Sunday, June 12, 2016

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles S1 Ep1: Pilot And Ep2: Gnothi Seauton

"There are those who believe that a child in the womb shares his mother's dreams.
Her love for him. Her hopes for his future.
... Is that why he reaches for her in that first moment and cries for her touch?
... Would he still reach for you if the only dream you've ever shared with him was a nightmare?"
-Sarah Connor, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pilot-

"My boss, the United States Of America, thinks Sarah Connor is a diluted, dangerous, grade A wack-a-mole, who killed a man because she believes that in the future he'll invent a computer system that declares war on the world."

Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic like any self-respecting science fiction site relishes and supports the many machinations of the ongoing franchise. Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek. These are all beloved. Terminator, too, is among them and one in which I have not always embraced or adored. Perhaps all that metal makes the experience just a bit too cold for this writer.

Witnessing The Terminator (1984) in theatres as a young teen is among the many cinema experiences, alongside Star Wars (1977) and Blade Runner (1982), that left a sizable impression. You could even say it left a Terminator-sized imprint on the memory bank.

Director James Cameron's classic original remains the strongest of them all for me in much the same manner the original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope has never been supplanted by another.

One could argue, and many do, that James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) rivals the original just as those who suggest Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) took that franchise to the next level. Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) are also fine examples for such debates. For this writer nothing trumps the original for the franchise. Without those classics where would we be?

Even prequels and sequels to sequels have their supporters as much as detractors. The Terminator franchise is no exception. Jonathan Mostow's Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003) and Terminator: Salvation (2009), both perceived favorably and unfavorably, are always up for discussion as much as Alien 3 (1992), Alien Resurrection (1997) or Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi (1983). But when does a franchise simply become repetitive, formulaic and ultimately uninteresting? (Cough!) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), Terminator: Genisys (2015)---again these things are relative to debate.

And yet despite the quality of the enduring Terminator franchise it still doesn't hold the allure of the aforementioned Stargate, Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek franchises for me. Why? Is it that the mechanism for travel through a stargate or an Enterprise seemingly holds such limitless possibilities? Is it that the apocalyptic foundation and time travel mechanisms for The Terminator are constricted or restricted by an already known outcome? Perhaps the built-in mythology of The Terminator is to a degree limiting. Arguably The Terminator franchise is unable to plumb the depths of storytelling possibilities allowed by a narrative device like a stargate or a starship with transporters. With such a foregone apocalyptic conclusion as The Terminator how many ways can you till or cultivate a franchise? One would think the road to that end and the endless possibilities of time travel might well be the answer. Or is it something else? Or is it that this franchise is unable to move into a more philosophical or cerebral arena of science fiction that this writer simply prefers? Okay, it's Terminator.

With the arrival of TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009; T:TSCC) there was new hope for a fresh strategy, new ideas and greater character growth of the kind only TV can allow.

With T:TSCC characters were on the run and things were moving, but would the characters deepen from the limitations seemingly always set by film?

In fairness, Terminator was always a film franchise. The Stargate (except the one film), Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica franchises nurtured their journeys through television. The story potential of television and its expanding opportunity for character and story is far more enriching than film.

It was with some enthusiasm this writer took another look at the Terminator franchise with its move into television. With the demise of T:TSCC after just two seasons it seemed a good time to reassess and witness for myself the franchise and mythology as a television enterprise. There's no excuse for any genre series not to benefit from the potential of television today.

Take Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). As that series evolved it became a powerful vehicle for characters, morality plays, big concepts and science fiction stories. When you relocated those same characters to film the stories were less character-driven and more preferably plot-driven and driven to an action adventure experience. Film is simply a far less satisfying venue for fans spoiled by the world of television and all its accompanying details and story minutia or what others might deride or term affectionately as geek love.

The same holds true for Terminator. The films do have great ideas, but exploring character and slowing the pace down for a real emotional journey is limiting. With the arrival of T:TSCC the promise was so much more.

