You may remember the short-lived Glen A. Larson Terminator TV series from the mid-1980s. Each week, lone drifter Sarah Connor and her pet dog would arrive in a small town, get caught up in the lives and troubles of those she encountered and move on, never quite able to convince the authorities that the cyborgs were already among us. You may remember that series, but you probably don't, because I successfully managed to wipe it from the timeline.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is not that series. In fact, it's none of the series you feared you might get when someone had the misconceived notion to remake Terminator 2 for TV. It's actually good.
The producers are clearly under no illusions about their audience's preconceptions, and the pilot episode wastes no time cutting to the chase. Our first image is of the white lines of a highway rolling towards us in the beam of headlights—the unwritten future that ended Terminator 2—overlaid with Sarah Connor's narration and familiar elements from the Terminator soundtrack. From the outset it's clear that this production intends to be faithful to the look and feel of the films. We're led into a nightmare sequence that encapsulates everything we need to know: Sarah racing to protect John at his school, a Terminator decimating armed police, killing John, and finally having his flesh burned away to that iconic endoskeleton by the flash of nuclear detonations. This is everything that's at stake in the series in a nutshell, but it can also be seen as a mission statement on the part of the producers. The pacing is fast, the acting good, the visual effects epic. It's a promising start.
The series begins in 1999, two years after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), with Sarah Connor and her son John on the run from both Terminators and the police and living under assumed names. The construction of Skynet, the computer system destined to become sentient and destroy humanity, has been delayed. John is fated to become the leader of humanity following the apocalypse, and Sarah must ensure his survival. The pilot episode moves briskly, setting up the premise and catapulting our heroes forward in time to 2007, which conveniently allows the series to take place in the present. Added to the mix of regular characters are a female Terminator (Summer Glau) sent to protect John and an FBI Agent, Ellison (played likeably by Richard T. Jones), who is pursuing the Connors and who gradually begins to learn the truth.
Lacking from the outset, inevitably, are the actors who originated the characters in the films. In the case of John Connor this is not much of a problem, the character having been played by two different actors previously. Thomas Dekker is well cast and visually not an implausible link between Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl. Arnold Schwarzenegger, acting ability notwithstanding, is a more serious loss. As far back as the first film we've seen other models of Terminator, but the anonymous cyborgs in the series would have undeniably had a more visceral impact with Schwarzenegger's face.
Most significant of all is the absence of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. The character didn't appear in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), but her pumped physique and strung-out obsession in T2 made a lasting impression. If the series is going to fall down anywhere, it's here. There's no escaping the fact that Lena Headey (Queen Gorgo in the film 300) looks nothing like Linda Hamilton and, while she's in excellent shape, she's nowhere close to the sinewy musculature that the character possessed in the second film. It's also fair to say that the physical difference is revealing of other changes in the character. The Sarah Connor of the series is a warmer, less monomaniacal character. She's certainly obsessive—grabbing hold of John and barking "no-one is ever safe"—but not the stone cold warrior of the second film. The character was softened even from the original series pilot in reshoots, and some will find her an unacceptable compromise. But she remains tough enough to dispel my concerns, and her underlying maternal tenderness mainly serves to remind us that she cares for John as an individual, not merely as the future saviour of mankind. It's easy to argue that this is a natural progression from Terminator 2, which was Sarah's journey to the heart of darkness and back. At the end of that film she hugs John to her and tells us that she's facing the future for the first time with "a sense of hope." Headey's Sarah is recognisably a development of that character, and a fine, charismatic performance in its own right, bristling with tension and drive. Sarah remains edgy, never trusting anyone and ill at ease with domesticity, but she has rediscovered her humanity. It makes her a more empathetic lead, while leaving no doubt that she can be admirably bad-ass when required.
Sarah Connor is not the only aspect of the story to be softened for TV. Abigail Nussbaum has argued that the series relocates Sarah's working class existence to a more traditional middle class setting. It's difficult to disagree with this observation. Although they are on the run, Sarah and John have moved up from trailer park life to a large, comfortable suburban house. Sarah mentions in episode 8, "Vick's Chip," that she used to work in a diner, referencing the original film. "I can't see that at all," replies the man she's talking to. The truth is, neither can we. It may simply be a matter of how far the character has come in the intervening 13 years, but it's also true that the series and the character have conformed to the middle class norms of TV. The show even skirts the fringes of a traditional high school setting: John attends a large school and does his homework in the evenings. To be fair, the series uses that setting mainly as a backdrop to the main storyline rather than the focus. It's a means to explore the more mundane aspects of John's life and his attempts to flex his fledgling social wings. Likewise, the comfortable house is financed by stolen diamonds, and the domesticity is undercut by the underground world of violence and crime that the characters inhabit. These issues don't hurt the series irreparably, by any means, but they do make the setting a little more conventional than was strictly required.
