Shiny Shelf

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

By Jim Smith on 26 February 2008

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

So far, the somewhat exhaustingly entitled ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ succeeds to a far greater extent than it has any real right to. When it comes to the sporadically produced and largely repetitive film series that this TV show is based upon I am something of an agnostic. I’ve always thought of ‘Terminator’ is has always been a good idea for franchise, but one which needed a) careful handling and b) to be allowed to escape from the fetid clutches of the combined egos of James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Two men who had burnt out in terms of the limited things they had to offer cinema before the Berlin Wall came down.)

To summarise, ‘Terminator’ is a terrific little 80s actioner, brutal, engaging and purposeful. ‘T2’ (as people insist on referring to it) is a bloated, stinking great mess of a film, smothered in unbearable voiceover and saddled with both a risible ending and a number of mind-numbingly dreadful performances. The third is neater, smaller, better thought out and funnier film than its immediate predecessor, which entertainingly joins the dots for a couple of hours and then has the balls to destroy the world at the end.

‘Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines’ was then, for my money, a step in the right direction rather than the unmitigated disaster that it has been retrospectively declared to be, despite making the best part of $400 million at the box office. The pilot episode of this handsomely mounted ‘Terminator’ TV shows ignores the cataclysm that ended that film but it does provide an in-story explanation for doing so. Given the time paradox-filled nature of the series premise, that seems entirely acceptable. It also allows the series to pick up where that film left of creatively, telling small, smarter, interesting stories about John Connor and his fear of his destiny, even as it writes its actual events out of continuity for good.

As part of the scaling-down and smarting up of the franchise’s basics that’s required to make the programme work, we’re also handed some very welcome recasting. The hiring of actors (Lena Hedley and Summer Glau) to replace the movie series’ unfortunate double act of ‘Director’s Missus’ and ‘Body Builder With An Eye on Politics’ is obviously welcome. Both grab their roles by the scruff of the neck, with Glau showcasing the ability to be uncanny that she demonstrated in ‘Firefly’ while Hedley scores over Linda Hamilton by making the whacked-out, gun-toting, older version of Sarah Connor a recognisable human being. Hamilton was fine as a scared waitress out of her depth, but in ‘T2’ her performance is basically laughable. Hedley gives the character the centre that Hamilton simply couldn’t. Thom Dekker does well as John Connor, caught between being a boy and having to be a man, scared and determined and seething with resentment, all at the same time.

There’s bags of potential in ‘Terminator’ as a franchise and a TV series is a good place to exploit its oddities and possibilities. The spin off comics printed by Dark Horse before, during and after the release of ‘T2’ (‘Tempest’ and, believe it or believe it not, ‘Robocop vs Terminator’ are especially good) demonstrated what could be done with the concept given a bit of thought and a desire to play with the human angles on the material, rather than a need to maximise the opening weeked and indulge Arnold Schwarzenegger’s need to play the box office hero.

Okay, we’re one week in and it might all go to pieces after the first 60 minutes but, so far, this dourly nihilistic little action show has got me all sunny and optimistic.

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