By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Mondays on Fox, 9 PM
Written by Daniel T. Thomsen
Directed by J. Miller Tobin
“What He Beheld”
Written by Ian Goldberg
Directed by Mike Rohl
So this is how Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles goes out–with a bang. Not that the series has been canceled yet. But it hasn’t been renewed, either, and its steadily declining audience does not encourage optimistic thoughts. Which is a pity, because I’d have paid real folding money to see Cameron at the Prom.
I’m not really sure at which point the T-888 from Demon Hand acquired a name (Vick), but his remaining parts play a significant role in the end of this season. Derek’s native (and perfectly understandable paranoia) leads him to search Cameron’s room and he comes up with the chip she saved from Vick’s head. John and Cameron plug it into a laptop, goose the juice to bring it up to speed, and find themselves watching a movie in Vick’s head of everything he did before he was, uh, terminated. Which includes his impersonation of the husband of a Los Angeles traffic bureaucrat whose pet project just might be the seed of Skynet. Derek and Sarah decide to break into the LA traffic bureau to plant a virus to destroy the new traffic control system when it goes online.
Oh, come now. The target audience for this show is the very same audience that will be the first to tell you that you no longer have to physically break into an office to upload a virus into a computer. Just e-bomb the whole office with a subject line of “YOU’RE A WINNER!!!1!”, and someone will open it, guaranteed. Your only problem then is whatever anti-virus protection software your target is running; given the budget for these things at the city level, I’m betting a post-Skynet virus would eat your average anti-virus software for a mid-morning snack. So we don’t really need Derek and Sarah exploring the tunnels under City Hall, despite a nice moment of poignant reminiscence about hiding in them fifteen years hence on the part of Derek. We especially don’t need the sequence since their mission fails, but I’ll forgive the show because frankly these two characters (and actors) own this show, body and soul.
John, being SuperBoy as well as a member of the target demographic for this show, figures out how to upload not a virus but Cameron herself into the grid. He doesn’t even have to break into a building to do it, although he does choose what is probably the most public control box in Los Angeles to finish his mission. I was glad he took Deadeye Derek along with him, because messing with LA traffic is a dangerous proposition even out of handgun season.
Derek and Sarah track the alleged buyer of the Turk, the computer that will become Skynet, to an Armenian named Sarkissian. Neither of them notice that he actually has a British accent, so when, after a wearying and predictable dance of missed drops and miscommunication we discover that he is not the man with the machine, it’s no surprise. He grabs John as hostage, which works only so long as Sarah wavers over whether to shoot him. Derek has no such hesitation, but has enough compassion to cover the eyes of a little girl before he drops “Sarkissian” with one shot. Nicely done–again we see the essential humanity behind the soldier Derek has to be.
It wouldn’t be a “Terminator” show without massive and egregious use of firearms. Yet to the credit of director Tobin, the last half hour of this double episode gives us the battle without the violence. Overhearing on his EMT radio the announcement of an FBI raid on Cromartie, Charley Dixon doesn’t even call in for advice, but U-turns his ambulance and heads to the scene. Having already seen first-hand the abilities of a Terminator in action, he knows he’ll be needed. And he is. As Johnny Cash sings ironically about an apocalypse, bodies in Kevlar plunge in a slow-motion ballet into a pool that slowly fills with corpses, with the shadows of other falling bodies presaging more to come. Bullets rip through the water like electrons caught in a cloud chamber. We don’t have to actually see the carnage, only its inevitable after effects. Like Ishmael, only Ellison is left alive to tell the tale, a tale only Charley will believe. The slightly damaged Cromartie spares him (not my mission) and stalks away from a scene out of a war zone. It’s a masterpiece of understatement, not one I expected from a show whose roots lie in explosions, car combat and exploding ammo. As a foretaste of Armageddon, it’s fantastic, and would have been a great ending to the show, leaving us with an understanding and a taste of what’s to come.
So it’s too bad that the creators decide to shoehorn in a last-minute mystery. The sullen Latina from an earlier episode shows up out of nowhere, and in the next moment has become the chauffeur for the Connor family. Cameron debates aloud whether or not to kill her, then hands her a gun. Moments later, Cameron starts a car and gets blown to Kingdom Come. Not that we believe that–we already saw Arnold Schwarzenegger’s version crawl out of a burning truck in the first Terminator, and he was an earlier, inferior model. I fully expect Cameron to walk out of an inferno without so much as a crisped eyebrow. I don’t know why the creators would even think that’s a “cliffhanger” ending. Or a shocking one. Cameron might well have detected the presence of the bomb and decided to detonate it just to get rid of it, knowing that she’ll be unharmed.
There are a host of sub-plots in these final two hours, underscoring a continuing problem with the show: its complex backstory. Sitting through the first hour with friends new to the show, I found myself doing so much explaining that they finally gave up in bewilderment. It really doesn’t matter how much you front-load a show with “last week on Terminator” segments, the truth is that if you don’t know by now who Agent Ellison is or that La Chica was in an earlier episode or that Charley is Sarah’s ex-lover, there’s hardly any point in turning in. This approach is better suited to a miniseries, which this show resembles very strongly. Unfortunately a miniseries usually has a strong ending, which this doesn’t. We are left with as many questions as answers, chief among them–now that there’s actual proof of the presence of time-traveling robots in the here and now, what’s to stop Ellison, Derek, the Connors and everyone else with launching a full court press? Why not start building websites and talk radio audience bases to recruit an army? Loose this story on the hacker community and Skynet will be history before you can say “X-box tournament”. But since SF on broadcast networks is invariably scripted by people with little knowledge of the community, the history or the literature of science fiction, this would never happen. Pardon my cynicism, but really–I think about what the SF Channel could do with Fox’s budget and I weep.