To put us at ease in the face of these changes there are numerous references to the films, including the Connors going by the name of Reese; phrases like "come with me if you want to live," "no fate but what we make," "there's a storm coming"; characters such as Miles Dyson's wife and Dr. Silberman; and more. The concept of a female Terminator arguably derives from T3. Even the name of the "friendly" Terminator, Cameron, references the director and co-writer of the first two films, James Cameron. These call-backs are nice, but more fundamental than any of them is the music. Brad Fiedel's Terminator theme is profoundly associated with the movies, and the TV series makes extensive use of his motifs. Bear McCreary, who has scored the majority of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, turns his hand to different mechanised creations in a score that is faithful to the original themes and industrial percussion, while crafting a generally warmer and less electronic sound. The importance of his score in infusing the series with the mood of the films can't be overstated.
And on balance, one of the most impressive things about this version of the Terminator franchise is what isn't softened. The Sarah Connor Chronicles is willing to confront both the psychological bleakness of the Connors' situation and the brutality of their underground struggle. Not that this strategy is without risks of its own. The danger with any series that posits a resourceful, implacable foe is this: why aren't our heroes dead? The seeming impossibility of survival gives the three Terminator films their narrative drive, but an all-out chase is only sustainable in the short term. The more screen time that passes without one of our lead characters dying, the more implausible their survival becomes and the more diluted is the sense of threat. Many series confronted with this dilemma give their villain a spurious reason for keeping our heroes alive, at least for the moment. In the new Battlestar Galactica, for example, there is the Cylons' infamous, perhaps mythical "plan." It's an approach that inevitably gives rise to the villains behaving inconsistently, and given the nature of the Terminators it's difficult to see how this "more valuable to us alive" argument can be made to apply. In the pilot episode Sarah survives contact with a Terminator only for as long as it can use her to lure John to his death, and even this small respite strains credibility.
Another potential risk is the depowering effect of sequels: one xenomorph is unstoppable in Alien (1979), but by Aliens (1986) they have become cannon fodder. The Stargate TV franchise has progressively defanged each of its alien adversaries, only to replace them with a new enemy even more powerful. If Terminators are destroyed each week, the series will undermine the threat that defines the franchise.
The Sarah Connor Chronicles manages to avoid these pitfalls without falling into the trap of leaving the Terminators completely off screen. The main Terminator in pursuit of the lead characters is a consistent foe. He's unstoppable even when apparently dismembered, but takes time to regroup, retool and pick up our heroes' trail. In doing so he deploys infiltration and investigative skills and sheer methodical legwork, the same relentless tracking methods seen in the three films but played out in more detail. Only when confronted or near his goal does all-out violence erupt, as in the powerful, impressionistic fire-fight in the finale. This aspect of the season is well paced, making up for the lack of gunplay through the extreme (and, it has to be said, implausible) lengths to which the Terminator goes to reassemble itself inside and out. In doing so it expands on the cyborg technology of the films in interesting ways.
Barring a few plot-holes the series is true to the big picture established at the cinema, but less true to the fine detail, using to its advantage the essence of the Terminator franchise: each side is altering history. The second episode, "Gnothi Seauton" (Know Thyself), makes it clear that Sarah Connor's death prior to Terminator 3 has been avoided or at least delayed, effectively demoting T3 to an alternate timeline. The date of "Judgment Day"—originally August 29, 1997, in T2 and postponed to July 24, 2004, by T3—has now been postponed until April 21, 2011. The complexity of these alterations to the timeline is such that even in the films, it's nigh-on impossible to keep track of which version of our future has spawned each set of time travellers. Nitpicking becomes something of a futile exercise. (The one glaring plot hole is the emergence of a particular chunk of endoskeleton from a time portal, which violates a key rule of the franchise and requires some mental squinting to excuse.)
