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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Sanctuary: The Complete First Season
Sanctuary: The Complete First Season
Entertainment One // Unrated // September 15, 2009
List Price: $44.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted September 12, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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The Show:
Being a big fan of Stargate SG-1 in general and Amanda Tapping in particular, I was quite excited to hear that the actress had signed up to play the lead in (and was executive producer of) a web-based series entitled Sanctuary.  I had meant to download the 8 15-minute webisodes but with one thing and another, never got around to it.  Based on the strength of those shorts, the series was picked up by the horribly named cable network Syfy, had a successful first season, and was renewed for a second (that is scheduled to begin in October.)  E1 Entertainment has now released Sanctuary Season One on DVD in a nice four disc set that fans of SF should consider picking up, especially if you gave up on the series while it was airing after a few episodes.

Dr. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) is a profiler for a local police force in an unnamed metropolitan city.  Being very observant in a Monk-like way, he puts together clues that others often miss and follows them to their logical conclusions, even if those conclusions sound crazy.  He was kicked out of the FBI for his hair-brained hypotheses, and is pretty much shunned by the policemen he works with for the same reason. 
While investigating the dead of a civilian and two police officers Zimmerman crosses paths with Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping).  She runs the Sanctuary, a privately funded large gothic building in the middle of town that is host to, Will eventually discovers, a wide assortment of bizarre creatures called 'abnormals'.  Basically all of Zimmerman's theories have been correct, there are odd being roaming the world in secret and Magnus' group helps those that they can and hunts down the ones that are dangerous to humanity.

Will signs up and joins the Sanctuary team that includes Magnus, who turns out to be much, much older than she looks, Helen's kick-ass daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup), tech geek Henry Foss (Ryan Robbins) and butler and extra muscle when needed Bigfoot (Christopher Heyerdahl).  Searching the globe for abnormals the group discovers mermaids, ancient witches, a human-like race that can compact their bodies to squeeze through the smallest spaces, a vampire, people who can shoot heat rays from their eyes, and even the basis for Sherlock Holmes and the real Jack the Ripper (who just happens to be Magnus' ex-lover.)
Every great team needs a suitable enemy too, and Sanctuary has one in the form of the Cabal, a super-secret, well funded, organization that also investigates abnormal sightings, but they have sinister motive behind what they're doing and consider the Sanctuary their sworn enemies.

I was looking forward to watching these and honestly the first episodes really disappointed me.  They weren't horrible; there were just an accumulation of small things that made them mediocre at best. 
In these early shows the writers didn't pay attention to detail and didn't do their research.  At one point someone proclaims that the last time the Black Death was a problem in Scotland was in 800 AD, apparently forgetting the outbreak of 1665-66 and any before that.  (I remember that date since people at the time thought it was the end of the world.  After all the year was 666 with a one in front of it.)  There's also a scene where a group walks onto a cargo ship and finds the crew dead and someone proclaims "They weren't killed... they were half devoured."  It's a nice line, but it doesn't match what viewers see.  The bodies were whole with some blood on them... they weren't eaten.  There's also an episode where we get to meet Magnus' British father, but while she has an accent, he doesn't.  What's up with that?

The dialog in those early shows tries to be witty and cute, but fails miserably too.  In one episode the team discovers some creatures that are a cross between Tribbles and a Furby that Ashley names "Nubbins."  In the most cringe-inducing scene in the whole series Henry passes Ashley (clad in a tight shirt) while she's looking at her new discoveries in their cage and says "Hey, Henry, wanna check out my nubbins? (a moment later)  Don't you just want to squeeze them?"  Ugh, neither clever nor funny.
Okay, so by the time the series was half way through, I was pretty unimpressed.  Then the writers hit their stride and figured out what works and what doesn't with the series.  Starting with the seventh episode the series took a couple of giant steps forward in terms of quality.  The plot became more intricate, the characters stopped acting like walking clichés and started to become real three dimensional people.  In short, it unexpectedly turned into a really good show.  One of those "it's midnight and I have work tomorrow.... so I'll just watch one more before bed, or maybe two" programs.

In the second half we're introduced to Nikola Tesla (yes the real Tesla) who used to be a friend of Magnus' way back when and who is a vampire.  An intriguing character and easily my favorite in the show, viewers are never sure if he's lying or telling the truth and whose side he's really on.  The show picks up for there, no longer being a 'monster of the week' program; it starts telling a larger story and is more careful how the plots unravel.  The faux witty banter is toned down considerably and small incidental details actually make sense at this point.  They also go back and correct some of their earlier mistakes such as Magnus' education.  In the first episode they stated that she attended Oxford in the mid 1800's, a time when women weren't allowed to enroll, but in episode 12 a character reveals that she only audited classes at that time, something that makes much more sense.
The acting in the program is generally good with Amanda Tapping stealing the show.  She's playing a character similar to Dr. Samantha Carter, the person she portrayed on Stargate SG-1, but Tapping went out of her way to create a totally different personality for this new character.  Physically she dyed her hair and she also sports a British accent (that sounds pretty good actually.  She was born in England, I guess that helps more than a bit.)  Magnus is also more careful than Dr. Carter and has a totally different demeanor.  I was always enamored of Tapping's role in SG-1 (she reminded a lot of my wife,) but while watching her here I never thought of her as "that gal from SG-1," a testament to how well she did in crafting a new individual.    

