Friday TV Flashback: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Episode 1 Friday TV Flashback: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Episode 1
The next installment in our Friday Flashback series looks back at the pilot of Terminator's first foray into TV. Friday TV Flashback: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Episode 1

poster41Even ignoring the obvious pun, it’s easy to argue that The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day are films ahead of their time, in addition to generally great movies.

The first film supplemented a low budget with a minimal cast and effects, crafting a character-driven and suspense-laden story built on an extremely high, terrifying concept. The second film got the budget it deserved, making major moves forward on the effects front – visually, the film is remarkably crisp and on par with films of today – and still managed to retain its amazing sense of characterization.

In a rare instance of the sequel elevating and even improving on its predecessor, T2 adeptly crafts vastly different type and tone of story and still succeeds at it (though I’m admittedly in the camp that thinks the first film is slightly better.) Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor is one of the best, most layered, and most recognizable of the (still unfairly few) female action heroes. The super intelligent, noble martyr of T2 is an African-American family man played by the fantastic Joe Morton. The original’s synth score by Brad Fiedel is like no other. The stop-motion T-800 and CGI T-1000 are both terrifying and fascinating, for completely different reasons. Arnold Schwarzenegger made even the coldest of hearts weep with a simple thumbs up in a vat of molten steel.

I absolutely adore the Terminator films, if you hadn’t gathered. And part of being a Terminator fan means accepting that there’s arguably more bad than good in the franchise. The good: two films, a totally rad 3D attraction at Universal Studios (the Florida location of which is thankfully still running!), and some tie-in novels that are apparently pretty decent (though I fully admit I haven’t read them.) The bad: Two, probably three unnecessary sequels, and a slew of comic books and video games, all of which retcon the hell out of one another over and over again.

The jury’s out on whether or not next week’s Terminator Genisys is going to fall into the good or bad category, though the track record and advance reviews haven’t been great (and neither is the title.) But to be fair, most “bad” Terminator things aren’t outright trash; Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation are still very fun movies with their share of earnest performances (Anton Yelchin as young Kyle Reese is a stroke of genius, for example.) But they aren’t really Terminator movies is the problem. Good Terminator films are thoughtful and somber, with direct focus on humanity and human nature, even among the explosions and gunfights, and it’s hard to get that careful balance right.

season1-21In the middle of all this is Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a TV series that was initially divisive but has since gained more retrospective acclaim in light of, well, everything else we’ve gotten with Terminator. The oddity of The Sarah Connor Chronicles is that it often seemed to “fail” for roughly the same broad reason as the latter films – that it didn’t really feel like Terminator.

The reason it doesn’t feel like Terminator, though, is the key difference. The Sarah Connor Chronicles is known for being a very, very slow show, which is not good when spinning off of a high-octane action series. But the slowness is because it was often weighed down by just how much it is thoughtful and somber, with focus on humanity and human nature, flipping the balance the latter sequels skewed to the empty action side. This is the most introspective and cerebral installment in the whole of the Terminator franchise, and it’s why lots of people checked out as much as it’s why so many people fell in love with it.

I’m of the mind that The Sarah Connor Chronicles is right up there in terms of quality of the first two films, but it’s certainly a different beast and an acquired taste. And I never shook the feeling during my original viewing that I desperately wanted it to be just a little bit more. But here in 2015, when in-universe spin-offs, sequels, and reboots are even more the rage than in 2008 – and people expect audiences to keep up with way more in-depth word-building and serialization – The Sarah Connor Chronicles would fit right in. It’s a throwback seeped in nostalgia, but it’s also one that requires massive trust from the audience. It didn’t quite work in 2008, but in the age of Netflix binging, Avengers spanning multiple media, and people following Game of Thrones plots, it’s clear that the multileveled and media-spanning development might have been ahead of its time.

Let’s find out and see if that’s the case.

