Thursday, October 16, 2008

TV Review: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Season 1

The end of the world: a time to fight, a time to make a stand, a time to eat pancakes.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, developed for television by Josh Friedman. Starring Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, and Summer Glau. Executive producers Mario F. Kassar, Andrew G. Vajna, Joel B. Michaels, John Wirth, and Josh Friedman. Warner Bros. Television (2008). 9 episodes. 394 minutes. Not rated.

Don't forget: You can still vote in the Skynet vs. Master Control Panel Chess Match.

In the game of artificial intelligence, the only true loser may well be human reason.
--Gaby Wood, Edison's Eve

The Terminator is the one-shot movie idea that, like its titular villain, just won't die. One of the world's greatest action films, Terminator has a simple but well-conceived storyline, plenty of violence, a nice little time travel paradox, and, of course, a rear nude shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger from back in the day when he still looked like an animated slab of muscle. Since I was only four when this movie came out, I didn't see it until some time later, after the big-budget Terminator 2 was already in existence; when I finally saw Terminator, my first thought was, "They made a sequel to this?" The film is complete and final in so many ways, I couldn't imagine a sequel being anything but superfluous and damaging.

The original Terminator is gritty, dark, and nasty. The violence is blunt and brutal, but most unsettling of all is its fatalism, its depiction of a world headed unavoidably for a robot apocalypse; the movie's final, time-travel-enhanced message is firm: the future cannot be changed, our fate is fixed, and our only hope is to rise to the occasion, to behave as bravely as possible, and to maybe work in a lengthy sex scene while the killer robot obligingly takes his sweet time driving across town on his motorcycle.

Terminator 2 makes hash of all that, but it has such fun doing it, nobody cares. With bigger, more stylized action sequences that are a lot less hard to watch, a more upbeat theme, a scrappy young boy as the central hero, a Linda Hamilton who has convincingly transformed from girl next door to half-crazed freedom-fighter, and, most importantly, a friendly Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator with better hair and better catch-phrases, Terminator 2 does damage to the themes of the original, but then again, so what? The movie totally rocks, and as a result, it is the nice guy Terminator--the one who says "Hasta la vista, baby" and fights the good fight while George Thoroughgood shreds "Bad to the Bone"--who has stayed in our minds as Arnie's defining role, rather than the mean Terminator who kills every woman he can find named Connor.*

And as for Terminator 3, I got about fifteen minutes into it before I just couldn't take any more, but that's okay, because the makers of The Sarah Connor Chronicles apparently never saw it either. The Sarah Connor Chronicles, or Chronicles for short, takes place after the events of T2. Young John Connor has grown into a mopey, pretty-boy Thomas Dekker, and his mother Sarah Connor has morphed into Lena Headey, who in real life is only old enough to be Dekker's mother if she started impressively early. In the world of the television series, however, John is only fifteen years old--and Dekker is about as convincing as a teenager as is the cast of 90210.

John and his hot mom are on the run from the cops, who still want them for blowing up Cyberdyne and averting the construction of that pesky doomsday computer. They're also on the lookout for any more cyborgs from the future that might be out to kill them. Sarah is engaged to nice guy Charley Dixon (Dean Winters), but decides it's time to skip town without notice when she gets word that the cops might be on her trail. John whines to no avail, so he and Sarah are off to a new town, but only after they've had some pancakes. (This show has some kind of fixation on pancakes, which are apparently the ultimate symbol of American domestic normality).

Shortly after the move, they encounter two Terminators, Cromartie (played first by Owain Yeoman and later by Garret Dillahunt), who's out to kill John Connor, and, Cameron (Summer Glau), the young female Terminator out to save him. After a few explosions and smash-ups, John, his hot mom, and his hot cyborg all run into a bank vault containing a time machine constructed in the 1960s (seriously), with which they zap themselves to the year 2007, thereby simultaneously eliminating everything from Terminator 3 and saving the producers from having to continuously round up a bunch of older cars. You might think of it as the Terminator version of Superman Returns, though rather than merely ignoring the bad sequel, it goes one step further: with the unlikely time-travel device, it acknowledges the bad sequel's existence--and gives it the finger. Therefore, Chronicles and T3 stand as two separate, alternate sequels to T2, both featuring sexy female cyborgs who sometimes appear without their clothes. So take your pick.

