Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)
(Image from IMP Awards)
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)
The 'Terminator' franchise ploughs ahead, seemingly as unstoppable as its titular robotic killers themselves. With a proposed trilogy of new movies on the horizon, one could argue that it's stronger than ever, and the renewal of this series for a second season suggests it has the cachet to endure on the small screen as well.
'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' (quite a mouthful, and it makes for an amusing 'previously on') focuses on 15 year old John Connor (Thomas Dekker) and his mother Sarah (Lena Headey), and begins in 1997, some years after the events of T2. We find them living in a small town hiding from the authorities, with Sarah in a serious relationship with a paramedic named Charley (Dean Winters). Afraid of being discovered and deeming it necessary to move on, they leave in secret, reluctantly abandoning their small town lives. Shortly thereafter they learn that the nuclear holocaust called Judgement Day still happens; the destruction of Cyberdyne Systems only delayed the apocalyptic event till 2011. A 'female' Terminator model named Cameron (Summer Glau) locates and protects the Connors from a Terminator called 'Cromartie' (Owain Yeoman / Garret Dillahunt) sent to 1997 to kill John, and she ends up transporting them to the presumed safety of the year 2007 using a time machine hidden in a bank vault, put there by people from the future in the past (!).
The three of them base themselves in Los Angeles and resolve to try and prevent Skynet from coming into being. Meanwhile the Charley of 2007 is now in LA and he becomes aware of their presence, and an FBI agent named James Ellison (Richard T. Jones) who was tracking Sarah Connor in 97 gets wind of mysterious incidents that he believes are somehow related to her. These incidents involve the presence of other Terminators in 2007 performing various missions for Skynet unrelated to the Connors, including killing resistance members sent back by John to assassinate key people involved in the creation of Skynet. To add to the Connors' list of problems, 'Cromartie' manages to follow them to the future and continues his mission to hunt down and kill John.
And that's just the first few episodes of this cut down, nine episode first season! Following the story requires some knowledge of the movies, but let's face it, most people who start watching this series probably have a decent idea what it's about. The show's storylines develop in both interesting and frustrating ways. First, the good. Cromartie's relentless pursuit is exciting and sits comfortably with the established Terminator mythos, and the idea of having several Terminators wandering around is used well and sparingly, though it does create yet more head scratching temporal paradoxes where Skynet influences its own creation; I figure that once you have one paradox, anything goes, and it allows the writers to get away with all kinds of tricks without having to provide explanations. For instance, every change in the timeline ought to change the future in some way - clearly this can happen since Judgement Day was delayed by the events of T2 - which raises interesting questions about how resilient the future can be to these changes. Every thing they muck about with could change the future dramatically. What if a change prevents John from sending Kyle back? What if they push Judgement Day back by decades - will Connor really still be the leader of the resistance as a very old man? But I digress; our heroes' mission to try and prevent Skynet from coming into existence is still a compelling one that runs the length of the season.
Now, the not so great - the school scenes. That's right, John Connor, future saviour of mankind who spent his pre teens in South American jungles with guerillas, goes to high school and deals with some weird Veronica Mars type high school drama, and these sequences are simply forgettable. Also not so great is pariah FBI Agent James Ellison's pursuit of Sarah Connor. He's always playing catchup to the audience, slowly and interminably coming around to the truth, and annoyingly sprouting biblical phrases at every turn while adding little to the overall story. Granted, he may yet play a large role (the final episode hints at this quite dramatically), but the writers have dragged his story out and it doesn't help that he isn't all that interesting to boot.
In fact, the writing is the main aspect of the show that needs talking about - they show a tremendous faithfulness to details from the earlier movies, but also contradict things. John Connor, who was such a tough and driven 10 year old, is now a mopey teen who doesn't seem to have the same moral compass that was such a defining characteristic in T2; in fact, he's a bit of a wimp in this, literally asking his mother to take care of things for him. And what in the movies started out as a seemingly desperate last ditch effort on the part of Skynet to save itself by sending killing machines into the past has now morphed into something labyrinthine, with time travellers aplenty all over the place and the resistance possessing its own selection of Terminators, which is at odds with the impression created in the movies ("Nobody goes home. Nobody else comes through. It's just him - and me" - presumably events we've seen in the first two films still played out in this manner; that, or all of the earlier movies have been rendered null and void in this new timeline).
I've gotten carried away however, and am admittedly being too harsh in judging this show by comparing it to the movies and not accepting it as its own thing. In my defense, however, it is a part of that series and therefore cannot avoid comparison. As its own entity, for the most part the series excels. The writing isn't the greatest - some of Sarah Connor's voiceovers are grating (and the opening narration is appalling), the school stuff is terrible, and the story structure seems unfocused, and oh yeah there's an episode featuring a married terminator that strains credulity - but overall the dialogue and characters are quite good and many of the themes of the story like fate vs. free will, the needs of the many over the lives of a few, and the ramifications of artificial life are addressed quite well. While obviously on a lower budget than the movies, the show looks pretty good in terms of production design and special effects, and the action scenes are surprisingly effective. Another standout element is the music, which features remixed themes from the movies as well as some excellent original ones - music for TV shows like this rarely makes an impression, but I was pleasantly surprised here.
Then there's the performances (this review will end soon - honest!). Lena Headey is excellent in the starring role, and although the character isn't as physically imposing or as wonderfully unhinged as Linda Hamilton's interpretation was in T2 (killer robots would drive anyone a little loopy), she's still as tough as nails. She also has some 'mom' type stuff that is a bit off; the need to make the show more mainstream friendly by setting it up as a pseudo conventional 'fractured family tale' is annoying but understandable. Thomas Dekker is alright in his role as John, though most of my problems with the character stem from the writing. Summer Glau is sometimes fantastic as the Terminator (or is it terminatrix?) Cameron - and kind of creepy - but also awful on occasion. Physically I don't get the casting since she's obviously not liquid metal like the T-1000 and yet her tiny metal frame (!) seems to be capable of taking on Terminators twice her size. Dean Winters as Charley and Richard T. Jones as James Ellison both do a reasonable job in their respective roles. Garret Dillahunt, whom I mentioned in my review of Deadwood's second season, is great as the Terminator Cromartie, though I think his presence is ultimately a real waste of talent.
Alright, time to conclude with my overall thoughts. As part of the Terminator franchise, 'The Sarah Connor Chronicles' is decent. As a standalone show, it's quite good. It shows a lot of potential and certainly showed signs of getting better as time went on even during its shortened run. There are some elements that, frankly, just need to be excised, but most of the storylines are either interesting or getting interesting. The overall quality of the show is high, but the writing needs some work. All in all, quite good but could (and should) be better. I look forward to finding out if the second season manages to raise the bar and deliver something truly great.