Friday, 18 January 2008

Sci-Fi Season Premiere Face/Off! (Terminator: TSCC)

Until the hopefully triumphant return of my favourite sci-fi TV show ever (and no, it's not Sci-Fi Channel's Flash Gordon), I've had to forgo experiencing that genre in a TV format. Well, I could have watched Stargate: Atlantis, but I have no love of either that show or its progenitor. I also could have watched Bionical Woman, and did for a while, but I just couldn't face its relentless idiocy after the first few weeks. It really was a disaster from conception onwards, and I can't imagine how even an infusion of talent could have made it work. As for Battlestar Galactica, all we've had since the silly season finale is the Razor TV movie, and we tried to watch it a couple of weeks ago but got so distracted by our cats jumping around trying to catch toy mice that we didn't finish it. We will, though. I did get to see ace FX unit Zoic go mental with much wobbly-camera space destruction, and no one started singing Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, so I'm going back there soon, with bells on.

This week, though, saw the season premieres of two sci-fi shows, spinning off from other established concepts. Torchwood, the "adult" spin-off of BBC's newly enwonderfulised Doctor Who, is now on its second season, attempting to prove that it has learned from the mistakes of the first season (which were legion). On Fox in the US, War of the Worlds screenwriter Josh Friedman has developed a non-James-Cameron-sanctioned spin-off from the first two Terminator movies, with the cumbersome title Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (or as Masticator and Masticatrix have abbreviated it, The Sarah Conicles). Chances are I will watch both until the end of the season, but which one am I excited about, and which one is a mistake? FACE/OFF TIME!

When I heard that the Terminator movies were being picked apart for scraps yet again, my heart sank. The first two movies are kind of perfect, and while I prefer the original (and remember my childhood adoration of it as clearly as if it were yesterday), I love that the second is more than just an action film. It's a pacifist, pro-disarmament action movie containing lots of destruction and mayhem, and yet there is no contradiction between the two halves of its whole. Plus, it features Arnie's one great performance. His scenes with Edward Furlong are superbly done, quiet and naturalistic and devoid of his usual distracting gurning. I often distrust director's cuts, but the longer version of T2 meant we got to see more of those scenes, and they were all superb. James Cameron doesn't get enough credit for getting that performance out of him.

T2 is a brilliant sequel, and the final shot is so wonderfully uplifting and moving and final, that when Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines came out, I was incensed. The story was so completely over that any resurrection of the franchise smacked of pure cynicism. Also, it came out at the wrong time; not close enough to keep up the momentum of the other films, and not far enough away that people would have a nostalgic wish to see more of that story (see also Ghostbusters 2, which came out five years after the original and did poorly at the box office). It did okay, but I was more concerned with its effect on the other two movies. Would it invalidate that wonderful finale, where Sarah and John go through hell in order to change the future?

Turns out it didn't seem to care about that. Whereas in T2 the chronology and genesis of Cyberdyne, SkyNet, Miles Dyson and Judgement Day are all worked out rigorously, in T3 SkyNet comes back just because that shit is inevitable and that's that. Perhaps I'm remembering it wrong, and if so someone correct me, but that's the sum of it. It's a horrible cheat after all of the work Cameron did on the first two. I get riled by badly thought-out time travel stories. I'll grant that they're incredibly hard to do, but they can be done right. Back to The Future 2, Primer, Gregory Benford's Timescape; they do exist.

Other than that, T3 is visually flat (thanks for that, Jonathan Mostow), undercut with cringeworthy comedy moments, horribly designed, pointless, and cast in a distracting way (having Nick Stahl and Claire Danes running around firing guns was perhaps a bold choice, but a disastrous one for suspension of disbelief). That said, what an ending. It wasn't quite worth all of the nasty scenes featuring plastic toy Hunter-Killers and T-1s to get to that, but still, kudos where necessary. It was very clever and quite affecting.

But why go back again? Surely the moment has more than passed, right? And wouldn't continuing the story after T3 (apocalypse on a grand scale) cost billions of dollars? Ah, but there is always a way, and Josh Friedman came up with one. Set in a timeline separate from that of T3, and following on a couple of years after T2, Sarah Connor is still on the run from the FBI, having been accused of the murder of poor Miles Dyson. She's also predictably plagued by dreams, which means we get an action blowout in the first scene, filled with apocalyptic imagery of Terminators and mushroom clouds, which is all borrowed from the films.