The show was filmed in a unique manner for a TV show (thought there have been a few movies that took this approach.)  Instead of building sets for each location, almost the entire show is shot against a green screen.  In post production the walls, floor, and furnishings are computer generated and added in. 
This has some advantages and disadvantages.  On the plus side, the show can go anywhere from the bottom of the ocean to ancient ruins with about the same cost as staying in the sanctuary.  CGI monsters also fit in well with the backgrounds.  They appear as part of the set rather than looking like they were superimposed on top of an existing room.  On the down side, the actors don't have anything to react to.  When they look out over a ruined city, they're actually looking at a blank wall and it's hard to judge scale in certain instances.  An example of this going wrong is when Will first sees the 'shoe' in the sanctuary where all the violent abnormals are kept.  He looks up and down and all around with a look of awe on his face, but when the viewers see what he's looking at, it's an empty room with some computer monitors hanging from the ceiling.  Around the room are darkened windows with creatures, none of which can be seen.  I guess Will had never seen suspended displays before.

So, does the show pull it off?  In general yes, they do very well.  Scenes of Ashley meeting an informant at the top of a sky scraper that's still being built and the ancient catacombs are impressive and the 'regular sets like the library are so real you'll soon forget that it's all CGI.  There are some scenes where they could have used a little more time and money on the CGI environment, like when a CGI car whizzes by in the first episode.  These events tend to bring the viewer out of the show, which is too bad, but they become more infrequent as the series progresses.
The DVD:

The 13 episodes that make up the first season come in a fold out holder that has two overlapping discs per page.  I'm not wild about fold out cases or overlapping discs, and I wish they would have used a single width 4 disc keepcase.  
The 5.1 DD surround track is good, but not great.  The dialog is all clear and there are not any audio defects worth noting, but the subwoofer track is a bit anemic.  This is especially noticeable in the few scenes with explosions.  Other than that, the rears are used a fair amount, occasionally with great affect.  In one scene a phone rings from behind the viewer and I got up to find my cell before I realized it was just the show.  There are SDH subtitles in English.
This program is recorded on new generation digital cameras that recorded with a resolution of 4096 X 2048 pixels (in comparison 1080p HD has a resolution of 1920 X 1080 pixels.)  Consequently the 1.78:1 anamorphic image show looks very good on DVD, but not quite as good as I was hoping.  There is a little bit of aliasing in some of the CGI backgrounds (the vertical bars in the gates to the Sanctuary when the camera pans over them, for example) and some scenes seem just a bit soft.  The colors look like they were played with in post production too, and in a few instances the skin tones look a little off.  Aside from that the image is very good.  (It's a bit disappointing that the show wasn't released on Blu-ray too.)
This set comes with a good amount of bonus material that really makes a complete package.  First, there are commentary tracks to every episode with various writers, directors, and stars.  All of the leads are included as well as the series creators.  While I won't claim to have listened to every minute of every commentary, those that I did play were fairly interesting.  A lot of time was spent discussing the sets, most of which are added in during postproduction, and the early episodes discuss the differences between the webisodes and the broadcast versions.
Speaking of the original webisodes, I was very pleased to see that E1 included those in this set.  All eight are found on disc four, and they run a tad over two hours all together.  It was interesting to see the slight changes that were made and the original vision for the show. 
There are also three short behind-the-scenes documentaries also on disc four:
Welcome to the Sanctuary (5:07) - discusses the genesis of the show
The Sanctuary Residents (5:37) -  talks about the effort behind creating the abnormals for the show, with both CGI and prosthetic makeup.
Sanctuary Visual Effects (5:20) - a look at how they shoot the show and how the CGI effects are incorporated into the program.

There is also a Blooper Reel (3:31) which is fairly amusing, a photo gallery, and a minute long sneak peak at season two.  All in all this is a nice set of extras.
Final Thoughts:
This is a hard show to rate.  The first six shows are so-so, but the last seven are great.  Averaging those scores doesn't really give an accurate picture though.  The last half of the show really makes up for the beginning episodes however, creating a very atmospheric and intriguing show.  When all is said and done, I'm really looking forward to season two which starts next month, so the show is ultimately a success.  If you're willing to sit through the first mediocre episodes and give the show time to get its bearings, this set comes highly recommended.
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