The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a fascinating show. It’s a show on a major network (and one notorious for canning potentially brilliant but niche shows befor giving them any real chance to establish an audience) that manages to get away with many things you wouldn’t expect possible on a major network (and especially on FOX). It’s a confused show, one that often seems to be at odds with itself, threatening to be torn apart by these two impulses: the desire for mainstream, traditional, escapist entertainment and the desire for a genuinely new, creative, and interesting work of science fiction. To this already dangerous balancing act is a third pillar, the nostalgic love for the first two Terminator films that presumably keeps much of the audience (and thus the show) coming back while at the same time fighting with both of the show’s other main directions. If you’re at all interested in the troubles of maintaining a clear vision on a network television series, this is enough reason to watch Sarah Connor Chronicles, just trying to decipher each week how the people behind the show have managed to corral all these competing impulses into a coherent series.
That’s not most people, of course, and that’s fine. But the reason I point all this out up front is that while I want to focus on one aspect of the show–the aspect of it that is a genuinely new work of science fiction–I don’t want to pretend that that’s all it is, or that the show is a particularly great one. This is not Battlestar Galactica. At times SCC devolves into a conventional if entertaining action series, or into a love song for The Terminator and Terminator 2. The series is often clumsy and unsubtle, the acting by leads Lena Headey and Thomas Dekker is uneven (though Summer Glau and Brian Austin Green are reliably excellent), and some of the first season’s plot threads were too drawn-out and complicated to really work on television. Despite these flaws in execution and its confused heart, however, SCC is a show with a very strong heart, a show with something to say which, even if it’s not quite sure how to say it (or perhaps even what it is that it wants to say), deserves to be heard.
Any discussion of SCC in the larger context of science fiction demands a consideration of its source material. I have said that one of the aspects contrary to its status as a new work of science fiction is its love for the first two Terminator films; while this is true, I think this is also the source of its new ideas. Some moments, such as Bruce Davison’s Dr. Silberman recounting his encounter with the T-1000 and T-101 in “The Demon Hand” or Sarah’s reciting of Reese’s “It will not stop until you are dead” speech, are just terribly nostalgic and, depending on your feelings towards the Terminator films, either edging into the territory of slimy adoration or head-over-heels into it. (As an unrepetent fan of T2, I tend towards the former, but I can definetely understand the latter.) At other times, though, SCC directs its love for Terminator not in this superficial, idolatrous manner, but towards the spirit of the films (especially T2), asking questions about the relationship between intellectual and emotional development that go beyond anything in the Terminator films and, occasionally, even feel like a light rebuke of its source material.
Summer Glau’s Terminator, known as “Cameron”, is at the center of most of this. Her casting at first struck as something of a stunt, both as an obvious contrast to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Universe physique (a contrast for which both Robert Patrick in T2 and Kristanna Loken in T3 were also presumably cast, though Glau is farther than either of them) and simply for the hawt factor, but she is a talented actress (albeit one, after major roles in Firefly and The 4400 as characters with severe mental issues, that would probably like to play a normal human being for once), and over the course of the first-season Cameron develops into a much more interesting character than any of the previous Terminators (or, arguably, any of the other characters in the Terminator franchise as well, barring perhaps Sarah Connor).
Like Schwarzenegger in the last two Terminator films, Glau’s Cameron is a reprogrammed Terminator sent back by the Resistance to protect John Connor. Unlike Schwarzenegger’s character, however, which played to his robotic acting, Cameron is not the Connors’ slave, forced to do anything that is told to her. She occasionally indulges in similar robotic slavery (in an early episode she does John’s homework at his request), but she eventually reveals that she is under no actual compulsion to follow John’s commands (or those of anyone else), and she is even capable of lying to them. Her only directive is to protect them and, echoing Asimov’s robots more than the Terminators, sometimes Cameron decides that her charges’ orders are not in their best interest.
