Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Season Two Review
Okay now look, let’s be honest, I’m well aware you don’t really give two hoots about this review. The Sarah Connor Chronicles is already old news you've long forgotten about and besides, you know pretty much already know most of what I’m likely to say about it anyway. I’m probably going to start with an opening paragraph about how, after a promising Year One, this small screen spin-off made a gigantic mess of the follow-up, managing to blow its huge potential by forgetting everything that had shown promise previously and instead meandering aimlessly through two-thirds of the season without a clue what it was doing before finally managing to pull itself together in the last two or three episodes by which time it was far, far too late to save. I’ll go on to say exactly what that was, making sure along the way to include all the regular complaints on the checklist that were repeated ad nauseam throughout the 2008-9 season the series aired: Shirley Manson can’t act, Jessie and Riley are two of the most annoying characters to grace TV ever, Summer Glau was increasingly used only as eye candy, John Connor was transformed from being future saviour of mankind to whiny brat, and so on and so. And in the end I’ll conclude that TSCC, despite its eleventh hour revival, deserved its own termination, given that it had had more than a fair run of the ball and somehow fumbled it so completely. And, frankly now, who cares? This show now is of as little continuing interest as VR.5 or Earth 2 or Threshold or any other footnotes in the history of the genre that weren't Firefly – hell, it’s so old now that even the show that effectively usurped its renewal, Dollhouse, has also since ended up on the scrapheap. Overall, it’s been a pretty ghastly year for the franchise all round - so devalued, mistreated and ill-used has James Cameron’s once-mighty creation been that its rights are now up for sale and, incredibly, no one seems to want them. When Joss Whedon offered to buy them for $10,000, some wondered, only half jokingly, whether he wasn’t overvaluing the brand.
And yes, sorry, all those points are going to have to be covered, but instead I’d like to start by reflecting on why the Terminator brand has gone off the rails so badly (and no, the answer isn’t simply “No James Cameron.”) What both TSSC and its big screen equivalent Salvation forgot was that the core of the original two movies was about people trying to stop something happening. They were not about the future war per se – after all, the glimpses we got of the planet post-Judgment Day were not very different from numerous other post-apocalyptic futures – but about trying to avert it. The premise is based around that race against time, a last minute attempt to pull us back from the brink of damnation, a quest for salvation before it’s too late that's fundamentally human and, as such, is far more interesting and relevant to real life than any number of stories about soldiers and robots battling it out. In forgetting that, Salvation completely missed the point, instead crassly serving up what it thought its audience wanted to see, Michael Bay-style. Perversely, it didn’t feel like a Terminator film for precisely this reason. TSSC also forgets this core principle, but suffers the consequences of that error in a different way. When the show was first announced, the premise sounded perfect for a five or six season TV series, one with a fixed end point which should naturally raise the tension and stakes as the end got ever closer, along the way watching the transition of the youthful John Connor from Edward Furlong to Saviour of Mankind. It was a natural fit of story and medium, and the first season managed to convey reasonably successfully that urgency, gathering momentum as it went along, always pushing the Connors along and never allowing them to take breath. It boded well.
This year, the exact opposite happened. Any momentum that first season had completely evaporated. Instead of acting decisively, it dithered. It meandered. The Connors had time to move into a house for chrissake. They should never be afforded that luxury. They are both the hunters and hunted, and generally speaking a fox doesn’t take time off from the chase to dig itself a new set, or the hounds break off their pursuit to settle down, get to know their neighbours, maybe even indulge or a spot or two of mating. Suddenly the show came to a crashing halt, the Cameron-era’s motif of the ever-moving highway nowhere to be seen. Practically, of course, there were reasons for this - episodic television needs its standing sets otherwise it can’t function - but there were ways around this whereas there's no escaping the fact that thematically it’s horrible. But, no, we get the house, and that bloody (pun intended) list of names from the future for Sarah to work her way down, giving us a series of standalone episodes which almost wilfully fail to move the overriding story forward. In fairness to Friedman, this was to a great degree imposed by Fox who wanted more individual episodes (although there was a rather alarming quote in an interview SFX conducted with the show runner just before the season began production in which he seemed to admit he didn’t quite know what he was going to do in it) but whatever the case in one fell swoop it scuppered the show’s future. People grew bored and turned off because the story was literally going nowhere.