So it has got some strikes against it from the get-go; starting with a frigging dream sequence presented as reality, following the visual template of the films too slavishly, and recasting Sarah Connor with Lena Headey, an actress I've never been too keen on, and who committed one of the many crimes against acting perpetrated in 300, a film that, as I have said elsewhere in the past, is the worst acted mainstream movie I think I've ever seen. I really didn't like the idea of casting her in such an iconic role, and was prepared to be very annoyed.

I was wrong, at least to a certain extent. In the middle of the scene (which, credit to director David Nutter, is exciting and well-edited), John gets shot in the back by the not-Arnie Terminator, and Sarah reacts by begging it to kill her too as she has no reason to live now her son is dead. Her reaction is believably overwrought, and I warmed to her quickly. During the episode she perhaps goes too far now and again, but over the course of the season perhaps she will get the tone right. I could also do with less of the voiceovers at the beginning and end, but that's as much Friedman's fault as hers.

It matters little. The opening worked brilliantly for one very important reason. Right there Friedman sets out her character elegantly, and from here I can imagine there are places to go with her. It's not called The Sarah Connor Chronicles for no reason. The first movie was all about her, and the second took the focus off her a bit (by making her borderline insane) but it made sure to keep her as a major protagonist, and we got to follow her on her sad journey. The original concept was to have an ordinary woman transformed by circumstances beyond her control, and T2 took that to the logical conclusion. T3's major flaw was to get rid of her altogether, with the excuse that she had died of leukemia, off camera, which was an appallingly lazy and dismissive way to go about it. Here Friedman convinced me he was going to do right by her, and immediately the barriers of distrust fell. I knew there would be no Arnie, no huge battle scenes, and possibly no adherence to canon, but he was trying to do right by one of my favourite movie characters ever, and for that I was grateful.

Since we last saw her, she has become involved with an EMT tech called Charley, played by Dean Winters, who was so memorable as Liz Lemon's feckless boyfriend Dennis in 30 Rock. Whereas there he was the worst partner ever, here he is besotted and devoted, proposing marriage to Sarah (in bed after just waking up, which is one of the few missteps and sillinesses of the episode). This freaks her out, and so she gathers up future saviour of mankind John and drags him out of there. John (played by Thomas Dekker, formerly the almost-gay friend of Claire Bennett in half a season of Heroes) is miffed, having bonded with Charley, and correctly blaming his mother's commitment-phobia for her departure and not her paranoid belief that they will get caught, which is another bit of writing I liked.

Unfortunately for them both, Charley loves Sarah enough to report her disappearance to the police, and there just happens to be an FBI agent, James Ellison, hanging around with a ton of information about Sarah, now hiding under the alias Sarah Reese. It's been pointed out on AICN that it may not be the best name to hide under, but is a touch that made me beam with nerd-glee, and a tantrum later on in the episode shows she's keeping it out of an obsessive need to keep the name of her future lover alive, so it works. Ellison (played, so far, with some anonymity by Richard T. Lewis) tells Charley about Sarah's crazy past (in a quick bit of exposition that doesn't slow the show down too much), and even whips out a photo of Dyson. Note that he is not played by Brother From Another Planet Joe Morton, but by Phil "Jackie Chiles" Morris, thus keeping the Dyson-casting awesomeness going strong.

Cleverly, not only does this quick scene give a bunch of information about the first two movies and the events that have happened since, as well as setting up the relationships between all four of these characters, it allows Sarah's identity to be compromised and placed in the FBI database, which is being monitored by a Terminator sleeper agent, who then goes on the rampage and chases our heroes. It's not the best writing in the history of storytelling, but it is excellent exposition conveyed between characters who have been purposely kept in the dark as well as advancing the plot. I'll be getting to an example of bad exposition in the next part of this Face/Off.

John and Sarah head off to a new town to try to avoid all of the guys trying to make Sarah fall in love with them, apparently, and while at school John ends up getting stalked by none other than River Tam, aka Summer Glau. Now, I've often thought of River as one of the weakest links in the Fireflyniverse, mostly because the one writing tic Whedon has that I don't like is the crazy talking, which was passably funny with Drusilla, annoying with Buffy season 7 Spike, and just flat out horrible with River. For almost all of Glau's time on that show she had to put up with a bunch of nonsensical and frustrating madness chatter that added up to very little. Only at the end of Serenity did I warm to her at all, but that was the end of that, sadly. Also, when on Angel, she was a spell-addled ghost-thing that had to talk with a Russian accent, so I had no idea what she could be like talking like a human. Weirdly, the first time you see her, even though you will probably already know she is a new kind of Terminator, she gives what might be her first approximation of a non-quirky humanity.

