Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Season One Review
At the end of Terminator 2 Sarah Connor lowered the T-800 into a vat of molten steel, destroying the last remaining remnant of Skynet’s deadly army and thus saving the world once and for all from the apocalyptic meltdown of Judgment Day. And that was that. The End. Almost immediately the world started clamouring for Part Three. Somewhat unsurprisingly when that wholly unnecessary film did finally crawl onto cinema screens twelve years later it failed utterly to justify its existence, looking like exactly what it was: a cheap (figuratively if not literally) attempt by a production company to exploit a newly acquired franchise without any new ideas of its own. When it was announced last year, therefore, that the same company would be bringing the franchise to the small screen, it was hardly likely to inspire confidence. Why on earth should we care?
Which makes the result, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, such a pleasant surprise. Although it has yet to fully justify its existence, it is far more intelligent, nuanced and entertaining than given its pedigree it has any right to be. Picking up the story of Sarah and John a couple of years after the end of T2, it sees the pair almost happy, with Sarah (Lena Headey) in a long-term relationship and John (Thomas Dekker) having revoked his former rebellious streak for a life of domesticity. Sarah is still haunted by nightmares of the machines, however, and is therefore not especially surprised when out of the blue a new Terminator called Cromartie appears and makes a beeline for John. Fortunately future John has sent back another friendly Terminator in the lithesome form of Summer Glau’s Cameron (see what they’ve done there?) who rescues the boy before informing his mother that Judgment Day has not, in fact, been averted but merely delayed to 2011. The new origins of Skynet are somewhat murky, however, and so no sooner can you say "Hasta la vista baby" than Cameron has whipped herself and the Connors forward in time to 2007, giving them four years to track down and destroy the deadly computer intelligence before it kicks things off. Unfortunately for them, Cromartie has followed them into the future…
In an early interview about the series, show-runner Josh Friedman reassured fans that the show would not be a “Terminator of the Week” show. He wasn’t kidding. Instead, the nine episodes which make up this first season (shortened due to the Writer’s Strike) make up one continuing narrative, interweaving the adventures of the Connors and Cameron with Cromartie’s attempts to track them down and the investigations of James Ellison (Richard T Jones), the detective who was assigned to find Sarah following her escape from the mental hospital and is shocked to discover nine years after he thought she’d died in an explosion that she is in fact alive and well, and not looking a day older. The storyline is fairly complex, demanding concentration from the audience more than even something like Heroes, and rewards that investment with intelligent, thoughtful writing far removed from the tongue-in-cheek rubbish of T3. Thematically it’s far closer to James Cameron’s films, mixing emotion with trademark action sequences (while of course the series’ budget can’t stretch to the fireworks of T2, there’s enough fist-through-the-windscreen action to satisfy fans) and has a pleasing habit of offering genuinely grisly scenes, both physical and emotional, which bodes well for the future. At times the philosophising gets a little cod - Sarah’s voiceovers veer between the profound and the mundane, often in the same scene - and there is a slight repetition of ideas in later episodes, but overall the scripting is far superior than one would expect.
Which is not to say it’s perfect, far from it. There are several teething problems, the most notable of which is that the style is relentlessly monotone. The attitude of the main characters is grimly determined, and aside from the occasional gag in a Terminator’s HUD, there is no room for levity which can become a little wearing. Saving the world is a pretty serious business, of course, but it would be nice to have a little variation at times, the odd splash of colour and light-heartedness in a world which takes itself terribly seriously and is correspondingly shot with a rather drab, grainy palate. One could do without high school subplots or the gangster intervention of the last episode - when one is trying to stop the end of the world and is armed with a highly advanced sentient killing machine, is Tony Soprano really such a threat? - while there’s also the odd character misstep, the most grievous being Detective Ellison's sectioning of Sarah’s old doctor which is out of keeping for his character shown thus far and both malicious and not entirely sensible. There’s also a real danger of anthropomorphising Cameron. She’s a robot for goodness sake, a machine, that’s the whole point, and just because she’s played by a pretty young actress that’s no reason to give her what we humans call feelings. Although Glau has attracted the lion’s share of attention for obvious reasons, I still find her the weak spot in the acting ensemble - she always looks to me exactly what she is, someone playing at being a Terminator rather than actually being one in the way that Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick were. Just look at the odd moments when she has to pretend in character to be a human, the early scenes in episode one of her in the school with John, and she projects far too many human qualities to be convincing.
