It’s an interesting premise. Dr Helen Magus (Amanda Tapping, whom you might recognise from Stargate) has dedicated her life – all 157 years of it – to studying and protecting ‘abnormals’, creatures few believe exist outside fantasy and legend. Many would call them monsters, but Magus counts several among her friends.
She maintains an exotic menagerie in a gothic-style mansion, where she’s assisted by her reckless daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup), who travels the world capturing and bringing back new specimens, and her butler (Christopher Heyerdahl) who looks like a cross between Neanderthal man and Bigfoot.
In the season opener, forensic psychiatrist Dr Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) joins the team, fulfilling the essential role of confused newcomer who’s there to ask the questions the viewer needs answering. As the series progresses, we come across historical characters who, like Helen Magus, have been alive since Victorian times, such as Jack the Ripper suspect John Druitt (also Christopher Heyerdahl) and physicist Nikola Tesla. Why they’re still alive is something we’ve no intention of spoiling for you.
The mansion plays host to all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures. Look out for harpies, mermaids, lizard men, werewolves and a creature with a face on each side of his head. The more benign creatures are allowed to roam freely, but despite Magus’ insistence that Sanctuary is ‘not a prison and definitely not a zoo’, the more dangerous ones are locked away. Although located in the middle of a busy city, the neighbours never seem to notice what’s going on. Like many sci-fi tales with a modern setting, ‘cool’ trumps ‘credible’ every time.
The show’s production values are generally high, but its budget certainly isn’t. To save money on sets, far too much footage is filmed against a blue screen, with computerised details added later. This doesn’t always work, with large, empty scenery and sometimes-unconvincing CGI giving the show an artificial feel.
The acting and scripting is good, but Sanctuary lacks the wit and charm of the genre’s top shows like Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica. Also, the way some episodes alternate between fighting and exposition gives the impression of watching someone else play a videogame.
The characters are a little clichéd, and struggle to find any real personality or depth. Ashley is clearly Buffy, right down to the blonde hair and high-kicking combat techniques. Her mum, Dr Helen Magus, is typical for an English character in an American TV show, with a liking for tea and a cut-glass elocution betraying no hint of a regional accent.
The underlying message about fear of the unknown breeding prejudice is entirely laudable, and things certainly improve as the series progresses and more of Sanctuary’s secrets and the character’s back-stories are revealed, but ultimately, it struggles to rise above its children’s TV timidity. The survival horror episode falls short of being truly terrifying, and when a strange, pheromone-emitting creature runs amok, the amorous urges it inspires never get beyond a shy kiss or an interrupted clinch.
Ultimately, Sanctuary is a poor man’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer. As such, it makes for agreeable early-evening viewing, but can’t really be recommended as a DVD collection. For die-hard fans only.
Sanctuary Season 1 is out now.