As Ronald D. Moore once opined in SciFiNow about films being fun but not particularly deep, "it's such a different format" (#75, p.112). "I really love television because I like the ability to take a group of characters, evolve them, change them and play around with them over many hours. I like to take a story in a very different direction from where it started, to take risks and to try different kinds of storytelling." And let's face it, it's rare to see a film take a lot of risks in mainstream cinema.

The question remained. Despite the cancellation of T:TSCC after just two seasons, and to the heartbreak of Terminator fans everywhere, would the series take the franchise in new directions? Did it take advantage of the Terminator universe and produce the kind of quality often afforded to science fiction television? And would the series make me regret my ever so limited coverage of the franchise that is Terminator here Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic?

Now in full disclosure there was an additional draw for me when it came to T:TSCC---call it the Battlestar Galactica/ Katee Sackhoff effect. Sackhoff can lure me into trying just about anything like Longmire (2012-present).

It was the face of Cersei Lannister, the incestuous sister of one Jamie Lannister, of the family Lannister on Game Of Thrones (2011-present) that brought me to the T:TSCC table. Yes, actress Lena Headey is worth a trip to the future and back any day.

Her work is woefully underrated including the underappreciated box office failure that was the so not dreadfully wonderful Dredd (2012). What a film!

Thus unexpectedly the heady Headey experience brought me full circle and back to the world of Terminator.

Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic explores Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Season One, Episode 1, Pilot to discover more.

Let me begin by submitting that this writer appreciates the decision of the creators to gift the series with the world Chronicles and not Adventures. For this science fiction writer, the word Chronicles if often associated more with a science fiction history whereby Adventures comes with less weighty sci-fi vibe and rather a more light-hearted affiliation. For examples think The Martian Chronicles (1950) by Ray Bradbuy or Dr. Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011). Seeing the Terminator franchise more firmly stake its claim in the science fiction world with that title is at least reassuring on its face.

My initial viewing of T:TSCC was televised replete with the distraction of commercials. Though generally positive do I ever detest television with commercials. It is a terrible way to experience a story, an episode, a series. This is not new, just venting. Avoid at all costs.

With the Pilot, director David Nutter, the king of pilot direction, kicks off the inaugural nine episode first season with excitement and aplomb.

Nutter's credentials are many. He was an important cog in the wheel of The X-Files, Band Of Brothers, The Sopranos and even Game Of Thrones (he handled the unforgettable Season Two classic The Rains Of Castamere or to borrow a phrase from Billy Idol "nice day for a" red wedding).

Nutter would direct the pilots for a number of wonderful series including Space: Above And Beyond (1995; here), Millennium (1996), and Roswell (1998). Nutter, along with series creator/writer Josh Friedman, launch the series with Pilot and second episode, Gnothi Seauton.

Together the team tinkers and toys with the series mythology to great effect establishing the foundation needed to move the franchise forward.

The show deftly alternates between fits of action and character development between a splendid cast helmed by Headey.

Friedman aligns his lead as something of an American freedom fighter. Viewers know Connor is the mother of John Connor, future leader of the resistance against the resulting Skynet combat units that are Terminators. But, for all intents and purposes, the rest of America, particularly the government see Connor as nothing more than a lunatic terrorist. There are no clear noble aspirations in their mind, like, say, saving the future of mankind. This is nothing more than an unpredictable radical.

T:TSCC is fairly insightful in this way regarding culture and politics. Only Friedman isn't the least bit ham-fisted in his storytelling mechanisms. It's all far more subtle than the reimagined disaster that was V (2009-2011), a series that started the same year T:TSCC was cancelled. It's all to serve a greater story and Friedman and company never lose sight of that fact.

Out of the gate, in Nutter's capable hands the quality action is expertly staged at an almost theatrical level. The Pilot quickly establishes Firefly's Summer Glau as Cameron and there is real chemistry that resonates between all of the principals in the ensemble.

