Sunday, October 12, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK #59: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)

All right, so technically, this cult "flashback" involves a TV series still being broadcast on network television.

However, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles did begin airing in early 2008 (ten months ago...) and the entire first season (nine hour-long episodes) is now available on DVD. Given that information, this seems like as good a time as any to highlight this exceptional series on the blog.

First, a prologue about my own critical prejudices. Honestly, I believed that a Terminator TV series was a rotten idea when I first heard about the concept. So I kept my head stuck firmly in the sand and never watched even a single episode of the first season when Fox aired it. Was. Not. Interested.

My objection to the premise was simple: I felt that translating the expansive and expensive Terminator film trilogy to weekly television would succeed only in making the concepts, characters and universe seem small....trivial...perhaps even cheesy.

How could a reasonably-budgeted TV series afford to create a believable "Judgement Day" (the occasion that Skynet -- a malevolent A.I -- nukes the human race, in Terminator lore)? How could it afford to depict the red-eyed Terminator cyborgs, sans human epidermis, in all their mechanical glory? Who could believably substitute for the iconic Arnold Schwarzenneger as the Terminator human "model"? Similarly, who could replace Linda Hamilton, the actress who had so successfully breathed life into Sarah Connor back in 1984? Furthermore, did we really need a third angsty young actor (following Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl) giving us another iteration of future hero, John Connor?

And really, wasn't a Terminator series just an opportunity to re-imagine the movies, and offer up a slew of contradictions and questions?

I understand now -- having watched the series -- that it was only my original thinking that was small; not the imagination of the series writers. Quite the opposite of what I had initially feared, the first nine episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles expand and develop the world of the Terminator franchise in an admirable, consistent (meaning faithful...) and hugely entertaining fashion. The series' techno-jargon is the jargon of the films (right down to exact quotes of dialogue and terminology), and the program's time-line actually seems to fit like a glove with at least the first two features. What a pleasant surprise...

To its credit, The Sarah Connor Chronicles extrapolates logically and imaginatively on the entire universe set down by James Cameron in the first two Terminator films (right down to mood and theme), and - to my shock and utter delight -- even confidently vets feature-film-quality action sequences.

By the time the series arrives at the final episode of the first season, "What He Beheld," the direction and cinematography is almost lyrical. It's not just a superb's superb television. Specifically, a climactic assault on a Terminator in his motel room (by FBI agents) is lensed in stylistic montage fashion, edited superbly and wittily to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around."

During this motel assault, the camera inventively takes up a position at the bottom of an adjacent swimming pool. We hear numerous gunshots fired, then one wounded FBI trooper after another lands in the pool with great impact -- above us, spatially -- until the water slowly turns crimson, and is literally crowded with floating, sinking corpses. One corpse comes straight down like a stone...directly into the camera's eye. Throughout this battle, we never even see the Terminator fire a single shot; but the images of the massacre are sharp, impressionistic, and bold.

Honestly, I wanted to stand up and applaud at this formalistic climax, because -- at this moment of valediction -- the Terminator series had found its own unique voice and the confidence to shoot something in entirely unorthodox, even daring fashion (at least in terms of visualization and soundtrack).

But I'm getting so far ahead of myself here. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles occurs after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) but before Rise of the Machines (2003). It is the year 1999 and Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) and her teenage son, John (Thomas Dekker) are still on the run -- wanted by the FBI -- after having destroyed Cyberdyne Systems and successfully rolled back Judgement Day.

Before long, however, additional murderous cyborgs from the future are hunting John (the future leader of the human resistance against the machine regime). Also sent back -- but to protect Connor, not kill him -- is a re-programmed female terminator, Cameron (Summer Glau). Pursued by a T-888 named Crowmartie (who humorously shows up at John's school as a substitute teacher...), Sarah, John and Cameron utilize time travel technology (constructed in the past by time traveling soldiers) and arriving in Los Angeles in 2007.

It's now just four years before the new date of Judgment Day: April 21, 2011...

The hunted are unaware that their hunter, Crowmartie -- though scattered in pieces -- has also made the journey to 2007 with them. In the first several episodes of the series, the Terminator reconstructs himself, acquires new human skin (in an utterly creepy sequence involving a bathtub filled with human blood...) and resumes his mission to terminate John. In other installments, FBI agent James Ellison -- his name is a nod to Harlan Ellison, who successfully sued for a credit on James Cameron's original Terminator -- continues his quest to bring "terrorist" Sarah Connor to justice, even as Sarah, Cameron and John join forces with Kyle Reese's brother, Derek (Brian Austin Green), a soldier from the future.

Throughout the first season, the resistance cell (John, Sarah, Cameron and Derek) struggles to avert the development of genocidal SkyNet, a device which here is depicted in its early, adolescent iterations; both as "The Turk," a primitive A.I. device programmed to win at chess; and later as ARTIE, a Los Angeles municipal traffic monitoring program.

