Terminator Salvation and the Sarah Connor Chronicles both ended the same way: in a post-apocalyptic future, with John Connor lost and confused. But there's only one Terminator story I want to see continued, and it's not connected to McG. Here's why Salvation made me miss Sarah Connor more than ever.
Oh, and this rant has spoilers, although I'll try to keep the Terminator Salvation spoilers as vague as possible. If you haven't watched all of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and want to stay unspoiled, now's a good time to stop reading.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles had an admittedly uneven run over one and a half seasons, but its last six episodes were among the strongest hours of television I've ever watched. The show ended so strongly, it elevated everything that had come before. Most of all, T:SCC made a powerful argument that after 25 years, Terminator still had plenty of compelling stories to tell, and fascinating places to go. It might have been based on a couple of chase movies about time traveling killer robots, but T:SCC crafted a narrative that's stuck in my head since the show ended.
By contrast, Terminator Salvation was making a strong statement that the Terminator franchise is played out, and there are no new stories to tell about it. You can have more killer robots, and bigger killer robots — much, much bigger killer robots, in fact — but you can't really tell a different story, or reveal more about why John Connor is the chosen leader of the Resistance and what those killer robots are really about.
But I'm not going to spend a lot of time trashing T4 — I've already done that plenty, and it only makes me feel depressed. Instead, here are some reasons why I miss Sarah Connor Chronicles more than ever, after watching Terminator Salvation.
First of all, I missed Sarah Connor Chronicles' smart portrayal of artificial intelligence, and whether a machine that passes the Turing Test is actually human, or something different. The basic premise of Terminator, after all, is that Skynet has to create robots that can pass for human, so that they can infiltrate the Resistance and kill targets like Sarah and John Connor. But because the robots are sophisticated enough to pass for human, they're also capable of learning and taking on some human characteristics — and Terminator 2 delves into this, as John Connor changes the T-800's chip from read-only to writeable, so the T-800 can start learning to be "less of a dork."
In Sarah Connor Chronicles, we drill down into this idea a lot more deeply, as Summer Glau's Terminator, Cameron, tries to learn to imitate a human as John Connor's bodyguard — and becomes a bit of a seductress, experimenting with nail polish and kicky leopard-print tops... and even trying to seduce John Connor on a couple occasions. The scene in the final episode, where she gets John Connor to lay on top of her, so he can help her open up her insides and do a self-test, is incredibly creepy and sexual and mindblowing. And then there's John Henry, the baby A.I. that's learning by leaps and bounds, becoming obsessed with Bionicles action figures and then learning to play Dungeons and Dragons. In the season finale, John Henry escapes to the future, after Skynet apparently tries to destroy him. I would have loved to see the childlike John Henry wandering around the post-apocalyptic landscape, surveying his "brother's" handiwork and taking in all the scope of human suffering for the first time.
Even more than asking if a robot could be human, or if a person with metal parts could still be human, Sarah Connor Chronicles had the guts to ask other questions, like whether machines that could pass for human might still have their own type of intelligence. Their own kinds of emotions, and even their own kinds of secrets.
I also miss Sarah Connor's take on the future apocalypse. It's a war, but it's also an organized atrocity and a descent into hell. The show didn't have the budget to show us endless scenes of people blowing up machines, so instead it creeped us out with tons of images of torture and weirdness, including the house where everyone was dragged, one by one, into the basement with the weird piano music. Or the weird tortures Charlie Fischer imposed on Derek Reese, or the torments that Cameron committed against the human she was based on, Alison from Palmdale.
Whenever we meet someone from the future, they always seem haunted — almost literally — by horrendous spectres. I just rewatched "Ourselves Alone," the final episode featuring Riley, the girl from the future, and there's a great bit where she picks up a tube of floor-bleach and stares at its warning label: "Deadly To Humans And Animals," and you can just tell she's thinking about mass-produced horrors and things that we've built but which then turn out to kill us. Most of all, Brian Austin Green is just haunting to watch as Derek Reese, John Connor's uncle from the future. He puts so much into every line of dialog, and every random facial expression, that he's like a big-budget splodefest by himself.
Which brings me to the third thing I really miss about Sarah Connor Chronicles: the performances. I came away from Terminator Salvation with a renewed appreciation for the deep characterization that T:SCC served up every week. Besides Green, Summer Glau and Garret Dillahunt managed to bring an amazing range of expression to their robotic characters, without ever becoming too human or leaving behind the original Schwarzenegger impassiveness. Lena Headey was utterly compulsive as the "is she really crazy," hard-assed, sarcastic Sarah Connor — rewatch her scenes when she's in jail and the FBI agent is baiting her, from the season finale: she's just totally in control of herself, and yet at the same time not at all in control of herself. She doesn't give the predatory FBI agent the slightest opening, even as she's revealing all sorts of flashes of vulnerability and humor and doubt to us, the viewers. Even Thomas Dekker's John Connor, who took a long time to grow on me, was selling me on his future-resistance-leader persona by the end.
These were real, complicated, messed up people, making mistakes but also being brave and generous, in the face of the probably inevitable end of the world. You couldn't help but root for them.
And then the last thing I find myself missing a lot about Sarah Connor Chronicles is the complexity. The show kept the basic Skynet=evil premise, but added a million grey areas and crazy twists on top of that. You had the other faction of A.I.s, represented by Shirley Manson's Catherine Weaver, who seemed to be at odds with Skynet, or at least to have their own agenda. You had the whole quesion of whether the future version of John Connor has become too dependent on machines to do his fighting for him, and whether he's been compromised as a result. (Or whether Connor is really even Connor any more.) You also had the constant question of how far our heroes will go to win — will they kill other humans? Will they betray people? How machine-like will the resistance against the machines become?
Terminator Salvation was never going to be as deep as the television series: that's just the nature of a movie. Movies get two hours, give or take, to pose a single scenario and play it out, with a definite ending. At the same time, Terminator 2 managed to take the premise of the first movie and expand it outwards, like an aerial camera panning back, to show us the bigger picture. It took us inside the head of the Terminator and also explained more about how Skynet came about and why it ends everything. And it got a lot deeper into the character of Sarah Connor and her relationship with her son. So it's definitely possible for a two-hour-ish movie to go to some interesting places.
Of the Terminator iterations that have come about since T2, only Sarah Connor Chronicles picked up the metal robotic gauntlet that T2 threw down, and ran with it. Only the television show justified its existence as a followup to that classic sequel, by taking its ideas further and delving deeper into its world. If, as seems pretty likely, the Terminator franchise goes back into deep freeze for a long time until we get some new remake or reboot a dozen years from now, the only thing I'll miss is Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.