One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
The genre convention of an individual who can harness electricity (either accidentally or with an agenda), has informed many a TV series over the years. From Brimstone's "Executioner" and Reaper's "Charged" to Smallville's pilot back in 2001, audiences have seen this notion portrayed frequently. Even series regulars and recurring characters have sometimes been imbued with the ability to control electricity. Think of Brennan Mulwray on Mutant X, Gwen Raiden on Angel or Johnny B. on Misfits of Science.
This week, the new Fox series Fringe goes blandly where those other series have tread before in the underwhelming "Power Hungry." This story involves a down-on-his luck loser, James Meegar, who accidentally causes electrical equipment (like elevators...) to malfunction; sometimes with fatal results.
"Power Hungry" opens with a classic X-Files-style scenario and introduction. James (a disdained or discredited outsider/loser: an X-Files archetype) fails at a pitch to woo a lovely receptionist. His strange powers run amok commensurate with his embarrassment, and he accidentally causes an elevator to fall several stories...and crash. James alone survives the incident, which is then investigated by the Fringe science team as a "power surge of unknown origin."
All I can say (politely...) regarding this sequence is that -- in pacing, in characterization, in set-up and in visualization -- it is so dramatically reminiscent of an X-Files prologue you half-expect to hear Mark Snow's signature theme song at the end of it. The best part of the prologue? We get a cameo from last week's Man in Black, The "Observer." Nice continuity.
Again, it is not necessary to rag on Fringe for dredging up old, time-worn stories. That's what genre series do, to a large extent. It's not the story that matters; it's the handling of it, the vetting of it. And it is here, alas, that Fringe once more selects the rote, familiar path rather than something bold. fresh or, if you pardon the pun, energizing. Remember my list of Fringe cliches (already cemented after five weeks on the air)? Well, here's a refresher, applied to "Power Hungry."
1. We get another of Dr. Bishop's patented cutesie-poo insane moments. He minces around on a carpet and tries to shock Peter with a finger of static electricity. As usual Dr. Bishop is deadly serious when the script requires him to be; amusing when it doesn't. He has the most selective and "useful" brand of insanity ever!
2. The mystery of the week once more involves - as Dr. Bishop actually states this time - "a case" where he has "seen this" [human-created power surges] "before." Yep, he worked on a study years ago involving pigeons (!) that could track individual human electrical patterns. This is more than helpful, because the Deus Ex Machina of the week involves Bishop up-fitting pigeons to seek out and find fugitive James Meegar. Again, for a series that concerns fringe science, there is precious little scientific research actually going on here. Every single case seems to involve something Dr. Bishop already figured out in the 1970s and 1980s. This means that once Dr. Bishop figures out the problem of the week, he now merely references an old case and - voila - mystery solved. I can't fully express how dull and stupid this aspect of Fringe is. It might be more interesting if Fringe was actually set in the 1970s and 1980s, and concerned Dr. Bishop learned all this very interesting stuff in the first place.
3. The case is related to the myth-arc, or as Fringe terms it, "The Pattern." We know this is so, because the Observer is present at the elevator incident. And also because John Scott -- the dead agent played by Mark Valley -- was researching the case before he died. And that's another cliche too: John Scott shows up and brings up conflicted feelings in Olivia Dunham, our hero. Hey! You know something? I just realized, I could write this show in my sleep. Anyone could. The ingredients are by now so repetitive, so familiar, so utterly predictable that the series appears to be running on automatic pilot. All I can say is: I hope this means J.J. Abrams is working on Star Trek... The rote, robotic aspects of Fringe (meaning the story lines...)might be forgiven if the characters were as dynamic, as human, as individual and real as, say, Mulder and Scully. But they're not. I've warmed to Peter (as played by Joshua Jackson), but the screenplays continue to make this "genius" an absolute idiot. Why is he constantly asking how things are possible if he's such a genius? Fringe seriously needs to stop using this character as the "spur" for exposition, and endow him an intelligent, imaginative and curious side. As he is now, Peter just gets to quip a little, look pissed off, and set-up his Dad's scientific explanations. It's getting old. Real. Fast. But by far, the series' greatest deficit is Anna Torv in the lead role. She projects no real humanity as Olivia Dunham. Take for instance, her final interaction in "Power Hungry" with James Meegar, the loser with the power to harness electricity. Poor James has just had mechanical implants drilled into his brain and has essentially been tortured. And this is after accidentally killing his boss, his mother, and his would-be girlfriend! James is being loaded in an ambulance when Olivia approaches him. Desperate, James begs her to tell him what the hell is going on; what is happening to him. She doesn't. Instead, she coldly explains she has "questions" for him. So...is Olivia a human being? Or was she built by Dr. Bishop too? As viewers, we need to know the answer to this question: does Olivia have any sympathy for James? For the fact that he was made a human guinea pig in the larger "Pattern?" Or does she not care a whit? Is Olivia so single-minded and obsessed with the case that she can no longer see the human picture? One way or the other, as viewers we need to know what Olivia feels. I want to identify with her emotions and point of view, regardless of that point of view. I want her to be more than a cipher who each week "fronts" an investigation and then brings down the perp. My newest recommendation to the makers of Fringe is this: ditch Olivia Dunham (and Torv) and re-focus the series entirely on the Bishops, father and son. They are about a million times more interesting (cutesie-poo insanity and all...) than Olivia is. Sometimes it is useful in a review to compare the approach of one series with another. Allow me do that in closing. The Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles also had a "pattern" to follow (the Terminator feature films), yet the creators of that series have gone out of their way to intelligently and inventively expand that pattern....overturning viewer expectations and making the series wildly unpredictable. Fringe, which is so derivative of The X-Files, has by contrast settled irrevocably into bad cliches, superficial characters, and lazy, derivative stories. In my opinion, Fringe should be canceled now. Terminator should be saved.
