TV discussion

Looking back at… Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

The Terminator franchise is one that’s beloved by a lot of people, whether it’s sci-fi fans, those who like Arnie, or simply those of us who grew up watching Terminator 2: Judgement Day on VHS over and over again. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot about the franchise that people actually like.

Before you jump into the comments section and call me crazy for saying this: the first two films are excellent, with the original being one of my all time favourites and a great example of how to blend sci-fi and horror. But ask yourself, after those two, where are the highlights?

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines came out to high expectations, but let a lot of people down for its watered down action, dull cast, boring plot, and a villain that was best forgotten. Terminator Salvation had a hard time straight away because of the poor quality of the third film, and despite having some strong supporters (myself included) it seems to be the film that divides fan opinion more than any other. Terminator Genisys tried to reboot the franchise, retelling the story of the first film but playing with the timeline, and was pretty much universally hated for trying to ruin the only good parts of the series.

The comics have never done particularly well, especially when compared to its closest counterparts like the Aliens or Predator books. There have also been very few good video games, except for some great ones from 20 years ago.

Then there’s the franchise’s one television outing, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which like Terminator Salvation seems to divide opinion on whether it was actually any good or not.

I’m going to weigh in my opinion straight away, it was good. However, it was far from perfect, and I can understand why those who tuned in for only the first several episodes would call it bad.

The show was a slow burner, choosing to focus on the characters more than the fight against the future machines, or stopping the creation of Skynet. Whilst viewers are happy to watch a two-hour movie with several action sequences and high octane violence, depriving them of this for multiple episodes in order to tell a slower, more nuanced story left many fans feeling short-changed.

The first season really highlighted this. Episode one crammed a lot of stuff into its run time, introducing the characters of John Connor (Thomas Dekker) and his mother Sarah (Lena Headey), getting them to meet up with their robot protector Cameron (Summer Glau), introduced the villain for the season, the FBI officer hunting them down, Sarah’s fiance, and transporting the three of them forward in time a decade to stop the rise of the machines. It was a lot for 45 minutes.

After that, things slowed right down. Instead of car chases, gun fights, and explosions, we were given a story of Sarah and John’s relationship, the pressure John faced knowing his destiny, their establishing a false identity, John going to high school, Cameron trying to blend in, resistance cells from the future, and a chess computer that may end up killing humanity. Not exactly exciting stuff.

Despite this, the first season was able to deliver some excellent set pieces, and some very tense confrontations with the Terminators. It also expanded the mythology of the franchise, introducing Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green), the older brother of John’s father Kyle. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough to keep everyone hooked, and the show lost a lot of viewers heading into its second season, which was a huge shame, because season two is where the show got seriously good.

Yes, the return added more action, but it also played with expectations and took the franchise into some very interesting areas. We learnt more about the future war and about how the Terminators made themselves more human. We also saw that not every member of the resistance believes in John Connor as some kind of messianic figure, and even believe some of his choices were against those in humanity’s best interests.

In the present, we were introduced to one of the more intriguing characters the franchise has ever had, Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson), the head of a tech company who turns out to be a T-1000 liquid metal Terminator. However, instead of fighting for the machines, it turns out that she has travelled back in time as an ally of the future John Connor to create her own AI to fight and stop Skynet, thereby saving humanity. We also get the shock revelation that the T-1000 Terminators cannot be reprogrammed the way conventional ones can, and literally choose to switch sides because their intelligence is that advanced.

Unfortunately, all of these revelations and plot twists (including a series finale that sees the teenage John and Weaver in the post-apocalyptic future) weren’t concluded as the series was cancelled due to low ratings. The first season’s slow start had come back to spell the end of the show as it was becoming one of the best parts of the Terminator franchise. The show was full of potential that was never reached. It was able to deliver competent action, it had interesting and layered characters, it had a plot that was bold and unafraid to mess with expectations. Unfortunately, it didn’t show this to begin with.

When you mention Chronicles to people, you’re going to get one of two reactions: ‘it was boring and shit’, or, ‘it was great, it shouldn’t have been cancelled’. Those who say the first are the ones who jumped ship after the inaugural season, whilst those who stuck with it grew to love it and wanted the story to be resolved, because god damn it, that cliffhanger is not the way to leave things!

If you watched the first season and didn’t think much of it, I urge you to go back and re-watch it and stick with it through to season two. If you never saw it at all, go and watch the whole thing. The show gets too much hate for what it was, and is in no way the low point of the franchise (I’m looking at you Genisys). It’s about time people gave this missed gem another shot.

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