"Sanctuary," which premieres tonight on Sci Fi Channel, is a draggy piece of somber silliness that recalls a host of earlier fantasies, including "The X-Files," "X-Men," "Men in Black," Sci Fi's own "Eureka" and "Beauty and the Beast" (the TV series) and the Island of Misfit Toys segment from "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping, "Stargate SG-1") is a good-looking 157-year-old doctor of cryptozoology and xenobiology, the study, in the former's case, of extinct and otherwise nonexistent animals, and in the latter's, of extraterrestrial life, which is to say things that, practically speaking, don't exist. We don't learn how she's come to be a good-looking 157 years old, but she has.
She lives by the river in a digitally rendered New York surrogate called Old City, in a digitally rendered sprawling Gothic pile that I am pretty sure incorporates the facade of Chartres Cathedral -- an enormous place she shares with her leather-wearing, motorcycle-riding, gun-toting, karate-kicking daughter, Ashley (Emilie Ullerup), and a basement full of assorted monsters, mutations, beasties and thingies both benign and malign; the complex is part refuge, part prison.
There is a mermaid, a man with a face on the front and back of his head, a lizardy thing, and a big Bigfoot of a fellow who helps out around the house. We don't learn how she manages to keep them all, but she does.
"Sanctuary" debuted last year on Scifi.com as an online series, and quite a grand one in that context. Tonight's TV premiere expands, rearranges, gussies up and generally improves the first four webisodes (there were eight in all) for the bigger screen.
Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne), whom Magnus hires for her hospital, is now a forensic psychologist working for the police (he was a doctor in the Web original), whose professional and personal lives have taken twin turns for the worse. He sleeps badly, having as a youth seen his mother dragged off by a monster, and he earns his spurs tonight when he calms another young boy, saddled with a murderous, brain-sucking, Chernobyl-spawned tendril by telling him, "Feeling safe is something we all need."
Much of it feels dreadfully slow, not so much moody as stretched for time. Hard-to-sell dialogue such as "Such imperfect children are often adopted by well-meaning immigrant families" doesn't make it flow any faster.
Things do pick up significantly with the arrival of Christopher Heyerdahl as John Druitt, a tall drink of evil better known as Jack the Ripper, who can also teleport and who, like Magnus, looks good for his age. The mysterious, out-of-time appearance of Jack the Ripper is one of the most tired tropes of fantasy fiction, but there's some crazy menace and the suggestion of depth in Heyerdahl's performance.
There are a couple of revelations about the character I'll keep back, but they offer the likeliest chance for an interesting series ahead.
On a brighter note, "Sanctuary" looks good. The most original thing about the series is its reliance on the green-screen: 90% of the sets are virtual, unheard of for a television series, and while some have the low-detail, wide-angled look of video-game environments, most are subtle and persuasive, and the actors blend in perfectly. The fact that you have to think twice to think twice about it is a sign of success.
Where: Sci Fi
When: 9 tonight
Rating: Not rated