I pride myself in being a connoisseur of fine, mature and smart science fiction. I allow myself some kitch in other genres, but I like to think that my science fiction is universally of the cerebral brand. Thus, it may confuse you when I declare that I have become something of a fan of the SyFy show Sanctuary, an offering known less for transcendent genius narratives than for its cliched writing and often linear narratives.
If you don’t know, it’s a US-funded Canadian production, starring Stargate alumna Amanda Tapping as Dr Helen Magnus, who is the seemingly immortal Director of something called the Sanctuary Network. The Sanctuaries are situated in several locations globally, and are meant to be safe zones for the protection, study and preservation of “abnormals”. What’s an abnormal? Well, actually, that’s a bit unclear. At first, they were humans with odd genetic characteristics, often plucked from mythology or literature: werewolves, mermaids, centaurs, etc. In later seasons, it was revealed that some animals are also abnormals. It’s a bit unclear how to distinguish between an “abnormal” and just a “normal” creature of a different species.
The show originated as a limited web series, whose popularity led to its scale-up to a full TV show. Given what a Stargate fanboy I am, I had high hopes for the show. In addition to Tapping, some of SG‘s production staff and supporting actors migrated to the new show. In many ways, it was supposed to be the true successor to Stargate SG-1, moreso than the disappointing Stargate: Universe spin-off. However, the first season was dreadfully disappointing to me. Mediocre acting, laughable special effects, cliched characters, and of course Tapping’s poor British accent quickly caused the show to drop in my viewing priority. They even had that standard genre TV trope of the episode in which two characters in conflict are trapped in a vehicle for some ridiculous reason, simply as a framework for fastforwarding a relationship or back story; that’s lazy scriptwriting 101.
I almost didn’t continue watching into the second season, and that would have been a mistake. The show found new life in its second year, mostly due to its new understanding of its own internal mythology. The origins of Helen Magnus’s immortality had been previously revealed, but now it came with a host of far more interesting characters, “The Five”, all of whom had shared a sample of rare ancient “vampire blood” back in Victorian times. Magnus received long life. Her lover, John Druitt, was able to teleport, and was in fact the historic Jack The Ripper. Legendary scientist Nicola Tesla had had his dormant vampiric genes revived, allowing him to be simply the most awesome character in all of current skiffy TV. One fellow became the Invisible Man of lore. And the last, John Watson, was the true Sherlock Holmes of literature. (See, he and Conan Doyle had invented Holmes to conceal Watson’s true detecting genius.)
By brilliantly linking the most beloved literary characters and historic figures of the Victorian age with the modern “abnormal” phenomenon, Sanctuary became something truly interesting: an American genre show that was not based on existing source material and thus truly original. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. Pretty much every other skiffy show on TV today —Dr Who, Supernatural, or the now defunct Stargate franchise– are all limited by their internal canons. Viewers know the limits and extents of those worlds, and thus the limits of the stories. The one prominent exception is Fringe, but that show has quickly defined its parameters, as well.
The joy of the second season of Sanctuary was finding out how global the Sanctuary network truly is, how the United Nations is aware of its existence, and about the network’s history and its connection to ancient lore. The first ended in large fashion, with the discovery of a decayed Vampire city and a message from Magnus’s long absent father. The second season did one better, with a Bollywood dance number and an epic sea battle with a monster on the ocean floor… an episode I’ve actually re-watched a number of times.
Ready for it? It’s not for those of you who take yourselves too seriously. The glory of this episode, the finale of season 2, titled “Kali”, is that it’s so overwrought, goofy and, in any parts, poorly acted, that you can’t help but love it. And yes, it climaxes with a Bollywood dance number, which is played out partly in the mind of a character, played by Robin Dunne, who is have problems distinguishing between reality and illusion. Yes, it’s atrocious, but also wondrous. I defy you to watch the dance number without smiling just a little bit.
Another reason I’ve given Sanctuary some reluctant love is the show’s ability to turf leading characters. Ashley, Magnus’s and Druitt’s daughter, was actually killed on the show: a shocking move. She was eventually replaced by an even more annoying character, played by Agam Darshi. And in episode 2 of the 4th season, that character, too, was shelved, though not through anything as permanent as an on-screen death.
Unbelievably, with the 3rd season, Sanctuary continued to shock me with its creativity. The introduction of the ancient city of Praxis, existing at the hollow centre of the Earth, gave steampunk fanboys inner orgasms. And with the 4th season, time travel to the Victorian era was introduced, as well as a seeming invasion of abnormals from the centre of the Earth.
As an aside, one of my favourite bits about the show is its tendency to reward the deepest geeks amongst us with obscure and arcane historic references. John Druitt, for example, was an actual suspect in the Jack The Ripper murders. And in the time traveling episode, a creature called “Jack” is found prowling the London rooftops. This is “Springheeled Jack“, an actual criminal phenomenon from the era, since receded into folklore.
Yes, the acting is still sometimes atrocious. And the special effects aren’t as great as they could be. And some of the episodes are just, well, stupid. But the reason I will keep watching Sanctuary for now is that I never know where the overall story arc is going. In these days of lazy storytelling, that’s a rare and valuable thing. Oh, and Bigfoot is a regular. So there’s that.