Episode 1: “Pilot”

Originally aired:  January 13, 2008

textlessThe Sarah Connor Chronicles pilot, like good pilots do, certainly sets the stage for the show’s pace: despite a handful of stellar action sequences, it’s a pretty lumbering, expository experience that, while extremely well-made, doesn’t particularly hold up well on rewatch.

It’s worth remembering that the premiere was a two-night event, with the second episode immediately following the next day. That makes sense considering the show’s pilot barely feels like a pilot — and as I’ll discuss next week, the second episode actually feels like the real pilot. The show dropped about 8 million viewers between the two nights (and gradually dropped more after that), and to be honest, I can’t blame anyone who wasn’t already a dedicated Terminator fan for dipping out after the first episode. Essentially, this pilot is tasked with the burden of reintroducing characters the audience is probably familiar with, but not everyone is totally familiar with or necessarily remembers, not to mention it continues elements from a film made 17 years earlier while specifically ignoring the film made only 5 years earlier. For fans of the franchise who know its ins and outs, it’s not hard to wrap our heads around, but the pilot has to be able to cater to everyone else, too

That, ultimately, is where it stumbles: we get lots of exposition that has to both recap the previous films and establish new character beats for where these characters are, plus establish the new characters and the new premise. It hits all the right marks for what a pilot needs to do, but it also has to perform double duty to catch everyone up on the franchise’s pretty complex mythology, and it weighs the episode down heavily.

season1-5In all fairness, the show does amazingly well on an individual basis when it comes to the exposition. The plot of the first two films is practically read as a Wikipedia summary by Detective James Ellison, but it’s done by way of a charmingly snarky performance by Richard T. Jones in a scene that’s meant to be emotionally devastating for Sarah’s abandoned fiance. John spells out how he and Sarah have been on the run and what Sarah’s problems post-T2 have been, but it’s in the midst of an argument that feels very organic between a teenager and parent. Cameron establishes the heightened use of time travel from the resistance — a new element for the show — while a Terminator bashes a bank vault door and Sarah uses really cool future weaponry. This type of writing bodes well for the quality as it goes along, because there’s already lots of nuance and care in how this information is relayed.

But no matter how well-handled the exposition is, there’s still a ton of it, so much so that it becomes the meat and bones of a paper thin Terminator chase story. Even the main Cromartie plot suggests that the entire episode was basically giving people what they expected from the show — the basic plot of a Terminator movie, but on TV every week — and getting it out of the way. And while I applaud the show on giving the audience what they think they wanted only to pull the rug out from under them by the end, it makes for a less-than-entertaining first installment.

The thing is, though, it really only plays out this way because of looking at it in retrospect. This show finds its strengths in vastly different areas once it settles into its post-pilot premise, and that makes this episode a real oddity in the scope of the series. While the characterization is nailed down, the episode itself is rather empty, with minimal themes and artificial plot twists. Sarah’s bookend monologues have the semblance of depth, but don’t really say anything beyond the surface (the “death of a person is the death of an entire world” monologue starts out good, but gets weirdly heavy-handed with the “child death is nothing short of a holocaust,” for example.)

season1-56But at the time, most of us freakin’ loved it — the original KSiteTV site review has almost no bad things to say — and it’s not a mystery why that is. In 2008, the last Terminator thing we got was the massively disappointing T3, and there were no definite plans of Salvation and certainly not a new trilogy. The Sarah Connor Chronicles was the best answer to redeeming the mess that T3 left (by retconning it out of existence, no less!) and picking up where the good part of the franchise left off. It’s much easier to be more cynical now, when every beloved franchise everywhere is getting a nostalgia and reference-soaked reboot or revival that we all begrudgingly accept as “hopefully not the worst.”

