As the strike continues and original material becomes thin on the ground, there is an inevitable desire to cling to what serialized television one can find. Perhaps this explains the oddly positive reaction to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a Fox mid-season show which is certainly benefiting from the strike in terms of attention. It’s not the worst thing you’ll ever see, and even at its lamest moments it remains watchable. Consider, though, that these are the same characters Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong brought to life in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Or, more importantly, that James Cameron brought to life as part of said seminal masterpiece. In other words, consider the source, and the consider the result. It should be better.
Admittedly, the characters of Sarah and John Connor are not the first thing you think of when asked what you like about the Terminator film series. You’d sooner point out the well-crafted story, inventive universe, superb action – all qualities, I might point out, that Sarah Connor Chronicles does not bring to mind. Certainly you would think of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s screen-owning Terminator, who only Robert Patrick has yet come close to matching (again in Terminator 2) and here is only palely imitated. Sarah and John were central to the story, but not usually the appeal. Posing the question, do these two even deserve their own TV show in the first place?
Then again, I had always held a place in my heart for Sarah and John. Hamilton owned her role, from the wide-eyed innocence of the first film to the ball-busting intensity of the second. Lena Heady is fine as Sarah, but no more. While I see the idea behind examining Sarah’s parental anxieties within the wider context of 21st century paranoia, Josh Friedman seems more interested in statements than in the actual character. Sarah is a concerned mother, yes – but she’s also a completely badass fighting machine who could take a Terminator on any day. Friedman’s script tells us that, but neither his words nor Heady’s performance conveyed it. Sarah’s emotional side is present, but there is no balance between the vulnerable and the powerful.
As John, Thomas Dekker suffers from a similar problem. In all three of his incarnations, John’s portrayal has always been at odds with his eventual fate, to become the leader of the humankind’s resistance after judgement day. More than Furlong or Nick Stahl, Dekker makes no attempt at all to convey that John could one day have such strength in him. That’s okay – I can’t really expect Friedman to write a fifteen year old as if he’s a messiah, because lets face it, it can’t be done – and personally I like the idea of instead examining the effect John’s unstable lifestyle has on him, and how he gains strength from it, which looks to be what Friedman is going for. Why, then, the emotional makeover from the original pilot? In the original pilot, when John begged his mother to stop Sky Net, he properly broke down and cried. In the new version, this emotion is gone and instead he’s just moaning; this is even more true of his annoying antics in episode two. There’s potential for some really interesting character stuff mixed in here, but it looks to be wasted.
What it comes down to, though, is that Terminator has been pulled off too brilliantly on film for it to ever work on television. The action sequences in the pilot were perfunctory at best, while the second episode was devoid of any action whatsoever. A TV budget cannot cope with what people expect from the Terminator franchise, or at least what I expect. Nor has it made any signs of making up for this constraint with its characters. Even leaving aside Sarah and John, the supporting players are little better. Summer Glau is well-cast as Cameron, but intriguing hints of her being more emotional than other Terminators were barely touched upon in the second episode. As pursuing FBI agent James Ellison, Richard T. Jones is struggling to inject comic relief into utterly humourless scripts, and sadly failing.
I admit that I will give Sarah Connor Chronicles a couple more episodes, if only because there’s nothing else to watch; but every time I turn it on, I’m sure I will only be further reminded of how inferior and pointless it is. Those looking for mindless entertainment will be disappointed, as the show’s pacing is frequently off (literally nothing happened in the second episode). Even the tone is all over the place: after a pilot that made little attempt at depth, episode two delved awkwardly into political territory after Sarah learnt about 9/11. The cancer threat was a more plausible dramatic turn, although it requires substantial development. Right now though, the show works as neither a mindless actioner, nor a political piece, nor a character study. Bad start.