Her responses, such as laughing too hard at John's lame jokes, are ever-so-slightly heightened. It works well, as if her emotional programming (which, I assume, is the thing that she hints makes her different from other Terminators) is not quite right, but it's her curiousness and ability to evoke confusion that work best. She looks perpetually befuddled by things around her (other than combat situations), and while this is not a new concept, it's pulled off with some charm. She's pretty goddamn great in this, and I'm thrilled that Friedman had her cast in the role. Her physicality works well too, and she puts that to use in an early scene where an evil Terminator shows up at school and tries to kill John.

Herc, from AICN, has railed against this scene, but he neglects to mention the new habit of naming the Terminators. Glau plays Cameron, a weird nod to the creator of the Terminator franchise, considering he has nothing to do with it any more now that ex-wife Linda Hamilton has sold the rights to Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar. Even stupider, the evil Terminator (played by Owain Yeoman) is called Cromartie. Is this because his endoskeleton is covered with chrome? In that case, is his actual name Marty?

Whatever. He reveals himself while trying to kill John (using a gun he had ickily hidden in his thigh, under his skin), at which point both he and Cameron start talking and moving like robots, which they didn't do before. It looks stupid, but thankfully they also tend to throw each other around, demolish walls, get hit by cars, and take a bullet hit to the chest like a champ, which is what you want from a couple of Terminators. Cameron saves John using a truck (which has been done to death, but what else was she going to use?), and then says the second thing that made me drop my critical defences, and if you have seen the other movies, you know the line she says.

With a new robotic bodyguard in charge, John drives off to find his mom, who has turned up at the school to find him, instead encountering Cromartie (dang, that name never gets any less stupid), who kicks her around a bit. Realising he has no idea where John is, Sarah does the third thing I loved in this episode; pulls out a gun and tries to kill herself so that she can't be used as leverage against her son. It's a badass moment, all right.

Of course, she doesn't get to go through with it, but Chromey talks to John on the phone, imitates Sarah using his cyber-throat, and gets him to go back to the house. Yes yes, just like in the movies. So not only has this show borrowed the format and look of the movies, but it's reusing the old tricks. A strike against it, I thought, until John arrives at the house in a face-obscuring hoodie, only to get shot in the head by Chromey, and yet no! It was Cameron pretending to be John using her own cyber-throat to fool him! A nice touch. There follows a big fight scene with robots pushing each other through walls and floors, shotguns, a weapons cache hidden in a wall, electrification and, if the exposition a few scenes later is anything to be believed, a chair lined with kevlar just in case a Terminator shows up. A lot of viewers appear to have hated that, but I thought it was in keeping with Sarah's way of thinking. Anyway, it's a tight little scene, and quite thrilling.

After that we get some exposition between Sarah and Cameron as she gets to almost show some robo-boobies while pulling bullets out of her clavicle, and we find out that Skynet still gets built despite the events of T2. Pretty obvious, what with all the robots walking around, but whereas in T3 it's not explained how the Air Force (who build Skynet after the destruction of Cyberdyne) develop the technology, and we had to just like it or lump it, here Cameron admits she doesn't know how it happened, but as the episode rolls on, it becomes clear that the whole point of the show is finding out who builds Skynet. We're going to spend the rest of the series finding out what's going on, which is a far more promising approach.

Hopefully the real reason will not be a disappointment as in T3, though considering T3 seemed uninterested in a lot of what happened in the first two movies, this show earns many kudos for having Sarah take John and Cameron back to see Miles Dyson's widow, where she reveals there is no way his work still exists anywhere in the world. It's nice that they felt the need to revisit that character, especially as we get to see her sadness. Dyson's death in the movie is already memorable, and it's great to see that pathos carry forward into the series. Again, I am impressed. There then follows some more action, and the 'splodey. Eat flame, you doucheinator!

