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Apocrypha Entertainment Presents:

Anatomy of a Show: SANCTUARY

Starring Amanda Tapping, Robin Dunne, Emilie Ullerup, Ryan Robbins, and Christopher Heyerdahl
Available from
E1 Entertainment
Season Two Starts SyFy 10/9/09 


Last spring, on a bored Friday night, I turned on the TV and saw the guide listing for the season finale of SANCTUARY, a show I had not watched through the first twelve episodes. My reasons had been two-fold: one, I try and avoid adding new shows to watch, as my time has become much more limited, and two, I had been concerned about the presence of Tapping. Nothing against her, mind you, but where she came from: the STARGATE television universe. To say that I am ambivalent about that particular corner of the science fiction universe would be an understatement. Metric tons of continuity, characters of little interest to me, effects quality that looked more like late 80s ST:TNG. Not my thing. Thus, my avoidance of Tapping was mostly an avoidance of the stench of STARGATE.

Factoring those things in, I did exactly the opposite of my norm. I turned on episode thirteen of SANCTUARY. Doing so, I had questions, primarily: was the storytelling strong enough to let me know what was going on? Could someone be watching for the first time and understand it, even on the final episode? Much to my surprise, the answers to both questions were “Yes.” I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the show, and how interested I was in the characters.

So, of course, I was going to have to catch up.

Season one hit DVD shelves a couple of weeks ago in a four-disc collection. Included are all thirteen episodes, three behind-the-scenes featurettes, a blooper reel, episode commentaries, and a nifty bonus that details the roots of the series in a fascinating way.

SANCTUARY, as it turns out, didn’t begin as a television show. Instead, it began life as eight fifteen-minute webisodes, basically bringing together two complete television episodes. The webisodes proved so popular that SyFy put in a season order, and to the tube they went.

What is SANCTUARY? The tagline on the box says “Even things that go bump in the night need protection,” and that’s a pretty decent take on it. The Sanctuary is run by Doctor Helen Magnus, a brilliant research scientist devoted to seeing out and studying “abnormals”, people or creatures with unusual abilities. One character calls her a monster hunter, and that would apply, too. Magnus is aided by her daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup) who provides the “muscle”, Henry (Ryan Robbins) who does the tech work, and Bigfoot (Christopher Heyerdahl), whom Magnus saved from death and has since become the major domo of the building. However, the most important character is Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne); he’s a forensic psychologist who comes onboard the team in the pilot, and rounds out the cast. What he really does, though, is make the show accessible. Will is the audience’s character; as he grows to accept the creatures in the Sanctuary, so do we. As he deals with the madness and oddity that the Magnuses take in stride, he acts as our surrogate. And as he finds his bravery and comfort zone in working at the Sanctuary, the audience gets a smoother viewing experience.

It isn’t always a smooth arc for Dunne and his character; the writing is inconsistent early on. The great writer and showrunner Ronald D. Moore once said that the first year of a show is spent trying to figure out what the show is, and that’s very true here. Creator Damien Kindler and his staff are full of ideas, but they don’t quite seem to know how to shape them at points in the season. They throw multiple classic sci-fi tropes at the wall and see if they can make them stick: there’s a “Ten Little Indians” murder-mystery set in a downed airplane; a “Fight Club” episode; a bottle show with only Tapping and Dunne, stranded in a submarine as one of them goes insane and tries to kill the other; and a “Cloverfield” episode where the group is followed by a TV reporter and her cameraman. That’s not to say that these episodes are all failures- they aren’t. Indeed, some work quite well, only the “Fight Club” bit falling completely flat. But it was a little disconcerting and disappointing to see the show tap these reservoirs so early in its history.

Balancing out some of the lack of innovation from the writing is the astonishing technical virtuosity the show displays in its filming. Like 300, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, and SIN CITY, SANCTUARY is filmed almost exclusively on green screen sets. This was something I didn’t know until after I had finished watching the entire season, and to say that I was astonished would be an understatement. There are very few standing sets used by the show; the gorgeous library where Tapping and Dunne have numerous conversations? It looks as though the production found a nice local house and set up shop, or at least built the room. But aside from the chairs occupied by Tapping and Dunne, none of it exists. The “Ring” where the creatures of the Sanctuary live? The only real thing is the computer terminal that sits in the middle. The seamlessness of the digital environment, created on a television budget, is incredible.

Part of how the show accomplishes these feats is by using the RED camera, which eschews film for a hefty hard-drive. It also shoots in what they call 4K- 4096 pixels by 2304 pixels, or 4-times what we consider standard high definition. That allows CGI artists an easier time at blending the computer-generated environments into the background.

Without real sets, the show really must rely on the actors to provide as much reality as they can, and for the most part, the cast is pretty solid. Tapping is terrific; she conveys warmth, intelligence, and steel all in one glance as the leader of the group. Dunne is a little overly earnest in the opening episodes, but after a while he learns to relax and play the character as a budding hero, and the show improves from it. The one weak link early on is Ullerup; she shows limited range in the first two-thirds of the season, to the point where I joked to myself that directing her had to be easy: “Look tough and pretty. And… action!” But towards the end of the thirteen, she begins to show some confidence in herself and the character gains some shading because of it.

The over-arching plot, with the Sanctuary crew facing off against their rivals, The Cabal, delivers a satisfying finale to year one, along with a sweet cliffhanger that could really take the show into some interesting places in year two. I’ll also be interested in seeing how the effects crew learns from season one and what they do to make the next round of thirteen look even better. Is SANCTUARY brilliant television? Not by any stretch. But does it deliver solid entertainment, keep your interest, and make you want to skip ahead to the next episode? Absolultely. Guess I’ll be using more space on my DVR on Fridays this fall.

Marc Mason  

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