Friday, 17 July 2015

Terminator: TSCC Episode 1 'Pilot' Review

So with Terminator being the franchise of the moment once again with the release of ‘Terminator: Genisys’, I decided to go back and visit a part of the lore I had yet to experience. ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ came to the screen in 2008 and tells the story of the titular Sarah and her ongoing attempts to protect her son John, the future saviour of the human race, from the Terminators sent back to destroy him.

I’m aware that the show had received mixed feedback and had been cancelled during its second season. I am also aware that despite being cancelled it had a loyal fan base who were desperate for it to return to TV. Now the real question is, does it deserve that loyalty or is it yet another show that survived purely on the goodwill of a loyal franchise fandom? We shall see!


So this pilot has a lot of ground to cover in establishing things. In less than an hour we have to be introduced to the main characters and the time travelling, cyborg battling universe they inhabit.
From the opening shot we begin this daunting task of expositing the universe to the viewer. Within the first 5 minutes we are introduced to Sarah, John, the concept of the Terminators and why they want to kill John. These sequences are surprisingly well handled but suffer from an issue that plagues the episode and I suspect the series as a whole, why are things so different?

Obviously from a TV audience point of view we understand that a weekly series will not be able to keep up in terms of budget with its movie counterparts, but this is meant to be a continuation of those films, so any changes for budget create issues. Within that opening scene Sarah dreams that a Terminator is attacking her but the Terminator just looks like a random cheap actor with sunglasses. Why does she not dream of liquid metal? Why not of Arnie attacking her? Why have Sarah’s dreams got so cheap from the big budget affairs they were in ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’. It makes sense from a technical point of view but not a creative one, if you can’t afford to do something well, think of something else.

The dream spooks Sarah so she decides that it’s time for her and John to move on once again, leaving her new fiancé behind to figure out what is happening. He goes to the police and discovers Sarah Reese is not who he thought she was from an FBI officer, James Ellison, who is hunting her down for her involvement with the attack on Cyberdyne. The fiancé is not built up much in this episode, although he is hinted at appearing later in the series. James however is established quite well as the dogged FBI man who is hunting Sarah but also curious about her case. Pilots have the issue that characters have to be established in broad strokes and Ellison suffers from this quite badly however. He is the thorough FBI guy, that is his entire character. Hopefully he will be fleshed out more in future episodes.

The more central characters of John, Sarah and Cameron (Summer Glau’s nice Terminator) fair better but still suffer from the desperate need to cram in a lot of story. John is the moody teenager, Sarah the over protective mum and Cameron the good terminator, that’s about it. A pilot episode for a TV show based on the Terminator universe was always going to have issues. I think that a slower paced double length opening episode would have given the show and characters some breathing room however. The speed of the storytelling forces the characters into explaining emotions and narrating thoughts, these kind of issues are common for many types of Pilot however and I am aware that they are nearly always ironed out for the main run of the show.

Despite the script having some issues the cast do their best with the material. Lena Headey has the hardest time of it, with the show resting primarily on her shoulders and with her filling the shoes of a much loved character. She does a good job but seems unsure at times, unsure in ways that Sarah Connor should not be.

Thomas Dekker does his best with John but the script doesn’t give him a lot of wiggle room. John Connor is not yet the saviour of the human race so he has to be a useless teenager. He is also undermined in any future cool behaviour by the fact that he is being guarded by his mom and a tiny teenage girl robot. In one scene he even begs his mum to save him and the world so that he doesn’t have to bother. I appreciate that you have to start John on the ground floor, to allow his character to grow but this John seems less capable then he was nn 'T2'. The future general who will save humanity is a step up for anyone, it seems odd to start his character so far in the minus points for this future role, it’s not needed.

Glau does a pretty good job as the protective Terminator but her small stature does raise questions as to her usefulness. She seems to be a regular, non liquid, Terminator so her small size would seem to put her at a disadvantage when facing full size Terminators in combat. I assume that future episodes may explain her physical appearance in full but for the time being she seems like the runt of the good Terminator litter.

In terms of the evil Terminators the episode focusses on Cromartie, who is relentless in his pursuit of John. Owain Yeoman does a good job of making the Terminator a credible villain but he is unable to fill the shoes left by the previous big budget movie assassins. An issue with the Terminators in this pilot, both good and bad is how emotional they are. At one point Cromartie pauses his pursuit of John in a school to say “Class dismissed” to the terrified students. The vision of a unstoppable killing machine is a bit ruined when he stops to make jokes. Glau is also written to make strange, almost human remarks but she is hinted at being more that meets the eye…

Aside from some pacing issues the opening episode is pretty strong script wise. The scenes with Sarah, John and Cameron are nicely scripted and we are treated to several really cool set pieces. The previously mentioned school sequence is cool and the bank vault sequence at the end of the episode works really well to re-establish the frantic action tone of the films.

As the pilot ends we transfer the characters through time from 1999 to the far off futuristic land of 2007, where they vow to defeat Skynet once and for all. Overall this is a pretty strong opening episode but not necessarily very representative of the final series. The rest of the show has been set up during this pilot episode so the pacing should have the opportunity to calm down somewhat. In addition, several characters, such as the FBI officer and the Fiancé were established but not fleshed out. This episode did enough to keep my attention and I intend to keep watching, that being said I am not entirely sure what it is that I shall be watching. Only one thing is for certain, it’s hard to predict the future for ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’.

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