The Sarah Connor Chronicles, then, does enough to show that it respects the history of its franchise. But that's not enough to make it a success; for that, it has to establish its own identity. The series’s key innovation in this regard is to introduce other Terminators with missions that only tangentially relate to the lead characters, allowing them to encounter cyborgs who are not specifically seeking them but whose goals relate to the construction of Skynet, or the elimination of soldiers from the future. Likewise the rebels themselves are shown to be more organised than previously implied, with teams of soldiers on a range of missions. Engineers have even been seeded into the past to develop futuristic technology in the present. By the end of the first season this elaboration of the original premise becomes quite far-reaching, in ways that may alienate some purists, but it's a complexity that creates storytelling possibilities and for the most part is intelligently extrapolated. Sarah is forced to broaden her own understanding of what Terminators are along with the viewer. "Is that something they do?" she asks at one point, lacking the frame of reference to understand the rules of a future conflict whose shape she has only glimpsed. It's this gradual expansion of the rules that gives the series its "wiggle room" to tell more involved stories. Without it, we'd be left with a pointless repetition of the films, a real risk given the sense of déjà vu that had already begun to afflict the franchise in Terminator 3.
The series grapples with the themes of the films in rewarding ways, particularly those of the second film. The original The Terminator (1984) was little more than a well-executed chase thriller with a neat SF premise in which, following a future war between men and machines, both sides send agents back in time to alter history in their favour. The premise has a number of antecedents. The concept of a future battlefield in which disguised robots infiltrate bunkers appears to have been drawn from Philip K. Dick's 1953 story "Second Variety" (filmed as Screamers in 1995), while co-creator James Cameron acknowledged the inspiration of Harlan Ellison for the time travel elements, in particular The Outer Limits episodes "Demon with a Glass Hand" and "Soldier." Ellison's contribution is referenced in the new series by the presence of FBI Agent "Ellison" and the title of episode 7: "The Demon Hand." Terminator 2: Judgment Day, however, is a more polemical film than its predecessor, and a film which argues fiercely for the value of human life even as it blithely revels in violence. Where the first film simplistically casts machines as the killers and humans as protectors, the sequel looks more closely at the role of human scientists in sowing the seeds of humanity's destruction. Sarah Connor sets out to kill the man who created the Skynet Artificial Intelligence, casting aside much of her own humanity in the process. She ultimately turns aside from that mission, concluding the film with the words: "If a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too."
The Sarah Connor Chronicles picks up these threads about humanity and the ethics of warfare. It posits soldiers from the future who are themselves assassins, human Terminators, sent through time in part to prevent Skynet's creation by killing those responsible. Their mission is no longer one of protection but is exactly parallel to that of the Terminator in the first film. The plotline of the first season follows Sarah's attempts to find and stop those responsible for planting Skynet's earliest seeds. At the beginning of episode 3 she imagines herself with a gun to the heads of the physicists involved in the Manhattan Project: "Oppenheimer, Eisenberg, Fermi and Teller... Why couldn't they stop, these fathers of our destruction, and why wouldn't anybody stop them? And if I had the chance, would I?" It's a fascinating question because although Sarah is a moral person, the stakes for humanity are so very high that it's possible to argue a justification for pre-emptive murder. In this respect the addition of Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green), brother of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) from the original film, is a strong move. The series draws Derek as an edgier, less trustworthy figure than the straight-up Kyle. He is less morally pure than Sarah, prepared to lie and even kill for the cause, yet is ostensibly one of the good guys, adding greyer notes to the ethics of war.
John Connor is largely insulated from these moral questions. The series finds him at a slightly older age than in T2 but still much younger than in
What's most interesting about the character is that John has known for his entire life that he is destined to be a great leader, yet his life in this timeline must be a far cry from the one led by the original John Connor who became that leader in the first place. Sarah insists that John must be protected at all costs, yet in doing so she seldom allows John to demonstrate the leadership which in a few scant years he will be required to display. It's a fascinating quandary that adds depth to the series, but also introduces a constraint that makes John a more passive figure than he might be. Although he rails against what he sees as his mother's refusal to take the conflict to the machines, it's Sarah who gets the bulk of the screen time and who drives the story forward. If we accept that this season represents the beginning of a journey (guiding light Josh Friedman claims to have four years planned), then this is an acceptable place to begin, but if the series is renewed then John badly needs to start growing towards that leader of humanity and take a more active role in proceedings.
