So it’s another day, another reinvention of the Terminator franchise–after the T3 movie kind of failed at it (although in enjoyable fashion), so we take another shot at messing with time travel and killer cyborgs without the Governator and from the perspective of Sarah instead of John. And hey, Lena Headey was in 300, so that’s pretty cool. From my perspective, I watched the pilot when it originally aired and one episode after that, but couldn’t fit it into my TV watching schedule and I decided that if I could get the studio to send me the review copy, I’d give it a chance again then. So lucky me.
For those wondering about the continuity here, apparently Terminator and T2 happened, but T3 did not, so it’s yet another “what could be” alternate timeline deal in a mythology already clogged with them. So what could be this time?
- “Pilot”. So here’s the jumping-on point of the franchise for the 10 people who didn’t see T2, as Sarah Connor takes her son John on the road for the millionth time to escape the Terminators out to kill her, which allows her stilted boyfriend (Ryan O’Reilly!) to explain the premise of the franchise to baffled police. We actually begin in 1999 to pick things up shortly after the events of Judgment Day, as high school student John Connor meets goofy new girl Cameron, who of course is just too weird to not be a killer robot from the future. But a hot one, as played by Summer Glau from my other favorite franchise, Firefly. John gets attacked by the SUBSTITUTE TEACHER OF DEATH, who might be a sophisticated super-cyborg killing machine but still can’t hit the broad side of a barn, and the killer robot fighting action is ON. Sarah and her trusty shotgun is a nice nod to the second movie, although she doesn’t do the bad-ass one-armed reload here. You know, the excess of terminators in the past makes me wonder if the future economy is based on them or something, since they must cost a fortune and apparently there’s little else to do than sending cyborgs back to kill people. And just when you think it’s gonna be yet another “Terminators hunting each other in 1999″ show, they go and find a time machine in a bank vault and jump ahead to 2007. It makes sense in context, honest. An OK, but not great, pilot, which tried to match the look and feel of the movie on a TV budget and didn’t quite pull it off.
- “Gnothi Seauton”. So in the next major plot point, we learn that the Resistance hasn’t just been sending robots back, they’ve also been sending people back as well to help out. Well that’s a nice change of pace. Although really, given that Skynet is supposed to be the most advanced computer in the history of the world, it doesn’t seem to have much more of a gameplan than “Send Terminators in the past to kill John Connor” over and over. Thankfully, they address this point right away, as apparently the Terminators in 2007 aren’t there to kill John, but rather have specific missions to carry out (such as killing freedom fighters sent back to the past) and don’t even know who John or Sarah is. So this one is a nice bit of fish out of water with Unfrozen Caveman John learning to Google himself and the horrors of Windows Vista (and you thought Skynet was the true enemy) while Cameron and Sarah seek out new ID papers from your local racial stereotypes. Another nice touch has Cameron clarifying that she doesn’t just take orders from 2007 John like Arnie did in T2, because he’s not the “real” John yet. Man, time travel gives me a headache. This one has some REALLY good character bits, like the banter between Cameron and Sarah as they talk their way out of a bad situation with a cop, or John’s obviously raging teenage hormones affecting his relationship with Cameron. Liked this one a lot, actually.
- “The Turk”. Sarah is off to harass the poor Dyson family AGAIN, while Cameron and John get to experience high school life in 2007. This one follows up on some of the threads from the first two, as Sarah dates a cell phone salesman who used to work for Cyberdyne while detectives investigate the murders of the freedom fighters and interview the punk who made fake IDs for our heroes. Meanwhile, the Terminator from the pilot, left without his skin, sets about finding someone who can make him some. Sarah meets her date’s dorky chess-playing computer, dubbed The Turk, which John suspects might be the precursor to Skynet. That sounds paranoid even by his standards. Much of the episode also focuses on an odd storyline with wall paintings at school driving a student to suicide (a payoff I wasn’t expecting), which has John upset at not being able to act as a hero. You know, the stuff with the detective chasing down the Terminator’s murder spree would actually work well on its own as a “world weary cop v. sicko serial killer” series even without the rest of the series backing it. The morality here is pretty iffy, with Sarah basically deciding who lives or dies based on her obsessive need to make John into the future world leader, as thought people deserve to be destroyed because they MIGHT threaten him in the future. Don’t mess with mom, I guess.
