Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles aired for two seasons on Fox Television, and the events portrayed by it occur in the franchise chronology after Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) but before Rise of the Machines (2003).
As the series commences, it is the year 1999 and Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) and her teenage son, John (Thomas Dekker) are on the run -- wanted by the FBI -- after having destroyed Cyberdyne Systems (and successfully rolled back Judgment 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 Cromartie, who humorously shows up at John's school as a substitute teacher in 1999, Sarah, John and Cameron utilize time travel technology constructed in the past by time traveling soldiers and arrive 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, Cromartie -- though scattered in pieces -- has 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 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 series, the resistance cell (John, Sarah, Cameron and Derek) struggles to avert the development of genocidal SkyNet, a device which is depicted here 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...
Additionally, the brief summary of the premise, written above, can't possibly do the series justice. Indeed, it probably makes the show sound like an un-inventive repeat of the Terminator films. In fact, that's far from the truth.
For instance, in the series, developer Josh Friedman has adopted the notion of sending soldiers to the past our present and wildly expanded on it. Here, post-Judgment 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 audiences (to protect John Connor from terminators); but rather to gather the necessary equipment and construct a machine. 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 SkyNet's birth. Again, this is a somewhat different, but not contradictory, tack than the movies have adopted. There, the terminators had that single purpose: kill John Connor. Here, the machines possess a larger, more devastating agenda...ensuring their own survival at the cost of the human race.
First off, they speak in an intelligent vocabulary (and in a lexicon) entirely consistent with the feature films.
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?
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."
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 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, if you know what I mean, unless it helps her complete a mission.
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 course of the series.
It is sad indeed that TSCC was added to the roster of series that were killed before their time, when still at their creative peak. If I had to choose between watching the series again, or watching Terminator Salvation, I'd choose the series in a heart beat.