John's protector is the reprogrammed Terminator Cameron, who appears physically as a teenage girl and may well be the show's most intriguing element. In essence she's a version of Schwarzenegger's friendly Terminator from T2 and T3, but although the films enjoyed the dark irony of Terminator-as-father-figure they characterised him through a combination of jokey catch phrases ("Hasta La Vista, Baby," "Talk to the Hand") and sentimentality (the execrable "I know now why you cry"). In contrast, Cameron's characterisation is far more nuanced.
One of the standout scenes in the series occurs in episode 6, "Dungeons & Dragons," when Charlie Dixon comes across the petite Cameron carving gobbets of flesh off a deactivated T-888 and incinerating its skeleton. "He's a scary robot," Charlie observes. "But you? You're a VERY scary robot." Cameron calmly wipes her knife and tells him: "You should go. It's not safe for you here." It's a moment that creates a pervasive sense of unease. Cameron is an ambivalent character, at times disconcertingly human, at times every bit the amoral sociopath that is a Terminator. Even when obeying direct orders not to kill she allows the innocent to die without compunction. We infer from glimpses of the future that she has done terrible things, and also that sometimes "tame" Terminators start killing those around them for no apparent reason. She guilelessly tells John to his face that she has lied to him, repeatedly, about important things. To her the mission is all-important, but we don't know what her mission actually is.
Summer Glau is a superb choice for the role, perhaps unsurprisingly since it was "basically written for her," according to series creator Josh Friedman. Her roles in Firefly and The 4400 were characters who were similarly off-kilter, and in particular Cameron shares notable similarities to River Tam in Firefly. That series and its cinematic sequel Serenity (2005) delighted in counter-pointing River's strange-little-girl persona with her hard-wired fighting ability, creating a character whose fragility could explode into violence. Cameron exploits that same disconnect between her slight physical presence, distracted behaviour, and deadliness. In some ways Cameron fills the niche of the classic "outsider" character familiar to viewers of Joss Whedon's TV shows or the various incarnations of Star Trek, prone to amusing non-sequiturs and failing to grasp human foibles. Unlike predecessors such as Data or Anya, however, she is not generally played for either laughs or pathos. She is a complex, unknowable, potentially threatening character who displays ambiguous hints of an inner emotional life. Just as John saw the Schwarzenegger T-800 as a father, it's clear that he's attracted to Cameron despite his better judgement, but he, and we, are constantly reminded of her otherness. The first season represents a remarkable balancing act in depicting Cameron as both sympathetic and unnerving without overly humanising her. Given the tendency of television to tame its "alien" characters it remains to be seen whether the character can continue to walk this knife edge in future seasons.
Over the course of the first season (planned as 13 episodes but halted after just 9 by the Writer's Guild strike), The Sarah Connor Chronicles has proven itself to be unexpectedly absorbing and intelligent. The scripts are often much classier than they need to be, peppered with allusions to Oppenheimer, golems, and even Moore's Law of exponential technological development and Vernor Vinge's "Singularity," summarised by John in episode 3 ("The Turk") as "a point in time where machines become so smart that they're capable of making even smarter versions of themselves without our help." The character of programmer Andy Goode (Brendan Hines), who creates a chess computer is probably a reference to mathematician and chess player I.J. Good, who postulated an "ultraintelligent machine" in 1965. The dialogue is often understated, resisting the urge to spell everything out or respond to every rhetorical remark with something portentous. Sarah's narrations are often the antithesis of those of Mohinder Suresh in Heroes, providing thoughtful commentary on events rather than tangential (at best) philosophising.
Not all of the episodes work equally well, but there are no real clunkers and the average quality is high, with the best instalments being the thoughtful "The Turk" and the future-glimpsing "Dungeons & Dragons." The serialised story hangs together remarkably well given the myriad complexities and time paradoxes that the writers have to contend with, and through sheer good fortune the last filmed episodes make an effective two-part finale. But the ratings for The Sarah Connor Chronicles have been down following its pilot, and at the time of writing (although indications are positive) its fate hangs in the balance. It would be a great shame if the story ends here. Christian Bale is set to play John Connor in an upcoming fourth movie (formerly known as Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins, but currently untitled), which may launch a new trilogy of films set in the post-apocalyptic world after "Judgment Day." It remains to be seen whether the new film will be wholly consistent with this series. One suspects not. It will certainly have to work hard to exceed the series in terms of quality.
Iain Clark is destined to become the future saviour of mankind, but still finds time to review the occasional television series.