- “Heavy Metal”. John is still brooding about his dead classmate, but they realize that their supposed dead Terminator enemy is quite alive and seeking out spare parts for himself. So the mission of the week is going to a factory and hijacking a shipment of raw Terminator metal just in case it gets made into Terminators years in the future. This one introduces the AWESOME Garret Dillahunt (from Deadwood in case you’re wondering where you’ve seen him before) as the rebuilt Terminator, now inhabiting the identity of failed actor George Laszlo. Kind of a dull one, but “If you’re going to be a hero, you’re going to have to learn how to drive a stick” is a tremendous line.
- “Queen’s Gambit”. Sarah’s obsession with her health continues in a nice bit of character continuity, and the Andy the cell phone salesman returns with a new chess computer that may BLOW UP THE WORLD. Cameron meeting up with primitive versions of herself is adorable, as Summer Glau really nails the spirit of the character. Cameron in grief counselling is also great. So the actual plot here sees poor Andy getting cacked by the missing freedom fighter from the future, who ends up in jail and on the hitlist for our heroes and a Terminator as a result. I guess they REALLY hate chess in the future. And it turns out that our mysterious freedom fighter is Derek Reese, brother of Kyle. They’re just all about the synchronicity on this show. Best line of the series thus far: John calls shotgun, Cameron calls 9MM.
- “Dungeons and Dragons”. Parallel stories here, as Sarah is reunited with ex-fiancée Charley Dixon while trying to save Derek’s life, while we also flash back (forward?) via Derek’s memories of the machine-ruled future and how shitty life is there. I have to say, replacing sci-fi god Michael Biehn with some no-name actor as Kyle is heresy. However, the trip to his remembered future gives the storyline another twist that I didn’t really think they’d go with as this series continues to surprise and entertain me. They’re really getting into a good groove now, and Sarah having a bitchy showdown with Cameron is a highlight.
- “The Demon Hand”. This is an extended version of the episode that aired, featuring 8 more minutes of footage, but almost no music or special effects because it was unfinished. It’s also a very quiet episode, with a lot of introspection and talking. The main plot point is that everyone wants the robot hand left over from the second movie, but the actual episode follows a few different threads. Cameron learns ballet while trying to track down chess-playing Russians, Agent Ellison meets Sarah’s former psychiatrist for tea and discovers that he’s gone nuttier than a fruitcake, John finds a tape of Sarah signing away her parental rights, and Derek Reese tries to work through his irrational hatred of Terminators. And holy cow, Cameron really is a cold-blooded emotionless machine given her actions (or rather, inactions) at the end of the episode. COLD. And the contrast with her learning ballet (but not learning to be a human being) was impressive. The episode, though, was pretty dull. And seriously, enough with the “deep and meaningful” voiceovers from Sarah in every episode.
- “Vick’s Chip”. Derek discovers that Cameron has been hiding the T-888’s chip in her room, so John hacks it and watches how it lived as a life as “Vick Chamberlain” and completely fooled everyone. Speaking of fooling people, Cromartie the Terminator is at John’s high school looking for him, which you know is only going to lead bad places. The life of “Vick” is played out in flashback through John’s computer, giving us a rare glimpse into the home life of the cybernetic killing machine. And it’s pretty mundane. Speaking of mundane, Derek and Sarah try to head off Skynet with a computer virus, but really it’s incredibly easy to prevent a virus from spreading and they should have been smart enough to think that the main computer for the city might have a separate router hard-wired to prevent exactly that sort of thing. In this case, Derek’s bull-headed plan to blow the building up might have been the smarter way to go. They decide to use Cameron’s CPU to hack the computer, but THAT has got bad idea written all over it. And like Derek notes, what if combining her chip with the proto-Skynet is what creates the real thing? Bad mojo, man. This episode also reinforces a good point for all you kids out there: Marrying a Terminator will probably end up badly for you.
