative energies of three people who basically pushed their boat out to sea and waited for the winds to pick up, it was an uphill climb. We had four great seasons, with historical scope and amazing characters. At the very, very least we can say that the series ended with an appropriate finale. This DVD set collects one chapter in the long life of Helen Magnus. Whatever the next chapter is I'm sure it will be as epic and amazing. I just hope, one way or another, we get a glimpse of what she's up to.
(Sanctuary is over, but Sanctuary for Kids lives on. Please visit sanctuaryforkids.org and see what you can do to help.)
-- edited from my review of the series originally written for Geek Speak Magazine
EDITED to reflect the actual release!
The Complete Series comes in a gorgeous slipcase that, appropriately for the show, is elegant and aged. It makes a very stately addition to the DVD shelf. The discs are specially designed to match the box style rather than just recycling the ones used in the individual season sets.
There are no new special features here if you already own the sets. A lot of effort went into making this set look right, and it reflects the content very well. The artwork - both the shots of the Sanctuary and the aged photographs of the cast - is absolutely perfect. It looks and feels like something that would be at home on the shelf in Helen Magnus' office. The design also incorporates the box art for Seasons 1-4 in a "family-album" type frame that I felt was beautifully designed.
If you already own the individual sets, there's nothing that will make this set must-have. It's a collector's item, something for people who want to represent the show in a very special way rather than a money grab to make you pay twice for the same 59 episodes.