Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: “Allison from Palmdale”

Liar, Liar

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Mondays on Fox, 9 PM
“Allison from Palmdale”
Written by Tony Graphia
Directed by Charles Beeson

The fourth episode in the 2008 season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is showing signs of distress. Not in the writing, which is as good as it’s ever been, but in its ratings. Viewers have deserted the show in droves; clearly something is not working. I have some ideas about that, but first let’s look at what’s working. “Allison from Palmdale” may be the best episode of the series. There are more surprises in this hour than in any previous episode; every time I thought I knew what was going on with Cameron, I found out I didn’t.

John sends Cameron to the grocery store while he ducks into an electronics store; while shopping, Cameron sees a waterfall of watermelons that somehow triggers a “memory event”. In my computer, that memory event would be a blue screen of death, but in a cyborg, it means a hiccup in her programming. Suddenly Cameron is catatonic and amnesiac. The cops are called, and she can’t identify herself, so they take her to jail. There she meets a con artist/free spirit named Jody (Leah Pipes, Ghost Whisperer). During their conversations, Cameron flashes back on “memories” of herself as a real human girl in the future. (What, exactly, would one call a memory of the future? Why hasn’t some SF writer coined a term for this?) This turn of events was the most surprising to date—could it be that “Cambot” really is human? That rather than trying to become an imitation of a real live girl, that she really is a human? How can this be? Among her flashes, she remembers that her name is Allison Young and she is from Palmdale, California. Cameron/Allison’s confusion deepens as her memories from the future combine with her amnesia in the present. “Memory is a very associative thing,” a counselor at a youth center tells her. “Allison” calls her “Mom”, who in the 21st century is actually pregnant with her! Time travel paradoxes make my head ache.

John, having irresponsibly ditched his protector, belatedly discovers that something has happened to her. When John finally catches up with Cameron, he is astonished to find her laughing and having fun as “Allison”. She flashes again on her memories of the future, where Allison escapes from the Terminator facility through a room full of caged animals and people—briefly. Oddly enough, it turns out that Allison can swim, even if Terminators cannot. She is recaptured by a Terminator who looks exactly like her. The Cambot says there is dissension among the Terminators (shades of Cylons in Battlestar Galactica), and tries to persuade Allison to reveal John Connor’s whereabouts. Allison lies, the Cambot finds out she lied, and kills her. Apparently, the “memories” we’ve been seeing are not true memories, just the reconstruction of whatever Allison told her interrogator (Cambot) in the future. It’s a neat twist, well done, and kept me tuned in all the way to the end. Present day Cambot gradually returns to her “self”, and confronts Jody when Jody tries to rope her into a burglary. Cambot discovers that Jody lied about almost everything, and she nearly re-enacts the murder of the real Allison from Palmdale. John finds her at the crucial moment, and Jody lives, but Cambot demonstrates on the way home that she has picked up a very human skill from Jody—lying.

Two very lame secondary stories in this episode involve Sarah Connor bonding with her pregnant landlady, and FBI agent James Ellison considering a job offer. Here’s where we get to the problems with this show. Things are not moving fast enough. The Sarah Connor part of this show went literally nowhere. Nothing advanced the storyline, and we had to sit through several minutes of pointless “bonding” between Sarah and her airhead landlady. All we got out of it was that Sarah likes to tell people Kyle Reese was with her when John was born, when of course Reese was long dead. We can hardly blame a woman bearing a child alone for consoling herself with a pleasant fantasy. So is she BFFs now with Kacy? Yawn. FBI Agent Ellison’s story is so attenuated that I need a cheat sheet every week to remind me who he is, why he’s important, and what he knows. This week we got to meet his ex-wife Lila (Fay Wolf, Bones), who just happens to also be an FBI agent. All three plotlines focused on lies, on telling people (and Terminators) what they wanted to hear. I could just have easily dispensed with the two secondary stories—they dragged like a fifty ton boat anchor.

And there was no trace of Brian Austin Green to be found in this episode. That’s a shame, because he’s almost charismatic enough to carry this show with Lena Headey.

Rumors are flying that Fox is on the verge of canceling this show due to low ratings, which is a stupid decision, given that all the shows on TV this year have seen ratings drop. The low ratings are probably due more to the audience drifting away from broadcast TV to niche markets like the SciFi Channel, not to any inherent disinterest in this story. What can save it? One trick would be to pick up the pace. Let’s see Armageddon come early. The writers are writing this show as if they have years in which to build a story arc. They don’t. They may have only weeks left. We need to see faster storylines, not faster car chases. The FBI agent, Ellison, is a melancholy drag whose story line goes nowhere fast. The new characters are not advancing the plot, they are only complicating it. The Catherine Weaver character is marginally interesting but woefully underused, the Kacy character is a sitcom bad joke, and Riley—do we really need her?

The biggest problem this series has right now is the guy who is supposedly the key to it all—John Connor. No fault of Thomas Dekker, but his character is so boring right now I almost wish Cameron would take him out, so that his far more charismatic mother and uncle can jump start the revolution—or short circuit the future. If he’s supposed to be such a badass in the future, why don’t we ever see John in a physical confrontation? Can he even throw a punch? I don’t have to see him beating someone up, but I’d like to know he can defend himself; it’s hard to respect a Future Savior Of Mankind (TM) when he acts like a wimp. Can we see him in karate practice? Or at the gun range, grouping his shots? Instead, this supposed future master of strategy and tactics ditches his mom at every opportunity, even though he knows there are killers out there gunning for him. This is world-class stupid. I can’t root for a stupid hero.

Even these changes may not be enough for a show which is up against Monday Night Football and Chuck. The demographic for those shows is identical to the demographic for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. If the programming drones at Fox had any sense at all, this show would precede Fringe on Tuesday nights. The combination of these two shows would devastate the competition, even NCIS. But expecting the devotees of our national religion—football—to switch over to anything else is delusional. But the network that cancelled Firefly and Dark Angel has never really known how to tap into the vast and loyal audience that is SF fans, despite many heroic attempts. They should take a cue from NBC’s Chuck, which shows week after week that they know how to talk to that demographic. This week’s episode drew 5.53 million viewers, half a million viewers fewer than a week before, down almost a million from the season premiere. Maybe SkyNet is winning after all.