At this point I was enjoying myself, but the next scenes feature a big plothole, with Sarah shot in the shoulder and getting maudlin over the possible loss of her son. I wonder if I watched the wrong version of this pilot, because the scene seems out of place, what with Sarah walking around next day as if nothing happened, and not having a wound on her arm at the end of the episode. Whatever is the reason, the scene serves very little purpose. We know she's a badass who is good at dealing with pain and blood loss, and that she's scared of John leaving her, though perhaps this is the first time she's voiced the worry that he'll just choose to leave instead of getting killed by a Terminator. Still, it's the one bit of flab in the whole episode, and as such is annoying.

Also worrying me at this point was the feeling that the show was going to just be The Fugitive with robots, which works fine in a movie format, but has been overdone as a concept on TV. Though I liked this so far, would I eventually just get tired? How much could they do with the concept of the three saviours of mankind trying to destroy and electronics firm? Thankfully, Friedman must have had the same concerns, and throws an outrageous twist in right at the end. Cameron takes John and Sarah to a bank built in 1963, and stages a robbery that gets them into a vault tricked out with lots of sciencey stuff. There's a gun that looks like a copper-wired, nuclear-powered tommy gun that kills Terminators, and a time machine made from 1960s parts that was built by someone sent back from the future by John Connor (we assume). It's such a bizarre moment that the viewer can either go, "Screw this, I'm gonna watch American Gladiators instead," or, "I'm sticking with this because that is some crazy shit!" I chose the latter option.

The show ends with our naked trio turning up in 2007, where they are assumed to be dead, on a search for Skynet, with Cameron learning about humanity, and John and Sarah dealing with the weirdness of the future (the second episode, which is also very good, shows John confused by the new technology that has sprung up in eight years, and Sarah learning about 9/11). Plus, Chromey is still running around despite his head getting blown off his robotic shoulders by Sarah's tommy gun, James Ellison is looking for Sarah, and John is trying to reestablish contact with Charley even though he is now married to Lost and Tell Me You Love Me And Not The Mother Of The Saviour of All Mankind veteran, Sonya Walger, of all people. It's a very very promising set-up.

It didn't all work. Mostly the performances were okay, but it was touch and go every now and then. Thomas Dekker appears to be both less obnoxious and less likeable than Edward Furlong, and needs to stop with the frigging whining. One or two scenes were superfluous, some of the actors look a little unsure with the guns, the Terminators often seemed very stupid, and the dialogue was a little rough at times, but the homages to the original movies show an affection for them, which counts for a lot. For instance, the next episode also acknowledges Sarah's cancer from T3 and weaves it into the plot, which is a great touch even though I hated that it ever happened in the first place. It's not just following that format, though. So far the little quirks and twists display an urge to come up with new ideas, or to push the old ideas as far as they can go.

Plus, I loved the hints that Cameron is a different kind of Terminator whose behaviour, while still recognisably not human, has enough humanity to it to confuse poor hormonal John, who obviously has the hots for her. This is brilliantly shown in the second episode, where she touches him to assess his mental and physical state through an analysis of his body and sweat, and he interprets it as a sign of affection. all that and a soundtrack that has nods to Brad Feidel's original iconic theme. It has real potential, and I can't wait to see what happens next.


Jaredan said...

I'm in total agreement with you on this one mate, I really enjoyed the first two episodes and I'm really looking forward to seeing how things play out.
I was going to do a write up however my need to drink clear liquids and feel like death wiped my week out.
Though I'll disagree with you on Summer Glau's performance as River.

Admiral Neck said...

Eat me, water drinker! River Tam was muy annoying, until she went ballistic on some Reavers and shit. Then she was great. As she also is in this. (I know, I know, you love River, you big dope. We'll have to agree to disagree. Or just disagree, whichever is easiest.)

Glad you liked it, was wondering what your opinion would be. AICN and AV Club talkbackers are bitching about it, but you can see the fans beginning to get more confident. There are kinks to iron out, and a few semi-dormant plot threads lying ready to kick in, but it delivered the goods for two hours, and hopefully it can do that again every so often.

johnilf said...

I liked it also, although the time travel thing nearly did send me running to Booze king in wednesbury. I didn't feel bored and i didn't tut (much) which is a good sign i think. Yep it's a show i'm gonna stick with.
Oh why would three naked people appear on the national news? (thousands killed in iraq, people starving in africa but to our main story, somebody has filmed three naked people on the highway).

Jaredan said...

Mate to be honest the three naked people trumping people dying in a war on the news here isn't that much of a stretch.
Which is horrific but true.

Admiral Neck said...

Damn you, nudityyyyyyy!!!!