Monday, 18 May 2009

End Of Season Review: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

The first season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was reduced to a measly nine episodes by the 2008 writers’ strike, but it was none the worse for it. Those nine episodes crammed in almost a full season’s worth of time-travelly, robot-fighty thrills, not to mention a murderous, shocking climax that heightened expectation for the second season. Unfortunately, the 22-part season two delivered, oh, about nine episodes’ worth of similar excitement.

T:TSCC’s second run can be divided into three parts: the slow burn of the first third, up till the Connors dealt with the evil T-888 Cromartie (Garret Dillahunt) in episode 8; the headlong rush of the final half-dozen episodes, which hurled story and backstory at the audience at a dizzying rate; and the plodding middle section in which Nothing At All Happened.

Season two picked up where season one left off, reasonably enough, with John (Thomas Dekker) and Sarah Connor (Lena Headey), Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green) and their Terminator guardian Cameron (Summer Glau) pursued by Cromartie. This mini-arc concluded satisfyingly with a nicely-shot takedown set in Mexico and had a couple of meaty self-contained episodes – such as “Allison From Palmdale”, which provided some welcome information about Cameron’s future-past – but it had one large and irritating failing. Being the prey of a relentless, almost indestructible killing machine was deemed not enough to drive the plot, and instead the show relied for storylines on an unnamed resistance soldier travelling from the future to somehow find the Connors’ house and scrawling a few cryptic messages on their wall (in his own blood, natch) before inconveniently expiring.

Who was he? Why did he come back? How did he find the house? Why did he not make his bloody points more clearly? This event is an extraordinarily tenuous premise on which to base a TV drama, and yet T:TSCC did so brazenly. Need a way to set an episode in a nuclear power station? Put it on the Wall O’ Clues! Need to get Sarah fixated on an idea that will eventually lead her to a key Skynet facility? I think there might be a mysterious reference to it on the Wall O’ Clues! Need to introduce a psychologist to the show for a bit of scientific gravitas? I don’t suppose the Wall O’ Clues has the name of a good one, does it?

After the Cromartie situation was apparently resolved the show drifted, focusing mainly on John’s tentative romance with Riley (Leven Rambin) and Derek’s liaison with another future resistance fighter, Jesse (Stephanie Jacobsen), and the tension these relationships created. Which was, er, not very much tension. The better episodes in this period, such as “Self Made Man”, in which Cameron’s nocturnal library visits uncovered some early 20th-century cyborg activity and foiled a planned assassination (with an agreeably brutal Terminator punch-up), felt as if they’d parachuted in from a different show.

It was obvious at this point that the producers were severely restricted by budgetary constraints. Showrunner Josh Friedman may have claimed that he is just as interested in exploring Sarah Connor’s psyche as in watching killer robots having a scrap, but it is surely more than a happy accident that the likes of “Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep” – set in a sleep clinic where Sarah tries to overcome her insomnia, and just as interesting as it sounds for a good two-thirds of the running time – are much cheaper than explosive, stunt-heavy showdowns. Given the lack of funds it’s forgivable, but it still doesn’t make for great entertainment.

Frustratingly, most episodes touched only briefly on one of the most intriguing aspects of the season: the supposed Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson), another Terminator posing as the head of technology company ZeiraCorp, who had rescued Cromartie’s body with the help of former FBI agent James Ellison (Richard T Jones) and implanted it with a brand new AI, renaming it John Henry and instructing Ellison to rebuild its mind from the ground up. Ellison’s struggles to educate John Henry in the basics of ethics, forcing him to confront his own flaws, were compelling – as were Weaver’s attempts to appear human, not to mention the mystery of her motives.

The pay-off of the Riley storyline set in motion the events that brought the Connor and ZeiraCorp families together, and few could deny that the final six episodes of the season – which saw the deaths of three of the good guys, neatly explained Jesse’s mission and betrayal with a tense two-part flashback/forward, and, in the finale, turned the show on its head by separating Sarah and John in time – marked a new high for the show. Whether they made up for the preceding tedium is another matter.

One problem T:TSCC has is that almost every character’s emotional level is set to either “stoical” or “enigmatic”. Sarah, Derek and Jesse are forced to overcome hardship and swallow their feelings daily with the greater good – saving humanity – in mind; and John, increasingly, is of the same mindset. He seems prepared to jeopardise the Connors’ mission for the sake of Riley but when he loses her, he falls back in step with barely a murmur. It’s inevitably difficult to know what Cameron and Catherine are thinking, because they don’t actually think as such. The Terminatrices’ inscrutability is well played by both Glau and Manson, but they naturally struggle to make the characters truly compelling – and are given little to work with by the writers. Glau in particular was criminally sidelined for much of the season, her potent physicality and deft comic touch surfacing only sporadically.

Riley divided fan opinion but at least she displayed recognisable emotions and, in the crunch, she acted decisively and admirably. Rambin’s performance was sympathetic and, at times, verging on adorable – as was Jones’s as the conflicted Ellison, both actors lending a human face to a dramatis personae consisting of actual robots and people acting robotically. Curiously, though, it was the childlike John Henry who proved the most affecting character, with his wide-eyed efforts to understand the world and desire to protect Weaver’s daughter Savannah (Mackenzie Smith). This was by far the sweetest relationship on the show, sensitively written and skilfully handled by Dillahunt.

When I started writing this blogpost the future of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was in the balance, but Fox has just announced that the show will not be renewed. The middling-at-best ratings of its second season made it unlikely that there would be a third – and yet there was enough quality in the season, and in Friedman’s attempted gamechanging in the finale, to suggest it was merited. But surely the only way a third season could bring in new fans – and please the existing ones, many of whom grumbled online about its lack of action – would be to up the budget to allow, at the very least, a few more balls-to-the-wall fight scenes. Hands up who ever thought Fox might start throwing money at an underperforming sci-fi show?

Well, stranger things have happened.

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