Sunday, July 26, 2015

'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' - Season One (2008)

Starring Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker and Summer Glau
Developed by Josh Friedman

In 1999, Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) and her son John (Thomas Dekker) have settled into new lives after believing they'd destroyed the genocidal Skynet computer. Sarah is a waitress once again, and engaged to be married to paramedic Charley Dixon (Dean Winters). But the engagement has freaked Sarah out a little, and she decides to go on the run again. Before they can even breathe in their next set of identities, another Terminator from the future manages to find them and tries to kill John at school.

But John is rescued by yet another protector from the future: this time, a Terminator disguised as a teenage girl, calling herself Cameron (Summer Glau), who has a plan to get John and Sarah to safety by transporting them eight years into the future.

Now in 2007, Sarah, John and Cameron begin their quest to ensure Skynet's destruction. They'll have to hide from FBI agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones) who is shocked to find the Connors still alive a decade later, and from Cromartie (Garrett Dillahunt), the Terminator still hunting them after ten years in hiding. But they're not alone: friends and allies from the present and the future will join the fight to stop Skynet and save the human race.

I was pretty worried when a "Terminator" TV series was announced. How easily could the show devolve into a repetitive "Terminator-of-the-week" sort of thing? Pretty easily, since the movies are exactly the same thing over and over again every few years. Thankfully, the show that premiered actually manages to avoid being that, introducing some cool new ideas into the series' mythos, turning the repetitive "always out to kill the Connors" plotting of the movies into an all-out temporal cold war between human and machine factions.

For example, in one episode the Connors encounter a Terminator whose mission isn't to kill them but to stockpile and protect valuable metals Skynet will need in the future to build Terminator endoskeletons. On the other side, a number of human resistance fighters are operating in the present trying to locate a man who's created a new kind of chess computer that might be a critical component of Skynet's AI brain.

Further, the show expands on the Connor family by introducing John's uncle Derek (Brian Austin Green) from the future. Derek has a lot of knowledge of the future war against Skynet, but is paranoid and untrusting of Cameron, constantly warning the Connors that she might betray them at any moment. But while Derek adds a layer of plot-cool to the proceedings, he's also a central part of one of the season's best scenes: Derek takes John for ice cream in the park, but John is surprised to discover that the two boys playing baseball near their picnic table are none other than young Derek and Kyle Reese themselves. Derek remembers that day in the park with his younger brother, and it allows John a powerful moment to meet his own father when he's still just five years old.

The casting on the show is decent. While Lena Headey makes a great Sarah Connor, Thomas Dekker's John is fairly flat. Summer Glau's Cameron is an intriguing character but also a bit inconsistent. In the pilot, she's able to blend in with humans so well, including how she talks to them, that she fools John into thinking she is human. But in subsequent episodes, she's colder and more robotic, and often doesn't understand human feelings or behavior. Brian Austin Green does okay as Derek Reese, though there are times when he just comes across as "too nice" to be a grizzled war veteran.

Of special note is Garrett Dillahunt, whose creepy "Cromartie" Terminator is a bit of a hoot. He's so overtly creepy and strange, but the show knows when to use that for humorous purposes and when to use it for a threat. The character himself is relentless, rebuilding its own body after 10 years in a junkyard, killing doctors and scientists to reinvent Skynet's flesh-growth technology to give itself new skin. It's pretty fascinating to watch.

While the "Terminator" feature films are blockbuster-budgeted feature films, the TV series obviously has a lot less to work with. The makeup effects for the Terminators look great, but the show's CG effects are a bit dodgy. Some of the fight sequences in the show look great, particularly in the pilot, but some of the others are... not good. It depends on who's directing a given episode. Still, the show is often capable of deploying some solid action sequences, fights and chases. In one smashing bit, Sarah and the others try to bust Derek out of a police transport van while he's being hunted by a Terminator. Another excellent sequence, scored to Johnny Cash's chilling "The Man Comes Around," features Agent Ellison's FBI SWAT unit coming up against Cromartie and getting slaughtered.

A victim of the 2007 writers' strike, the first season is only nine episodes. The whole season goes by in a flash, but it feels like the right length. It's not long enough to outstay its welcome, but it's also not so short that it feels rushed. It weaves in references to the first two "Terminator" films pretty smoothly, including some of the minor characters like Enrique and Dr. Silberman (now played by new actors), but ultimately moves away to craft its own new mythology.

Aside from some weak acting and the occasional lame fight sequence, the first season of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is a solid success. Fans of the film series should find a good deal to like here, especially those tired of the same-old-same-old that the films tend to feel like.

See Also
The Terminator
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Terminator Salvation
Terminator Genisys