Friday, November 28, 2008

Sanctuary: An Overview/Review

There are shows I like, and shows I would like to like. Sanctuary falls into that second category.

Unfortunately, seven episodes in--more than I usually give a new show--and I can't see my way to anything more than indifference-to-impatience.

What works: It has some good things going for it, probably the biggest being the Stargate legacy. Enough actors have crossed over to make otherwise indifferent people (like me) take a good, long look at it.

Heyerdahl and his Voice (a Stargate legacy, to be sure, but worthy of separate notice).

A great setting. I mean, it's a Gothic mansion.

What Doesn't Work

The plots: More about this anon, but they are, sadly, mostly recycled hash without any additional spicing to make them stand out on their own.

The Stargate legacy: Their current biggest asset is also their biggest problem. I can't help but compare characters. Doctor Magnus, for example, has none of Sam's spark or energy, Will is like Daniel but somehow not as interesting, the folklore bits Doctor Magnus brings up are similar to the myths Daniel references, only not.

This last is its own separate problem; when someone brings up a myth on Stargate, it's an existing myth. Moreover, the tales work with the Stargate mythos, one can imagine the Norse people meeting Thor the Asgard alien (or his hologram, at any rate), buying his "I'm a god" story and mixing the tales he told them in with their own tales of the god. In turn, any knowledge of the myths mentioned adds depth and dimension to the characters encountered on the show. On the other hand, when Doctor Magnus mentions "some Amazonian peoples" having tales about the Nubbins, I cannot make a similar trip to the library nor draw on any previously-known myths. I can only wonder why the producers think "Amazonian peoples" are still obscure enough and exotic enough that it is safe to tag them as possessors of non-existent creatures and tales.

Amanda Tapping's accent: I'm told that she is "really" British, or has "really" British parents, or somesuch background that qualifies her to speak in a "real" British accent, but all I can say is it is a slippery accent. True, it has improved a bit over the episodes, but she still has a tendency to start a sentence one way and end it another, and her vowels are all over the place.

The scientific underpinnings: Why, oh why, oh why are they trying to make this scientific? Look, the X-Men only gets away with saying that genetic mutations enable human beings to shoot beams out of their eyes, or fly, or alter reality, or turn their skins to diamond because the whole crazy story got started in the 1960's in a comic book. Sanctuary is set and told on television in the 21st century and is making some claims at being realistic and pulling in bits of science when it suits them. So, no, I won't accept the guy with wings, or the one with two faces, or the men with folding bones, not as "genetic mutations." If the show's creators want magical effects--and they clearly do--why don't they just call it magic?

Sanctuary: From what and for whom? So far, exactly two people have come to the place voluntarily in search of help; Jack the Ripper was not terribly welcome, and the poor girl with the dead grandfather was not terribly happy with the whole idea (Maybe they shouldn't have shown her the mermaid-in-a-tank). Otherwise, the team seems to spend a lot of time out hunting, trapping, and killing Abnormals. Making matters worse is Will's recent reference in The Five to the abmormals Magnus "allows" to roam freely, as opposed to the unknown number locked up here and there. Sanctuary? Jail? Zoo? What is this place?

Folding Men
, otherwise their best show to date, didn't do a terribly good job at convincing me that "Normals" posed a threat to "Abnormals," not to the extent that any group needed to hole up in a gothic mansion or live tucked away in atrium aquariums. So again--Sanctuary from what? For whom? Why? This is all the more an issue because if they start showing pitchfork-toting, hysterical mobs on the hunt, they will swerve back toward resembling X-Men all the more, and they don't need that (I like X-Men, sometimes quite a lot, but don't particularly see the point having someone else tell almost the same story). In other words, the current setup leaves everyone involved in the show's creation in a no-win scenario.

Jack the Ripper: No. Just no. This protest is partly caused by a personal prejudice on my part; I fail to see the fascination in a mass murderer, no matter when he ran around killing women or how uncaught he was. The protest also arises because Jack has been showing up everywhere these days and needs to take a break, a long one, before he saunters through another show, book, or movie.

Even Heyerdahl's Voice can't save the character from being a problem.

Doctor Helen Magnus as a Victorian lady. Again, no. It doesn't work. She's utterly wrong for the era. I will (for the moment, at any rate) spare you my rant about how "They were not just like us!" and how tired I am of twentieth and twenty-first century portrayals of Victorian people as Just Like Us only in funny clothes, and particularly of Victorian women as all being possessed of a modern feminist outlook, but I will let you know that I do have such a rant, and Magnus has triggered it more than once.

The odd use of science: It's not just the unbelievable mutations, it's the issue of Magnus being able, back in Victorian times, to safely extract and freeze a viable embryo, where she does not now seem to have access to any remarkably advanced science, nor have access to any decent-sized support team. For the most part, her equipment seems pretty standard issue. If she were really all that far ahead of her time then, why isn't she now? And, where is everyone else? Someone had to be helping with all that science then, where are they now? Or are we meant to believe that there were only, ever five people? And, why did the benevolent Magnus keep whatever scientific advancements she was making secret? If she could manage cryogenic freezing, she could manage refrigerators (which, by preserving food, affect general health) so why didn't they show up on the scene earlier? If she was up for refining vampire blood, she was up for refining vaccines, so again, where were they? I know, I know, I'm not supposed to ask, but there are only so many questions I can not-ask for the sake of a show to go on, and Sanctuary is fast exceeding the quota.