After the move to the twenty-first century, more evil Terminators show up, and the Connors learn that they only postponed the construction of Skynet, but didn't stop it (the apocalypse has now been moved to 2011, a favorite date for such things). Female Terminator in tow, they go on a desperate hunt to find and destroy the technology that will one day wipe out most of the human race. The show effectively conveys a sense of desperation and even futility; in one episode, John even mentions the fabled Technological Singularity, the supposedly inevitable point at which we design a computer sufficiently intelligent enough to design its own successor. Though sometimes described as the "Rapture for Nerds," in the universe of Chronicles it's more like the Apocalypse for Nerds: there's a potential for any sufficiently advanced computer system to evolve into Skynet, whether it be a traffic control program or a chess program.

Speaking of chess programs, the show gets bonus points for occasionally throwing in esoteric trivia. In particular, a chess-playing supercomputer is named "The Turk," which of course is a reference to a chess-playing machine constructed by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769, and which continued to baffle audiences well into the nineteenth century, though it was actually an elaborate magic trick, operated from within by a human chess expert (Wood 2002:60-110).

Anyway, if you can swallow the unlikely elements of Chronicles's plot, you should have no trouble believing Thomas Dekker as a fifteen-year-old. The casting is good, even though Dekker is clearly too old to be John and Headey is clearly too young (and hot) to be his mom. Though Dekker's John Connor starts out as your basic sullen teenager (I kept waiting for the scene where he cuts himself at night), his attitude picks up as the series progresses, and the script never gives him the chance to get annoying, though he tries hard in the pilot. Headey pulls off her role of overprotective-mother-cum-bad&$$ and makes a likable enough replacement for Linda Hamilton, though she begins most episodes with an inane voiceover that can induce either winces or giggles, depending on your disposition. As for Summer Glau, she's certainly easy on the eyes, but she has neither the screen presence nor the intimidating appearance to pull off the signature Terminator deadpan. Nonetheless, her character's sudden flops from robotic incomprehension to cold irony are always entertaining even if they are repetitive; it becomes quickly apparent that her dialogue follows a formula: first she says something unemotional or technical to get a rise out of a human character, and then repeats a key line of that human character's dialogue in an ironic fashion. No characters in the show are complex, and the plots are easy to follow. For its charm, it relies mostly on the juxtaposition of its sci-fi storyline with more mundane elements: in addition to fighting killer robots, John and Cameron have to go to high school and deal with teen angst while Sarah has to hold together the home front and make lots and lots of pancakes. If Wheaties are the breakfast of champions, pancakes are apparently the breakfast of robot-battling vigilantes.

Like the movies preceding it, the series pays careful attention to action sequences. Although it has none of T2's gigantic action set pieces (how could it?), Glau and the evil Terminators manage to smash through plenty of walls, floors, and cars as they push, shove, and shoot each other. The brawling is careless in the choreography department, but then again, it is in the movies, too. The prosthetics on the wounded Terminators look good, as do the occasional CGI endoskeletons. The cinematography is competent if unremarkable, making the action easy to follow. The show also wisely focuses on a few individual villains rather than introducing an endless army of machines.

Think whatever you like about Chronicles "messing" with a beloved franchise; the fact is, this franchise was already thoroughly messed with when its first sequel came out. Besides, the TV show completes the Terminator series's exploration of the potential roles of robots: The first film depicts the robot as merciless enemy, the second depicts it as a potential friend and companion, and the TV series at least hints at, but so far has not developed, the depiction of the robot as a potential, um, sex toy.