T:TSCC establishes an approach to Sarah Connor's journey as a fugitive akin to something like the work of Kenneth Johnson's David Banner in The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982) as she waitresses her way across the country similar to Bill Bixby's character taking odd jobs while on the lamb following the events of that Pilot (here).

It's noted in Gnothi Seauton Sarah has claimed 9 aliases, 23 jobs and also spent three years in a mental hospital. Clearly being Sarah Connor is no walk in the park. David Banner could relate.

A disturbing bit of action is well-staged in the sensitive environment of a school shooting. That sequence is almost so frightening I'm not sure they would pull that off today. Here the ultra violence is performed by a Terminator unit in the form of a school teacher.

And speaking of inversion, Friedman plays with sexual roles and replaces the male Terminator hero with a heroine in Glau's Cameron (as in a tribute to James Cameron). From the year 2027, Cameron is the anti-TX (played by Kristanna Loken in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines) and her model is unclear though she can voice mimic with the best of them. It is Cameron's ability to connect empathetically with John that makes her "new" and different. "Come with me if you want to live." And it's game on following those fateful words even if she can't replicate the magic of the words spoken so iconically by Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800. Who can? Heck, Arnold's so big Blogger has a spell check for the man's name. Hard to best that.

With inversions of heroes to heroines like Kurt Russell from John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) into a remake (2011) led by Mary Elizabeth Winstead T:TSCC is very much in step with the times. T:TSCC carries the torch of empowered female leadership embodied in Ellen Ripley by Sigourney Weaver. And here we have two strong female leads to blaze the trail forward.

Linda Hamilton was sexy (are we still allowed to acknowledge that today?), tough and strong and brought the concept of the female heroine to the next level with The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Weaver and Hamilton were unforgettable. Hamilton was simply amazing in the role. Linda Hamilton had stunned me with her aged appearance in a guest role on Defiance (2013-2015). In my mind she was unchanged. What happened to Linda? Alas, nothing is forever and she only reminded me of my own mortality. We're always getting older.

And Lena Headey is yet another true leader assuming the role of Sarah Connor with her own unique and fantastic presence. Resilient, strong, savvy and maternal, Headey brings her A game to the part and offers great potential as an anxious, headstrong Connor.

In the science fiction technology realm the two Friedman/Nutter episodes are linked when Sarah, John and Cameron (sent back from 2027) time travel from 1999 to 2007. Utilizing a time displacement transporter we see the trio exit a bank vault in a blaze of light only to reappear in a Terminator time bubble on a highway naked to close out the Pilot. Fantastic stuff. The event brings us to Gnothi Seauton.

The first two episodes of the series display incredibly well-staged hand to hand combat sequences. However limited or hamstrung the series may have been by budget, the artists here truly maximize those moments to great effect. The stunt workers take considerable punishment in the early going. There is a palpable sense of jeopardy and menace in play as our heroes remain essentially moving targets. One can't help but note the concept of the resistance in play and the handling of the series in general to be so much more artful and intriguing in atmosphere than the attempts made on the abysmal V series.

Regarding the TV series taking us deeper into the world of Terminator with new angles and new ideas, Gnothi Seauton seals the deal.

In a simple moment Glau's Cameron touches the young John Connor's shoulder. His protector, a Terminator unit from the future expresses a deeper understanding of human behavior. The unit also conveys these emotional subtleties better than most units and Glau genuinely sells the performance giving the Terminator units even greater depth.

There is a moment suggesting human/cyborg attraction. Can a Terminator love? Again, the age old question of what it means to be alive and be human is activated here. These are concepts explored time and again in science fiction in new and emotionally resonant ways from the replicants in Blade Runner and the cyborg in Ghost In The Shell (1995) to Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica and the Cylons. These human and artificially intelligent connections are always explored in new and interesting ways. Where would T: TSCC have taken us? By all accounts here it was prepared to take us deeper than the films.