This brief summary of the premise can't possibly do the series justice. The summary probably makes the show sound like an uninventive repeat of the Terminator films. In fact, that's far from the truth. For instance, in the series, canny developer Josh Friedman has adopted the notion of sending soldiers to the past (our present) and wildly expanded on it. Here, post-Judgement Day, John Connor sends back teams (or "cells") of soldiers, not just individuals; and he also sends them back to various time periods for specific missions. For instance, in the premiere episode, we learn that Connor deployed a team to the 1960s to begin construction of a time travel device that would be needed by Sarah in 1999. The mission of those men was not a familiar one (to protect John Connor from terminators); but rather to gather the necessary equipment and construct a machine. This is exactly what I meant by opening up the franchise premise: here the past and the co-exist live side-by-side in a more complete, thoughtful way than in the feature films; with teams of fighters (and Terminators too...) operating beneath the radar.

One thoroughly impressive episode, "Vick's Chip," reveals (often from a first-person P.O.V. perspective) how a terminator named Vick infiltrated human society and even married a human woman (an A.I. developer) to complete his task of insuring Sky Net's birth. Again, this is a somewhat different, but not contradictory, tack than the movies adopted. There, the terminators had that single purpose: kill John Connor. Here, the machines have a larger, more devastating agenda...ensuring their own survival at the cost of the human race.

But the reason that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles succeeds more often than it fails is that the characters are treated respectfully and honestly. First off, they speak in an intelligent vocabulary (and in a lexicon) entirely consistent with the feature films.

Secondly, none of the characters are unrepentant drama queens given to bouts of dramatic diarrhea (think: Grey's Anatomy). Thomas Dekker -- playing John Connor -- does a highly credible job of playing an average teenage boy thrust into an absolutely impossible and difficult situation, but nonetheless attempting to retain some aspects of normality. So often on television, teenage boys are depicted poorly (either as geniuses or as juvenile delinquents) and consequently derided by fans for their trespasses (think Wesley Crusher or Adric), yet there is nothing annoying, brooding, trite, hackneyed or cheesy about John. He's just a smart kid trying to survive. He's emotional when the moment warrants it; tough when he can be; forever human with all the foibles that come with that descriptor.

The addition of Cameron (Glau) to the franchise also permits Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles to wade into the underlying thematic material of the films. Cameron -- and her failure to understand humanity -- makes the series worth watching as something more than an "action" series. In particular, it is through Cameron's character that viewers can ask the question first asked by Gene Roddenberry's Mr. Spock a long time ago (and later by Mr. Data): what does it mean to be a human being?

Or, oppositely: What does it mean to be a machine? Terminator 2 delved deeply into this territory, but this series absolutely excels in its dedication to comparing human beings and robots, or artificial intelligence. What I found so remarkable about this is that it forges the contrast in an entirely unsentimental, intellectual fashion. In one episode, for instance, Cameron befriends a ballet dancer in hopes of getting close to the dancer's brother, a slippery fellow who may know where "The Turk" is. Cameron does so by feigning an interest in ballet; which is described by the dancer as "the hidden language of the soul."

When Cameron gets the information she requires following this mission of infiltration, she immediately pivots and leaves her ballet instructor behind. Worse, Cameron leaves the dancer and her brother to be immediately killed by Armenian goons. Cameron does not look back, and she voices no remorse. She does not comment, even, that she has left a mentor to die. The point is that Cameron is a machine...nothing more and nothing less...and so she can't relate to humans in terms of loyalty or friendship. And yet, later in the episode -- unobserved by anyone but a spying Derek -- Cameron mysteriously indulges in a moment of ballet, in that "hidden language of the soul."

See, things aren't so simple, are they? What's this all about? Why would a machine engage in dance? How can a machine unemotionally leave a human being to be killed one minute, then indulge in an entirely human act (dance) in another? These are the questions that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles raises. Fortunately, it tends not to offer easy answers or sentimentalize the characters. Cameron is beautiful and inquisitive, but she's not "cute." She's not heading off to the holodeck to play Sherlock Holmes any time soon, if you know what I mean (unless it helps her complete a mission).

I am also impressed with the series' careful handling of the James Ellison character (Richard T. Long). Let's face it, Ellison the FBI agent is that old, durable TV cliche: the hapless pursuer. You know the type: Barry Morse on The Fugitive; Richard Lynch on The Phoenix; Jack Colvin on The Incredible Hulk; Michael Cavanaugh on Starman, Lance LeGault on Werewolf.