But T:TSCC legitimately seemed like the best and only hope for something Terminator at the time, and seeing even whole-plot references to our favorite films was not as rampant as the overindulgent meta-awareness we tend to get from movies now. (Based on the trailers, how much of Terminator Genisys just seems like a throwback to The Terminator rather than an actual movie in and of itself?) The most we get in terms of cheeky references here are the opening highway shot from T2, Sarah’s Terminator waitress outfit in her dream, and Cameron saying “Come with me if you want to live,” which is such a fist-pumping moment that sells the Cameron character, it may be the best Terminator reference the show does. Sarah also cleverly cuts off Cameron when she starts her “I was sent to protect you” spiel, a fun meta moment acknowledging how often the speeches in Terminator are repeated. And from a plot perspective, the show also picks up on the Miles Dyson loose end, revisiting his widow, Tarissa, and acknowledging how Sarah basically destroyed their lives.

season1-4As much as I’ve harped on how generally boring or hefty this pilot is, there are still a slew of things that work, all of which carry through the entire show. The casting is phenomenal, with Lena Headey effortlessly settling into her lead role. Headey notably said she never watched the Terminator films before taking on the role so she wouldn’t be imitating Linda Hamilton’s portrayal, but frankly, you’d never guess. A lot of that is a testament to the pilot’s clear sense of characterization; Sarah’s “no one is ever safe” scene with John totally sells Headey’s grasp of Sarah as a character. Another quintessential Sarah moment has her immediately attempt to kill herself upon learning Cromartie doesn’t know John’s whereabouts, which is so indicative of Sarah’s sense of self-sacrifice, motherhood, and her potential death wish all in one act. Even her nightmare is more than just a hook for the teaser, as it establishes Sarah’s attitude, “Nothing matters anymore,” which could be taken in context of the dream (that John’s death would make her life moot), or that after supposedly stopping Judgement Day after T2, she has no more goals or motivations. While there’s room to debate for whether showrunner Josh Friedman did right by the show in terms of its overall direction, he’s a stellar screenwriter when it comes to identifying the subtle depths of his characters, and that’s in turn this show’s greatest strength.

Thomas Dekker grows to be perhaps the best John Connor put on screen over the course of this show (though he didn’t have much competition), and makes a good impression in his first outing. He channels the 90s grunge vibe Edward Furlong’s 10-year-old version had, but organically evolves that punk brat attitude to a more reasonable and insightful, but still self-focused and insecure teenager. This is a version we’ve yet to see in any other form, the messiah figure who knows he’s a messiah figure, but gets even more insecure because of that knowledge. It’s an intriguing way to pull angst out of John Connor without making it feel forced; teens already feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and this teenager literally does. Dekker doesn’t get too much to do other than be a victim this time around, but John shows shades of insight and strength that Dekker captures, mostly in his personal conversations with Sarah.

season1-57Cameron is the other major player that we’re supposed to be familiar with — the Terminator protector — but she’s a wonderful departure from the usual archetype. Since the “female Terminator” gimmick was pretty milked in T3, Cameron has to be something more, and Summer Glau crafts an otherworldliness that’s unique to the Terminators we’ve seen. Glau is in her element when she’s a mysterious, often scary enigma juxtaposed with her petite feminine features, and that makes her perfect for one of the most ambiguous machines in the franchise. Cameron is mostly another exposition machine and plot vehicle here, but we get glimpses of mystery — she can eat food, her eyes can glow blue, and she can pass as a pretty decent teenager. Glau adds plenty of nuance, too; her stint as a high schooler has some awkwardness that foreshadows who she is, with Cameron randomly telling John “My dad sells tractors,” as if it was a program directive to get information, and there’s a brief pause before she laughs at a joke, as if she takes a minute to process it. Her eventual catchphrase, “Thank you for explaining,” is also uttered for the first time, and the stiltedness and strangeness of that word choice adds to the mystique. While she plays Cameron as a machine very well, it’s still clear that she’s different when compared to Owain Yeoman’s very standard, straightforward portrayal of the Cromartie terminator.

