The marketing copy for this show would have you believe that it’s a “reinvention” of the Terminator franchise:
“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” represents an exciting reinvention of the “Terminator” franchise, in which the strong and intrepid Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) discovers that protecting her 15-year-old son, John (Thomas Dekker), and stopping the rise of the machines is more difficult than she had ever imagined. Sarah and John are joined by Cameron (Summer Glau), an enigmatic and otherworldly high school student, who proves to be much more than a friend and James Ellison (Richard T. Jones) an FBI agent hot on their trail who soon becomes a powerful ally.
But the pilot episode of the series doesn’t say “new and improved.” It pulls out every device from the old Terminator playbook to most definitively say, “Terminator fans, welcome! We’ve set up everything almost just like you remember it, so you’ll feel right at home! Please do not drool on the Lena Headey as you’re settling in.”
Surely you’ll recall the familiar elements that escaped “reinvention” in this episode, which takes place in 1999, between the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines that Couldn’t Get to Sarah Connor Before the Big ‘C’ Did. (How do I know it’s 1999? Well, the producers make a big show of John Connor rocking out to Incubus’s “Pardon Me,” for one thing. And the whole “September, 1999” subtitle in the opening scene thing.)
- Sarah Connor does moody voice-overs about the future and shit as the lane-dividing lines of a highway flash past the camera.
- Sarah and John, still on the run from both law enforcement and from Terminators.
- Landscapes vaporized by nuclear explosions.
- Crackling time bubbles reveal time-traveling warriors in full, crouching nakedness. Not that quality nakedness Lena gave us in 300, but still… nakedness.
- Terminator kicks the collective asses of a bunch of punk jerks to get their clothes. It’s almost like Terminators have been programmed to seek out punk jerks for fresh duds, isn’t it?
- Terminator imitates peoples’ voices on the phone in an attempt to hoodwink its way to finding John Connor.
- “Come with me if you want to live.” (Of course, it’s not as dramatic when uttered by the dainty voice of Summer Glau.)
- Bad Terminator and Good Terminator go head-to-head and throw each other through a bunch of walls.
- Battle scars expose Terminators’ cybernetic frames. Modern make-up and CGI techniques really allow the producers to go hog-wild in this respect… so they do. Count on seeing lots of beat-up Terminators in this and future episodes.
- Terminator sits with John and Sarah in an abandoned garage, performing surgery on itself to pluck bullets from its wounds. We shortly get a shot of the Terminator standing sentry at a window at dawn.
- Terminator reveals its cybernetic self to Mrs. Miles Dyson to convince her that she should help Sarah and John. (Mr. Miles Dyson is still very much deadity-died-dead.)
- Dogs bark at the bad Terminator. Bad, Terminator. Bad.
- The Connors and their pet Terminator enter a building, only to be surrounded by the local, unwitting SWAT team.
- Terminator + machine guns = lots of dead policemen and trashed police cars.
- SkyNet sucks! Let’s kill SkyNet! SkyNet, SkyNet, SkyNet.
- Hell, even the clanging, dramatic soundtrack is familiar.
Sounds pretty much like a soup-to-nuts Terminator project, eh? Even with the casting and characterization, producers have tried to stay true to the molds formed in the films.
Lena Headey’s Sarah Connor has the same angry intensity and exhausted desperation of Linda Hamilton’s version. The British actress (in American accent) even occasionally manages to sound quite a bit like Hamilton’s character. You’ll find yourself fully willing to accept Headey as the new Sarah Connor, but then she’ll take you out of the moment by doing something decidedly Headeyish.
I don’t care how bad of a haircut they give her, or how much they dress her down… Lena Headey can’t help but distract you with her unnatural beauty. And it doesn’t help that they show off her cleavage and legs quite a bit. Well, it helps… but not the storyline.
At the end of the episode, the illusion is completely shattered when she says “goddamn” like a full-blooded Kennedy and then flashes her lower back tattoo, which make-up artists failed to airbrush out when they concealed her other body art. A good portion of the time, however, Headey makes for a completely believable Sarah Connor.
Summer Glau, on the other hand, prompts skepticism at first in her turn as a Good Terminator. Before she reveals herself to John and Sarah, she’s doing all kinds of unnatural stuff for a Terminator, like convincingly conveying friendliness and shyness and casually using colloquialisms like “sucks for you!” It’s only when she and John (who only met the day before!) are sitting in their high school class and she patiently lets him dump his problems on her about his dead soldier dad and his overprotective, overbearing mother (wah) that you begin to realize that she is, indeed, a robot. No actual high school girl would have put up with that crap. Especially not from a dude as un-dreamy as the kid playing John Connor.
When Glau’s character finally does reveal herself as John’s latest protector, she takes on the flat affect and matter-of-fact tone that you’ve come to expect from a Terminator. Don’t think that Glau doesn’t inject some of her distinctive charm into the role, though. I didn’t think Glau could be convincing as a killer robot until the moment I got a taste of the old, still-waters-run-deep spookiness you’ll remember from her days as River Tam (her character on Firefly). Now I’m a believer.
The John Connor character? Eh, whatever. He goes through all the right motions (e.g., I’m sick of running, I’m not a leader, my mom is so uptight, I refuse to get a decent haircut…), but it’s Headey and Glau that steal the show. John has apparently developed some computer hacking skills that I’m sure will figure into future episodes, but I don’t see him becoming more than an prop for Sarah and the Good Terminator.
Look for the show to deviate from the films in its creative use of time travel, which will become an even more prominent plot device in the never-frigging-ending fight against the creation of SkyNet. I’ll leave it at that, lest I spoil the pilot’s climax, which sets up the story for at least the next few episodes. I hope producers don’t abuse this device, though, or they risk deviating too far from the established continuity of the Terminator story, and losing my interest.
If you’re a fan of the Terminator films, you’ll recognize and enjoy what you see in the pilot episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It’s true to the story and characters established by the films, has high production values, and provides a satisfying and entertaining hour of television. Color me ‘hooked’. Only time will tell if the series will enrich or damage the Terminator universe. Even if it stays with a formulaic ‘chase of the week’ format, I’ll keep tuning in for a while.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles premieres on Fox on Sunday, January 13, at 8pm ET/PT. If you’d like to check out the pilot episode a week early, the streaming, commercial-free preview will be available on Yahoo! TV for a 24-hour period beginning Friday, January 4 at 9pm PT.