It didn’t help that Friedman and co made the interesting creative choice of introducing a raft of new characters with no discernable charm whatsoever. Weaver, Riley, Jessie – has there ever been such an influx of annoying, tiresome and downright unlikeable characters into one show at the same time? Screentime shared with Jessie or Riley in particular was time one wanted to gauge one’s eyes out, Arnie-style, simply to make the pain go away. Not having seen the performers in other things I can’t say whether it’s down to them, the writing or a mixture of both, but throughout the entirety of the season I couldn't find a single reason why I would want to spend time with these non-entities. Even worse, though, than the mere fact of their existence was the dragging effect they had on our existing characters. Jessie managed to effectively emasculate Derek, who spends much of the second half of the season allowing her to whip him into submission just for a bit of action, while Riley was the cause of John becoming a typical mopey teenager who needs nothing more than a good slap. One intention of the season, in the words of the powers that be, was to "emancipate" John from his mother, but his stroppy teenager act whenever the subject of Riley came up made him less, not more sympathetic. This brat is the future leader of the resistance? One can’t help wondering what the other candidates were like. If he’s the best there is, I for one welcome our new metallic overlords. There was one consolation: the bloodbath of the last few episodes was, for once, entirely welcome, and as each of these tiresome individuals was gunned down one’s interest exponentially increased again.
Coupled with these unwelcome interlopers, the show also fails to find anything new to do with its existing characters. In Season One Headey rightly attracted praise for making the character of Sarah her own, bringing an appealing mixture of maternal toughness and vulnerability to the screen that Linda Hamilton in T2 didn’t always have. Many was the scene of this Sarah staring sadly at her son as Bear McCreary’s music swelled. And so it was again this season... and again... and again. Indeed, Sarah did little else, making what was an attractive characteristic season one into her only characteristic in the second. Equally disappointing was the treatment of ex-Agent Ellison, who was possibly Season One’s most intriguing addition to the mythos. A deeply religious man troubled by the visions of a future apocalypse he was seeing with distinct echoes of the Book of Revelation, he grew and acted in ways that promised exciting future internal conflicts for the character, but that was almost completely ignored this year. In one of the episode commentaries on this set Friedman effectively admits he wasn’t quite sure what he was doing with the Catholic iconography sprinkled throughout the series, which is fairly plain as, whereas Season One played with ideas of angels and demons in an interesting, thoughtful manner, here such nuance was replaced largely with crude images of outstretched arms and shootout in churches. There’s always been a distinct Messiah parable about the Terminator franchise and I had hoped that Ellison would prove to be a John the Baptist-type figure, but season two he is relegated to Weaver’s number two, someone for her and John Henry to talk to rather than a character in his own right. We never get a chance to see him torn by the work he does for her, or question himself, or anything much.
It’s hardly the only sign that all involved didn’t have much idea what they were doing. The season is littered with frankly bizarre story diversions (the transvestite UFO nut has to be my favourite) none of whom have the slightest impact on the viewer nor fit in with the series as it should be. The standalone episode style of much of the run perhaps could have worked (although I’m not convinced) had there been stronger writing, but much of the time we get strange, non sequiturs of episodes which leave one wondering just how desperate the writers’ room meetings were. Episodes set in a sleep deprivation clinic or grieving town are not just pointless, they’re aggravating wastes of time, padding that doesn’t even try to disguise it's padding, almost as though the writers were trying to smuggle out a plea for help to its viewers “Please, God, put us out of our misery!” There’s the occasional good show – Complications, with Richard Schiff as a Is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-traitor? is nicely tense, and Allison From Palmdale gives an unexpected extra dimension to Cameron’s background which is welcome - but far more that are just populated by one-dimensional guest stars that the writers don’t even try to infuse with anything close to a personality. They obviously don’t care, so why should we? Far more energy is expended in the odd narrative flourish – Mr Ferguson Is Ill Today, with its “John’s Story, Sarah’s Story” and so on, or The Good Wound which has a delirious Sarah asking Kyle for help – do help to keep viewer interest maintained, but again there’s no substance behind them. There’s no justification in those episodes being like that, those stories could have been told just as easily in a more straightforward manner, other than to try and distract us all from the banality of what we’re watching.
The frustrating thing is that, had circumstances been different, there are still glimmers of the show it could have been. Every so often there’s a crack in the wall, not much but just enough to allow us to peer through and see a hidden, promised land of something far better we can never get to. The idea of Cameron developing a psychosis that is hinted at is nice, as is the conflict, frustratingly never properly explored or brought to a head, between her overriding mission to protect John, and his and his mother’s sense of morality – one of the finest scenes of the season is that in which she despatches the robbers who broke into their home, but one which is not followed up. The glimpses of the future continue to impress, and the idea of giving Glau an extra dimension by developing the backstory of Cameron’s human model Allison works surprisingly well, and could possibly have led to further interesting developments further down the line. John and Derek’s relationship, sadly under-utilised, is possibly one of the strongest the show had, Dekker and Green having a naturalistic, familial chemistry in Goodbye To All That and others that could have gone much further, while I've already mentioned the lost opportunity of Agent Ellison. All hold rich promise of what could have been an intelligent, layered show, rewarding to its viewers and which we seemed to be promised in the first season, which makes what we did get that much frustrating.
