Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 5, 2008)
Like its title character, The Terminator just won’t stay down for the count. The franchise remained dormant for a few years after 2003’s Terminator 3, but it sprang back to life on the small screen in early 2008.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles initially takes place a few years after the events in Terminator 2, though it makes a time leap in its first episode to come to the present day. The series’ first season only included nine episodes. We’ll view them in the order broadcast, which is how they appear in this three-DVD set. The plot synopses come straight from the packaging.
Pilot: “No one is ever safe, least of all Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) and her 15-year-old son John (Thomas Dekker). Tired of running from the machines, Sarah decides to stand and fight.”
I admit I went into Chronicles with a fair amount of skepticism. I liked all three Terminator movies, and the chances the TV series would come across as little more than a low-budget version of the flicks seemed high.
Does the “Pilot” eliminate my misgivings? No, not to a substantial degree, though it also fails to make me pessimistic about the show’s future. The episode provides decent entertainment, though it does often feel like a cheaper rehash of prior Terminator adventures. At least some intriguing threads develop as the program progresses, so I’ll reserve judgment. As a series launch, the “Pilot” offers an acceptable beginning but not one that truly impresses.
Gnothi Seuton: “New future, new identity. Cromartie, the battered but relentless Terminator programmed to kill John, resurfaces.”
If I weren’t so lazy, I’d offer my own plot synopses, as some of the ones from the packaging don’t tell us much. That recap above is pretty useless, especially since it fails to reveal much about the episode’s story. It mainly concentrates on the attempts of Sarah to procure new identities for John and herself. It also throws out a few minor plot developments whose potential importance remains to be seen. This show never becomes terribly involving, but it manages to move along the story in a decent manner.
The Turk: “He’s just a geek with a hobby. But is the computer chess program Andy Goode (Brendan Hines) developed the beginning of the end?”
In the “Pilot”, Cameron was able to simulate a flirty, chatty teen; how come she now presents as a stiff robot when she’s back in high school? I don’t expect perfect continuity from a TV series, but discrepancies like these definitely cause distractions. I guess the producers felt a mechanical Cameron would be more entertaining, but the choice makes no sense. (The commentaries attempt to explain this discrepancy, but I don’t buy their rationale; I still think Cameron should be able to act more natural than she does here.)
Despite those problems, “Turk” creates the most interesting of the series’ first few episodes. It shows a quirky sense of humor not present in the earlier shows, and it provides some intriguing plot threads. I remain less than enthralled by the series so far, but “Turk” shows it on an upswing, at least.
Heavy Metal: “Cameron (Summer Glau) discovers a truck loaded with enough metal to build over 500 endoskeletons. Are more Terminators about to be created?”
That theme creates the most intriguing plot so far in the series, though not one “Metal” exploits to the best of its abilities. The story line mostly becomes subsumed to a “rescue John” plot that seems ordinary. I do like an implied fight scene that works very well; it avoids violence to resolve a situation in a clever manner. Otherwise this is an ordinary episode.
Queen’s Gambit: “A chess contest has the potential to link the Turk and Skynet. Meanwhile, the missing Resistance Fighter reappears.”
I wanted to wait a few shows before I judged the acting of Chronicles since I thought it was appropriate to give the performers a while to grow into the roles. Dekker seems decent as John, but I can’t say that I much care for Headey’s take on Sarah. She seems more like a sexy soccer mom than the badass Linda Hamilton created in T2. That Sarah felt like she was tough and in charge while still haunted and trouble, but this one just seems mopey and soft much of the time.
As for Glau, she doesn’t have to take over a role from a prior flick, but she still seems to channel an earlier character: her own River Tam from Firefly. She makes a cute Terminatrix and can handle the fight material well, but there’s not a whole lot to her performance. She never seems quite convincing as a Terminator – or as a teen, since she looks more like she’s in her mid-twenties and appears unlikely to pass as a high school student.
I do like Richard T. Jones as the FBI agent who pursues Sarah and the others. He brings a good sense of weariness to the part but still evokes Lt. Gerard from The Fugitive in terms of his doggedness and insight. He creates one of the series’ more interesting personalities.
As for “Gambit” itself, it works fine. It introduces a new character in that Resistance Fighter, and this opening creates some potential intrigue. A few moderately dramatic events occur here, but the episode doesn’t manage to draw in the viewer to a dynamic degree.
