Welcome to TV Flashback Reviews, part of our TV Flashback series, where we do in-depth, episodic looks at shows from the past! With Terminator Genisys in theaters, we’ll be looking back at the 2007 Terminator TV show from beginning to end every Flashback Friday.
Episodes 5-6: “Queen’s Gambit” and “Dungeons & Dragons”
Originally aired: February 11 and 18, 2008
While the beginning of The Sarah Connor Chronicles is plenty solid, there’s an apparent shift in quality and focus once Derek Reese enters into the picture. This is a character designed to be a break-out hit — a big mythology reference, portrayed by a downright dreamy actor best-known for teen soap Beverly Hills, 90210. That alone would bring viewers on for curiosity’s sake (“Can this teen soap opera guy pull off genre work?”) much akin to Jason Priestly joining Tru Calling. Beyond that, Derek’s very existence pumps the movie mythology directly into the veins of the show (also not unlike Tru Calling, weirdly enough.)
Introducing the brother of Kyle Reese ties together mutiple threads and puts ripples in new ones, bringing the “multiple time-traveling resistance fighters” subplot to the forefront, giving us a direct portal to the future setting, bringing a new sense of urgency with the police and death of Andy Goode, and a mountain of moral quandaries for Sarah and John to deal with. Most importantly, Derek is sort of a cipher for Kyle Reese, a then-unexplored (and in the mainstream consciousness, somewhat forgotten) but vital element of the Terminator franchise. It seems a little fan-pandering at first, I’ll admit — “You guys want references to Kyle Reese? Well here’s his brother!” — and “Queen’s Gambit” doesn’t necessarily quell those suspicions. “Dungeons & Dragons,” the obviously superior entry and turning point of the series, definitely does.
But it’s still worth touching on “Queen’s Gambit,” an episode that does the season arc’s heavy lifting and, fittingly, is all about setting the pieces on the chess board. After an intriguing flashback into a pre-T2 time in Sarah and John’s lives – they lived in Central America where John learned both survival and chess – the central plot is Andy’s rebuilt Turk being entered into a chess tournament, which would coincidentally win him a military contract. Getting the military involved amps up suspicions that the Turk is Skynet (which makes sense, considering how we saw the pivotal role the military could play in the now-retconned T3.)
That, of course, brings back Sarah’s crisis of conscience for whether or not to kill Andy, who continues to be a generally decent guy. It’s a ballsy move to completely undermine the triumphant conclusion Sarah received back in “The Turk,” and solidifies this show’s structure as a long-form story rather than having definite episodic endings. Even ballsier is the one-two punch of reintroducing this crisis for Sarah and then forcing her to leave it unresolved: someone else kills Andy regardless of what she thinks. It ends Sarah’s current moral crisis, technically, but it’s also devastating for her to carry the weight of both not being strong enough to kill and not smart enough to figure out a better solution. Complicating matters further is that the potential killer is John’s never-before-heard-of uncle from the future, who not only doesn’t know of his relation to the Connors, but doesn’t particularly like them. He’s still the best connection to their family and future they have, so Sarah is burdened with protecting him. Simply throwing in this new factor completely pulls the rug under Sarah’s game; as her monologue suggests, chess has a predictable structure, but war doesn’t, because people themselves are variables that continually complicate things.
By the end, though, it’s clear that the chess metaphors from this point work much better on a meta-level for “Queen’s Gambit.” Pieces are moved to positions that reveal numerous new avenues to explore – Why does Derek seem to have a beef with the Connors? Who killed Andy and where is the Turk? What’s with Cameron and her grief-note-writing in general? And we have definite cliffhangers to propel through the rest of the season, particularly Derek’s wound, Cromartie masquerading as an FBI agent, Charley’s return, and Ellison meeting Derek and finding a severed Terminator hand. “Queen’s Gambit” doesn’t have a lot of meat to it, but the pieces are set-up for a more engaging and exciting game than what we’ve gotten. This is the turning point from the early episodes’ more standard action narratives and into the more artful, cerebral structure the show possesses for the rest of its run.
That’s on display in full-force in “Dungeons & Dragons,” which immediately addresses set-up from “Queen’s Gambit” that might have been enough to spread over a half-season. There’s no Terminator action in the present, which functions as a frame story that has Derek flashing back (forward?) to the future as the Connors and Charley struggle to save his life. This isn’t an uncommon structure – just as an example, Green Arrow has been subject to this on two completely different TV shows – but “Dungeons & Dragons” is extra successful for the satisfying induction of Charley into the Judgement Day bubble. Dean Winters puts a lot of effort into making Charley appropriately on-edge but constantly struggling to keep his calm, and it goes a long way to make Charley very likeable. This guy’s life has been thrown multiple times because of the Connors now, and he’s still faithful that his trust in them was never misplaced. It’s not particularly smart for a person to trust people like the Connors in the situation he’s in, but it’s clear that Charley’s defining character trait is that he thinks with his heart rather than his head. That’s a trait Sarah has struggled with in T2 and T:TSCC, and that connection makes sense of why the two were in such a long-term relationship in the first place.
Derek is the one on full display here, though, and “Dungeons & Dragons” even manages to flesh out his brother alongside him. The fact that Kyle never mentioned his brother in The Terminator surprisingly functions as a key character trait for both of them – Kyle has obsessive loyalty to John Connor, contrasted with Derek’s intense protectiveness of his little brother. As a result, the unseen John basically replaces Derek as the man Kyle follows and looks up to, at least in Derek’s eyes, and that makes Derek understandably jealous. The brothers’ interactions put much of Kyle’s personality from The Terminator in perspective, too; objectively, it’s actually really weird that this random soldier kept a photo of the mother of the commander he gets unexpectedly chummy with, and as such, Derek has every right to be unnerved by it. And if anything, that makes Derek even more fiercely protective of his brother. Brian Austin Green does a nice job keeping his jealousy subtle, but still very visible throughout.
