Friday, October 24, 2014

Terminator Week: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008 - 2009)

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...

Cut down in its prime, (in 2009), 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. Impressively, the series also 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. TSCC is not just a superb adaptation of a great movie franchise, 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 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.

I wanted to applaud at this formalist 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.

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.

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). et 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 description.

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 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.

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 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.

1 comment:

  1. I had an erudite, thoughtful, one might even have said witty, comment that in my naivete I neglected to save before attempting to publish. Suffice to say, the act of signing in ereased the comment, so I'm forced to summarize:

    a) Another decent show killed by Fox before reaching its potential;
    2) Excellent characterisations by Lena Headey but especially by Summer Glau; and
    last) One of my favourite episodes was 'Self Made Man', where it seemed that Cameron had developed a connection with wheelchair-bound librarian Eric, right up until the last scene.

    I liked my first comment better - I'll Ctrl-C in future...