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From the ashes of "Stargate SG-1" and "Stargate Atlantis" (which ends early next year) emerges the spinoff "Sanctuary," the kind of conspiratorial tale that leaves sci-fi fanatics in the throes of hyperventilation. And from the looks of the two-hour opener to this 13-part Sci Fi Channel original series, it might even satisfy the less sci-fi-enlightened among us.

That's certainly the case during the first hour of this ambitious production from creator/exec producer Damian Kindler (who worked on both "Stargates"), who, with an assist from visual effects wizard Lee Wilson, manages to pull off a television first. This is the first TV series in memory — or perhaps ever — to feature live actors performing against primarily virtual sets. This is because many of the monster performers and situations don't yet exist in this galaxy, obliging the actors to react to greenscreen things that are not in fact there. It can be a challenge to carve something realistic from talking to a wall, but for the most part, this group pulls it off.

"Sanctuary" follows the adventures of "Stargate SG-1's" enigmatic and ethereal Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping), a hard-as-nails and singularly brilliant scientist who takes care of a population of clandestine oddball, terrifying, weird and disturbing creatures that couldn't survive anywhere else. In the opener, she recruits a cynical forensic psychiatrist, Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne), to help handle a freakish kid with a ropelike arm that can stretch for seemingly a mile and rips out parts of people's brains. Helen's fearless daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup) also is there to lend a hand and flying foot. The script from Kindler and Sam Egan builds the story with unsettling verve and elan, giving us just enough of Wilson's FX to leave the audience pining for more.

The problem with "Sanctuary" comes when it settles in to a predictable pace and denouement during the second half. It takes on an early thrilling ride, only to inexplicably start coasting when we need it to shift to the next gear. But the show's pedigree and premise, along with the technological breakthrough it brings to the table, make it worthy of a second look. (partialdiff)
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