The Sci-Fi Channel and Movie Network’s new television, formerly web-based, series Sanctuary is an interesting, media-informed piece that mixes existing new media mainstays with a variety of social messages. Viewers who are familiar with other science fiction and new media franchises like X-Men will see a lot of familiar concepts in this series. There are differences. The latter franchise presents largely humanoid mutants. Many of them can blend into society, but because of their amazing abilities, they’ve chosen to seek refuge, training, and fellowship at the Xavier School. In Sanctuary, we see a large ‘preserve’ created for the containment and aid of many non-humanoid freaks of nature. These individuals are monstrous. Some of them are pyrokinetic, some are pixie-like, some are giant lumbering beasts akin to dinosaurs or other movie monsters. Like many franchises, this becomes a meta-explanation for all ‘fairy folk’ mentioned in lore. Characters casually describe one individual or another as a specific monster from literature or legend. Interestingly, this is also done historically, as one character with excellent longevity is said to have been known as Jack the Ripper.
The social message here is an interesting one. X-Men deals largely with school-oriented outcasting issues. The students at the Xavier Institute are children. They are there because they are special by virtue of being different. This hearkens to the very many series and books that have been written that deal with kids or others who feel marginalized because of their differences. Those attributes could be racial, sexual, economic, or social– or in the case of X-Men, genetic. In that way, X-Men is far more social than Sanctuary. Those outcasts deal with a ‘coming out’ period and go around in conclaves with deep parallels to sexual minorities. The social message of X-Men is largely that these young people do not fit in– but one day, they will.
In Sanctuary, however, we see a much different kind of outcast. The individuals here have literally been tossed out by society. They are so different that they have no hope of fitting into society now. In the pilot, the Helen Magnus, played by Amanda Tapping, tells Robin Dunne’s character Will Zimmerman, that these ‘people’ are dangers to themselves and others,’ and thus the best place for them is this clandestine institution.
She makes it clear that they are largely all there by choice, except for the most dangerous ones. While this does draw parallels to criminals in prison, it draws deeper parallels to people in asylums, institutions, hospitals, or prison because of deep mental or physical abnormalities. At its highest level, prison is supposed to be a place of ‘rehabilitation’ or other forms of treatment. In this way, the Sanctuary is the same. The metaphor is not limited to the mentally disturbed, but rather also to those who are afflicted by some physical deformity that makes them unable to be a part of society. Those individuals in reality may or may not be in a facility, but they are largely confined to their homes where they are safe. in this series, some of those are so completely outside of the scope of humanoid existence that they exist, it would appear, only as testaments to the diversity of God’s creation.
With these metaphors in place, it is difficult to determine what the long range implications of this series are. On the one hand, these creatures will never be integrated into human society. That appears to be a part of the Sanctuary’s mission. At the same time I shows that these people are not going anywhere. They include children or others who are randomly deformed, which further draws allusions to sexual minorities. This could be construed as an example of homophobia, as it compares homosexuals and transgendered people to the grotesquely physically malformed people in the Sanctuary. Only time will tell how these metaphors continue to develop, and what social message is trying to be made in the long term. One character is shown to have ‘finished’ treatment under the care of Dr. Magnus. This person, however, is now employed as her aide, and has no spoken lines. This dehumanization of the character does not bode well for a more open minded take on the subject, but is probably just an isolated case.
Effects & Storytelling
The storytelling in this series is thus far fairly good. It is a bit heavy on exposition, but this is to be expected in the pilot of any series. Some of the characters are clichéd in ways that make them all too precious, like the thoughtful sanctuary maven Dr. Magnus, her rambunctious adventurer daughter, or the bookish, awe-struck Dr. Zimmerman.
The series exterior locales and many interior shots are almost all computer generated. The quality of this has clearly grown in recent years, as it looks great. It is clear, however, from the camera angles, that they are indeed not in a city, but on a soundstage. Furthermore, the writing in this hybrid US/Canada series is markedly Canadian. The dialogue doesn’t sound American. It is artificial, unjaded, and too cloying. It would benefit from some character and line level darkness to accent the already bleak landscapes.