The real interest in these episodes wasn’t the A-story. For me, it was the secondary stories, mainly the one about the expanding army of Connor loyalists. Charley Dixon and Agent Ellison are two new converts, but the mainstay and heart of the new corps is surely Derek Reese. One incidental benefit of the guided tour of Vick’s memory is that Derek finally learns that his men, and their safe house, were betrayed by carelessness, not treachery. This gives us the only “closure” we’ve seen in two hours, and Brian Austin Green handles it, as he handles everything, very well. It’s nice to see how this character has evolved from a faceless assassin to a strong, supportive and completely kick-ass ally; if Sarah doesn’t trust him, she’s an idiot.
If we were in any doubt about Derek’s loyalty, it’s completely put to rest in the beautiful scene when he takes John to a park for ice cream. The two boys playing catch in front of them turn out to be Derek himself, and his younger brother Kyle. This is the kind of time-travel “paradox” that keeps me watching this show. Derek introduces John to his five-year-old father and then quietly steps back and lets John come to terms with the implications. Both of them know that Kyle is “dead” in some sense, so they’re looking at a doomed boy. It would have been a wonderfully Moebius moment for Derek to have recruited his own younger self into the anti-Skynet guerrilla war. But the moment centers not on plot or the complexities of time travel, but on the dawning realization on John’s part that this little boy is all he will ever know of the father he misses.
Derek is probably the most interesting character to emerge from these nine or ten episodes. The flash-forwards to the FutureWar show him as a committed, fearless and competent soldier; his present behavior shows him first vulnerable and afraid, until he begins to realign himself with the Connors. The soldier and the man are seamlessly melded in him, as his primary loyalty to the anti-Skynet rebellion meshes with his tribal loyalty to family and kin. Having figured out that John is his nephew and hence his only living kin, his allegiance is sealed. I can’t imagine this character betraying any member of the Connor family for any reason other than clumsy writing.
Lena Headey’s Sarah Connor continues to be a strong, believable leader. We can see that she has ruthlessly repressed all of the softer elements of her nature, so much so that John believes she has forgotten his birthday. She hasn’t, of course, but neither does she celebrate with balloons and ponies. Part of that is because she is dealing with the great unknown here–an adolescent male. Up until now, she’s been all he needs, but John has come to the point in his life when he needs a father figure. John is evolving into the general and strategist he must become; that part, Sarah understands. It’s the need for male guidance she doesn’t get. This role could be played almost as a Terminator, but Headey shows us the anxiety and fear and love peeking out from behind the “mask”. I look forward to the day when she drops that mask with her brother-in-law and learns to trust the man who may someday save her son’s life.
Summer Glau’s Cameron is still acting like Pinocchio (Pinocchia?), trying to turn herself into a real live girl. She had a couple of good scenes, primarily when she was shielding John from Cromartie’s attempts to find him. I continue to wonder why Terminators of the future would build themselves to look like the humans they had just wiped out, and if so, why are they so inept at blending in? Cromartie at times “fits in” better than Cameron, and isn’t she supposed to be the latest model? I’ll give props to Summer Glau for a performance that completely convinces me that she’s a robot, but I’m not sure that’s real praise.
So what did we get out of nine episodes? An interesting extension on the Terminator franchise, if nothing else. The decades-long gap between the initial movie and today required something of a reboot to the mythology, and gave us a few glaring errors, such as Derek and Kyle being alive before Judgement Day (in the movie, Kyle tells Sarah he was “born in the ruins” of Judgement Day). The longer baseline of TV let the creators expand our cast of characters, so we now have the seeds of a real ‘rebel army’. (Are Americans ever going to lose that iconic foundational trope? Guess not.) We got to see some more interesting character development on the part of John and Sarah, although there was room, in my opinion, for a lot more. John is still a cipher in many ways, and Sarah as played by anyone else would be in danger of becoming a two dimensional character. The creators have introduced more complexity into the mission–find the Turk, take down the LA traffic grid, evade the FBI, don’t get crosswise with the local gangstas. Oh, and figure out a way to make a living. I still don’t know how Sarah Connor is putting bread on the table, unless she’s unloading diamonds at her local pawnshop. But in terms of style, execution, and concept, I’d say this attempt at re-igniting the Terminator franchise worked pretty well. It was a good nine episodes. I hope they’re not the last we’ll see.
Ratings are tricky for a two-part episode, but overall the closing moments of Terminator did better than I expected. The first hour drew a disappointing 7.7 million, even worse than last week, but the second hour finished at 8.8 million, which was the best rating in three weeks. This let Fox tie ABC for the first place overall nightly average. Variety says that “its 18-49 average is about as big as that for any other first-year drama this season”, but that’s damning with faint praise in a year that saw most scripted shows shut down by a strike. There’s no word yet on whether the show will be back for a full run, back for a mid-season run, or back at all. Fox is notoriously quick on the trigger to kill shows that don’t perform up to its inflated expectations, so until announcements come down at the May upfronts we won’t know whether this is “Hasta la vista, baby”.