Kyle is also portrayed much younger here, with a baby-faced Jonathan Jackson resembling many of Michael Biehn’s mannerisms but only a fraction of his masculinity. This seems intentional in context, as it better showcases how Derek views the ensuing events – his baby brother is a misguided kid in this war, swept up by the enigmatic, secret-keeping John Connor until he disappears. The entire flashback is a nightmare scenario for Derek, which has him restrained and unable to protect his brother, only learning about a potential fate long after it’s happened, but without any possibility of closure. It’s bad enough losing a family member, but it’s worse losing them and never knowing exactly what happened to them, especially when they were involved in things you feared and you saw yourself as their guardian.
It’s not enough that Derek’s entire characterization be laid bare, though. He’s also given significant demons right off the bat, with the stellar plot twist that his fellow prisoner, Billy Wisher, is actually an incognito Andy Goode in the future. I didn’t catch Brendan Hines in the make-up on either viewing (this is a plot point I’d honestly forgotten about), so it’s a great example of an in-plain-sight reveal. So much of the mystery is placed in Derek’s bizarre captivity and the mystery of the jet engine that it distracts from the mystery on screen, and justifies Derek’s attitude about it in the present.
And even without the stellar characterization on display, this episode is commendable for its impeccably-rendered future setting. Every wide shot is devastatingly beautiful in a way post-apocalyptic landscapes should be, while the interior scenes in Derek’s captivity are fittingly dream-like and disorienting. Add in the creepy piano constantly playing in the background – which is never fully explained, but can only be assumed to be a torture chamber of some sort – and the future is nightmarish in a psychological way just as much as a physical one. Even compared to the extensive future we saw in Salvation, the more claustrophobic, exhausting version in “Dungeons & Dragons” is far more frightening. The references to the first Terminator are far better than the indulgent ones we’ve gotten used to now, too; it’s assumed that the raid Derek learns about is the one Kyle told Sarah about in The Terminator, with the addition of the burning photo, bringing a nice “full circle” effect to these flashbacks. We also get a peek at the rubber-skinned T-600, which had only briefly been seen in The Terminator in shadows up until this point. Charley’s “There’s a storm coming” line might be the most on-the-nose self-referential gag here, but it works amazingly well in context.
There’s little to complain about when it comes to “Dungeons & Dragons,” the best episode of the show thus far (and one of the best in general.) It’s fitting that the episode ends with Sarah, not summarizing the episode’s events like usual, but simply repeating Kyle Reese’s “The Terminator is out there” speech (albeit replacing “Terminator” with “machine” for stupid legal reasons.) This is an homage to the first film and Kyle Reese, in a way, but it also exposes the malignancy that came with Kyle’s very existence as John’s father from the future. However much hope he left behind by fathering John, to the people Kyle left behind – Derek, Sarah, and the young John – the repercussions are still affecting them. And like Cameron secretly pocketing another Terminator’s chip, those repercussions absolutely will not stop.
Odds & Ends
- So, it’s pretty fitting that the last two episodes Derek Russell reviewed on Terminatorsite were the episodes introducing another Derek, and now me, a third Derek, is trucking along with reviews. Here’s Derek’s (the other one) final reviews of “Queen’s Gambit” and “Dungeons & Dragons,” the latter of which he regarded as the best of the best and movie-level quality. (Considering the real Terminator 4 we got, he’s not really wrong.)
- John’s material in these episodes is a bit up and down. While I was forgiving of the high school drama in “The Turk,” everything in “Queen’s Gambit” is so beyond trite in comparison to the rest of the episode. I commend the show on following-up on the suicide story beats and continuing the thread of John and Cameron being thrust into a “real world” they aren’t good at living in, but the whole “damaged goods” love interest thing for John is heavy-handed (and if memory serves, doesn’t go anywhere.) Conversely, “Dungeons & Dragons” has John willing to donate a heap of blood to his uncle and deal with some latent absent daddy issues, with a past father-figure working to save the life of someone related to his real father (and maybe-future father figure.) That’s the heady stuff this show is way better at dealing with.
- While a commenter kindly made some sense of the awkward timeline and age problems in the pilot, another weird inconsitency emerges with all signs pointing to 2027 being the year Kyle Reese travelled back from, not 2029 as indicated in The Terminator. In this case, it could be explained away — Kyle is only stated as “disappearing” in 2027, so he could have been in hiding from 2027-2029 for some reason, or we could simply blame the ever-changing timelines causing him to travel back two years earlier (which is weird, since everything was delayed after T2.) Considering Cameron also comes from 2027, and that the fluidity of time becomes such a key plot point in season 2, I’ll chock this up to being a mystery potentially addressed in future seasons had the show not been cancelled.
- The writing duo Zack Stentz and Ashley Edward Miller wrote “Dungeons & Dragons,” who have gone on to write some great episodes of Fringe, X-Men: First Class, the first Thor, and are currently working on the Power Rangers feature. That’s a pretty solid resume right there.
- Cameron imitating the exact yelling conversation she had in the bathroom ? Perfect.
- Cameron cutting off the Terminator’s flesh slab-by-slab? Disgusting.
- Derek viscerally projectile vomiting blood and bile? Horrific.
- “I call shotgun.”
“I call 9mm.” – Like the “have to learn stick” line from “Heavy Metal,” this totally sounds like a mandatory line specifically to insert into the commercials. That said, it’s way funnier and lands much better than the former.
- “What is this, a game?”
“It’s always a game” – Wonder if that’s an intentional continuation/subversion of the chess theme from one episode into the next.