- “What He Beheld”. Season finale. Cameron and Sarah continue their chase for The Turk, while newly bible-thumping Agent Ellison has a chat with Charley Dixon about where Sarah may or may not be. Charley, world’s biggest idiot apparently, immediately runs to Sarah despite the fact that Terminators AND the FBI are both looking for her and he knows this. Sarah also learns that buying black market supercomputers from shadowy figures leads to bad things because they might not be 100% honest people. There’s a lot of people on this show so wrapped up in the big picture that they’re totally lacking in common sense. Derek gives John the WEIRDEST birthday present ever. And the big showdown between Ellison and Cromartie that ends the episode has Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” as the soundtrack, so you know it’s bad-ass. And Cameron goes boom to end the season, although really a minor car bomb isn’t gonna hurt a Terminator so the only suspense is whether Summer Glau will still look as hot in the season premiere. Answer: Yes.
So the season started with a bit of a clunker, turned into a show that I was really into for a few episodes, and then got pretty boring and dark to end things and didn’t leave me wanting to check out the second season on FOX. So it was kind of a failure to me, but at least it was an interesting failure and had a totally different moral slant than you would normally see on primetime TV. Cameron is a machine through and through and those watching and waiting for a miraculous transformation into a human being are in for disappointment, which is a character path I kind of enjoyed. But really, was there any more story that needed to be told about this universe? I don’t think so, but apparently the people behind this series and the upcoming movie franchise reboot disagree, so what can you do? Just please for season two, less preachy voice-overs and more ACTION. The potential is there, however. Mildly recommended. (Rating: ***1/2)
Audio & Video
Presented in the original 16×9 widescreen from the HD presentation, this is a very good looking DVD set that suffers from a bit of grain and pixellation in the darker areas, which only serves to reinforce that this ISN’T the movies — they don’t have budgets of $100 million or upwards to work with on a weekly basis, and the video quality is one of the things that’s going to suffer a bit. Still, it looks darn good for a TV series. And in fact the visual look of the series is fairly close to that of the movies, from the POV shots of the Terminators to the grimy bunkers of the future, so it does what it needs to well enough. (Rating: ****)
The sound is mighty impressive for a TV show. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, there’s some good kick to the bass and the sequence that ends the season, with the Cash song over the FBI raid on Cromartie, is demo material for sure. Although because it’s a TV presentation, the sound never BOOMS or gets overwhelming like the theatrical versions of the material often do. It’s both an advantage and a limitation, because sometimes you just need a big over-the-top gunfight to show off your home theatre, and there’s just nothing here to compare to even T3 for that sort of thing. (Rating: ****)
You get a lot for your money here, but nothing terribly essential. Disc one contains commentary on the pilot, plus a three-part talking-heads documentary on the making of the series that covers most of the same points that were made in the commentary. I hate when they do that. There’s also deleted scenes, which were deleted for a reason judging by the quality here. Disc two has some oddities, including a gag reel and a two-minute video of Summer Glau practicing her ballet for “The Demon Hand”, which I guess shows that the producers find her just as enthralling as most of the sci-fi nerds on the Internet do. There’s also commentary on “What He Beheld” which has some funny banter with Brian Austin Green (in stark contrast to his grim role as Derek Reese) and the creator Josh Friedman, and a storyboard animatic thing that never does anything for me. Good commentaries here carry the day, as I can generally do without the “documentary” features that are slapped together for these DVDs. (Rating: ***1/2)
Worth a buy? For fans wanting to jump into the second season, definitely. For hardcore fans of the franchise, of course. For action fans looking for something a little different and a little more thought-provoking, probably. However, just be aware that this isn’t going to be up to the quality of the first two movies and know what you’re getting into.