A Second Opinion: 3 Reasons Why the Terminator Reboot Needs Another "Sarah Connor Chronicle"
Like a paradox-correcting time travel mission, the hulking, dieself-fueled Terminator franchise is getting a reboot. A whole trilogy, apparently, just to squeeze out some money before the rights automatically revert back to series original writer/director and “co-creator” James Cameron. While the motive behind this new, purportedly Rock-strong rebranding leaves me as queasy and confused as landing naked in the middle of an alley in 1984, I can absolutely get behind a new Terminator movie. In fact, I could get legitimately excited by the type of movie Cindy described last week.
I love the franchise — well, I really like the first movie, adore the second, and find the third and fourth alternately watchable and serviceable without leaving too much nuclear fallout over their predecessors. I own all of them, and can enjoy them with or without a little Rifftrax accompaniment. But, as far as I’m concerned, the filmic story we’ve seen is basically done unless the new filmmakers Star Trek-ify the universe, which considering the general conceit isn’t totally out of the question. But the piece of Terminator lore that I absolutely, without question love with all my grouchy heart is the cancelled-too-soon network drama, “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” Excessive, tongue twisting name aside, T:SCC was able to approach all the big ideas Cameron (and Ellison) circled around but never really got to explore due to the condensed nature and narrative constraints of Hollywood action flick storytelling. The show, so much more than the movies, really show us how John Connor could become the leader of a human rebellion and why his mother is important to that beyond his initial birthing. And, well, it’s fantastically complex story just isn’t done yet; causing any fan to cry out desperately at the Apocalypse for some sort of closure.
Let’s explore those reasons a bit more, shall we? Here are the Three Reasons the Terminator Reboot Should Finish the “Sarah Connor Chronicles.” Fair warning: There will be spoilers.
The Best Characterizations
Linda Hamilton certainly made a lasting presence in her approximately 4 hours of screen time as Sarah Connor, the post-modern Virgin Mary of a robot controlled dystopia. Edward Furlong sold the survivalist teenage antics of the future anti-robo Jesus in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, at least showing how pluckiness and morality could become traits of a great leader. They’re certainly the most famous and celebrated iterations of the Connor clan, and the less said about Nick Stahl’s incessant whinging and Christian Bale’s Reign of Fire retread the better… but it’s safe to say that regardless of the stories’ necessities, they didn’t inspire anybody in the real world. But Lena Headey managed to merge the two very disparate characterizations of Hamilton’s Sarah — the normal woman caught in circumstances beyond her control, her experience, and her capabilities; and the mother of the future possible savior of the human race, a protector and a leader, and tough as railroad spikes.
Because of that amalgamation, we root for Sarah Connor not merely because she’s the fish-out-of-water protagonist or the underdog, though she is, but because we’re allowed to really see her internal struggle. It would be so easy to just give up the fight and hope for the best, but Headey’s Sarah is more than the mother of John, she’s the mother of all mankind and we all need her protection. Much of that goes for Thomas Dekker’s John Connor, as well. Gone is the rascally menace from T2, we get a John that hasn’t yet become the wandering loser in Rise of the Machines, or the hardened, unknowable Marty Stu of Salvation or the quick glimpse in Cameron’s original. Instead we get a John Connor who is much more like Harry Potter — awkward in normal life, but self-assured and confident in his very specific wheelhouse; accepting of, if not comfortable with, his fate. He’s a John Connor that I would follow, or, at least, he’s obviously on that very important journey.
The supporting cast — Summer Glau’s not-embarassing Terminatrix, Brian Austin Greene’s equally not-embarassing Derek Reese (John’s uncle), Richard T. Jones’ conflicted FBI agent, and Garret Dillahunt’s utterly superd rendition of three different characters (an obsequious actor, his hunter-killer double, and an infant AI) — are all just as profound and memorable as Schwarzenegger or Kyle Reese or Miles Dyson. Glau’s Cameron would be the most perfect Terminator performance of the franchise, if Dillahunt’s Cromartie/John Henry didn’t still every episode in which he appeared. Shirley Manson’s T-1000 spy with nebulous loyalty is fairly campy fun in its own right, but, admittedly, doesn’t quite stack up to Robert Patrick’s. That said, if there was any way for those two liquid metal monsters to share a scene together, it would be worth all the prices of admission. Lest you think T:SCC was all dour determinism and emotional intensity all the time, it also had a sense of humor that favorably echoed the humane fun of “Hasta la vista, baby.”
The Sci-Fi Smorgasbord
Time travel is obviously a heady science fiction concept that has been around since, well, at least Mark Twain sent a Connecticut yankee to King Arthur’s court. Outside of Back to the Future and The Time Machine, the Terminator films are undoubtedly some of the most famous and financially successful stories dealing with that big idea in ways everyone can wrap their mind around if they don’t think about it too much. Artificial Intelligence is obviously at play here, too, with Skynet serving as the fictionalized Arpanet run amuck, as is the physical embodiment of robotic superiority in the machines themselves. Perhaps only the Matrix trilogy explores these more in-depth from an action movie perspective, though the malicious naivete of HAL-9000 is echoed in the franchise, too. That’s all very important and why James Cameron, along with Aliens, helped instill a lifelong sense of wonder about technology, the future, and sci-fi more generally. But the genre is filled with big ideas, and in the franchise, only “Sarah Connor” really tackles them with any sort of complexity.
