by Joe Steiff
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Wondering what Amanda Tapping was doing all those days she wasn’t on Stargate Atlantis last year? Well, evidently, she was part of a spring web series that has now made the leap to full-length episodes on the SciFi channel: Sanctuary.
Gone is her blonde hair and American accent—Dr. Helen Magnus is no Samantha Carter, and the new role suits Tapping well. Helen is not all she at first seems, but if you haven’t figured out at least some of her backstory by the time Ashley battles John, then you need to go back to TV 101.
Speaking of which, the blonde hair this time around is reserved for Helen’s kickass daughter, Ashley Magnus (Emilie Ullerup). Ashley is tough, a capable adult who at times acts like a rebellious teenager, landing her in some trouble.
These two women are at the heart of a sanctuary for creatures who need a safe haven from our world (or in some cases, creatures from whom our world needs protection). Our POV character and entry into this sanctuary is Will Zimmerman, played by Robin Dunne, who seems too young to be so world weary and experienced in the world of psychology/psychiatry. Be that as it may, he’s a skilled actor. Through his eyes, we learn of Helen’s mission as well as the fact that there are some personal reasons why she runs this shelter.
Because many of the wonders and strange beings are not really villains in the traditional sense, that duty falls to John Druitt (Christopher Heyerdahl), a man from Helen’s past (and future).
Another Stargate Atlantis refuge is Kavan Smith (also from The 4400), who in the pilot shines as police detective, Joe Kavanaugh. Here’s hoping he shows up again in the series and wasn’t just a one-time guest star. I actually found his character more interesting and believable in some ways than Zimmerman.
But it’s not really the acting that is getting most of the attention for this new series—it’s the fact that almost all of the sets are virtual, and Sanctuary is the first real TV series to embrace this technology so fully. This is a far cry from the mind-dizzying sets of ’90s MTV, and some of the images and effects are quite impressive. By using virtual sets (and creating residents of the sanctuary who are virtual as well as played by flesh & blood actors), the television series is able to create a more unified and complete fantastic world than many other shows that strive to do so. Hopefully the storytelling will be served by the virtual world and not the other way around.
The pilot involves the search for a young boy who has been implicated in several killings and yet whose existence is denied by witnesses. There are moments when the pacing seems to oddly lag, partly due to inexplicable character actions. For example, it seems unlikely that Ashley would not have captured the boy far sooner than she does, at least based on how easily she tracks him on her motorcycle. And yet, she incomprehensively loses him or never quite cathes up to him despite the fact that in the previous shot, she seemed about 20 feet away from him. Granted, I saw a rough cut, and maybe the final edit will tighten up a few things and smooth out some of this action, but this seems more like an issue for the writers and directors to hone in forthcoming episodes. Or it may be the fact that much of the pilot retraces (if not repackages) several of the original webisodes. Despite some pacing issues, the pilot satisfactorily sketches out the main parameters of the world, characters and storytelling that we can anticipate in the 13 episode SciFi series.
Pilots are always tricky things. If I went back and looked at the pilot for, say, Star Trek: The Next Generation, I might not readily see the eventual level of quality expressed in later seasons, as the series found its footing and grew comfortable in its scenario. Right now, based solely on its first SciFi episode, Sanctuary falls more in the territory of fantasy than science fiction, not quite creepy enough to be a new X-Files but not taking itself seriously enough to be a new Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That’s not to say it’s anywhere near the camp that became Farscape.
Sanctuary seems content to embrace a more childlike wonder of things that might be considered monsters. It reminds me of the “science fiction” books I read as a teenager, a little bit magical but not necessarily substantial enough to hold my interest as an adult. Then again, I’m not sure we could say that either Stargate SG-1 or Stargate Atlantis is a thinking man’s science fiction—they’re entertainment. And really, that’s all Santuary aspires to. Still, I’ll be curious to see where Santuary goes from here—it has a lot of potential. So I’ll keep watching.
Joe Steiff is the co-editor of Open Court Book, Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Frakked Up? and regularly haunts the odd hours of SciFi.
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