It’s possible to pinpoint the exact moment it all goes wrong. The season premiere, which in having a malfunctioning Cameron pursuing John to terminate him is essentially a small-screen retread of the first two films (even using the same location at one point), is pretty good, up to the last scene. Here, John and Sarah are preparing to destroy the deactivated Cameron, who is evidently no longer to be trusted. Only... they don’t. Instead, John chooses to believe that somehow the robot, who only an hour earlier had been doing its best to off him, has somehow reset herself, for no reason other than it said it was fixed. It’s a very silly moment, with no sort of justification, that pushes the viewers’ credibility past breaking point. Everyone involved acts incredibly dumb: John for the action, Sarah for letting him do so, and, even worse, Cameron, who it turns out is fixed after all (or is she? Yes, she is.) It beggars belief. Skip forward twenty-one episodes to the series finale, and it takes another homage to the original films, a prison breakout half T1’s police station invasion and half T2’s asylum escape, for things to start really looking good again. Unfortunately, the last scene of the season, and thus the series, manages to shoot itself in the foot again and provide an unwittingly apt coda for the whole sorry mess. In sending John into the future, and thus erasing his pivotal role in the resistance, the series appears to be waving the white flag, effectively saying that it can no longer cope with the central premise of the show. No doubt things would have been reset had the show been renewed, but in that one act it somehow sums up the failings of the entire year. The series never managed to get a handle on what it should have been doing, and at times didn't seem to understand what it was doing, even while it was doing it. After such a promising start, it's been a long time since I've been so disappointed by a season of television.
All twenty-two episodes of this second and final season are presented on five BD50 discs, encoded with the VC-1 codec at 1080p and Dolby Digital 5.1. The packaging is attractive and compact, the sturdy case slim enough to belie the fact it holds five discs and which is in turn held in a glossy holder. In addition to the discs, the case also houses a well presented booklet which contains synopses and other information of the episodes on each disc and details of all the extras. Altogether it’s very nicely put together and makes one wish it was for something a bit better.
The discs, on the other hand, suffer from a couple of unwelcome quirks. Unless I’m missing something, there’s no episode menu per se, with each disc jumping straight into the first episode on the disc, and only one submenu for any extras the disc might hold. In addition, Disc One’s episodes appear to be slightly edited, in that they don’t have the “Terminator” title card that comes at the end of the first act – why that should be I don’t know.
The episodes themselves, as befits a modern show’s, look and sound very nice. The series has an intentionally saturated colour scheme which the transfer handles decently, and the level of clarity is on the most part first rate. There are a couple of moments where background detail appears to be somewhat lost, but fairly rarely, and while the appearance of the video is at times a little uncomfortable to watch, that’s more the choice of the makers than any fault in the video transfer. Regrettably, the Audio is a little underwhelming. In comparison to the franchise’s big screen jaunts, these episodes sound almost timid, the lacklustre soundscape of battles in particular coming across as a little one-dimensional. The five channels are rarely used to any great effect, and while it wouldn’t be fair to say that the audio is a dud, it’s not nearly as action packed and immersive as one might have expected.
As for the Extras there are plenty of them, but some are rather bland. As a result, it’s a little surprising to report that the highlight of the disc’s supplementary material are the four episode commentaries. Yak tracks for TV shows, especially if they feature a number of cast members as those here do, tend to full of banter and in-jokes and as such rather exclude the listener rather than inform him, but the four here all have a healthy mixture of good humour and genuinely interesting insights and on-set anecdotes. Three of the four, for Allison From Palmdale, Adam Raised a Cain and Born To Run, have Glau (very quiet) and Dekker (very young) joined by the show’s three head honchos, Executive Producers Friedman, James Middleton and John Wirth, and while it’s occasionally a bit tortuous listening to the others trying to draw Glau out of her shell and contribute a great deal (although, in fairness, she’s more chatty for the last of the episodes) this is compensated for Dekker’s willingness to expound at length and the three producers to provide plenty of insight into their aims and opinions, and are all worth a listen. Dekker, Glau and Friedman also contribute to the other commentary, on season premiere Samson and Delilah where they are joined by Headey and Manson. This is a more jokey, mildly chaotic track, the tone of which is set early when a mystified Manson asks “We’re meant to talk over the entire thing?” but is nonetheless still amusing to listen to and with plenty of reminiscences about the episode’s shoot.