Yeah, I went there. But depending on how the technology develops, this could be a real concern in the near future. David Levy argues in his book Love and Sex with Robots that soon we will all be able to purchase sophisticated android sex dolls, and that this is a cause for celebration. According to Lanham (2008), Levy ends his book by announcing that sex robots will bring "Great sex on tap for everyone, 24/7." In a phone interview, Levy argues that people who have a hard time developing healthy relationships will benefit from such machines because "society will be a much better place when they have an alternative that satisfies them without doing any harm to other people" (Lanham 2008). What Levy apparently misses is that such a crutch would only send such people into further isolation and would hinder them from developing normal relationships. It would also probably create a larger mass of such disaffected. Human beings are not meant to have access to "great sex on tap...24/7" because real sex involves another person; robotic masturbation toys would instill in people the idea that sex partners are supposed to be entirely compliant, infinite of endurance, and sterile. Such machines could not heal broken relationships or disordered personalities, but only give people a new excuse to indulge a craving, and contrary to Levy, it would not "satisfy" them, but, like masturbation and pornography, would only lead to a worsening of the craving and greater unhappiness. It may indeed be possible for a man to love a robot, in the sense of having great affection for it, but the robot could never love him back, no matter what it's programmed to whisper in his ear.

Numerous sf works about such possibilities already exist. In his 1945 novel, That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis describes a society on Sulva (the Moon) where people have sex with androids, rather than with each other, because they are "dainty in their perversity." Taking a different tack, Frederik Pohl in his 1966 short story "Day Million" describes a future where women have sex with "mathematical analogues" that, unlike real men, can "go all night," and Pohl verbally abuses anyone who dares to find that disgusting. In his 1993 novel Killobyte, Piers Anthony creates something similar with a sophisticated virtual reality system; his characters argue that virtual sex is better than the real thing precisely because of the impossibility of pregnancy. All three of these visions--two that endorse and one that dissents--depict a world where normal human sex has been replaced with technologically enhanced masturbation. David Levy might think that's a good thing, but, whether intentionally or not, Pohl's all-night analogues and Anthony's sterile virtual women convey a sense of dissatisfaction with, even revulsion for, real people and their normal functioning, an attitude that certainly isn't conducive to happiness of any kind. One of the earliest stories of a seductive female robot, E. T. A. Hoffman's 1817 short, "The Sandman," may still have the best insight into this subject: In that story, a man unwittingly falls in love with a robot, and as a result, his possibility of happiness with a real woman is utterly destroyed. Nonetheless, if Levy has his way, our post-apocalyptic future may look not like The Terminator, but like Cherry 2000.**

However, after that unpleasant aside, it must be said that, at least in this first season, Chronicles is apparently aware that it's treading well-trod ground. The relationship between John and Cameron is firmly platonic, at least so far, though there are some hints of sexual tension. Besides that, unlike his previous relationship with a reprogrammed killer cyborg, there's a strong element of distrust, and Cameron's true allegiance grows murky as the series progresses. This serves to prevent the character from degenerating into a mere sex fantasy. The cyborg here is seductive and dangerous, but that of course brings us into another realm of sf clichés, so I am not going there.

Instead, I'll mention that Chronicles brings yet another inevitability to the franchise: the linking of a nuclear holocaust with the Book of Revelation (note the lack of an s at the end of the book's name, please). Tracking the Connors is an FBI agent (Richard T. Jones), who as the series progresses is revealed to be a Christian of the comfortably generic variety, and who grows increasingly convinced that a robot apocalypse really is forthcoming, and that it has all been predicted in the Bible. I readily agree with him: after all, there are plenty of killer robots in my Bible...oh, whoops, I'm looking at my Sci Fi Catholic Bible, not my regular Catholic Bible. My bad.

Yes, the biblical link is strained and kind of silly, but then again, the season finale has a bloody action sequence set to the tune of Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," so who would dare to complain?

Sources Cited

Lanham, Fritz
2008 "Programmed for Love: CARNAL KNOWLEDGE." Houston Chronicle 3 January.

Wood, Gaby
2002 Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life. Alfred A. Knopf (New York).
*The last time I saw a TV series based on a one-shot movie idea that just wouldn't die, it was the underrated and prematurely cancelled RoboCop: The Series, which inclines me to ask, isn't it time for a little RoboCop vs. Terminator?

**Let it be known that this is an official request that The B-Movie Catechism review Cherry 2000.
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