“No fate but what we make it” — this being the message of both Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor to their son John, as the future leader of humanity rockets toward his destiny that can only begin when the end of the world happens. Terminator as a franchise has captured the imaginations of millions, and was one of my most beloved movie series when I was a wee laddie. While the concept — unstoppable, homicidal robots who look like us — is hardly new (see: Westworld, etc.), it all clicked together in the Terminator franchise for a smashing blend of killer machines, atomic bombs and time travel.
It turns out that a quarter of a century since James Cameron’s smash hit The Terminator, fans of the series have been gifted with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” in continuing the franchise. After Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the timeline splits in two. You can either:
- Follow the film exploits in Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation, or
- Follow the television adventures in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (TSCC)
You see, makers of TSCC approached their TV series as an offshoot of the Terminator timeline. In it, the death of Sarah Connor, the uprise of Skynet and the doom of Judgment Day doesn’t happen as it did in T3 — instead, we seem to have entered a second universe where events are unfolding a little differently. Considering the complexities and paradoxes of time travel, it’s not unreasonable to assume that both timelines are equally valid for the Terminator fan, they just don’t exist in the same world.
It’s The End Of The World As We Know It
At the beginning of TSCC, it looks like the small family has dodged a nuclear bullet. Judgment Day has been averted with the destruction of Cyberdyne and the T-1000, and they’ve settled down into a normal life. Sarah is engaged to an EMT, and John is dealing with typical teenage stuff, like school and girls. That is, until one day the substitute teacher turns out to be a new Terminator — a T-888 (or “triple-8”), a slightly more advanced version of Arnold Schwartzenegger’s T-800 — and John’s life is saved by a second Terminator, a quirky female model named Cameron.
Cameron, Sarah and John flee the T-888, going so far as to use a small time travel device that the future Resistance saved for them to skip forward from the year 1999 to 2007. There, they once again try to settle down, but it appears as though everything’s ramping up: more machines are coming back from the future, the Resistance has agents all over the place, and Sarah realizes that Skynet and Judgment Day are still on their way.
Admittedly, it’s one slam-bang premise, and the pilot doesn’t fail to grab your attention.
From Chase To Drama
The problem, as you might already have discerned, is that Terminator as a film series are mostly chases — cyborg assassin chasing people until one (or both) are dead, and you simply cannot sustain a chase over the course of a TV series, which is longer and on a smaller budget.
TSCC’s answer is to scale back the chase down to a “hunt”, as the T-888 (reappearing in 2007 slightly worse for wear) continues to track them down, and this slightly skewed family unit goes on another hunt for whatever will become Skynet in the future. This leads them in and out of encounters with various people and locations, from a nuclear power plant to a chess-playing artificial intelligence to a child psychologist. After a little while, a couple new characters are introduced to make things more complicated: highly moral FBI agent James Ellison (who digs around to uncover the truth of the Terminator killings), Derek Reese (Kyle’s brother from the future) and Riley, John’s new girlfriend-slash-complication.
Some of the episodes have a little more action in them, while some hold a lot less and function as dramas. TSCC tries its hardest to sustain the suspense by injecting in a number of Lost-style mysteries, but the revelations and twists are pretty slow in coming (and the whole blood-on-the-wall prophecies is a downright confusing and weak story device). The shorter first season keeps the pace steady, while the second falters, stumbles, and only manages to upright itself toward the end.
Meet Humanity’s Saviors
Leena Headey (300) takes over Linda Hamilton’s (Terminator, T2) role as Sarah Connor, and is arguably the show’s “main” main character (hey, it’s in the title, people!). She’s a bit war-torn and emotionally dead, having dealt with the Terminator threat far too long, and her character is the foreshadow of what future soldiers would become: broken yet tough. Sarah’s not that likable as a character, mostly because she’s only one notch above the cyborgs in the “emotions” department. Still, she does what needs to get done, and it’s an unthankable job.
For my money, Thomas Dekker makes the best pre-Judgment Day John Connor on film: he’s less whiny than Edward Furlong and a little more flint-and-steel than Nick Stahl. John’s the computer whiz of the family, but he’s also the mediator between his family and the rest of humanity. As unthankable Sarah’s job is to get her son ready to lead all of mankind in a war against the machines, it’s unfair to constantly burden John with reminders of that upcoming task. He’s alternatively coddled, protected and yelled at, and while he intellectually understands why, teenage rebellion is rising up somewhere deep inside him.
The third main character is Cameron, who is played by Summer Glau of Firefly fame. Speaking of Firefly, Cameron is essentially River Tam with a little less emotion and tact, but more or less the same character, which is bizarre. Only on occasion did I warm up to this protector Terminator, since the show’s creators never did keep her on an even keel when it came to her personality (in the pilot and in a few places elsewhere, she really does act like a human girl, but most of the time she’s like a Vulcan with a shotgun). It’s also a little hard to believe that this tiny little girl frame could hold a Terminator strong enough to battle much bulkier ones, but such is the price of eye candy, I guess.
Fun but Ultimately Flawed
My wife and I finished out the second (and last, as Fox canceled the show abruptly) season more out of duty than a sense of wonder and excitement. There are several episodes that slow the pace so much and get so talky that my attention began to drift away up into the sky — and this being, y’know, Terminator, that shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t really connect strongly with any of the characters, mostly because they were either liers, robots or very angry people.
I sensed a lot of ambition behind the show, and you can see strings of overarching storylines and ideas hanging about — it’s just that they never quite tie them together to make it a tight, snappy piece. Instead, the episodic nature works against the urgency of preventing the future, and the money shots of Terminators, action and scifi concepts are doled out sparingly.
On the other hand, it certainly wasn’t a total wash. The concept is really fascinating, and there’s a lot of neat moments, such as the exploration of the Future War (which looks way cooler than it did in Terminator Salvation) and the introduction of another T-1000 — you know, that liquid metal ‘bot from T2.
Over the series as a whole looms the melancholy, morose soundtrack that constantly strikes up a tone of “Woe is humanity! Woe is the world!” that might be apropo, but kind of forgets that TSCC’s roots are in action and explosions, not emotional poetry and journal entries.
I do wish the series could have gotten a proper ending, as the second season ends with a tantallizing cliffhanger, but all things considered, it’s probably for the best. They really didn’t have a lot of places to go from there anyway, not without a full-fledged movie budget.