They are back!
Date: Summer 2008
By: Richard Matthews
The release of The Sarah Connor Chronicles sees the space/time continuum bent to even more ludicrous extremes as the meat-coated tin tyrants once again go in search of the leader of the resistance. In a celebration of all things cyborg, Review casts its red, glowing eye over the great sci-fi event to hit DVD and Blu-ray.
As the first season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles unfolded, series creator Josh Friedman reveals that he nervously scoured the internet to check out the response from hardcore and new fans to the franchise. "I felt we had a lot of work to do to win people over," he says. "I don't think there was a built-in enthusiasm, but instead there was a built-int worry on whether or not we were going to take this thing and destroy it. Which I understand and appreciate - hell, I was concerned about that, too! But for me, I take pleasure in any review that started with, 'This seemed like a terrible idea for a seriesm, but...'. I enjoy that, because we had a lot of work to do to get people's goodwill."
Whereas the Terminator film series represents summer movie blockbusters at their finest - budgest in the hundreds of millions of dollars, spread out over about six hours of celluloid and filled with unrelenting action and spectacle - The Sarah Connor Chronicles was in the position of having the budget, a television production schedule and a story that had to be spread out over multiple hours (nine, in the case of the Wrtiters' Strike-abbriviated first season). As far as Friedman is concerned, there was only one way to do that.
"You have to focus on the characters, because that's what's producible week to week," he says. "Assuming you cast well, you've got this built-in level of excitement that walks on the set every day that lets you say, 'If I just shoot that thing, I know I'm in pretty good shape.' It makes a difference. Certainly the franchise has a very specific sense of a timeline and where it ends up, and to slice that down to one-hour segments is a challenge. But you just have to look to the characters primarily to find your answers. When you go there, they suggest a lot more story than certainly the bigger concepts do."
In the series, 300's Lena Headey assumes Linda Hamilton's screen role of Sarah Connor, who is not only doing her best to keep her son, John (Heroes' Thomas Dekker) alive and out of the grip of Terminators sent from the future to assassinate him, but to train him to ultimately become humanity's saviour in a future war against the machines - no small feat. Aiding them in this task is the arrival of a reprogrammed female Terminator named Cameron (in tribute, of course, to the concept's originator, James Cameron), played by Firefly's teeny-tiny asskicker Summer Glau.
For executive producer/writer John Wirth, the female-heavy approach to the TV concept really allows the show to stand out in the genre. "The fact that we havev two very strong female leads in what is traditionally a male action genre is something that is going to take a couple of minutes to seep into the consciousness," he says, "but I know when I speak to people, they're kind of surprised that our show is build around these female action figures. They really related to the way we are depicting Sarah and Cameron and that was a surprise to them, so I think we have the ability to surpise non-traditional audiences."
For Friendman, there is a constant line the series has to walk between action and character. "When I think of a show like 24, which is concidered an aggressive action show, if you really break it down, there's a lot of time spent in CTU headquarters," he observes. "There's a lot of conversation and a lot of stuff going on before the helicopter blows up. I think that good action shows pick their moments. I think one of our advantages and one of our burdens is the Terminator itself. You have this great thing that no one else has, so when you set out to do an action sequence, you say, 'It's not just an action sequence, it's an action sequence with a scary cyborg in it. How is that different than a normal action sequence?' So I think we try to tell action sequence through that prism."
"But on the production side of things, you have to address that. As I've said many times to people at Warner Bors when I'm begging for more money, when a Terminator walks down the street and pushes somebody out of the way, you don't need an extra - you need a stuntman on a cable, because nobody gets pushed out of the way by a Terminator and just moves two feet! They move 20 feet, so just walking a Terminator on the set, even if it's not an endoskeleton but a guy who you've said is a Terminator, you have to address what they do. Every little thing can become a production nightmare just based on the physics of robots, which is a genuine challenge."
Storywise, the show's first season was heavily serialised, and in the second season fans can expect more standalone storytelling, which stems from the fact that there seemed to reach a point where the show was losing casual viewers who felt they couldn't keep up with what was going on.
