Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: “Dungeons and Dragons”

Scary Robots

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Mondays on Fox, 9 PM

“Dungeons and Dragons”

Written by Ashly Edward Miller & Zack Stentz

Directed by Jeffrey Hunt

“He’s not a guy. He’s a scary robot.” — Cameron

I think one of the things I like best about the Sarah Connor Chronicles is the fact that Fox is treating this franchise with so much respect. And by “treating with respect”, I mean “spending lots of money”. Every episode so far has been a mini-movie as good as anything you’d see at the local cinema—explosions, car chases, fight scenes that routinely have people being thrown through walls. These production values are way too expensive for television. The scenes in the FutureWar portion of Monday night’s episode are as good as anything I saw in the original movie. I was delighted to see that Fox is sparing no expense in re-creating the destruction of post-Skynet world of the future, the grim future Sarah and John Connor are trying so hard to erase. Maybe the production design is too good: eerily enough, the blasted deserts that evoke the original franchise are now all-too-reminiscent of Ground Zero at the World Trade Center in New York.

This episode picks up from where last week left off, with Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green,Freddie) fighting for his life on Sarah’s kitchen table after being shot by a T-888. John dashes off and comes back with none other than Sarah’s old fiancé, Charley Dixon (Dean Winters,Rescue Me). I was glad to see that the writers didn’t make him stupid or slow; he picked up on the fact that the Connors and Derek couldn’t go to a hospital pretty fast and didn’t make a big stink about it. And he clued in pretty fast to the fact that John has the same blood type as Derek; he figures out who’s who long before Sarah Connor gets around to telling him. Throughout the episode, Winters does a good job of showing Charley as a good hearted man, with good intentions, but beginning to realize that he is out of his depth. He’s a fundamentally decent guy trying very hard to do what’s right. But like so many of us, he’s at the mercy of forces no one man can control.

Structurally, this episode is divided between past and future. It also allows the writers to give us a frame story—the present-day story surrounds the story of the Future War against Skynet and its Terminators. Unfortunately, they try to cram too much into the story at once; near the end, a huge chunk of exposition has to get spouted off, and it’s pretty hard to follow. Yet it is vital to the entire story line—it’s nothing less than the story of what happened to Kyle Reese and how he got sent back to the Twentieth Century. It’s a shame that so vital a story point gets tossed off in a few sentences. I could certainly have used more time to digest what we were being told. Still, I have to admire the way Miller and Stentz had the story coiling around itself like a snake in a square knot, until it all came round again and Derek woke up to see John Connor gazing down on him, looking far too similar to the John Connor he left “behind” in the future. Finding out that Derek knew Andy Goode (Brendan Hines), who died last episode, in the future, and then came back to kill him, was a huge surprise. Except now that Andy is dead, how can Derek and everyone else still be here in the “past”? Maybe it was the wrong Andy Goode. Or maybe he was lying again. If this time line gets any more kinks in it, my head will explode.

I am sorry that the producers have seen fit to revive Kyle Reese, John Connor’s father, in the FutureWar scenes. Although it may be asking too much for Michael Biehn to reprise the role, Jonathan Jackson (Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights) just does not bring the same incandescence to the role. Biehn defined Reese with his characteristic blazing intensity; by contrast, this Kyle Reese is almost as laid back as a surfer. Brother Derek more than makes up for it, though, with his dark and brooding looks. Maybe the producers can cast Biehn as the Reese brothers’ father in some upcoming episode. It would be nice if John got to meet his grandfather at some point. Those Reese brothers had to learn their fighting skills from someone.

While there is plenty of running, fighting, screaming, and explosions in this episode, we also get time for a little introspection and character definition. Sarah finally gives John the credit he deserves for taking a calculated risk that pays off, by fetching Charley to help Derek. The tension between Cameron and Sarah climbs even higher as Sarah threatens to disassemble Cameron if she hurts Charley. Lena Headey brings enough fire to her role that she convinces me she could, given the motivation, take on a T-888 with a toothpick and win. The moment when John Connor asks, with almost childlike wonder, if Derek resembles his father, was very moving. John is growing out of his Troubled Teen mode into something resembling the young warrior he must become very soon. It’s not a paradigm we’re used to seeing in modern youth, rather it harkens back to an earlier time, when boys became men at fifteen and were hardened soldiers at twenty. Alexander the Great comes to mind.

As always, the Terminator story reflects our ambivalence about a rival intelligence, even one we are building ourselves. As Cameron continues to hide bits and pieces of Terminator material, we have to wonder if even a robot programmed by FutureJohn himself can be trusted. I’d like to think that Cameron is struggling on the edge of self-awareness, that her behavior reflects an internal struggle to understand who and what she is—but something tells me this story is neither that deep nor that complicated. Rather, not only do the Terminators look like humans, they’re becoming as treacherous as we are. Treacherous and unreliable technology—this isn’t just Luddism. FutureCameron’s statement to Derek—”Sometimes they go bad. No one knows why.”—pretty much sums up the experience of millions who have tried to install Microsoft’s Vista.

Still, I hope we’re going to discover a higher class of Terminators pretty soon, a class of AI that is smarter and more intuitive than the Frankenbots we’ve been watching stalk around for the last few weeks. For example, what happens to Derek in the Music Room? Apparently, minds get read, because once the prisoners escape and return to their tunnels, they find nothing but ashes and bodies. We don’t know what those Terminators look like, but something tells me they will pass for human even better than Cameron. Dialing a paranoid thread of pod-people into the fear of machines that already underlies this show will only ratchet the tension up higher. Good work, guys. If I get any more paranoid about machines, I’m going to conclude that Skynet is really the Dharma Initiative.

Right now, however, I’m saving all my paranoia for what may be Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’s final days. Monday night’s episode came in at 8.1 million viewers for a 3.1/8 share, ranking third with viewers aged 18-49. This put it third for the timeslot, after Deal or No Deal and the finale of Dance War. It’s not a good sign when a scripted show with lots of expensive special effects, which is shot in Los Angeles (a union town) rather than cheapo Vancouver, is losing ground to two reality shows. Worse, it’s losing ground from itself. Last week it clocked 8.34 million viewers; it’s possible that the failing Prison Break is having a dampening effect on Terminator‘s numbers. Either that, or word is not yet out that this is not your father’s Terminator.