Sadly, humour is a little at a premium for the rest of the extras, which consist mainly of a series of rather earnest featurettes that, while covering most aspects of production, are ultimately rather bland. One could have done with less platitudes and more information, as piece after piece waffles on about the “process” everyone’s going through without knuckling down and giving us much in the way of concrete examples. Most of these are housed on the last disc under the umbrella title The Continuing Chronicles, although there’s no option to Play All of these at once. Write the Future (12:39) is a little disappointing in that, rather than being about the stuff they were writing and why they did what they did, this focuses mainly on the writers themselves and the fact that, quelle surprise, they write the show pretty much in the same way as any other US show – ie, collaboration in the writer’s room, followed by drafting, followed by final tweaking by Friedman. Designing Destruction (7:32) sings the praises of set designer Marek Dobrowlski, focusing on his genuinely impressive submarine design for the Today is the Day two parter, while Choreographing Chaos (7:21) follows stunts coordinator Joel Kramer as he discusses Samson and Delilah’s car flip and subsequent smash into Cameron (I nearly wrote “ramming of Cameron” there, but thought perhaps that wouldn’t be the most delicate choice of wording). Both are fine, but undistinguished, and little different again to many, many other similar featurettes you’ve seen before.
One of the more impressive aspects of the show are the effects work, especially in recreating the post-apocalyptic future of the war, and in Conceptualization (8:18) Visual Effects Supervisor James Lima talks about his approach. Overlapped we get pre-and-post VFX shots of, mainly, the sequence in which a urinal turns into Shirley Manson, in a piece that isn’t bad of its kind. Blood and Metal (7:39) is a more practical piece in which we see make-up head Rob Hall making the cast look as robotic as possible, and is fine for what it is – there’s not a great deal you can say about sticking bits of metal and flesh to a person’s face. Meanwhile, War Stories (9:16) is a somewhat haphazard collection of reminiscences from the cast about their most memorable moments of the season. Vaguely in the same ballpark, Motivations (9:52) has cast and crew talking about their characters, although once again not really to the level of depth you would want – “I think that’s how Derek would have wanted to die,” is about as deep as it gets.
In the end, Setting the Tempo (13:16) is probably the best of these featurettes, at least for the first half, in that the composer, Bear McCreary, actually has some informative and relevant things to say about his approach to the show’s score, while Friedman explains his choice of the song that opened the season. Unfortunately, the piece then blots its copybook somewhat by devoting the last five minutes to listening in as Manson records an a cappella version of said song, which is a waste of time.
The last disc also holds Collision With the Future: Deconstructing the Hunter Killer Attack, a somewhat fiddly multi-angle account of the filming of the climactic battle in the final episode. Intended to show the interconnectedness of the process of making the sequence, this consists of featurettes running side-by-side, from the director’s perspective, the visual effects guys and so on, all of whom talk about their contribution to the finished set piece, mixed in with on stage footage, all of which you can flick between. It’s a nice idea, and works reasonably okay, but one doesn’t really use the multi-angle function, instead watching one at a time, and it would have been nice to have had a straight forward option to do that, rather than have to manually go through it each time.
Along similar lines but not in as much detail, The Storyboard Process: Cameron Goes Bad (2:56) is a pointless featurette in which several crew members offer the observation that storyboards help to plan shots followed by a very short split-screen comparison of the moment in Samson and Delilah when the truck hits Cameron, which for some reason presents the live action footage in a tiny window in comparison to the enlarged boards. Cameron vs Rosie: Fight Rehearsal (5:28) consists of fairly unexciting footage of Glau and the actress who played the female Terminator Bonnie Morgan rehearsing their encounter in the lift from The Tower is Tall But The Fall is Short, followed by a split screen of that and the final version. Not terribly exciting although you do get to see Glau wearing what look like pyjamas, which I’m sure would be a selling point for some.
All of these are very worthy and have really made an effort, but most are somewhat dull. However, there are Deleted (or, sorry, Terminated) Scenes for a generous eight episodes (The Tower is Tall But the Fall is Short, Complications, Strange Things Happen At the One-Two Point, Earthlings Welcome Here, Today is the Day Parts One and Two, To The Lighthouse and Born to Run) none of which last longer than a minute or so or offer anything special you’ll be sorry hit the cutting room floor, but are appreciated nonetheless. Finally, there’s the obligatory Gag Reel (6:05) which is of the usual sort.
All extras are presented in HD, and both they and the episodes themselves are fully subtitled.
Bar a couple of odd presentational quirks, it's a very fine package, which has plainly had a lot of effort put into it by those compiling the discs and is thus to be commended, even if much of what is covered isn't especially revelatory. The question is: will anyone care?
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Last updated: 14/05/2018 00:20:12