Richard T. Jones as James Ellison and Dean Winters as Charley Dixon, the two other prominent characters, are welcome presences in the pilot. Not weighed down with big histories like the primary characters, they provide exciting elements to the Terminator story: a pursuing FBI agent who is more capable than just cannon fodder, and a true emotional connection for the Connors. We don’t see much of them in this first episode, but by showing them in the 2007 montage (and basically unaged over 8 years,) it’s clear that they’ll throw some major wrenches down the line.

pilot224The production of the pilot is incredible, with the opening nuclear explosion and endoskeleton holding up very well; it’s TV CGI, yeah, but it’s quality TV CGI that, unfortunately, the show doesn’t do as well with later on. King of genre pilot directors David Nutter helms a solid product, with a natural mix of shaky cam and dream-like angles that become more standard as the show gets more cerebral. The action sequences are spot-on and well-choreographed, smartly focusing on the smaller-scale terrors of running and fighting a Terminator rather than going too big. Bear McCreary’s score is also of note, as it sets the stage for the emotional and psychological wallop the show is better than the episode itself. The typical clang and bump of the original Terminator scores are present, but rearranged with a somber orchestral tune that suits the tone of the show wonderfully.

The goal of the pilot, ultimately, is about restaging the pieces for the sole purpose of breaking them down again. That makes the journey feel kind of disorienting to watch, and it’s a major reason why its time-jump ending feels less like a satisfactory pay-off and more like the show finally getting to the actual story. But the benefit is how well it mirrors Sarah’s own journey, and her fateful decision to stop running and finally fight back against Skynet. We and Sarah both are plunged into a familiar world that keeps getting turned upside down, with new factors thrown in as soon as we get caught up on the old ones. The episode is kind of exhausting in that respect, but it lends credence to the bank vault scene — it’s even more exhausting for Sarah and John, and if Cameron’s time machine means they can finally focus on one goal instead of chaotically reacting to uncontrollable experiences, then that’s the way to go.

And thank goodness they figure that out, because the show undoubtedly improves once it gets out of the shadow of the films. The pilot was a necessary evil to make this crazy experiment work, but the time-displaced Connors trying to destroy Skynet before it’s born — a clever parallel to what the machines tried to do to John in the original film — is what makes this story flourish and leads to one of the best sci-fi TV shows of the 2000s.

Odds & Ends

  • As much attention to detail as there is in this show, it’s remarkable how the timeline doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Here, John Conner is 15 in 1999, and it’s clearly stated that the events of T2 took place two years prior. Except there are multiple places in T2 that say John is 10 years old (listed on his police record) and that the film takes place in 1995, even though it was released in 1991. But then T3 claims John was 13 in T2, closer to Furlong’s real age then, which wouldn’t make sense because he was conceived in 1984, so T2 would have to have taken place in 1997. That means that Skynet would have been coming online mere months (or maybe weeks!) after the events of T2, even though we never got the impression that Cyberdyne was so close to completing Skynet. Either way, the show is apparently lifting from the (incorrect) chronology that T3 used, despite being directly based on T2 and specifically retconning T3. What a mess!
  • Of course John listens to Incubus.
  • The nude scenes post-time travel are handled surprisingly well, with lots of wide shots shrouded in darkness rather than random cover-ups. Also, how awkward must it have been for John to be naked with his own mom? Eesh.
  • Phil Morris sort of cameos as Miles Dyson in photos only. Dyson never appears in this series, but if he did, Morris would be extremely smart casting. Charlayne Woodard is a solid choice for Tarissa, too.
  • This episode establishes the “Terminators take 120 seconds to reboot” rule, which becomes a major plot point as the show progresses.
  • “One bag. Plus the guns. I’ll make pancakes.”
  • Love Sarah and John both answering “No one is ever safe” at the same time.
  • “A shooter…with some kinda robot leg.” – This line isn’t particularly great, but Richard T. Jones’ reading of it is hilarious.
  • “You should put those back in the holster.” – Sarah looking at a topless Cameron.
  • “Is this nuclear?”
    “No, not really.”

Derek B. Gayle

Derek B. Gayle is a Virginia native with a BS in English, Journalism and Film from Randolph-Macon College. In addition to being an avid Power Rangers and genre TV fanatic, he also currently co-produces, writes and performs in local theatre, and critically reviews old kids' cartoons. You can check out his portfolio here.