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Review: 'Sanctuary' Premiere

Intelligent sci-fi with a slow hand

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

By

Robin Dunne as Dr. Will Zimmerman in the pilot episode of 'Sanctuary.'

Robin Dunne as Dr. Will Zimmerman in the pilot episode of 'Sanctuary.'

Sci Fi

Cast:

  • Amanda Tapping ... Dr. Helen Magnus
  • Robin Dunne ... Dr. Will Zimmerman
  • Christopher Heyerdahl ... John Druitt
  • Emilie Ullerup ... Ashley Magnus
  • Kavan Smith ... Detective Joe Kavanaugh
  • Cainan Wiebe ... Alexei
  • Ryan Robbins ... Henry Foss
  • Panou ... Sylvio Rudd

Created by Damian Kindler. Directed by Martin Wood. Premiere on Sci Fi: Oct. 3, 2008. Click here for an image gallery.

Plot Summary

Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) is a forensic psychiatrist who's so good at what he does that he sees things others don't, or won't believe: evidence that pat answers, easy explanations, and the usual suspects hide stranger truths. Obsessed since childhood with dividing illusion from reality, Will's outlandish theories have talked him out of a job with federal authorities; now he's getting rolled eyes and skeptical looks from the local cops he consults with.

Seeking a Ukranian boy that only he would believe was connected to the death of two cops, Will crosses paths with a two-fisted blond bombshell named Ashley (Emilie Ullerup) and is nearly run over by a mysterious dark-haired woman, who later encounters him again, introducing herself as Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping). Helen invites Will to join her in providing sanctuary to the creatures of the hidden world Will has always suspected existed -- a world full of deviations from the normal both benign and harmful. Some of these "abnormals" Helen helps and protects; others, more dangerous, she keeps secure, protecting the outside world. Ashley, Helen's daughter, helps track and, if necessary, capture the creatures that are out there.

Will helps capture the Ukranian boy, Alexei (Cainan Wiebe), and manages to gain his trust; but this new world is so overwhelming he's not sure he wants to be a part of it. Things are further complicated when John Druitt (Christopher Heyerdahl), a man with special abilities from deep in Helen's past, resurfaces, causing trouble and hard choices for Ashley, Helen and Will.

Leisurely Set-Up

Christopher Heyerdahl as John Druitt

Christopher Heyerdahl as John Druitt in the pilot episode of 'Sanctuary.'

Sci Fi

Sanctuary, a production that started out as two hours of webisodes and has now been called up to a plum spot on Sci Fi's Friday night line-up, is confident enough not to try to come barreling out of the gate with explosions, adrenaline, and a world-shattering crisis. The first half of "Sanctuary for All," the two-hour pilot, is couched in the small-stakes search for a young boy, and Will Zimmerman's unfolding exposure to a world he lives in but has only glimpsed fleetingly from the corners of his eyes.

Through Will's introduction to the hidden realities we meet the few who already move among them: tough-as-nails Ashley, who's easy to get a handle on, and Helen, who's as elusive as the creatures she studies. By the time more concrete danger surfaces in the second half of the premiere, Will is able to see then even conventional peril is more than what it seems when Helen Magnus is involved, but at least he starts to get some answers.

The intelligent, measured tone of Sanctuary is reflected in the pensive performances and sharp dialog. When Will, struggling with whether to take up Helen's offer to join her small team, encounters the doctor blithely braving the winds atop the Sanctuary's Gothic battlements, he asks, "Aren't you a little cold?" Helen answers, "Opinion seems to be divided." Nothing is made of this exchange, and the dialog moves on, but coming from Helen it's not a snappy one-liner but a reflection that everything in her life, even questions asked and answers given, has layers.

Striking Characters

Sanctuary is not a novel creation built entirely from new things. Some of the set-up will remind viewers of Primeval, another show that reveals a hidden world of strange creatures. Will's scenario -- a brilliant scientist whom no one believes except a secret band who's seen the truth -- has played out before; in fact it's the origin story of Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), a central character from the franchise with which Amanda Tapping has been closely identified until now. But where Will goes from there, and the possibilities of his character, trot off in a different direction.

The synergy between writers and performers looks promising. Amanda Tapping, enthused about creating a radically different character after eleven years playing Samantha Carter, is clearly expending tremendous effort to separate Helen from her other alter ego, and is as successful as possible, all things considered; occasionally a raised chin, a bright smile will remind us of Colonel Carter, but on the whole Tapping is able to successfully deliver a woman who's experienced a century and a half of isolation, strangeness, and relentless compassion.

Robin Dunne, however, is the one who really pulls the viewer into Sanctuary's world. Instantly likable, able to seem intellectually gifted without being off-putting (his mild sarcasm pales against the constant snarking of many other sci-fi heroes), Dunne's performance as Will is one of the more effortless realizations of the viewer-identification character in recent sci-fi/fantasy that I've seen.

A Lost World

The supporting cast in the pilot contains a lot of candy for sci-fi fans. Kavan Smith, popular with Stargate fans as Major Lorne, pops up as a plainclothes cop; his sidekick, played by Peter Shinkoda, has been around too (Supernatural, Andromeda). Kandyse McClure (Dualla from Battlestar Galactica) plays Will's ex-girlfiend, who never believed him. Christopher Heyerdahl (John Druitt) and Ryan Robbins (who seems to be channeling Steve Zahn as Henry Foss) are also Stargate alumni (Todd the Wraith and Ladon Radim the Genii leader, respectively). The arms dealer Syvio is played by Panou (faring much better here than he did as the quickly forgotten sidekick on Flash Gordon). Even the kid who plays Alexei, Cainan Wiebe, was in Tin Man and The 4400.

But what's more interesting is the performances. All of these people, from Kavan Smith's cop to the abnormal boy Alexei, have seen a lot, too much. Their eyes are dark, full of the world, reminding me of Dark City -- another place where people have seen it all, experienced everything, and don't even realize it. In this respect Amanda Tapping as Helen Magnus is ideal casting: even burdened with more experiences than she'd ever wanted she has a glint in her eye, a twist in her smile. She's got the hope and serenity of an angel. Sanctuary creates an intriguing world full of curious and remarkable creatures, and that includes the keepers as well as the kept.

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