Monday, January 14, 2008

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

UPDATE - see below...

Last night, Fox let loose it's seasonal man eater - the much hyped Sarah Connor Chronicles.

A sci-fi series based on the wildly successful Terminator movies, it stars British actress Lena Headey as the titular paramilitary mom and Thomas Dekker as her fifteen year old son (and future savior of mankind,) John.

Summer Glau, the pretty young actress who played sexy sociopath River Tam in Joss Whedon's ill-fated Firefly series, joins the cast in pretty much exactly the same role. Okay, she's meant to be a robot in this one, but the ass-kicking, frequent nudity* and awkward social interaction are all lifted directly from her previous role.

On the surface of it, Sarah Connor Chronicles seems to be a deeply cynical retelling of the Terminator movie mythos - but it actually didn't turn out too badly.

Plot Implausibility

The first issue any fan of the Terminator movies will have to process is the absence of any sort of continuity between the movies and the series.

For people of my age, growing up in the years between the original Star Wars movies and the second lot of Star Wars movies, the seminal action/sci-fi film of our generation was Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Sarah Conner Chronicles carries on directly from the plot of that movie - with commando mum Sarah Connors zooming off into the sunset with her teenage son. They'd been successful in eliminating a murderous Terminator and blowing up the lab that would later develop the lethal Skynet artificial intelligence system.

It's a great setup for the series, if it wasn't for the fact that the recent Terminator 3 movie contradicts everything about it. In that movie, John Connor explicitly states that his mother passed away from cancer in the period between the two movies. The last contact he'd had with a Terminator was when he lowered Arnold Schwartzenegger into molten steel at the end of Terminator 2.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles neatly splits the 'canon' into two separate time lines and Terminator 3 (soon to be joined by a Schwartzenegger-free Terminator 4) is completely removed from the continuity of the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Action Packed

But swallowing that discrepancy down, the series itself seems to be promising.

It opens with an action-packed gun battle between Sarah Connors (dressed in an inexplicably short shirt - hardly 'mum' attire) battling a murderous Terminator. Just as you start to get invested in the battle, the Terminator guns down John Connor and it's all revealed to be a dream.

God, I hate series that start off with a 'dream sequence.' It's a total cop-out. The only thing that prevented me switching off the TV then and there was because all three Terminator movies feature similar dream-sequences.

Then the plot-proper begins. It's 1999 and we soon learn that Sarah Connors is quite clearly a bit crazy. Her long-suffering son is sick of being dragged from one hick town to another in an attempt to outrun both the feds and any possible Terminator robots.

Inevitably, they run into trouble as an FBI bulletin is intercepted by a murderous robot, who's been spending months trying to track them down. John gets cornered in his school by the Terminator and is only saved when ass-kicking Summer Glau arrives to rescue him.

Sarah, John and the friendly Terminator go on the run - and the plot continues...

Good points and bad...

The series is a lot of fun. If you're a fan of hot chicks with big guns, you'll be thrilled to see both Lena Headey and Summer Glau rattling off bullets like US marines. There's plenty of gory Terminator action as the evil robot gets bloody chunks blown off him and you get to see the shiny metal bits underneath. The script is quite tightly written and some of the one liners are cute.

What's not so great are the Terminator cliches - like a robot who can outrun a speeding car (as we saw in Terminator 2) inexplicably walking slowly and deliberately when chasing his target on foot (allowing John plenty of time to run and hide.)

Similarly, the Terminator shoots without mercy when it's faceless cops, soldiers or schoolkids getting in his way, but isn't above taking lead characters hostage or pausing for vital seconds before delivering that fatal shot - but only when the main characters are involved.

Overlooking those details, though, the series is a lot of fun and packed with enough action to keep most of the PlayStation generation entertained.

Will it last? I'm not convinced. It seems to me that Sarah Connor Chronicles is a bit of a one-trick pony and even Summer Glau repeatedly shedding her clothing* will not be enough to keep this leaky show afloat.

Given the impossible task of making a credible Terminator show, I think the producers have done very well. It could have been a lot, lot worse. However, the fact that something's not as bad as it could have been doesn't necessarily make it any good.

I'll watch the second episode tonight and see how things pan out.

* 'nudity' of course refers to sanitised, implied nudity - all that's allowed on network television. Gory school shootings and murderous robots are fine. Nipples? It would cause the downfall of civilised society, if you'll believe the hype!

UPDATE - Second Episode

Last night's second episode picked up the story from where we left off - with John, Sarah and their new Terminator friend being cast eight years into the future - arriving in 2007.

Some may have considered that a cynical ploy so that the makers of the Sarah Connor Chronicles don't need to use late-nineties cars, sets and details. But overlooking that nasty streak of realism, it sets the scene for an 'anything can happen' future.

The second episode was considerably better than the first. More action, more characterisation and even some nasty scenes that reveal our heroic team's less heroic side. John acts like a typical fifteen year old brat, running off to explore 'future' Los Angeles and jeopardising everything by meeting up with his stepfather (who didn't stop to ask why John was still 15 when he should have been 23 by then.)

Our sexy, sassy Terminator lives up to her name by executing one of Sarah's oldest allies - reminding us that the wise-cracking little robot is actually a lethal and unpredictable killing machine.

And the divergence between the plot of Terminator 3 and the Sarah Connor chronicles is explained when the friendly Terminator reveals to Sarah that she would have died in 2005 had they not leapt into the future - from cancer. Exactly as the movie version of John Connor remembered.

It's all still a bit hokey. The beheaded Terminator from 1999 managed to survive the nuclear blast that allowed the Connors to escape - and once it's head bounced through the time portal into the present day, there was a frankly absurd scene in which the headless body journeyed across the city to rejoin it's disembodied noggin...

But it's fun, it's unpredictable and it's exciting. After a shakey start, the crew of the Sarah Connor Chronicles have managed to make a believer out of me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I feel affection for this show. Regularly TV shows suck these days. I grew up with the Terminator though so this show brings back many 24 year old memories. Gotta love it.

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