Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

My mom, she’s kind of uptight. Actually, she’s really uptight.

— John Connor (Thomas Dekker)

When his fiancée disappears without a word, Charley Dixon (Dean Winters) calls the cops. While the local authorities tend to see the situation as his bride to be getting cold feet, an FBI agent, James Ellison (Richard T. Jones), is more than a little interested. He explains that, in fact, he’s been pursuing the fiancée for months, and she’s not who Charley thinks she is. Instead, Ellison pronounces, “My boss, the United States of America, thinks Sarah Connor is a deluded dangerous grade a whack-a-mole who killed a man because she believes that in the future he’ll invent a computer system that declares war on the world. So, let’s begin with her name.”

And so poor Charley is apprised of his one true love’s complicated past, a past that the rest of us know all too well, being as it’s been laid out emphatically in three gigantically special-effected movies that bear the brand name of her nemeses. In the TV reformulation of her story, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Sarah (Lena Headey) is still, as she once said mockingly, “the mother of the future,” still eluding cyborgs sent back from the future and still determined to ensure that her son John (Thomas Dekker), now 15, stays alive long enough to lead a successful resistance against those machines. As she puts it in one her decidedly annoying voiceovers (most of which begin with her quoting anonymous sources), “It is said that the death of any one person is the death of an entire world. Certainly for parents, the death of a child is no less than a holocaust. In the case of my son, these words are literally true.” Just so you remember, she is special.

The terminators’ best trick has always been their ability to alter appearances, missions, and one-liners, even if their essential robotic affect remains the same. Fox’s incarnations are much the same, though the first two episodes, airing tonight and tomorrow, suggest they won’t necessarily be played by the same actor each week. The T-800 is dead (long live Arnold). The premiere offers up a couple of thick-chested, jar-headed guys, one wearing dark glasses as he mows down a couple of police cruisers and another posing as John’s substitute teacher, slicing open his thigh to retrieve a large automatic weapon as he’s calling roll. The scene shows John’s practiced evasive maneuvers (he leaps out the window, big-lug teacher right behind him, pausing to announce, “Class dismissed!”) and introduces Cameron (Summer Glau, more mechanical but about as spooky as she was in Firefly), the TV version of the good terminator.

Slight and pale, Cameron looks close enough to John’s age to pass as a classmate, but with all kinds of technology going on. For one thing, she can take a few rounds to the chest and come back, manage elaborate fight choreography, and analyze stress in human blood, just by touching a neck or extremity. John notices immediately that this new, 2027 model is more empathetic than the terminators he’s known. “You seem different,” he observes. Indeed, she assures him, chomping on a corn chip, “I am.”

The significantly named Cameron is a bit of a puzzle, in particular for the eternally vigilant Sarah, and it’s their relationship that takes center stage in the first couple of episodes. The mother understands immediately that the cyborg has been sent to protect John (she’s been in that movie before), but she also distrusts Cameron, dismissing her as “Tin Man,” wondering out loud about her mission. All Cameron will cop to is that she’s following orders from John, not Sarah’s John, but the future John, the John he will become. Cameron’s access to the future means she can inform Sarah — who starts the series in 1999 — of the cancer that will kill her in 2004 (this much was established in T3, the movie that made the unfortunate choice of dispensing with Sarah altogether).

It also sets up the series’ own trick, that is, which is that Sarah and John can now time-jump (or, as she terms it, “bend the rules of nature”) along with the terminators and John’s many eager minions. To an extent, this plot strategy follows on the film franchise’s always suspect but enduringly premise — Reese’s journey back in time to father the child who would lead the future resistance (“I’d die for John Connor!”), the machines’ subsequent efforts to stop John at various points in his life (“I feel the weight of the world bearing down on me, a future I don’t want,” says John in T3, “So I keep running as fast as I can… anywhere, nowhere”). But the trick also allows the series to cut around in time, as Cameron has access to machinery that will send her and her new companions back and forward. Asked where a first jump has landed them, she responds, “Same where, different when.”

As you might expect, Sarah is disinclined to accept this shared leadership with a machine. Still, she notes that looking after John is increasingly difficult for just one person. “Even as I’ve tried to help John find firm ground in this new world,” she says in the second episode, “Gnothi Seaution,” “The battlefield shifts beneath our feet. Maybe it’s all catching up to me. Maybe if you spend your whole life hiding who you are you might finally end up fooling yourself” (here the series includes one of several visual references to the films, as Sarah takes leave of her pondering place, a swing in their new backyard in suburban New Mexico. The camera shows the swing in motion for a couple of seconds, all artily allusive, as Sarah makes her way to the next adventure, finding new ID papers so she and her two “kids” can maneuver through 2006. “I was never eager for that new life to begin,” she intones in voiceover. “I liked having no name, no story. It was the only time I got to be me.”

Being her this time means finding out what history has transpired without her participation — an unfamiliar situation for Ms. Control Freak, for sure. A key point of information concerns the war on terror, a forgettable precursor to Skynet’s destruction of here billion people, but for Carlos, a tattooed gangster she’s paying for fake papers, something of a relevant concern. When she asks for an explanation, Carlos instructs, “The war on terrorism makes this the front lines, lady. Some rag-head gets fake papers out here, we’re all going to Guantánamo. 9/11 doubled prices overnight.”

This effort to bring Sarah’s Chronicles both back and forward to our current moment is both awkward and smart. Given that neither of James Cameron’s Terminator movies were released pre-2001, Sarah never had to contend with such plotting by humans. Her response to the story of 9/11 offers another perspective, both cautionary and self-aware: “I cannot imagine the apocalypse,” she says. “No matter what Kyle Reese told me or others that have come back, I cannot imagine three billion dead. I can imagine planes hitting buildings and I can imagine fire. If I would have witnessed it, if I would have been here, I’m sure I would have thought the end was near. I’m sure I would have thought, we have failed.”

She means not to fail, of course, and that’s her right and obligation as a TV hero. In this capacity, she’s both corny and engaging. A mother of an adolescent, she resents the impossibility of her task (not to mention the fact that she’s partnered with Cameron, essentially another adolescent, just as Arnold was a child alongside Eddie Furlong) but is repeatedly up to it, whether dealing with John’s boyish rebellions or facing terminators with heavy artillery.

RATING 7 / 10