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Chronicling the Chronicles: Season 1 of The Sarah Connor Chronicles Reviewed

Most of the sci-fi franchises that I grew up loving haven’t been doing too hot this past decade.  The lame AvP movies.  The disappointing Star Wars prequels.  And there hasn’t been any truly great Star Trek around since Deep Space Nine (by far the best series of the franchise) went off the air back in 1999.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  I caught a bunch of the episodes last spring, and this week watched (in pretty short order), all nine episodes now available on DVD.  My reaction?  Well….sort of middle-of-the-road.  Actually, I feel about this series almost exactly the same way that I felt about the third, James Cameron-free Terminator film: there’s a lot to enjoy, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared, although its still a long way from the brilliance of the first two films.

The series starts off with a bang, with a cool apocalyptic vision of what will happen if Sarah and John fail to stop all the robots — nuclear armageddon, with a metallic Terminator robot, wreathed in flames, choking the life out of Sarah after having just shot John.  Of course, its just a dream — but its a pretty great way to kick off the series.  Not only does the sequence clearly remind the audience of what the stakes are, but its also a chance for the show to showcase some pretty snazzy effects.  I was rather impressed with the visuals throughout the first season — there’s a lot of great action stunt work (car chases, Terminator battles, etc.), and the show is able to show the fully robotic Terminators (as opposed to the ones clothed in flesh that can be played by an actor without special effects) a lot more often, and more convincingly, than I’d expected.  (I have no way of knowing, but I wonder if the show’s effects artists haven’t been able to capitalize on the groundbreaking work in this area done by the folks over at Battlestar Galactica.  They’ve been able to beautifully incorporate the full metal “toasters” into their live action shots for years now.)

Unfortunately, after the kick-off, things slowed down for the next several episodes.  We spend time with a computer programmer Andy Goode, whose chess-playing computer nicknamed “the Turk” may or may not be a first step on the road to Skynet…and with John and Cameron (his female Terminator protector, played by Summer Glau from Firefly) in school…and none of that really held my interest.  While there was some interesting serialization beginning to happen (Andy and the Turk’s storyline played out over several episodes, for example), there was also a paint-by numbers “adventure of the week” vibe starting (this week our heroes need to deal with a sketchy con-man in order to obtain new documentation for their new fake identities…this week our heroes need to stop a Terminator trying to stockpile metal that will be used by Skynet in the future to build mroe Terminators…etc.).  There were some nice connections to the Terminator movies (I was pleasantly surprised to hear the familiar drumming music whenever a Terminator is on the hunt), but also some pretty on-the-nose obvious references that didn’t really endear the show to me.  (Hey!  The new Terminator character is named Cameron!  Like James Cameron!  Get it?)

But then a terrific one-two punch of episodes 6 and 7 made me sit up and re-evaluate the show a bit.  Episode 6, Dungeons and Dragons, delves into the character of Derek Reese — brother of Kyle Reese, who in the first Terminator movie came back in time, fell in love with Sarah Connor and fathered John.  The character of Derek could have come off as a somewhat desperate attempt to add to the Terminator mythology (Hey, remember that beloved character?  Well he actually had a brother no one’s ever mentioned before!), but as executed he wound up being a terrific addition to the dynamic of the show.  This episode spends a great deal of its run-time in the future, as we see some of Derek’s background and find out how he wound up traveling to the past.  Its a risky gambit, trying to show us some of the much hinted-at future war on a TV budget, but they manage to pull it off pretty well through some great CGI and practical effects.  But more importantly, this vision of the future war really amped up the narrative intensity of the show…AND it gave us some good character back-story for Derek… as well as, surprisingly, for the Terminator Cameron.  

That episode was followed by The Demon Hand.  I mentioned above that the early episodes contained some halting references to the Terminator films, but here the show jumps into the Terminator continuity with both feet.  Agent Ellison, the FBI agent tracking Sarah and John, gets ahold of the tapes from Sarah’s psychiatric incarceration, depicted in T2.  The show marvelously recreates the look of the psychiatric facility, and Lena Headey, who plays Sarah, has some great moments playing the desperation of the caged Sarah that Linda Hamilton so iconicly portrayed.  Then, Ellison goes to visit Sarah’s psychiatrist, Dr. Silberman.  Silberman was a very memorable character in the first two Terminator movies (and he has a cameo in the third), played by Earl Boen (thank you, imdb).  Here, the role is re-cast, and filled by Bruce Davison (Senator Kelly from the first two X-Men films).  Davison does a marvelous job inhabiting the role, and there are some real dramatic sparks between Silberman and Ellison as Ellison tries to find out what Silberman knows about just what the hell is going on with all the robots and freedom-fighters from the future, and Silberman tries to do whatever he can to prevent the nightmarish things he’s seen in the first two Terminator films from coming to be.  Not only was this a great, dramatic, involving episode, but I was really impressed by the way the show utilized all the interesting back-story and continuity from the films (not ignoring Sarah’s time locked up in the psych ward, not ignoring the character of Dr. Silberman) but was also unafraid to run in different directions with those story-lines (re-casting the role of Dr. Silberman, and changing him from a disbeliever into someone absolutely terrified that everything Sarah used to rant to him about is actually true).

The last two episodes of the season were a bit of a let-down after those two terrific episodes…in particular, the season-ending cliffhanger was a bit lame.  I’m not concerned about Cameron’s surviving that car-bomb, and the “revelation” that the mysterious Sarkissian is — gasp! — someone else we’ve never seen or heard of before didn’t exactly blow my skirt up.  

So — overall?  I’m sort of middle-of-the-road on this series, as I wrote at the beginning.  I love continuity and serialized storytelling, which this show already seems to have in spades.  The action is great, and while I don’t think there are any particular stand-outs amongst the cast, everyone does a solid job inhabiting their roles — both the ones we’re familiar with (Sarah and John Connor), and the new inventions of this series (Cameron, Agent Ellison, Derek Reese, Dean Winters as Charlie Dixon, etc.)  My biggest fear is that the show has already started to get a little crowded with time-traveling Terminators and freedom-fighters.  Just how many people did future-John Connor and Skynet send back in time, anyways?  On the one hand, I’m sort of intrigued at the idea that the Terminator films only gave us a glimpse of a much-larger time-travel war going on, between Skynet and John Connor’s future freedom-fighters.  On the other hand, all these visitors from the future are already starting to get a bit silly, and we’re only 9 episodes in.  My other fear concerns how to keep the Terminators dangerous, when Sarah and John have to, obviously, keep beating them or at least escaping from them every week.  The show did a decent job of this in the first season, with one Terminator (inexplicably named Cromartie) menacing them throughout the season, and still at large by the end of the finale.  On the other hand, there were a few others that appeared that were beaten pretty easily (such as the one they trap in the episode Heavy Metal, and the one whose control chip Cameron removes in Vick’s Chip).  The lame Star Trek: Voyager took the great villains of the Borg and made them look stupid by having the crew of Voyager keep beating them over and over again.  I hope that doesn’t happen here.

Bottom line:  There’s enough that I enjoyed about this short first season that I’ll definitely be tuning in for season two.  Let’s see where the show goes.  And hey, I hear there’s this fourth Terminator movie happening…

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