Monday 31 October 2011

Automatic for the people

We adopted our cat when she was about eight weeks old. Her previous owners had abandoned her in the wilderness near our house, and we found her and took her in. She's twelve now, deaf, senile, and suffering from a chronic cold, making her a little unpleasant to be around. She's also very needy because she was taken from her mother at a young age, exploits every opportunity to curl up on you, even when it's inconvenient (say, when you're busy gardening), and she does not know to retract her claws. Plus, I'm allergic to cats. But we love her all the same.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a little like that: a deeply flawed - but, I insist, not fundamentally broken - show that I can't help loving anyway. It was cancelled after two seasons, and in all honesty it deserved to be: padded to the brim, unable to develop an identity, and frustrating to watch, its second season marked a steep decline from a promising opening. But even while mired in the depths of navel-gazing mid-season snoozefests there was a better series struggling to get through.

The Terminator (1984) is perhaps the best horror film of the eighties. Taut and terrifying, it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role he was born to play. (Okay, that's a lie. We all know Arnie was born to play Conan.) I prefer the original to its more family-friendly sequel (1991), but we can probably all agree that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) was an obnoxious misfire. After that, the direction the franchise could take was an open question. T3 had (spoiler right there in the title) ended with Skynet nuking humanity, so any future film iterations in that continuity had to be set after Judgment Day, as the uninspiring Terminator Salvation (2009) was.

But in a series about time travel there was another possibility: break continuity and establish an alternate timeline in which Skynet did not take over in 2003. A serial format would break the formula the films had fallen into, allowing for longer, slower-burning plotlines. After 2003 a TV series was the right artistic decision for the Terminator franchise: if I had to choose between The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the dreary Salvation, I'd pick the former any time. Not to mention that of course a series set in the present day was always more feasible than one filmed in a nuclear wasteland.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles accepts the Terminator chronology before (after? bloody time travel) T3 in broad strokes, tweaking a few details. In 1997, Sarah Connor (Lena Headey in the series, Sarah Hamilton in the films) and her son John (Thomas Dekker, for Edward Furlong) destroyed Skynet, which was to take over the world and wage war against a human resistance destined to be led by John Connor. In 1999, the Connors, still living under the radar, are attacked by T-888 Cromartie, proving that Skynet may yet be created, and time-travel to 2007 with the assistance of Cameron (Summer Glau), a reprogrammed Terminator sent back by Future-John to protect them. (The point of the time skip, of course, is to make sure we have our required setup of mid-thirties Sarah and teenage John, and to avoid a weird period piece set in 1999.)

Too much of this.
Sarah, John and Cameron decide to stop Skynet from ever being created, in which they're eventually assisted by Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green), John's uncle from the future. They're pursued by Cromartie, who, in one of the most awesome subplots of Season One, first has to reattach his severed head to his body and obtain a new biological covering, eventually assuming the identity of actor George Laszlo (Garret Dillahunt). The cast is rounded out by bible-quoting FBI agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones) and, in Season Two, corporate executive and T-1001 Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson), teenage love interest Riley Dawson (Leven Rambin) and tough-as-nails future soldier Jesse (Stephanie Jacobsen of Battlestar Galactica: Razor).

Right, so we have a series about killer robots from the future - awesome - and the promise of a techno-thriller series dealing with same, not to mention the potential for lots of fanservice in the form of Lena Headey, Summer Glau (relentlessly exploited in Fox's advertising campaigns: see page image) and later Stephanie Jacobsen. And instead we get... lots of angst and teen drama. And I like teen drama, when done well: my favourite show is The O.C., for crying out loud. As Daniel of Television Without Pity memorably put it in an episode recap:
She asks if he ran the idea past his mom, because she doesn't like surprises, and is this a revenge fantasy, and blah blah blah, and I'd just like to say that if I wanted to watch Dawson's Creek or 90210 or whatever shit teen soap is all the rage these days, I'm perfectly capable of choosing to watch that shit on my own, but this show has FUTURISTIC KILLING MACHINES, and that's what we want to see.
Well, quite. Season One, at a nimble nine episodes, has enough forward movement and great plots to be promising, not to mention a killer season finale; but the second season went exactly wrong in stretching roughly the same amount of plot to twenty-two episodes. That means stupendous, relentless padding, both overall (lots of one-off episodes that go absolutely nowhere) and within episodes (endless angsty conversations about whether John's future is determined, whether Sarah distrusts Cameron, etc. etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam). The writers' habit of stringing along plot points before discarding them, totally unresolved, makes viewing an unrewarding experience - not to mention that almost all of Season Two sort of just happens, without anything obviously at stake in the larger scheme of things.

Not enough of this.
In short, the writers have mysteriously decided to make a character drama out of an action premise. (To be fair, the fairly horrible special effects indicate that may have been for budget reasons.) What's more, it's a series about the end of the world, and someone decided it must be unbearably miserable for that reason. This makes especially Sarah - always cagey, anxious, serious - a character we just don't enjoy spending time with. The sluggish pace barely picks up even within major plot-moving episodes. Take the Season Two (and series) finale: thirty minutes of this and that - misery misery - and then they decide to go totally insane and throw roughly thirty-seven plot twists at the viewer, mostly utterly nonsensical. Including one that, though intriguing, destroys the show's premise - a really gutsy move, and it's a shame we never got to see how they dealt with it.

But with the bad there's just so much good. The performances are decent: Lena Headey is saddled with an impossible character but acquits herself well; Thomas Dekker is allowed to lose the emo hair and grow up a bit in Season Two; Brian Austin Green does a good job with my favourite human character. But the show's real strength lies in its machines. Summer Glau's Cameron is a terrific character exceedingly well portrayed; several of the strongest episodes (like 'Allison from Palmdale') focus on her. She's inscrutable and ruthless, but strangely likeable, and possessed of a strange innocence ('That's a window, bird'). Garret Dillahunt's Cromartie is as good, especially when he's linked up to the advanced AI John Henry. Dillahunt's performance as John - a computer who learns by playing Dungeons & Dragons, among other things - is an absolute highlight, and a reason to wish the show hadn't been cancelled.

Cancelled it was, and as I said I'm not sure I can fault Fox. The Sarah Connor Chronicles needed better writing (the dialogue, excepting that given to the cyborgs, is among the weakest on television in recent years), a bigger budget - it says something that in Season Two we only see, I think, one endoskeleton, the nightmarish image most people associate with the franchise - but above all it needed a vision and a direction. There's a whole lot of bathwater, but it's still a pity about the baby.

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