and I quote

may 2015

click for permalink May 16, 2015

So I've been watching Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, an ill-fated but well conceived series that aired from 2008-2009. I saw the original movie in the theater when it first came out in October 1984 (I was 11) and when T2 came out I was a senior in high school, which means it was perfectly timed to penetrate and embed itself deeply into my psyche, weaving its threads into the fabric of my identity alongside Aliens, The X-Men, Nirvana and permed hair.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles was the brainchild (really?) of creator Josh Friedman, who readers of this blog (ha!) might remember from his supremely clever and rivetingly insidery blog, I find your lack of faith disturbing. But like I said, it was ill-fated; cancelled at the end of its second season and destined to join the ranks of Firefly and Max Headroom in the pantheon of science fiction could've beens. Plot-wise, it picked up a few years after T2 left off, with Sarah and John Connor living a life of relative anonymity in suburban Los Angeles. This unlikely portrait of familial bliss lasts about halfway to the opening credits, when a new terminator posing as a high school substitute teacher cuts open his thigh and pulls out a bloodied handgun, at which point the students scatter and stampede towards the exits and the series is off and running. It's a worthy successor to the film franchise and, although the writing and direction are uneven from episode to episode, it's nice to spend time in this universe amongst these familiar characters (and the cast is like an extended game of sci-fi "hey, it's that guy," from not-Penny's-boat from "Lost" to Shirley Manson from Garbage).

Unfortunately, as producers, fans and belatedly Friedman himself discovered two seasons in, the whole terminator vs. terminator thing is fun to watch (especially when one of them is played by a 100-lb. girl who gets to throw 200-lb. guys through walls every other episode), but unfortunately it doesn't leave a lot of room for character development or complex human interactions— either between humans or cyborgs. What we do get in terms of interpersonal conflict and growth (and this goes for the entire franchise, not just the series) can be summed up in two words: daddy issues.

Daddy Issues

You need only to have seen T2 to understand this, but just for fun let's recap. In the future, an artificial intelligence called Skynet takes over the world, launches all the nukes and is bent on extincting all the humans. It would have been a snap if not for John Connor, who leads the last, scrappy remnants of humanity in victory against the machines. In a last-ditch hail Mary, Skynet sends a naked killer cyborg bodybuilder back in time to kill John Connor's mother before she can get pregnant and give birth to him. Future-John discovers their plan and sends his hunkiest soldier, Kyle Reese, back in time to save her. <Spoiler Alert> Kyle and Sarah hook up, but Kyle is killed by the cyborg and in her grief, combined with perhaps the first stirrings of humanity's last, best hope, Sarah finds the strength to kill the cyborg. Eight months later, we see her drive off into a gathering storm, suggestive of the Armageddon awaiting humanity, yet pregnant with their savior.

Fast forward to 1991 when Skynet sends a better, faster, deadlier terminator back in time to kill teenage skater boi John Conner. Future John sends a reprogrammed version of the original back in time to protect himself. It looks just like the first one, which is admittedly confusing for his mother after everything she went through, but she adapts surprisingly well and soon she's letting the cyborg babysit skater-John and talking about how of all the father figures in John's life, he's the only one who "measures up." <Spoiler Alert> After defeating the killer T1000, John's tearful goodbye as his cyber-stepdad is melted down to prevent Skynet from using him to reverse-engineer the singularity/apocalypse, is as iconic an ending as "Shane" was for a previous generation.

Josh Friedman was clearly a graduate of the James Cameron School of Girl Power, represented by Lena Headey as the badass warrior-mother based on Linda Hamilton's Israeli-commando-trained Sarah Connor, and Summer Glau as the protector-cyborg in the body of a sullen teenage girl (easier to blend in at high school, y'know?). But even so, the ghost of John's absent/martyred superdad takes on ever-more mythic proportions as the franchise wears on. In Terminator: Salvation, we meet Kyle Reese as a scruffy teenage survivor of the holocaust who young resistance fighter John must take under his wing and who he risks his life to save.

In The Sarah Connor Chronicles, we meet Kyle in flash-forwards, fighting alongside John and his older, angrier brother Derek, until Kyle "mysteriously" disappears and Derek travels back in time to find out what happened to him. We also meet Sarah's long-suffering ex-fiance, a genuinely heroic paramedic surgeon who wants nothing more than the safety of John and Sarah, even after she disappears in an apparent bank heist, reappears eight years later only to tell him to get lost, then repeatedly almost gets him killed.

It's never quite clear what this perennial do gooder sees in this single-minded, slightly imbalanced Sarah, but it's perfectly obvious what the franchise sees in him. Because how else are we to reconcile John's character arc—raised by an (albeit justifiably) paranoid psycho-mom, discouraged from forming relationships with anyone, always on the run and beholden to no one—with what he will become? Future John is a formidable soldier with advanced technical skills, but that doesn't make anyone a good leader.

The essential traits attributed to future-John are conspicuously lacking in his adolescent environment, unless you want to give the T-800's self-sacrificing descent into molten steel some seriously disproportionate credit in shaping John's worldview. In T2, we learn that all his male role models to date have been survivalists, mercenaries and gangsters. He knows he's the second coming but he can't get through a semester of high school without some psycho shooting up his classroom. It's not inconceivable that he could develop a strong moral compass on his own, let's say, by watching old Michael Landon reruns on TV, but it's unlikely. This isn't to say that you have to have "positive male role models" in order to incubate future resistance leaders, but without the presence of someone to impart the guiding principles of judiciousness, self-sacrifice, commitment and compassion, the only son of a single mother who grows up convinced of his "special destiny" could just as easily grow up to be Idi Amin as Barack Obama.

Hang on—if you're going to say the Terminator is just a Jesus metaphor and a complicated parable about "daddy issues," couldn't you just as easily argue that the Alien franchise is a parable about "mommy issues?" Well, come on... that's just a bit too obvious, isn't it?

The only thing about the entire franchise that bothers me (aside from all that "Governator" crap) is its endgame. The stated goal of our protagonists and the only mission in life that matters is preventing the singularity/apocalypse and stopping Skynet before it can destroy the world. That means that the best case scenario for humanity—and the only possible "happy" ending—would see humanity categorically giving up its pursuit of artificial intelligence and John Connor going to work in an office park as a system administrator, secure in the knowledge that he'll never be called upon to lead anything more heroic than the corporate softball team. In essence, the "happy ending" of the Terminator franchise looks exactly like the beginning of The Matrix (another franchise about a dystopian future hellscape in which humans are subjugated by machines)