At this point, my expectations for Syfy Channel “original series” are at an all-time low. Ever since Battlestar Galactica ended, the nerd-centric network has proven themselves to be almost as fickle as AMC when it comes to supporting their serial dramas. The cancellation of shows like Eureka, Haven, Stargate: Universe and Caprica makes it hard very hard to want to get enthusiastic about new shows. The shoe could drop at any moment for even the mediocre shows that they’ve got left (Warehouse 13 and Being Human USA, I’m looking at you and I don’t know why). Now, I can’t help but look to Sanctuary, one the shows that did Syfy Channel’s execs greenlit for a truncated 13-episode-long fourth season, for answers. Unfortunately, if tonight’s episode is any indication, Sanctuary is not only not the stopgap show I was looking for, it’s also not a very good show at all.
If you’ve never seen an episode of Sanctuary before, you can easily start with “Tempus,” even though it is a fairly convoluted episode that’s only really appealing for its setting. The year is 1898 and the place is London, England. Helen Magnus, the show’s generically intrepid, ass-kicking heroine, has traveled back in time to stop Adam Worth, now an equally generic Jekyll-and-Hyde-style mad scientist, from destroying the world. Worth has returned to turn of the century Britain so that he can try to find a cure for the mysterious blood disease that afflicts his daughter, Imogene. The trouble is, since Magnus and Worth both originally hale from that time period, thy could bump into their past selves at any moment, creating a time paradox. This means that the longer that Helen tries to stop Adam and the longer he tries to cure Imogene, the more chance both of them have of unraveling the world as they know it.
That threat is kept at such a vague and crude level that you can’t help but snigger when Magnus and Worth perfunctorily lay out the stakes of the week’s drama. This is done through redolently lazy, paint-by-numbers expository dialogue. “It’s only time travel, Helen. What’s the worst that could happen,” Worth says knowing she’s about to tell him sarcastically what could basically go wrong. “Aside from destroying the natural order of history,” she rejoinders, leaving him room to rebut with a hyperbolic and very general statement of purpose. “What, by creating a new Utopia,” he sneers back at her, giving Magnus the opportunity to correct his coyly rhetorical and totally megalomaniacal declaration. “By taking over the world,” she screams, now sounding as exasperated as I am for having had to hear this dispiritingly lame exchange.
Similarly, to understand “Tempus,” you don’t really need to know much about Sanctuary beyond what episode writer Damian Kindler spoon-feeds you throughout the episode. Magnus teams up with James, the man that helped her to establish the titular safe haven for mutants that she is the leader of (in the future, that is). The trouble is that the James of this time period has no idea who Magnus is. This doesn’t stop him from quickly apprehending that Magnus is a time traveler and that she can’t tell him much about the future lest she affect potentially devastating changes in her time period. The trouble with this advanced and conveniently sped-up relationship is that it’s not established organically and it doesn’t have consequences (Magnus could just go back to her era without anything really changing about the characters).
Furthermore, there are no visible sign that the time line that Magnus is trying to protect is seriously in danger. Worth runs around trying to save his daughter. He also taunts Magnus with the fact that every time she pulls a gun on him, she can’t shoot him. Because if she did, innocent bystanders would notice her, thereby ruining her reputation in that time period and altering future events. I never once got the sense that Magnus was running out of time or that she had to dispose of Worth immediately. Beyond Magnus’s imperative to get the boastful Worth to stop smirking, she just doesn’t to need to kill the little creep.
On top of that, James’s investigation of the Ripper killings has led him to suspect John Druitt, Magnus’s ex-lover, when in fact a mutant named Spring-Heeled Jack is responsible for the murders. All of this is a lot less eventful than it should be because on top of the fact that Kindler’s dialogue needs polishing badly, his plotting is just atrociously by-the-book. There’s nothing memorable about Magnus’s brief encounter with Jack apart from the way that he leaps away from street-level to the rooftops in two or three bounds. The scene is just there, not really contributing anything to the episode’s events beyond removing any doubt of Druitt’s innocence (he’s unbalanced but he’s not Jack the Ripper).
I can deal with the fact that Kindler puts undue stresses on stupid, tic-driven dialogue like, “Bloody ‘ell,” and hackneyed and utterly meaningless exchanges like the one where Druitt, armed with a straight razor, growls at Magnus, “You’re insane” for no apparent reason while they’re fighting, just so she can deliver a mindless line like, “Yes, very much so. Fancy some more?” All of that is bad but what makes “Tempus” really bad is the way that episode director Martin Wood never really seems sure of where to put his camera. He constantly circles the show’s protagonists as if to add some kind of dynamism to an episode whose plot is largely propelled by heated dialogue. Even Druitt’s fight scenes with Magnus look silly and often rather listless.
Then again, it took a village to create something as ill-conceived as “Tempus,” which is a perfect storm of clichéd characterizations, poor line-readings (“Noooo, I DON’T want to knoow.”) and bad direction. Nobody comes out of this episode looking good. So if “Tempus” is the point where you try Sanctuary on for size, you’re probably going to be deeply disappointed. Which is too bad because I’d generally characterize the show as harmless junk, though tonight’s episode doesn’t even deserve that back-handed praise.