By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Mondays on Fox, 9 PM
“Pilot” and “Gnothi Seauton”
Written by Josh Friedman
Directed by David Nutter
Although this new series from Fox TV is subtitled “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”, I have an inkling that there is going to be a lot more story around the character of the female cyborg/terminator than the title character. That stands to reason, since arguably the most popular robot of the 20th century was the title character of the Terminator franchise, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger at his stiffest. The plot of the first movie has been recycled through the second and third with very little change—it’s a monster-chase movie—and now gets a fourth turn at bat as a television series. Ostensibly, it picks up at the end of the second movie. It would more or less have to, since Sarah Connor is dead by the beginning of the third movie. We are reunited with Sarah, played by Lena Headey (300) and her son, the future savior of mankind, John Reese/Connor (Thomas Dekker, Heroes), in 1997. They are laying low, thinking that they have managed to save the world by destroying the self-aware AI, Skynet. Sarah has even fallen in love with an EMT named Charley Dixon (Dean Winters, Rescue Me), who wants to marry her and adopt John. Yet even as she sees this vision of hope for a future, a warm family life, Sarah realizes that it is still too dangerous for them to settle down. She wakes John, tells him to pack his bags, and they vanish from Charley’s life into a new one in Red Valley, New Mexico. John enrolls in high school and is befriended by a pretty girl who turns out to have titanium under her skin.
The plot pretty much runs in well-worn tracks. There is the new protective Terminator, played by Summer Glau (The 4400), perfecting the glazed stare she wore throughout Firefly. There is the new assassin Terminator, played by Owain Yeoman (The Nine). There are car chases, explosions, and more ammo burned in five minutes than in the invasion of Normandy. There are signature lines, like “Get in, if you want to live.” So far, no one has said, “I’ll be back,” but it’s only a matter of time. Pretty Girl Terminator is named Cameron (in homage to James Cameron, creator of the franchise), and she rescues him from the evil Terminator in a school shoot-out that would fuel the paranoia of any parent. Sarah allows her to join them as they run for cover, first trying to figure out why Skynet isn’t dead, and then in a bid for another cover, another alias, another hiding place. Instead, Cameron leads them to a bank vault that conveniently houses a cache of arms and a time machine. Sarah, John, and Cameron leap forward to the present, arriving dazed, naked, and shivering in the middle of an LA freeway. (I loved the Los Angeles drivers screeching to a halt—like that would ever happen. Los Angeles drivers have seen much stranger sights than naked people on the freeways.)
The second episode shows Sarah and Cameron trying to buy new identities, being betrayed and chased, and working out a wary partnership. Sarah calls Cameron “Tin Man,” and Cameron figures out that it’s because she has no heart. Cameron has read (downloaded?) L. Frank Baum’sThe Wizard of Oz, and in a cute twist, the new identities they pick for themselves are Sarah, John, and Cameron Baum. Sarah doesn’t just accept Cameron for what she is, she treats her like a household appliance. When Cameron tells Sarah they have leaped past Sarah’s death from cancer, Sarah accepts this news with quiet anguish but never questions her honesty.
Lena Headey’s Sarah Connor is not as soft and vulnerable as Linda Hamilton’s was in the original movies, but she is still motherly, in a warrior kind of way. Headey brings more depth to the role than Hamilton; her Sarah is fierce and loving, smart and blunt. She broods, she hurts, she hides it all from John—perhaps too much so. John clearly longs for a father figure, a loving parental figure, and she sees it and knows that she can’t be that for him, that she has to be the strong leader until he is old enough to be one as well. It’s a well-rounded portrayal, much better than I expected to see. If I have any caveats, it’s that Headey looks too young to be the mother of a teenage boy.
Thomas Dekker is all right in his role; his character so far is the standard-issue Conflicted/Rebellious Teen. He hasn’t been given much to do except grouse about having to move all the time, and sneak out of the house now and then when he isn’t supposed to. This tack takes him dangerously close to Stupid Plot Device territory, but so far he hasn’t managed to cross that line and I’m hoping he won’t. This story needs more than a dumb kid who won’t listen to his parents to drive the plot; the stakes are too high. If the writers allow themselves to build stories about how John disobeyed his mom, got into trouble, and yet somehow didn’t get killed, I’ll be very disappointed. Those plots were old in the last century.
The third member of this trio is the new Terminator (Terminatrix?), played by Summer Glau. I can’t imagine an actor who is physically farther from the Arnold-Terminator of the movies than Summer Glau. She looks slight enough for a breeze to blow her over. Her fight scenes with the towering Yeoman would be ludicrous, but director David Nutter has staged them skillfully enough that she actually looks like she might drive a hulk like him through the wall. Cleverly, every time she hits another Terminator, we get a clangy echo on the soundtrack that tells us this girl-child has more steel in her than the Golden Gate Bridge, which adds to the believability of her character. Glau has long since patented the affect-less stare of the mentally distracted, in this case a robot who doesn’t quite understand how humans work. In one wonderful scene in the second episode, she mimics a sullen Latina, trying to figure out how to look like a normal teenage girl. I am hoping to see this character build over the next few episodes, perhaps as a feminine version of Pinocchio, learning to be a real live girl.
There were some cringeworthy moments, to be sure. The first few minutes turn out to be a dream sequence, a cliché so cheesy I nearly turned off the television right there. While I like the voice-overs by Sarah, for the most part, the purple prose can get a little heavy (“There are some who think a child in the womb shares its mother’s dreams…”). There are some weird vibes among the three main characters, partly due to the age differential—or lack of it—between the cast members. Some scenes with the younger actors were almost wooden by comparison with Headey’s emoting. And of course, the ultimate horror—John is introduced to Vista in a computer store. I think all of these glitches will all settle down, however. The fun of theTerminator franchise has always been the almost mindless action and non-stop mayhem, leavened with the cheesy one-liners from Arnold. For a TV budget, we have plenty of car chases and explosions; seeing Terminators flattened, burned, and dismembered never gets old. If creator Josh Friedman can manage to work a few memorable one-liners into the mix of this show, he’ll have a pretty good continuation of a popular series.
It’s certainly off to an outstanding start. Sunday’s premiere episode racked up 18.3 million viewers, and a 7.6 rating/18 share among 18-to-49 adults. These are excellent numbers, and while some of the show’s initial success may be due to the simple lack of competition during the writers’ strike, most of it will be due to spillover from the movie franchise and a very well produced debut. Nine episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles were produced before the strike halted all filming, which means we can look forward to seven more. After the disappointment of Bionic Woman and the slow start of Moonlight, it’s nice to see a show that actually lives up to its hype.