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- TV Series: Sanctuary
- Episode: Pavor Nocturnus
- Starring: Amanda Tapping, Robin Dunne, Ryan Robbins, Christopher Heyerdahl, Jonathon Young and Agam Darshi
- Written By: Damian Kindler and James Thorpe
- Directed By: Brenton Spencer
- Network: Syfy
Sanctuary: Pavor Nocturnus Review
Stop Me If You've Heard This One.
By Rob Vaux
November 09, 2009
© Syfy/Bob Trate
Ah, the Zombie Apocalypse. Where would sci-fi programming be without it? The broken-down streets, the lurching cannibals, the feverish search for a place of safety… its tropes are so easily applied, generating squeals of fanboy delight with nothing more than a few extras covered in muck. It's even harder to resist when it involves further sci-fi clichés, like a character who wakes up in a "dark" future without the first idea how he or she got there. That lets the narrative flow instantly around the search for the facts--nominally delivered by a malfunctioning computer somewhere--which allow the hero/heroine to either fix the big problem or escape to the past and make sure it all never happens.
Sanctuary dives headlong into that prospect this week, indulging in numerous guilty pleasures while setting the bulk of the episode on autopilot. It starts when Helen (Amanda Tapping) comes to in the dilapidated ruins of the Sanctuary, amid the rubble of a demolished city. The area is infested with hordes of gibbering savages sporting some kind of tentacle/stinger from their mouths, and a handful of gritty survivors in HAZ-MAT suits. One of them turns out to be Zimmerman (Robin Dunne), decked out in a standard-issue Mad Max haircut and prominent facial scar, who tells her that she died several years previously.
The remainder of the episode unfolds with the comforting regularity of Kabuki theater: fight zombies, scream at each other, save waifish street rat (Nicole Muñoz), fight more zombies, boot up an inexplicably intact hard drive, and watch as various underlings fall victim to the hordes. Director Brenton Spencer throws in plenty of House of the Dead-style kung fu, rendered on a shoestring budget and showing every threadbare penny of it. Tapping, God bless her, just doesn't have that Bruce Lee vibe to her, while subsequent fights entail far too many instances of supposedly level-headed humans abandoning their perfectly good firearms to wade in with machetes.
Dunne, for his part, clearly relishes the chance to go all urban primitive, but the script doesn't give him much to do besides bark out exposition and snarl with hatred at the faceless enemy. He and Tapping do succeed in evoking an entire end-of-the-world scenario with just a few terse lines of dialogue--cities in flames and various members of the team dying heroic deaths across the globe--but for the most part, it's all a colossal goof. The use of just two principal cast members allows them to spend extra money on green screen and set design, rendering the dark future well enough but finding nothing to grant it a sense of the unique or special.
So too does the remainder of "Pavor Nocturnus" mark time. Its extended reliance on cliché is mitigated somewhat by the obvious fun it's having, and by the fact that the leads both play it all extremely straight. Its conclusion contains a little extra juice as well, suggesting that some things are better left alone and that Magnus is smart enough to keep her ongoing quest for knowledge from clouding her better judgment.
Beyond that, however, every bit of pleasure from the episode accompanies a sheepish grin and a flush around the cheeks--embarrassing those who watch it without impugning their basic affection or respect. Sanctuary depends on such audience indulgence to a certain extent. Without our willingness to turn a blind eye now and then, its charms would be utterly lost. But "Pavor Nocturnus" pushes that equation a few steps past the line, where the silliness evokes enough discomfort to merit turning away. One can easily forgive the show, of course--even at its nadir, it's just too harmless to hate--and as a one-off riff, it could be worse. But we've seen this particular scenario too many times before, and without something more original to make it uniquely Sanctuary's own, there's no reason to indulge it all again.