Sunday, November 23, 2008


I'm a Sci-Fi fan. Always have been. So when the Sci-Fi channel's new show Sancturay aired I was interested, especially as I had viewed Stargate and Stargate Atlantis and Amanda Tapping from those shows was the star of the new one.

The premise of the show is that there are "abnormals" in the world, creatures and beings whose evolutionary path is different. Thus, a chameleon like lizard that walks upright, or a mermaid. Some of these creatures seem benign, others not. Some are sentient, some not. Of late the show has taken a turn toward horror and now we find that the main character, along with a cadre of others in the 19th century, experimented with untainted blood of sanguinus vampirus, which gave each longer life, but also other kinds of "gifts" and abilities. Our heroine, her daughter, and "the new guy" run the "Sanctuary", a safe haven for abnormals of all kinds. There is a nascent werwolf now in the cast, and others.

Ok, what's this got to do with Modern Medieval? Well, what prompted me to mention it here is that in the second or third episode (I'm just finally getting around to addressing this!), they tread onto the medieval board. In that episode, they found the tombs of 3 "abnormals", 3 sisters, virgins of course, Irish, whose presence on the battlefield results in the mass death of the opposing side. As all this is being revealed the following becomes part of the tale: 1) they're ancient, they're medieval...the two adjectives are used interchangeably 2) the 8th century AD is called "ancient" and the Black Plague is said to swept across Europe at that moment 3) the 3 sisters were at Mount Badon, and parts of the episode show them walking through the field, the dead wear armor of a much later period, the late Middle Ages. 4) Being at Mount Badon they fought with/for Arthur.

Ok, I'm for remythologization....a term I'll coin to describe taking our existing myths and rewriting them. Stargate was a show that did just that and did so quite successfully (and before that of course was the movie with James Spader, but I digress). So why not here?

But its the way they're doing it. You see, remythologization takes some accuracy. Let me compare Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the vampires act like mythological vampires are supposed to. They don't like the light, wooden stakes, etc. The Harry Potter series works in much the same way: the mythological creatures who impinge into the real world work by and large because they react and have the attributes we expect them to.

But Sancturary isn't going there. At least the show hasn't so far. Here's what I mean. Let's take "sanguinus vampirus." To the uninitiated, that sounds like good Latin, all very scientific and above board. But it isn't. There is no word "sanguinus", there's sanguineus meaning bloodthirsty though not in the literal sense of needing to drink blood, from the verb sanguino, are. More importantly, "vampirus" isn't a Latin word. I may be mistaken, but I don't believe that it even originates as an Indo-European word, but comes from the Turkic Tartar, gets borrowed into Hungarian and Old Church Slavonic and thence in modern times into French and German and then English. If we wanted to go with Latin, Revenantus (having been brought back) goes back to the 12th century, or we could invent new terms based on Latin like semimortus (half dead) or intermortus, semivivus (half alive). There are certainly other real Latin neologisms that could be used to give real meaning to the focus.

Well, ok, Latin terminology is probably not the most important thing to notice about this, I admit. Its things like putting Arthur in the 8th century, along with the Black Plague (and yes, we know that various kinds of plague probably related to that of the 14th century passed through Europe at various points in the late antique world, esp. in 6th, 7th, and early 8th centuries.) which most people will associate with "the Black Death" and call them all "ancient." That seems a big problem to me. Further, the episode claims that the last reported case of bubonic plague was in Scotland in 880. Uh, no. There's been 20th century cases in Arizona! But 880? Have they heard of the Black Death? There was a wave too in the 18th century in England...just off the top of my head here.

The 3 women I mentioned are called the Morrigan. Some of you will recognize them as the Morrigan of Irish mythology, first appearing in texts (which of course isn't their first appearance!) in The Tain. In the story, they're trying to remember who they are and why and then at the end go meekly with The Cabal, a group that apparently collects "abnormals" to use abnormals' powers and abilities for The Cabal's gain. Ah HA, enter a foil! But the Morrigan in this tale are but three abnormal but mortal women who are artificially (never explained quite how) kept alive in stasis....a condition to which they willingly return "but we know who we are now." In my view, not a successful remythologization of what they demythologized.

And this of course brings us to some of my bigger problems. Technically, the show works in CGI, they work with green screens. Terrific. They've chosen a gothic style cathedral and its close as "the Sanctuary"....ok, we're starting on a good foot. What better use could a cathedral and its environs be put to than the ancient practice of sanctuary, much less the theological point of preserving what the divine has created....very deep religious overtones, not all of them Christian, available to the writers to use here. But they don't. Even when one sees the "security" image the first time, you know, the computer screen showing their security grid for the place, its the plan of the inside of a cathedral! Potentially great stuff to draw on here....but they don't.

But here's what got me and nearly lost me as a viewer. Ok, they have this gothic style place. They're in North America....possible in certain quarters...NYC, Toronto, etc. They live in fictional "Old City". Now when the aforementioned Cabal come looking for their lost Morrigan, they have GPS. And the GPS shows us that Old City and the Sanctuary is NOT on the Eastern seaboard where one might find an oldish Gothic Cathedral etc, but in Northern California. Ok, come on people.

Thing is, this isn't specialized knowledge I'm talking about here. The Latin, the mythology so far invoked, the dates of the Bubonic plague....they're all readily available on Wikipedia! And that's the frustrating part: its medievalism that isn't, but what's more, a faux medievalism that can't be bothered to check the most readily available source of information for the basics!

I haven't given final judgment on the show. I've watched several more episodes. The turn to the horror genre isn't to my taste. But it disturbs me that such a rich opportunity is wasted. There are rich veins that someone on the show seems aware of, but they just can't seem to tap: medieval mythologies and folklore that they can remythologize into a successful show and a new medivalism at the same time. As it is, they have done neither.


Anonymous said...


I enjoyed your blog post, and agree the mythology is potentially a rich one to draw on.

I dislike biological and medical error in my scifi as well, but had a slightly different take on the vampire naming than you did. =)

Coming from a life science background, I assumed the name of the vampire was using binomial nomenclature? Sanguinvampirus as the genus? And then something else as the specific descriptor (a name we don't know yet)?(Sanguinus vampirus was not the name the character of Druitt used to name the vampire species.)

Agree on the your comments on the cathedral as well, liked what you mentioned about the layered meanings of "sanctuary". Missed the GPS clue, will have to look again.

Thanks for the thought - provoking blog.



theswain said...

Hi Heather,

Thanks for the comment! I hadn't thought of modern biological classification to be honest. Would they take a non-Latin word and just stick an ending on it like that?

Thanks much!