Pilot: Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles

Anyone familiar with this blog will know my feelings about the Terminator franchise. I’ve written about it before and have little doubt that I will again. I’m sure it’s no surprise then, that the premier episode of the television show, which was based upon  the films, has shown up on my list of influential pilot episodes.

What I loved so much about this pilot was that it jumped straight into the action. Of course the makers were banking on the notion that the target audience would be familiar with the larger franchise mythology and as such, they spent minimal time trying to explain the whole back story. As soon as we see Sarah it is evident that she has not only failed to stop Judgement Day, but that she and John are still on the run from the authorities and are still ever mindful of the fact that a terminator can materialise at any moment to kill them. Right off the bat, the audience knows that they’re going to be in for ‘one hell of a dog fight,’ and in that regard, the writers and actors always deliver.

In the pilot episode of the series, we begin with a narration by Sarah, in which she discusses her love for John (who at this stage is in his teen years and is only just coming to terms with being the future saviour of mankind), of how she feels for him and his situation but also understands that she needs to protect him, even if that means being harsh.  This initial narration provides the perfect setting for the relationship between Sarah and her son, which is constantly strained throughout the rest of the episode and the greater series and is masterfully played by Lena Heady and Thomas Dekker. Although these two want to understand each other, they are still coming to terms with the fact that it is John that is going to become the leader of the resistance and thus, Sarah is going to have to begin to surrender the dominant role within the family. This is a hard thing for her, both because she has been on her own since the death of Kyle and also, because John is her only child. He thinks he understands the risks associated with his mission, but Sarah knows them, and she is afraid, afraid for him and for herself and her ability to protect him. Throughout the course of the initial episode, John and Sarah knock heads on more than one occasion and the arrival of Cameron (the machine who has been sent from the future by John to protect his younger self) only complicates issues further.  Later in the series Cameron often refers to ‘her John,’ that is, the John of the future and in doing so she too suggests the massive changes that John will need to go through before he becomes his destined self.  Although Cameron remains loyal to the John of the present time, there is a clear suggestion that this John  has not yet grown into the man he needs to be and as such, there are things which she hides from him and from Sarah. This was always one of the strongest points of the series, in my opinion, but let’s stick to the pilot because we’ll get into the series as a whole in another post.

tired of hiding

The action in this episode and the special effects were both phenomenal for a television series. I can see how the gun violence might have put some people off, particularly those with young children, but it is necessary to the mythology and any hard core fan of the series would surely have been expecting it. Ultimately I don’t think it was the violence that bought about the end of the show, rather it was the fact that it was so unapologetic for sticking to the (often) difficult to get time travel time line. Once the paradoxes started coming in (particularly with Derek Reese and Jesse and the fact that the changes made in the present had altered them and their relationships in the future) it was really only a matter of time – but more on that in another post…

Lena Heady is amazing as Sarah Connor. Apart from Linda Hamilton, she is my favourite Sarah across all instalments. I love her in this because she is hard and uncompromising but she also tries to be the mother figure. Sometimes this works, like when she agrees to ‘stop running’ and sometimes it doesn’t; like ‘I’ll make pancakes…’ Thomas Dekker as John is also excellent. From his initial appearance I loved him and I thought he captured the vulnerability that John is holding onto so desperately really well. He was young enough to still need to draw on Sarah for strength, but old enough to be able to see the beginnings of a charismatic, great leader developing. There is something about Dekker as an actor that lends itself to these kind of conflicted characters so well. I see him and he’s non threatening (like Kyle, he’s a bit of an every man) but also believable as a hero (you can imagine yourself wanting to be near him or to be on his side). Nick Stahl had a similar thing going on the T3: Rise of the Machines, although his John was more broken – a natural progression from the John we see here.

cameron cwmifytl
(Come with me if you want to live)

I also thought Cameron was a great character. I don’t know that anyone was anticipating a female protector for John. I know we have seen female terminators before (T3: Rise of the Machines for instance) but considering that Sarah is already fulfilling the role of the protective mother figure, Cameron was an interesting choice and one which I think worked well. I liked that they weren’t trying to throw in a substitute for the T101 or Kyle. Part of John’s later persona (I suspect) rests heavily on his strong female role models, so it is nice that the writers were looking into that element of his character. In the mind of John, the best warrior he knows is not only a woman, but his mother and that’s a refreshing take on the whole hero/saviour of humanity plot point. Yes, the appearance of Derek does add a father figure dynamic to the Connor family dynamic, but that is still handled in very precise way (which we don’t need to address here because Derek hasn’t shown up yet). There are several points in this first episode where Cameron and Sarah butt heads and it sets up the tone of their relationship for the rest of the series (a relationship which is further complicated by the arrival of Derek later on). I also enjoyed the developments later on in the series, particularly season two, when there was some weird, tense sexual attraction between Cameron and John (very forbidden because she is a machine and all) and he finds that he is confiding in her more so than his mother. This attraction element is set up in the pilot, when he scolds himself for thinking that a ‘hot girl would ever want to be my friend.’

time jump
(Cameron, building the time jumping machine in the bank vault)

The leap through time that happens at the end of the episode was a clever way to bring things into the present, while still remaining within the time line that was set up in the initial film; however,

The one major flaw is the concept that the terminator who has been hunting John, Cromartie, is able to travel through time with Cameron, Sarah and John, when his head is blown off his body, despite the fact that the head appears to have very little human tissue remaining intact. Also, I don’t know about you all, but ending up naked with your mum and Cameron at that age would also have been majorly awkward. Poor John, I felt for him there.

Oh, and we also meet Agent Ellison in the first episode. He becomes an important character throughout the series, I kind of feel like he is a mirror to Traxler, the policeman in the first Terminator film, who started out as a non-believer, but probably would have come around to Sarah’s way of thinking if he had lived (there were moments when he was on the verge of believing). It feels to me, like Ellison is a nod to him and I appreciate that a lot, because I was personally very fond of Traxler and was sad when he copped a bullet.

Cromartie
(Cromartie and his wasted face)

In the final seconds of the episode, the camera is focused on Sarah and her confusion/fear about having just leapt through time. In many ways this too is indicative of the way the rest of the season plays out. This is life from her point of view, it’s scary and frustrating and filled with determination and fear. I love Sarah Connor as a character and a heroine and I loved this series. Overall this was an amazing pilot and I don’t think that the writing or the story dissipated for a moment throughout the entire two seasons. Yes, there were episodes I hated and characters I didn’t like, (more on them later) but overall, this pilot is one I watch over and over again.

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