terminator? i hardly KNOW her!

I've suddenly become ambivalent about Fox's new series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. This happened more or less at the last minute; when I started watching the fifth episode I had every intention of removing the season pass from my TiVo and turning my back on the show entirely.

Briefly, for those who are unfamiliar with the premise, I will summarize. TSCC relates the continuing adventures of perpetually menaced mother Sarah Connor and her son John, the future savior of mankind. As in the movies which began the franchise, Skynet, the AI master of the world, sends robotic assassins back through time to murder John Connor and thereby remove the primary threat to its future hegemony. The human resistance in the future is able to provide a co-opted Terminator to protect young John, but in a departure from the previous stories this Terminator is significantly technologically superior to Skynet's typical soldiers. With this Terminator's help, Sarah and John attempt to do what they can in the present day (the series branches off from established continuity between T2 and T3 and brings the characters into 2007 from 1999) to thwart Skynet.

The Terminator universe bears returning to because it has, in the words of an associate of mine, every sci-fi trope you could want. Rogue AI, a post-apocalyptic future, robots, a young hero-to-be, time travel, time-traveling robots, hallucinatory alternate realties, etc. etc. However, the only way generic signifiers are made satisfying is by wrapping them around a story which feels true enough to its premises to enfold you in the characters' lives. Battlestar Galactica, for example, succeeds wildly at this (or, at least, seems to... I've come to the series very late and, as of this writing, have seen only the miniseries plus the first seven episodes).

TSCC is struggling with this problem right now. My primary complaints with the show all seem to turn on this issue of presenting drama which feels like it has flowed believably from the initial propositions of the plot. Verisimilitude, if you will.

I have so far been unable to match the characterizations of both John and Sarah Connor that we see on the screen with their, shall we say, idiosyncratic family history. They play their past significant lip service, but it has so far failed to come across as anything more than the typical family drama teenage squabbles, albeit with the survival of humanity at stake rather than, say, going to the prom with a shady date. At first I assumed this was the angle of the series, that the Connors were going to try to be A Real Family Despite The Insanity (John, you have a robotic killing machine for a sister, now!), and I feared excessive schmaltz. It may still be heading in this direction, but I was happy to see, in the fifth episode, that we may be reprieved of this and get an Ensemble Adventure kind of show instead. Those can sometimes evolve into We're All A Family Now shows, but Buffy The Vampire Slayer teaches us that the journey can, at its best, create incredibly compelling serial drama.

Almost everything good about TSCC can be summed up by saying "Summer Glau". Granted, this role isn't a huge departure from her turn on the dear departed series Firefly, but there are good reasons Summer's the go-to actress for this particular niche. The lessons she learned from Joss Whedon are serving her well here. Her presence and, more specifically, her character, are the most absorbing aspects of the series.

"Cameron", as she is known, is the zenith of the Terminator technology we've seen so far. Her AI is vastly more capable of passing as human than previous models, and her mind can conceive slightly more nuanced strategies than pure brute force. If one accepts the Terminators as Skynet's tools for infiltrating human groups while remaining undetected, Cameron represents a highly refined product revision. I've also concocted several plausible reasons for choosing as John's protector a Terminator cloaked in an extremely attractive girlbody approximately John's age, but forgive me if I save those for my lucrative side career in slash fiction.

Summer is succeeding most completely, when the writing allows her to, in drawing the audience into the mystery of life as a hyperintelligent machine. Her uncanny ability to straddle the line between total cipher and mere alien provides hope that a Terminator can be a real, interesting, complex character.

I was curious about the shift I made during episode five from feeling the show was wasting nuggets of good ideas to a spark of hope for the future, so I ran to The Internet to see just who might be writing this thing. In what I assume is no coincidence at all, episode five is the first of those broadcast so far not to be written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd. Who, then, is working on this thing?

The IMDb lists thirteen writers1 for The Sarah Connor Chronicles in addtion to Cameron and Hurd. Executive Producer Josh Friedman wrote Spielberg's The War of the Worlds and de Palma's The Black Dahlia, Executive Story Editors Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz are responsible for twenty episodes of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, Producer Aaron Miller coordinated post production on fourteen episodes of Firefly, Consulting Producer Natalie Chaidez comes out of NBC's Heroes, producer John Enbom put a bunch of time in on Veronica Mars and, most promisingly, co-Executive Producer Toni Graphia filled that same position on the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica for thirty-three episodes (though she's only credited on three episodes of TSCC so far). The talent pool is here for, potentially, better-than-decent serial sci-fi drama.

I'm going to keep Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on an episode-by-episode probation for now, and I sincerely hope the writing team makes a serious effort to explore what makes the Terminator premise interesting. I also hope they have time... there was a three point ratings dropoff between episodes four and five which was most likely caused by episode four being fairly craptacular, and that #3 position in its timeslot will be challenged now that the writer's strike is over.

1An upcoming episode in the first season is titled "The Demon Hand" which forces me to think it's a reference to Harlan Ellsion's episode of The Outer Limits titled "Demon With A Glass Hand". Ellison was given an "acknowledgement to the works of" credit and some money by The Terminator's production company and distributor to defuse any desire on his part to sue them over similarities between the movie and his script (along with another of his Outer Limits episodes, "Soldier").

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