January 15, 2008

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

As I have mentioned before, Sarah Connor, as played by Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is pretty much the pinnacle of action heroines in my eyes. It doesn't get any better than her, or at least it hasn't yet. So I was understandably skeptical about the role and the story being changed for television for Fox's new show, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I specifically declined to watch the original pilot circulated on the Internet, waiting for Fox to air the premiere and hoping against hope that it wouldn't suck.

It was on last night and the night before, and I didn't think it sucked at all.

Some other viewers, particularly those who did view the pilot, thought that Fox dumbed down Sarah's character (now played, with amazing gravitas, by Lena Headey, who rocked as Queen Gorgo in 300) for a television audience. Charlie Anders at i09 wrote:

The original pilot which circulated nine months ago showed her character as a non-stop hardass. Her only weakness was an excess of paranoia and rage, which threatened to drive her son away. The televised pilot adds a new scene, where Summer Glau is stitching up Sarah Connor's wounds. Lena Headey, as Connor, whimpers and says that she can't keep running or she'll lose her mind. And her son will leave her. It feels as though the network wrote saying, "Have her show more weakness." And you can bet those moments of weakness will be written into future episodes as well.

Even without seeing the pilot, I think Anders is probably right--Sarah is more confused, less angry, and more "motherly" on television than she was on film (at least on film in T2-- nobody wants to talk about that first one). But as yet this doesn't really bother me. I think these elements of Sarah's character work, especially given that she has had some time in between crises at the point in which the Chronicles begin. And maybe my reading is different than everybody else's, but much as I loved T2 Sarah, I didn't necessarily think she was mentally stable. What does bother me, however, is that so far Sarah hasn't been asked to do much physically on the show. She wields a shotgun and takes a bullet, but she doesn't do much physical fighting, and we certainly don't see her doing chin-ups. Whether this is a limitation of Headey as an actress (I doubt it) or (more likely) of the script of the show remains to be seen, but I am willing to give it more than just the premiere episode to find out, and to allow the problem to be corrected.

The big positive surprise of the show for me wasn't Sarah, though. It was Cameron (whose name is said to be a nod to Alien director John Cameron), the terminator sent back from the future to protect John (i.e. the Schwarzenegger role in T2) who caught my attention. She is played by Summer Glau (River from Serenity and Firefly), and she is awesome. Not only is it a joy to watch her fight (which we knew from her time in the Whedonverse), but watching her do the "machine-trying-to-adapt-to-humanity" thing Schwarzenegger made famous is great as well. She can do everything he did, with regards to gently questioning the artifices of humanity, but she adds an extra element, due to being in a female human form. Near the end of the premiere, she asks repeatedly "Why are diamonds a girl's best friend?" while looking puzzledly at what to her is just a shiny rock. It's one of my favorite moments.

The fact that the "good terminator" in the series is female also gives way to the possibility of interaction between Sarah and (at least a stand in for) another woman, which is something I found sorely lacking in T2. When a naked (because they just jumped time) Cameron stops a car full of jeering frat boy types and kicks their asses in order to steal their clothes, the camera focuses for a second on Sarah and you see her give the slightest hint of a smile. That moment alone is worth watching it for me.

None of this is to say the show is without flaws. John Connor, as played by Heroes veteran Thomas Dekker, bugs me a whole lot (then again, T2's Edward Furlong John didn't do much for me either). I so far have no impression whatever of James Ellison, the FBI agent after Sarah (played by Richard T. Jones), and that doesn't bode all that well (especially given that he is the sole permanent character of color on the show). I was irritated as hell by the Hispanic racial stereotyping director David Nutter (who has a long list of previous credits, including episodes of Entourage, The Sopranos, and ER) felt compelled to include in the second half of the premiere, particularly the snarling pit bulls. These things, as well as the not-as-badass-as-she-could-be Sarah, will knock a star off the premiere episodes for sure. But I am still going to give it three stars, which is honestly about two more than I expected.

The next episode will air on Fox next Monday, January 21, at 9/8C.

More commentary:

4 Comments

I was watching a little bit of this the other day. My friend called me up and said, "Did you hear about this show on FOX?"

I missed the first session, and I missed the second the other day... I believe. I'll need to somehow catch up.

I've seen both episodes, and both Sarah and Cameron rule, but Cameron kind of does rule more. But, um, I've seen the advertisements while watching American Idol, and I did see Sarah doing chin ups.

I'm three episodes in (though from the post, it looks as if the first two of mine were shown in one go for you) ... the last I saw was Sarah burning down the chess-computer guy's house, and Cameron failing to save the suicidal student at school.

So far, I'm liking the series. In a way, it's impossible for me to rationally compare Lena Headey with Linda Hamilton, since the biggest hole in Lena Headey's performance for me is that she's not Linda Hamilton. But lots of people manage to rock without being Linda Hamilton, so I should give Heady a chance to do so. :) And, much I might emotionally want Heady to duplicate Hamilton's take, she couldn't - all she could do was duplicate how Hamilton would be if she were phining it in - far better for her to have her own.

One thing I didn't like was that Sarah's quest to destroy Skynet was linked in the pilot to John begging her to do so, that he can't handle the magnitude of his destiny (a bit of a converse to Charlie Anders' comment about Sarah's fear of losing him). An intepretation I have of T2 is that of Sarah's loyalty to the world outside John going from abstract to concrete - indeed viewing the world as essentially destroyed already - so that at the end, they can fight together for the sake of everyone. Which, perhaps paradoxically, also allows her to connect to him as person rather than a mission. I loved that element, and can't help thinking it weakned in the series.

However, Sarah is brave, strong, and ferocious - but also intelligent and resourceful. She finds a way to destroy the Turk computer without killing anyone - though I had the strongest that she was prepared to if she couldn't do it another way. Yet she retains compassion as well - not wanting Tarissa Dyson to believe that Miles had died for nothing. More than anything, her performance reminds me of the very last scene of the first film.

Regarding Cameron, I notice that she is the first Terminator I've thought of as other than "it." Do I perhaps find it easier to see an apparent female's confusion and quasi-vulnerability as humanising than an apparent male's? I think that's definitely a factor, but that's my problem, not the show's. On another angle, it might be that the series format lets us see Cameron develop more slowly and unevenly than the T-800 had room to - we can see in the scene with the suicidal student that she has little emotional insight, but quite logical ideas - the girl is upset, people like it when nice things are done for them, do something nice that involves little time and effort, I have this thing here, give it to her as a present. But it also shows that Cameron considered helping this complete stranger with no utility for her mission something worth doing.

But in practical matters, I love that she's utterly on the ball at all times - when she launches into fighting, there's no hesitation, no confusion, pause - and that's bloody lovely. I hope we get to see the same thing for Sarah before long.

Regarding the third woman in the mix - two of the first three episodes have featured Tarissa Dyson, and I love her interactions with Sarah. The impression I get is that she hates Sarah, but doesn't really like herself for doing so (while Sarah sees it as her right). I'd quite like her to become more of a regular.

And finally, three things that I got a kick out of:
1. When Cameron beats up the car of - let's call them that they are - prospective rapists, Sarah's grin seemed like a couldn't-quite-help-herself variety (which I think was a perfect choice).
2. In the intro VO by Sarah before each episode, she and Cameron are holding really big guns, and John is holding a bag.
3. In the resitance hideout, when Cameron is shorted out, and another terminator is coming up the stairs, Sarah deals with Cameron's deadweight by the entirely practical approach of just lobbing her out the window (after all, she can take it).

Ok, the windbag will go away now :).

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