To further complicate the issue of judgment and the gift of humanity there is a shocking scene, relatively speaking, that concludes Gnothi Seauton. Cameron's actions illustrate the contrast between a human decision and that of a Terminator unit lest we forget. Humans weigh, analyze, and consider the ramifications and consequences of actions on a given set of variables and facts. Terminators are essentially programmed to act, calculate quickly and sometimes that response lands outside the scope of a reasonable decision made by human beings with a soul.

On the production front I will only add that the prosthetic and make-up work on the terminator units is tangible, practical and gives the series a genuine authenticity. When explosions and gun fire create exposures beyond the skin we are fooled to believe we see real metal on the units. T:TSCC does an outstanding job on its production work. CGI is no doubt unavoidable. Simply hope its better than Caprica (2010).

On the soundtrack front, Bear McCreary does it again creating yet another immersive scoring experience. McCreary captures the thematic elements in the scoring work that echo the films' propulsive, driving, Terminator insistence. It is dark and frightening and underscores the foreboding themes of the series' apocalyptic future. It may not be as thoroughly entertaining and original as his work on Battlestar Galactica, Defiance or Outlander, but it is indeed a solid, dynamic and enveloping accompaniment to this franchise series.

T: TSCC genuinely retains all of the components and pieces and pacing that made the film franchise such a runaway success thanks to James Cameron and Arnold. It is especially true to the look and feel of the first two Cameron films (with the Pilot filmed in New Mexico for aesthetic continuity). The creators essentially place T:TSCC timeline somewhere between Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines with a mere mention of the fact Sarah Connor would one day die. So the TV series coalesces around the mythology of the first two films and reassembles from there. And I'm pleased to report Friedman takes the TV series to the next level in its first season run of nine episodes with a greater emphasis on the human moments.

Subverting or foregoing the conventional ensemble route of so many science fiction programs such as Stargate Universe (2009-2011), Lost (2004-2010) and Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009), T:TSCC sticks to a very lean, streamlined core of characters in effect a three person triumvirate a la Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969). Foregoing non-stop action the focus is entirely on the interplay and character relation dynamic between a mother, son and cybernetic entity. Such an approach is rather risky, but also fascinating.

It's a surprising science fiction thriller complete with all of its haunting and apocalyptic foreboding and one that never quite found its audience.

T:TSCC may be history, but with time travel integral to the series mythology does a property like this ever really have to get old? When it comes to the latest variation on the franchise, T:TSCC---yeah I'll be back! You knew it had to be said.

Writer: Josh Friedman. Director: David Nutter.


le0pard13 said...

A thoroughly under-appreciated and underrated sci-fi program that met another FOX-TV untimely demise. Fantastic look at this one, G.

J.D. Lafrance said...

Ah, I was hoping one day you would tackle this underrated show. I'm with you that this was a show full of ideas and strong characters. It helped that the show was anchored by Lena Headey, who manages to capture the strength and drive of Linda Hamilton's seminal take on the character in the first two TERMINATOR movies. I love that you compared the show to the T.V. incarnation of THE INCREDIBLE HULK! I had never thought of that before but now that you make the comparison it makes perfect sense.

I actually got into THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES because of Summer Glau, catching up with it after enjoying her work on FIREFLY. She is so good in this show, giving us a fresh, new take on the Terminator robots. Her chemistry with her human charges is so well done and she delivers a fascinating performance throughout the run of the show.

I always bummed that this show was cut down in its prime, never allowed to continue and take these characters on a longer journey and instead we were inundated with inferior cinematic sequels devoid of imagination and ideas.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thank you sir. Yes, I had got to thinking about the comparisons to The Hulk
as I analyzed the show seemed like a natural sci-fi connection to make. Tku.

I love Glau here as well J.D. as much as Lena. I'm right there with you.
And I couldn't agree more that the last film was inferior compared to what we had available to us here as a TV series. What a shame. Some of the good ones die young indeed.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks a lot L13/M! Cheers!