I have no idea why or how, but I have managed to keep this trading card since 1976 -- when I was seven years old.
This trading card has survived my messy bedroom in the seventies, my move to Virginia for college in the late 1980s; and my move to North Carolina in the 1990s. I opened a box of my toys yesterday (with Joel) and found it there, all by its lonesome. I own no other Happy Days memorabilia or trading cards. Just this guy.
Today, I credit three diverse and valuable sources with my ability to write well.
The first is my study of Latin. I minored in the subject at the University of Richmond and have never regretted it. Vēnī, vīdī, vīcī.
The second source is a deep stable of wonderful and inspiring English professors; stretching from my grade school experience through the university years (particularly critic Bert Cardullo, Joseph Umansky, and the late Joe Roden).
And, last but never least, is...Schoolhouse Rock, the ABC animated musical series (1973-1986) that demonstrated -- in superbly entertaining fashion -- how to accurately utilize conjunctions ("Conjunction Junction"), adverbs ("Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here,") Interjections ("Interjections!") and more. Yep, these "lessons" were all facets of the series' memorable class on "Grammar Rock."
Schoolhouse Rock premiered on the ABC Network in early January of 1973, the brainchild of ad man David McCall, musician Bob Dorough and artist Tom Yohe. Network executive Michael Eisner approved the project for broadcast during ABC's Saturday morning schedule, and accordingly three minutes "bits" were cut (over producer protests!) from the entertainment programming (such as Scooby Doo) to make "elbow room" for these educational and amusing shorts.
Over roughly a dozen years, Schoolhouse Rock accomplished that task in spades. It offered a deep, amusing, highly-addictive and toe-tapping TV curriculum in a variety of academic subjects.
Celebrating the bicentennial in 1976, Schoolhouse Rock's "America Rock" featured such shorts as "I'm Just a Bill," (following a bill's progress from idea to committee to law or veto...), "Elbow Room" (about the American expansion West after the Louisiana Purchase..."), "Mother Necessity" (about American ingenuity and inventions...), and "The Preamble," which concerned the specific words and meanings of the U.S. Constitution.
In the subject of math, audiences were offered "Multiplication Rock," with shorts called "My Hero, Zero," "Three is a Magic Number" (a personal favorite that I sing to my son, Joel...) and "Figure Eight."
In "Science Rock," youngsters learned about "Electricity, "Electricity" and "Interplanet Janet" (a ditty about the heavenly bodies of our solar system.)
In all, over forty of these three-minute segments aired on American television, and to the joy of fans everywhere, the series is now available on DVD, For Generation X (my generation) specifically, these shorts (particularly the catchy tunes) are nothing less than indelible.
This morning, I introduced Joel (my two-year old) to Interplanet Janet. If you watched Schoolhouse Rock back in the day, which songs (and which lyrics) do you still remember verbatim? Come on, I know these things are ingrained in your brain too...
Author Danny Lynn writes about the condition of the horror genre in this article. He interviews a number of prominent North Carolina authors about this subject (including my friend, Scott Nicholson [They Hunger]). Here's a little snippet of what I had to say about the state of the genre in 2008:
“I’d like to see horror today becoming a little sharper; a little nastier, a little smarter, and a little more pointed. Basically, we should be seeing a whole new generation of original films like Last House on the Left or Straw Dogs...but we’re mostly getting remakes of 80s slashers that play on brand names, like Prom Night.”
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 adaptation...it'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.