But these are all relatively minor problems, and the fact one has to nitpick rather than excoriate shows just what a well-envisaged show this is. And yet, despite its intrinsic merit, once again one has to ask: Why should we care? Even given that this series has a far higher quality than it should have, there’s a fundamental problem with its premise which it doesn’t appear to be aware of, much less have an answer to. Given that this series is based in an alternate timeline to the events of T3, and given that the series is now stuffed with people travelling back from the future (the finest subplot features discovering the fate of four people sent back by future John) why does anything they do really matter? If something goes wrong, can future John not just send another Cameron a little further back in time and give it another go? Back in 2001 Enterprise made a similar, almost fatal error in its very first episode by featuring a villain from the far future - given that many Star Trek fans were questioning whether the prequel should even exist, many considered that said Future Guy would be a Get Out of Jail Free Card, a way of wiping out the entire series should it go wrong, and the show’s ratings never really recovered from those early lingering doubts. Once you make time flexible and start messing about with past events, a huge part of the drama goes, in the same way that you can kill a person once but the moment you resurrect them the audience’s investment in their fate is never again the same. The Sarah Connor Chronicles has this too hanging over its head.
And yet the amazing thing is that this huge niggle doesn’t ruin the thing. The strength of the writing is one reason, but the other major asset the show has is Headey. Replacing a figure as iconic as Linda Hamilton would appear to be an impossible task but Headey manages to get over that hurdle with deceptive ease. She is superb in the central role, making it her own, subtly different from Hamilton in that she is a softer, more overtly maternal Sarah but still able to be as hard as nails when the moment is called for, convincing as much when pointing a gun at someone as she does when asking John about his latest girl worries. Her committed performance demands that we invest in Sarah’s struggle just as much as she does; the show’s name isn’t just a convenience, this really is her story, and we get a new, deeper appreciation of the character which is almost worth the price of admission on its own. Although all the characters are written with similar attention to detail, John is a little two-dimensional at the moment, not helped by his adolescence in this first season, and one hopes that in future seasons he quickly finds a maturity to make the future saviour of mankind a little less stereotypical. Later on in the season a couple of new characters are added with promise for the future, but the other most intriguing character at this point, Cameron’s apparent duplicity notwithstanding, is Ellison who looks to be travelling an interesting, if fairly well-worn, journey between sceptic and true believer, helped along by Jones’s understated but oddly intense playing of him. Here's hoping he's given lots more challenges in Season Two.
All of which means that this is very much a show with a huge amount of potential, and the signs that it has all the necessary ingredients to flourish into a great show. But it’s not quite there yet. It doesn’t yet have It, that sometimes indefinable quality that elevates the great from the merely good. There hasn’t so far been a moment which sends chills down one’s spine, the scene where Locutus appears on the view screen, say, or Angel turns to Angelus, and you realise you're going to be talking about this show for a long, long time to come. It’s come close a couple of times, such as the moment when Cameron calmly walks down the stairs while those who have just helped her are shot dead, but at times there’s a sense the writing is trying too hard to get there - the shootout in the last episode, for example is too familiar to be effective, as is the scene from the same show when John meets his father - but ambition is not to be condemned and there is certainly a fair share of that. If the series can vary its tone a little more, and can continue to expand its characters and keep its writing to the standard it is now, the phrase "She'll be back" will very unexpectedly become a cause of celebration.
The nine episodes of Season One are presented on three single-sided discs. The episodes are uncut, although there is a marked disparity between running times unusual for a television series - for example, while Heavy Metal runs for 41:17, Queen's Gambit is only 38:30 (including credits), a massive difference. There are three episodes per disc, with those episodes coming with deleted scenes having a little "scissor" symbol next to them to alert you to the fact. All episodes are subtitled.
After having originally watched the series via Virgin 1 with their, erm, interesting approach to aspect ratios, it's been a pleasure to watch the episodes in their true format. As mentioned, the Video has an intentionally muted colour palate with even the various Terminator's trademark glowing red eyes not being as striking as one is used to with the films. There are a couple of stray moments of odd blockiness as well, but other than that this is a fine transfer with an above average level of detail. The Audio is a pleasing 5.1 mix which, while not obviously in the same league as the movie DVD's aural experience, keeps things ticking along nicely and doesn't shirk from having some fun during the more action-packed moments.
Unfortunately, it would appear that Warner have had their own Terminator come back from the future and wipe out all the Extras we had been promised. With the dull exception of a handful of cutting-floor Deleted Scenes, none of which remotely add anything to the episodes in question, none of the Region One extras appear this side of the Atlantic. At first this appears to be an unwelcome return to the bad old early days of DVD when Special Features in the UK included "Scene Access" and "Interactive Menus" while the US equivalent revelled in the joys of Making Of Featurettes and Original Theatrical Trailers, but the situation is more puzzling here, as all of the R1 extras are listed on the BBFC's website and seem to have got lost somewhere along the way. Strange and very irksome.
An extremely promising start to the series is marred by a complete lack of the extra features which should have been included. It's enough to make one very cross indeed...
7 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
2 out of 10