Dungeons and Dragons: “Derek’s (Brian Austin Green) consciousness shifts between his injured state in the present and the future he already knows to be true.”
David Silver, Resistance Fighter? At first, it does feel tough to separate Green’s 90210 character from this show’s role, but he actually does just fine in the part. “Dragons” proves more interesting than most of the episodes to date, largely because it offers the series’ first real taste of the future. We see Derek’s life before he got sent back to the present, and those moments are rather good. They also help tie together some plot points and allow “Dragons” to turn into a solid show.
The Demon Hand: “Ellison (Richard T. Jones) digs into the history of Sarah Connor. Cameron sets out to find the Turk but discovers something else entirely.”
For my money, Ellison offers arguably the series’ most interesting character. Sure, he comes across as a pretty standard plot instrument ala Lt. Gerard, but he also provides probably the best realized personality in the bunch, largely due to Jones’ fine performance.
Unfortunately, “Hand” reminds us once again how Headey fails to remotely fill Linda Hamilton’s shoes. We see video footage meant to replicate loony bin shots of T2 Sarah, and Headey just can’t bring out Hamilton’s tortured anger; she seems whiny and petulant.
Nonetheless, “Hand” continues the series’ recent upswing, largely due to the return of Dr. Silberman from the original films. It’s fun to see how the events of T2 affected him, though the decision to cast Bruce Davison and his full head of hair in the role originated by chrome-domed Earl Boen seems odd. Davison does fine in the part, but it’d be good to find a replacement actor who looks at least a little like the prior performer. Even with that drawback, though, “Hand” creates a fine episode.
By the way, can someone else explain the decision the series makes to place the events of T2 in 1997? That makes no sense. While the flick doesn’t mention a specific year, it does tell us that Judgment Day occurs in August 1997. That’s when Skynet goes live, but the action in T2 happens well before the actual creation of that system. Moving ahead the T2 chronology allows Chronicles to fit better within the modern time frame; putting the series 16 years after T2 would cause some other leaps in logic.
In theory, I don’t mind the decision to move Judgment Day to 2011, mostly because I figured it was a different Judgment Day: the events of T2 may have put off the 8/29/97 J-Day but subsequent developments put it 14 years later. However, I get the feeling that Chronicles want us to view 2011 as the same J-Day from the movie. If you don’t remember T2 well, the choices won’t bother you, but I’m sure they annoy many a fan.
Oh, and one other bit of revisionist history: “Hand” implies that John really liked Todd and Janelle, his foster parents from T2. That never seemed to be the case in the flick. Indeed, it made them out to be kind of unpleasant people.
Vick’s Chip: “What does a T-888 really think? John attempts to hack into a Terminator’s memory chip in order to protect Cameron before it’s too late.”
Often shows that precede a season finale tend to feel like foreplay; they exist to set up climactic events and nothing more. That fate doesn’t befall “Chip”, which actually manages to be surprisingly creative. The glimpses inside the T-888’s brain are fascinating, especially in the way the machine created a personal life. Plot points also develop well in this involving program.
What He Beheld: “Sarah and John’s true identities are discovered by a mysterious operative. Cromartie’s infiltration of the FBI has devastating consequences.”
Remember those expected climactic events I mentioned in the last review? They don’t show up in “Beheld”, an episode that feels more like a show from the middle of the season than from the end. Granted, I assumed we’d get something of a cliffhanger, but I also figured the program would “end” matters in at least a moderate way.
That doesn’t occur here. As it turns out, “Beheld” wasn’t meant to end the season, so that’s why it feels like a loose finish to the year. Despite the frustrations that come with its inconclusive nature, “Beheld” at least leaves the series on a fairly high note. It moves along the plot pretty well and continues to involve us in the show.
Which is important since much of Season One just didn’t do a lot for me. As it stands, I view Chronicles as a decent TV series but not one marked by any greatness. On the positive side, it avoids the tackiness and cheesiness that easily could have marred it. The series creates a respectful version of the Terminator world – despite various liberties – and it feels like a reasonable extension of that universe.
However, it never approaches the levels found in the movies. That’s not because of the restrictions that come with TV series; the first Terminator was dirt-cheap but that didn’t harm it. No, Chronicles just doesn’t boast the same level of inspiration found in the flicks. It creates a generally interesting series, and I’ll be curious to see where it goes in Season Two, but I remain lukewarm toward S1.