I just finished catching up on the episodes currently available on, so a quick, individual overview:

Sanctuary For All, parts 1 & 2: Kind of dark & murky. Not bad, not outstanding, failed to answer the central question: What kind of Sanctuary is this and for whom? Will strikes me as a very Daniel-like character with less reason for being that way; he's been working for the FBI for a while, surely that ought to put some dent into the invincible naive niceness he displays? And does he or does he not believe in the weirdness of the world? On the one hand, he's written a nice book disproving it, on the other, he's always in trouble for advocating it. At least Daniel was consistent. Tapping's accent is atrocious, her daughter about as generic a character as is possible to create, up to and including her appearance and stale slang. On the other hand, it is nice to see a fairly amiable mother-daughter relationship. That last is new on TV.

Fata Morgana
Hey, they acknowledged the linguistic shift! Nice. Oh, an all-powerful-but-not-quite Shadow Organization. Not so nice. Not terribly original, either, but could turn out all right. If we're asking why the women speak modern English, can we also ask why they wear modern makeup? The story does get points for not ending completely happily. It isn't clear what becomes of the women, and they might very well go back to being brainwashed again.

Folding Man: Like I said, this was their best episode so far. It actually had a fairly tight plot and a mystery to solve, and it took an unexpected turn--just as I was thinking how tiresome it would be if Will were always right about other people and always able to convince them to do what he wanted, he was wrong about their prisoner. I do not believe in the poor, persecuted Folding Men, however, and have a hard time believing they had an established culture. How did they meet each other? Or are we meant to believe that they had somehow set up a community Way Back When they were circus & court attractions and had been intermarrying and maintaining a culture all along? And, incidentally, just how secret, unknown, and amazing can they be in the age of X-Rays? Do none of them ever break those bones or get pneumonia or have any other cause to go in for medical help? Or are we supposed to refrain from asking awkward questions?

Kush: The show tries for that claustrophobic, scary effect and never quite obtains it. It also relies on Our Heroes being incredibly stupid. That's ok, though, so is the monster, so it all evens out: It never occurs to Our Heroes that the monster might cast a glamor over the blood, and it never occurs to the monster (who is telepathic, or at least empathic) that Helen M. might be lying about the coffee, though since she was saying she wanted coffee in order to fool the creature, it ought to have picked that up. And while we're at it: Was the monster sentient? The illusions sure seemed that way, but then again, Helen & co. were out to trap it, and they're supposed to be the good guys, so maybe it wasn't, only if it wasn't, how was it that it knew to make the wrong blood liquid? Are all Abnormals sentient? I'm still not clear on that point. It seems their ought, by the weird, evolutionary logic of the show, be Abnormal animals, and the monster that killed Will's mom has only ever roared, but at the same time, everything that has stalked them so far, no matter its form, has acted as though it were sentient. Oh, and Eric actually gets interesting just before he dies. Pity. The show sadly needs character development.

Nubbins: A dead crew on a ship. The really cute, furry things couldn't possibly responsible, could they? Oh, and something is making people lust after each other. Sometimes. When they remember.

It's not so much that both these plots heave been done before, it's that Sanctuary did them with such a complete lack of enthusiasm. I mean, most people, when they serve an old plot, try to add a new twist. This was just a paint-by-numbers story of furry creatures that breed a lot and turn out to be dangerous, primarily because their keepers are so careless. Even a cursory physical examination ought to have revealed teeth capable of chewing through metal--at which point, the suddenly and strangely cute-obsessed Ashley (The person I would have voted least likely to go gaga over cuddly furry things) would never have taken one out of its cage, and the show would have ended early.

The lust-inducing plant/animal/scent plot has also been done before, though not (that I can recall) in conjunction with the "harmless animal" plot. Usually, the plot is used to show unexpected aspects of the characters' relationships, or develops an already-existing attraction. Usually it happens a bit later, after characters' relationships are a bit further developed so that they can be affected. This particular bit was unusually generic, even for Sanctuary: Everyone seemed to feel a sort of low-level lust for everyone else, but once they all grabbed guns & vacuum cleaners and got down to critter-hunting, the attraction went away. Why was it even part of the story?

Conveniently Psychic Granddaughter: Also a puzzler. I thought initially she might be a new cast member and might add some team dynamic. Instead, she's a walk-through who happened to have a useful power. Yup. This episode tanked.

The Five: Wait, now we've always known about Shadowy Secret Agency from before? How come it seemed secret and a surprise back in Fata Morgana? Oooh, Nicola Tesla! How lovely! Yes, he's almost as overexposed as Jack the Ripper, but not quite, and (personal taste here) mad scientist geniuses are a whole lot more fun than mass murderers.

Oh. Never mind. He's an Evil Vampire and we must destroy him. And Jack is back, only he's good now (maybe). Injecting vampire blood into your system makes you develop Cool Powers? Really? And everyone who tries it gets a different Cool Power? And is it just me or did Helen have really bad taste in friends, lovers, and confidants back when?

Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated B or C plot, Will and Big Furry Guy are chased around by a monster of indeterminate origin. And Henry is a werewolf--well, that last could be interesting, if character development ever actually happens to anyone (other than Nicola Tesla, who was kind of cool for the first few minutes, before he turned out to be a vampire, and Eric, who is now deceased and doesn't count).

Wait--why am I still watching this show?

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