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Sanctuary for all
on May 16, 2010
Imagine this: a giant gothic building that serves as a "sanctuary" to various strange, freakish and/or dangerous creatures that exist in the world.
That's the concept behind "Sanctuary: The Complete First Season," a fantasy/sci-fi show that started off as a series of webisodes, then got turned into a show for the Sci Fi (Sy Fy?) Channel. The first season starts off shaky and sometimes painfully silly (nubbins!), but the second half suddenly smooths itself into a solid arc of secrets, conspiracies, and a fanatical enemy organization.
Forensic psychiatrist Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) has a pretty rotten life -- his girlfriend has left, his job is a joke, and nobody believes his deductions. But during a bizarre murder investigation, he encounters a strange woman named Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) who offers him a job at the Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary turns out to be a vast cathedral-like structure filled with "Abnormals" -- mermaids, elementals, iguana-men, two-faced dudes, or anything that doesn't fall in the boundaries of known science. But the Sanctuary's residents are now in danger from a charming Abnormal named John Druitt (Christopher Heyerdahl), who has a longtime connection to Helen. And unless he gets what he wants from her, he'll kill her daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup).
Other Sanctuary problems: a trio of amnesiac women who may be the Morrigan, a drug lord among the Folding Men, an autistic boy whose pictures reveal Abnormals, a Himalayan plane crash with a mind-altering monster, a brain parasite in the Bermuda Triangle that threatens to turn Magnus into a psycho killer, the superfertile Nubbins (like carnivorous Totoros), a man who looks suspiciously like Magnus' late father, and a pair of reporters who witness the Sanctuary team fighting rare killer insects. And John Druitt reappears to reveal that an old friend of Helen's has turned against her...
And the Sanctuary has a new enemy -- the fanatical Cabal, who want all Abnormals under their control. When they unleash a biological weapon that turns Abnormals into raving killers, Helen's old study group ("The Five") must reunite to save the Abnormal population.
The first half of "Sanctuary: The Complete First Season" is a severely mixed bag -- most of it isn't really bad, but it's not terribly unique or gripping. And the "nubbins" (tribbles with teeth) episode is just embarrassingly silly. But with the introduction of Nicola Tesla (who is a vampire!), suddenly the entire series tightens up and becomes far more streamlined, complex and emotionally powerful.
Along the way, the writers fill the series with all sorts of freaky creatures (ranging from a Hulk-like supersoldier to a floating snake beastie), slimy body parts, and some gun-heavy action scenes. The writing is rather wobbly in the first half ("Women and geeks first... oh, no, that's all of us"), but the sci-fi edge gives it a quirky appeal ("I guess Ike didn't want to breathe the same air as the Nazi High Command." "Some of them didn't even breathe air").
And "Sanctuary" has a pretty striking look -- half industrial science complex, and half Gothic decay, with vast cathedral-like buildings, grey cloudy skies, and the half-ruined Old City. Most of the backgrounds are CGI, which gives the series a smooth, stylized look.
Despite her awkward accent, Tapping is a powerful presence as the hyperintellectual, immortal Helen Magnus, and Dunne is brilliant from the start as the Daniel Jackson of the series (smart and geeky, with a tragic past). Ryan Robbins is great as the resident techno-superbrain, who is haunted by his own Abnormal secret, and Christopher Heyerdahl does a brilliant two-character turn -- he's the charming, smooth killer John Druitt, and he's also the shy but kindly butler Bigfoot.
The one false note is Ashley -- while Ullerup does a fair job, the character is an urban fantasy cliche -- cocky, gun-happy, and wears a leather catsuit during fights. But the supporting cast is pretty fascinating, especially since the writers start ushering in Victorian literary and historical figures.
"Sanctuary: The Complete First Season" has some mighty wobbles in its first half, but the second half stabilizes and flowers like a black rose. Watch it, if nothing else to prepare for the second season.