Obviously, with Skynet looming on the horizon, virulent A.I. is one of the TV show’s main ongoing concerns. Destroying Miles Dyson’s lab in T2 didn’t do the trick, because there’s always another genius out there working to make machines smarter than us, purely for the grand scientific accomplishment that would seem to be for the human race. But T:SCC goes deeper than simply stating that A.I., any and all of it, would be inherently bad, and John Connor outright says at one point that technology isn’t evil, humans are. That’s a total reversal of all the previous films, where advanced tech had to be destroyed because it, itself, couldn’t be trusted. And then we get John Henry, Garret Dillahunt’s third (and best) role in the series, an burgeoning A.I. that is not just learning facts and figures, but also morality. Because if mechanized brain can learn that life is valuable — all life, but especially human life — then maybe Judgment Day isn’t predetermined. Winning the future, then, isn’t about haulting science and technology, it’s about making sure we use those things correctly. In a world consisting of Big Data, drone warfare, and enough weapons to kill everything on the planet multiple times over, this is a message that absolutely needs to be heard.
Time travel, almost certainly, isn’t something we really have to concern ourselves with, but as a thought provoking device in narratives it’s absolutely worth considering. As Cindy stated in her article, there’s no reason (except, perhaps, the power needed) that the machines and future John can’t send their soldiers back to any time they want, yet for some reason no filmmaker wants to go further than back The Terminator’s release year of 1984. That could change with the reboot, but T:SCC already went there in one of it’s best episodes, “Self-Made Man,” wherein Cameron learns of, and ultimately kiboshes, another Terminator’s 70 year plan after it accidentally traveled to 1920. Basically, seeing a T-800 wreak havok on a truly unsuspecting populace is always a joy. But seeing two of our ostensible heroes, Derek Reese and his future girlfriend Jessie, torture another man from the future for crimes his younger self has not yet committed is more dubious, especially when they pull out the wound-the-past-self trick that Looper outright stole. It’s never very clear, but the implications, I think, are that the man (played by both Richard “The West Wing” Schiff and Adam “Buffy” Busch) didn’t commit those future crimes until he was tortured by time travelers and explicitly told what he would do. Derek himself is a bootstrap, then; from a future that might no longer exist, whereas Jessie is from an entirely different one. It’s mindblowing at first, and then heartbreaking when everything starts to hit the fan.
The Cliffhanger Ending
Beyond getting the axe from Fox after only two seasons (and just 31 episodes), the biggest cause for ardent fan aching over the demise of “Sarah Connor” is the final moments of the final episode. It wasn’t produced or conceived as a series ender, because it wasn’t not-renewed until the season was over, but as a cliffhanger that would lead directly into season three. And season three, from what can be witnessed onscreen, would have covered territory that no other chapter in the Terminator franchise could have conceivably attempted. Much less would have. It’s ballsy, but maybe that’s what low-rated network shows have other popular series? No one’s watching, so the suits aren’t concerned about major character deaths ratcheting up to chaotic levels or gamechanging moments for the entire series as a season wraps up. So that’s exactly what showrunner Josh Friedman and his writers did. If T:SCC had ever been popular, season two’s ending would have been — wait for it —
Legendary. Remember, spoilers: Derek Reese dies,
shot in the back like a punk taken out like a champ, but with no time to mourn; two episodes prior he killed his best girl Jessie (see above); and before that Jessie killed her own time travel buddy and John’s girlfriend, Riley. We’re quickly losing castmembers and suddenly all the remaining players — John, Sarah, Cameron, John Henry, Richard T. Jones’ agent Ellison, and Shirley Manson’s Weaver — are gathered together, only Cameron is now John Henry, and Weaver and John Connor are going to the future and Sarah chooses not to go with her son. And then we’re there, in the machine controlled dystopia all these people have been trying to prevent. Only, it’s not the future anyone expected. John’s time jump means he hasn’t been around to lead the rebellion and nobody, not his uncle, his father, or Alison from Palmdale (who viewers know Cameron was modeled after) knows him. The name “John Connor” means nothing anymore. Unless, of course, this is how he becomes the leader he was always supposed to be. But, as of right now, we’ll never know.
This ending doesn’t retroactively ruin anything, despite assertions to the contrary. Nor does it automatically negate anything that came before, either in this show or the four movies. After all, John’s arc is also the arc of the show, and ultimately the whole franchise. As long as he isn’t dead, he can still fulfill his destiny. Maybe what the series was setting up was that our John, not future John, is the real savior we’ve always heard about. Maybe what we’ve seen in previous flash forwards and the movies is this John Connor, still fighting an impossible war despite all the time travel shenanigans.
Or maybe he goes through something in the future that changes him irrevocably, and besides just time travel itself, before he finds a way to get back to his time. How could it not? Like his uncle and father before him, Connor is now his own reason for existing. This cliffhanger doesn’t ruin a damn thing, it makes everything that came before retroactively more meaningful because, in a sense, now it hasn’t happened yet. Some things we hope will remain, but maybe others can be corrected. And the future? It’s even more up in the air, but also more easy to believe that it can change, especially with a moralistic A.I. surfing the Internet back home. Young John Connor in the future, with a T-1000 bodyguard, fighting to get back to his own time so he can prevent the end of the world?
Yeah, that’s the movie I want to see. It’s a damn shame it will never happen.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. If he had one wish, he’d wish for the Zoltar machine to be real.