"We had a lot of mythology last year, which I love, and the writers are Terminator fans, so it's fun to pitch Terminator mythology stories," Friedman notes. "But if I had a criticism for myself last year, occasionally the story got a little too labyrinthian and there was a sense where it occasionally turned in on itself in a way that was not beneficial to anybody. So, yes, there are going to be more episodes that are more cut-and-dried standalone, though it's definately not abandoning the elements that we had last year. It's just trying to pick and choose spots. I spoke to one of the original X-Files writers and I asked, 'How did you guys handle this?'. I was told that [creator] Chris Carter felt that you could only do six or eight mythology episodes a year, so there were 14 or 16 standalones. They had a better franchise for standalone than we do, but the truth is you can't survive any other way. Even on shows like Lost which is heavily serialised, the flashback structure in previous years and the flash-forward structure now, provides them with a structure to their episodes where you can say, 'This is the episode where this happened.' I think that's what people asked us to do more of; an episode where you can actually summarise it on one sentence as opposed to five storylines brought in from eight episodes previously. The question is, how do you balance working at that high level where you're rewarding people who watch every week and are paying attention, and also not alienating people who are dropping in? Tough line to walk, but we're still working on it!"
Adds Wirth, "I feel like last year we wrote a premise season as opposed to a premise pilot. What I mean by that is that in a premise pilot, it usually takes a couple of acts to set up what the series is. Usually the rap on those pilots is that it takes a while for them to get going, but the second half really took off. I kind of feel that way about the series last year. We time-jumped the characters from 1999 to 2007 and they really arrived with nothing; not even the clothes on their back. We had to completely set them up, they knew nobody, they had no resources, they had no place to live, no money, no jobs - nothing. They had to start from scratch, and we were kind of blossoming the series from this little seed we had planted in the pilot. This season, in contrast to that, we've already got that stuff established. We have our core relationships and characters established, we added some characters that have been totally integrated into the mix of characters. Our world is established, our mission is established and we're in a much different place then we were."
As executive producer James Middleton emphasises, the leap forward in time allows the series to become a "completely different animal" from the movies. "Sarah is in a new timeline entirely," he says. "We did that purposefully to create a scenario where we could invent narrative material to support a show while being true to the themes of the franchise, but not being a slave to them. There are themes, for instance, a faith and sacrifice that we adhere to pretty rigorously. Those are the key things that drive Sarah Connor's character and that's something that the audience identifies with. I think the movies will always contain those themes as well, but in terms of the narrative journey she is going through, it is separated from the journey of the characters from the movies. They are the same universe, but I think that Josh's expression of the franchise is unique in that we have a different focus and we really have to. We never intended to be in the business of overlapping with the movies or trying to compete with them. They are $200 million productions that are meant to entertain for two hours, whereas we are meaning to have our narrative entertain for 22 hours over the course of a season. The ammount of narrative ground we cover is much broader than any of the movies necessarily need to be."
Speaking of the Terminator film series, one can't help but feel a certain sense of pessimism; that no matter what the characters attempt to do, theres is the inevitability of Judgement Day and the fall of the human race to the machines. The question is where or not that pessimism inevitably pervades the series as well.
"That's a question I've been asked by the people who pay my bills," Friedman muses. "In the same way that you and I are going to die, I would prefer not to think that our lives are about dying. I'd prefer to think about what we're doing while we're here. Obviously there's a sense of the apocalypse and this looming thing out there in the franchise, but the whole John Connor mythos is based on the fact that he was rebuilding the world. He was winning. So I don't think of Judgement Day as the end. I think Judgement Day is part of the process in the mythology. Whether or not we get to Judgement Day on our show remains to be seen, but if it wasn't for Judgement Day there wouldn't be a need for John Connor. The Connors and the apocalypse are so intertwined. I keep saying that the show is more about: are these people going to be ready when the time comes? They can try and stop it, and maybe they can, but if they can't, are they ready? If they're not ready, we're all in a lot of trouble."