These are the dedicated law enforcement officials (or journalists) who relentlessly dog the heroes of these classic series...but never, ever catch them. Oh, they get close to catching the protagonists every damn week...and then -- for some reason -- don't get them. Of course, this fact makes the pursuer look incompetent or...hapless since it happens again and again; hence my name for the archetype.

But Ellison resists classification as a hapless pursuer because his investigation actually develops logically over the course of the episodes; and he doesn't remain a single-minded pursuer, never open to new information. No, what separates Ellison from other hapless pursuers (and Terminators, for that matter), is that new evidence changes him as a person. His beliefs change; his allegiances change. By the end of the series, Ellison is not the same single-minded pursuer of Sarah Connor that he was at the start of the series. That's...refreshing.

Of all the characters on the program, I actually found Sarah Connor (Headey) the most difficult to warm up to. Perhaps this is because Sarah Connor is - authentically - not really a very warm person. In some sense, Sarah is more like the enemy she fights than she might care to admit. She is ruthlessly single-minded: dedicated to changing the future and altering her son's dark destiny. These qualities don't make for a warm and fuzzy character; but I can't claim it should be any other way. Of all the performances, I found Headey's sort of the cheesiest and most two-dimensional to begin with; but the actress grows dramatically in the role over the course of the first season. I accept her now as Sarah Connor, which, I believe, is a huge accomplishment. I no longer think Linda Hamilton = Sarah Connor, and that's a high compliment.

Frankly, I wasn't expecting to like this series much. I was very pleasantly surprised. Unlike some seasons of Lost, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles isn't mysterious merely for the sake of tricking the audience or keeping it off-balance. Unlike the badly-drifting re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, the infiltrating machines here act in a consistent fashion with a consistent plan. Furthermore, this series isn't just an elaborate game of Clue, reduced to guessing game about who's a machine and who's human. And, finally, unlike Fringe, this series' formula isn't so aggressively and rigidly repetitive that you want to kill yourself by the half-hour mark.

I didn't think it could be done, but Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a movie-to-tv adaptation absolutely worth watching. This is a good show, folks. If you had the same reservations that I did -- and that I noted at the outset of this review -- you may want to check them at the door and give the series a try. This is one we don't want to lose.


  1. Anonymous10:16 PM

    wow, you actually made me want to watch that!

  2. Agree with the previous poster. Had no intention of watching it before this.

    Just a quick question re: Lost... I know you expressed disappointment in either the second or third season a while ago. Do you think the show has gotten back on track since mid season 3 or later? Are you still watching.

    Anyway, cheers for this excellent review.

  3. Hey Adnanz!

    Thanks for the comment on the review of Sarah Connor! I appreciate your remarks.

    Regarding Lost: I indeed felt that the series got back on track, to a large degree, in the third season, especially after a somewhat adrift second season. I can't comment on the fourth season, because I've lost track of the show, unfortunately.

    I do think that -- unless something has changed dramatically in the fourth season -- Lost still isn't honestly dealing with itself.

    What I mean by this is that in Season Two, the mysterious Others could appear and disappear at will, taking Islanders(plane survivors...) with them in a flash -- making them disappear in an instant. Characters would be talking to other characters; then they'd turn around and --- poof! Nobody there.

    The other group we've now met doesn't seem to boast that what's the deal?

    Also, I will continue to complain about the fact that the islanders walk around freely some 60 - 100 days after the plane crash -- without fear -- when the first night there an invisible monster rattled the trees; and on the first day, the invisible monster killed the pilot, throwing him around like a rag doll. Even pregnant women walk around unprotected on the island.

    So there's a disconnect in what "was" and what "is" on Lost, in my opinion. I don't think the show plays fair. At some point after the first several shows, the creators decided it wasn't going to be a "sci-fi" show with monsters, and changed the premise mid-stream.

    If the fourth season has found explanations for all this, then I humbly apologize for being behind and complaining about something that has been fixed. I need to Netflix the recent seasons. (I'm slowly catching up on TV like Sarah Connor after the birth of my young son and acclimating to sleepless nights...).

    Overall, I enjoyed Lost very much, but found it frustrating that it seems to to be inconsistent.

  4. Thank you for the reply. You have some good points. I suppose my love of the show blinds me as I have no real arguments against your points.

    I suppose it is subjective as to whether or not season 4 has found explanations for all that, but it is most certainly a different show. With the end date agreed upon with ABC, the writers seem to finally have a confirmed destination which they are taking the show to. There's nothing in season 4 that is as aggravating as the six episodes in season three spent with Jack, Kate, and Sawyer in the Others' cages. As a matter of fact, it often moves so fast it's hard to believe it's actually "Lost".

    If I understood correctly you seem to think the writers decided NOT to go the sci-fi route. Let's just say, to keep this from being spoilery, that season 4 has definitely confirmed that there will be much sci-fi at play in the remaining stages of the series.