The Terminator is one of a few movies that, for me, defined science fiction. Released in 1984, the story revolves around a time paradox, a cyborg, a freedom fighter and a deceivingly soft looking heroine. The straightforward narrative, combined with a strong cast and the judicious use of special effects created an experience that was as gritty as it was terrifying. Two more theatrical releases – Terminator 2-Judgment Day (1991), and Terminator 3-Rise of the Machines (2003) – carried forward the story of the Connor’s and their battle against Skynet and the looming apocalypse. Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles picks up the story of Sarah and John Connor in 1997, six years after the events depicted in T2.
The 9 episode first season is well produced and well cast, juxtaposing action and special effects with character development. Writers adeptly sidestep the events of T3 and by episode 3, have established an alternate future for John and Sarah. Supporting characters have recurring roles throughout the season, serving to both put the story in context and provide deeper insights into the three main figures – Sarah, John and Cameron.
Sarah Connor is played by the Bermuda-born Lena Headey, who has appeared in a wide variety of television and movie roles from MacGyver to Remains of the Day to Queen Gorgo in last year’s blockbuster, 300. Linda Hamilton played the role of Sarah Connor in T1 and T2 – I was really struck by the differences between her and Lena Headey’s interpretation. Linda Hamilton did an incredible job of portraying the completely insane Sarah – both in and out of the asylum. She really seemed disconnected and unstable – forcing a very young John into the “parent” role throughout T2. The television series presents several flashback scenes of Sarah’s time in the asylum, and I found that Ms. Headey does not capture that haunted, almost feral state perfected by Ms. Hamilton in T2. She does do a much better job of being on the edge, but stable – reflecting a Sarah Connor who has had seven years to recover from her horrific experience in the psychiatric institution. Most importantly for the series, she is a believable, functioning parent for John.
Thomas Dekker plays the role of the 16-year-old John Connor. Mr. Dekker has a long list of television appearances, performing roles in ER, Seinfeld, Star Trek Voyager, Boston Public, House, Heroes and CSI. His portrayal of a teenager is quite good – meaning, I found myself suitably irritated by his performance. John is headstrong and erratic in his attempts to be a teenager at the same time as coming to terms with his rather difficult future. Connor is the one true constant in the entire Terminator story – everything revolves around him, yet the series is more of an exploration of the supporting characters as they relate to John and Sarah than it is a show about John himself. Performance-wise, this is reflected by the strength of the other cast members.
Summer Glau plays the role of Cameron, a cyborg sent back to the year 1997 to protect Sarah and John Conner. Ms. Glau, a prima ballerina, has had a relatively short on-screen career compared to her co-stars – starting with Angel in 2002, Josh Whedon’s Firefly series and the subsequent film Serenity. She has also appeared in episodes of CSI, The Unit and The 4400. As Cameron she delivers a unique physical presence – gracefully precise.
The question of artificial intelligence and sentience is a recurring theme throughout the series. The “humanity” of Cameron – John’s guardian terminator is explored to some degree in every episode. As the season progresses John becomes increasingly attached to the cyborg – while at the same time other characters go out of their way to demonize “her.” Cameron demonstrates an awareness and an interest in this kind of growth. Yet at the same time, she can be completely devoid of any human quality.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles does a great job of juxtaposing the the present and the future using “flash-forwards” – both in explaining events in the past narrative and muddying the waters in the future leaving the viewer guessing as to what the hell is going on. Something that the television series seems to be constantly trying to do is to link itself to the the movie franchise. This can be as “in-your-face” as re-enacting scenes from the movie, or bringing in characters from the movies who then recall verbatim what happened at a particular point. Other things they do is create some sort of visual echo to the films – Cameron dressed as a police officer, riding a motorcycle complete with the mirrored foster-grants comes to mind. I find this stuff distracting – and not really necessary. While I understand the desire to draw upon the immense popularity of the movies, it can seem kind of cheesy on the small screen for some reason.
In an effort to create dramatic tension (and at the same time link to the movies) Episode 7 – “The Demon Hand,” the characters explore and expand on an event that “may” have occurred in T2, the day Sarah tried to escape from the hospital. This particular thread left me with the distinct feeling that “the dramatic subplot had been tacked on” (to borrow a critique from Grandpa Simpson). It was too deliberately a play on emotions, and at the same time didn’t fit with the flow of the plot.
My complaints are simply minor irritants in what is an overall terrific show. It is well cast, well produced, and well written. The serendipitous ending of episode 9 (thanks to the writer’s strike) left me agog and wanting more. Season Two can’t start soon enough!
For a list of episodes complete with plot synopses visit this website.