Cameron’s ability to lie is a part of a larger increase in the humanity of SCC‘s Terminators from those in the films. Even in T2, despite Sarah Connor’s proclomation that a Terminator had “learned the value of human life”, there is very little humanity to the T-101. Sarah’s reflection that the T-101 is a better father than any human man–she monologues that it would “never shout at him or get drunk and hit him or say it was too busy to spend time with him”–is based intrinsically on the T-101′s inhuman nature, and the fact that it will never become more than a soulless machine. Whereas the films never openly questioned this point, SCC is veritably screaming it. Cameron lies to the Connors. She frequently asks questions about things that have no relevance to her mission, apparently seeking a more thorough understanding of humanity (always accompanied by the robotically identical reply, “Thank you for explaining,” which nicely juxtaposes against this increasing humanity). After Cameron attends a ballet class in pursuit of a lead on SkyNet (and allows the ballet teacher, who provides Cameron with information in exchange for a promise of protection, to be murdered because “it wasn’t [her] mission” to protect her), she practices, to the classical accompaniament, an advanced ballet routine in private (secretly observed by Brian Austin Green’s incredulous and horrified resistance fighter Derek Reese). Yes, it’s taking advantage of Glau’s ballet training and natural grace and beauty, but applying that natural grace to a killer robot physically impresses upon the audience that Cameron is something different, both a greater danger (as Derek suggests) and a greater opportunity. (And yes, it’s not subtle, but that’s why I warned in the introduction that SCC is rarely subtle.)
Cameron’s relationship with another Terminator, the T-888 known as Vick, bridges into a greater humanizing of the machines. In early episodes, Vick is simply a Terminator chasing the resistance fighter later revealed to be Derek Reese; in the first season’s penultimate episode, “Vick’s Chip”, however, the Connors retrieve the deactivated Terminator’s brain and attempt to access the information on it. What they find instead is the (convienently visual) record of “Vick”‘s marriage with a city official. Watching from a first-person perspective, they see Vick talk with his “wife”, eat with her, get into bed with her. It’s horrifying, and to be sure Vick is clearly manipulating her, has clearly been assigned by SkyNet to forge a relationship with this woman, but the video is nonetheless haunting, and the relationship, in some strange sense, real.
Vick is deactivated and his wife is dead; their storyline is going nowhere. Cameron’s continues. In the first episode of the second season, after Cameron suffers extreme damage and reverts to her base protocols of “Kill John Connor”, she pleads with John to be allowed to live by claiming that she has done a “test” and “fixed” herself. Desperate when John continues to deactivate her, Cameron screams, “I love you! And you love me! You know it!” Is it a lie, one last manipulation by the evil Cameron before John reactivates and reprograms her back to her good self? Or is it true? Certainly the idea that John loves her seems to be–Glau’s casting raised questions of a possible relationship from the start, and there is a definite tension between them throughout the first season, but the idea of love between a robot and a human (inherently sexualized, especially between two young actors) may be too much for mainstream television. In some way, this is actually nothing new; there was a deliberate undertone of loving devotion to Schwarzenegger’s robot in T2, acknowledged by Sarah’s comparison of the Terminator to previous foster fathers, but that was the love of a parent and of a slave, both more acceptable than the equality implicit in the John/Cameron relationship.
Will we soon (or ever) see John and Cameron acknowleding their feelings for each other, saying fuck-you to the whole war on SkyNet, and running off into the sunset together (with a gruff Edward James Olmos warning that it’s too bad she won’t live)? Not likely. And I don’t mean to suggest that any of the territory tread by SCC is actually new to real science fiction. Robots, and the questions of humanity and sapience they beg, are of course an integral part of science fiction, and sci-fi literature has beaten the subject more-or-less to death. But that literature hasn’t been read by most people. Most sci-fi films, even those that claim to examine the question of artificial intelligence either muddle through without making a real statement or make a particularly saccharine one, with robots that are happy-go-lucky Pinocchio stand-ins rather than complex, flawed, and ultimately “human” characters. The humanizing of the Terminators in SCC does not make them good guys, or bad guys, but simply people, individuals acting according to their own knowledge and motivations, rather than personifications of fear or hope or any other ideal. And so SCC is a mainstream presentation, in a world where it’s often dangerous to even suggest the humanizing of other humans, of a very non-mainstream viewpoint. And while some aspects of the second season’s premiere and what I’ve heard of the more episodic structure of the second season concerns me, I dearly hope that it will not lose the complexity and uncertainty that made it one of my suprise favorites of last year.