Sunday, May 7, 2017

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles S1 E3: The Turk

"Now we are all sons of bitches."
-Sarah Connor quoting Ken Bainbridge, colleague of J. Robert Oppenheimer-

If the Terminator brand, if you will, was hovering somewhere at the lower end of my spectrum regarding franchise and genre interest it would be Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009) that would reengage this writer to at least give it a chance.

Terminator: Genysis (2015) did nothing if not reverse that course correction. The film is by no means terrible but terribly unessential. There are some good ideas and a good deal of play with the mythology and how time travelling by time travelers can alter the course of history or events. These little ripples in time can change the future. But the fifth film in the franchise is a middling entry at best. It's just average in execution and the casting, save for Schwarzenegger is poor. Emilia Clarke in Game Of Thrones as Daenerys Targaryen is essential, but as Sarah Connor, that was an underwhelming casting choice. Jai Courtney, too, is a terrible Reese.

Terminator: Genysis is one of those films where, ironically, I want my time back. Films like this beckon to me and plead for my attention, but I'm wiser today. I know better now and yet once in awhile I fall into the trap unable to resist the call of a franchise particularly when writing about it comes into play. What, if anything new, will I discover? What about its observations on humanity might just enlighten me a little more? In the case of Terminator: Genysis, there are no revelations. It's not without its entertaining moments, but with all of the smart, quality television available to a viewer a film like this one does not deliver. It's a passable escape, but terminally disappointing.

Terminator: Genysis makes the franchise seem tired and repetitious, despite its playfulness with mythology. It's simply not inventive enough. It's fair to believe the franchise is not dead, but it certainly ranks low on my list of essential viewing perhaps just above Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Despite an affection for those first two films, enjoyment of the third and a thrill ride with the fourth I've simply never connected entirely with this particular icon as far as ongoing science fiction adaptations go.

The TV series is at least something a little different. With Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Season One, Episode Three, The Turk, this series continues to build upon its potential for me. At this point, T:TSCC is the kind of genre television for this analyst that at least deserves one's attention.

The entry opens with a particularly interesting dream sequence. Sarah Connor is faced with the age old conundrum, would you kill Adolf Hitler if given the chance? In this scenario, would Sarah Connor stop the masterminds behind what would become massive weapons of war?

"The fathers of destruction." J. Robert Oppenheimer. Verna Heisenberg. By killing such men would you one day prevent the inevitable evolution and development of technology that would lead to a weapons manufacturer like Skynet and the creation of artificially intelligent Terminator units and ultimately the apocalypse? If given the chance would you do it? Would you prevent the development of the atom bomb and its use? Or would it all be inevitable anyway? The sequence suggests the war is coming and no matter what one might attempt to alter the future is inevitable. This is quite to the contrary of a story like Ray Bradbury's A Sound Of Thunder or other such time altering tales. The future can and will be impacted.

Later Connor narrates through voice over, a la Blade Runner (1982), the story of Verna Heisenberg delivering a physics lecture to a packed hall in Zurich. Former Red Sox and professional major league baseball player Mo Berg was in attendance as a spy for the OSS. Berg's mission was to determine if Heisenberg and the Germans were close to perfecting the atomic bomb. If Berg assessed the scientist was close enough he was to shoot the scientist in the head upon exiting the lecture. Mo Berg had never killed anyone before.

The analogy is a gorgeous bit of American and world history prior to the end of World War II. It paints a picture of Sarah Connor as she assesses the state of Skynet, who to contact and where the company is in its development. She also understands that eventually she may have to kill someone. She never asked for this life but in effect she was facing the realities of one Mo Berg.

"Have you ever heard of the singularity? It's a point in time where machines become so smart that they're capable of making even smarter versions of themselves without our help. That's pretty much the time we can kiss our asses goodbye unless we stop it," explains John Connor in perhaps the single greatest moment in the first three episodes to glimpse the cunning hero that would be the legendary John Connor.

The scene speaks to the young Connor's understanding of technology and his grasp of what will become from its development. In this case a man Sarah Connor scopes out for a date is tangentially connected to Skynet and may in fact have a hand in its development. The scene speaks volumes about Connor and how far she is willing to go.

Andy Goode's computer automaton is a direct reference to a fake 18th Century automaton chess player or mechanical Turk. It was revealed to be a hoax in the 1820s. It was constructed in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen. Human opponents played The Turk which was nothing more than a device housing a human chess master.

In this iteration or adaptation of The Turk, Goode's computer is also in its infancy, but has the potential to one day aid in the development of Skynet.

The Turk also delves into the science fiction, albeit not entirely with conviction, of just how those Terminator units were able to place skin and blood over those metallic carcasses to appear human.

For the geeks we have a relatively lengthy scene between Summer Glau and Allesandra Torresani. Torresani would be the future young star of Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica (2010). Unfortunately for Torresani here, Glau shines. Glau is exceptional as the Terminator unit in the series. Also, how exactly does Glau look younger than she did in Firefly (2002)? It's stunning really.

Connor's analogy comes full circle when it comes time to prove her mettle for the cause against the future enemy. Ultimately a compromise is made as she cannot kill the man, but instead destroys his home with said infant computer The Turk in flames.

In a clever parallel the writers echo the original Turk's demise by fire in 1854. The self-operating machine or automaton is an smart analogy to the mythology in play for the Terminator universe.

Connor notes in July 1945 the first atom bomb was detonated. Oppenheimer said, "I am become death---the destroyer of worlds." The question for the future and for Sarah Connor is, will her actions have been enough? Was stopping the machine enough or is it just a slowing tactic? Should the man, the creator himself live?

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles may not be essential television for a mainstream audience or even the kind of compelling television that made Game Of Thrones so good, but within the genre, for those who adore and love the Terminator universe, the series offers quality and is slowly weaving its mythology around a sturdy set of unlikely heroes facing a future potentially filled with destruction.

The construction of the The Turk is also well thought out and much of the information dovetails nicely on a thematic level throughout the story even against backdrops like teenage suicide. Many of the ideas in play here come full circle. There is a pall of despair and impending doom that hangs in the air over the series, which makes the oxygen for the show all the more incendiary and intense for fans of the mythology.

The TV series continues to work the magic of this universe for a more interesting narrative that recent films may have been unable to unearth. At the very least we care about Sarah Connor. Still, there is great and good genre television and it remains to be seen if T:TSCC can become compelling enough to rank among the best. Based on the evidence character is going to be important but the stories may not rise to that level. Time will tell or its cancellation could be telling while, as you know, certainly not definitive evidence of a series lacking in quality.

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