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Our reviews of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: The Complete Second Season (published September 22nd, 2009) and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: The Complete Second Season (Blu-Ray) (published September 21st, 2009) are also available.
Come with me, if you want to live.
After lying dormant for twelve years, the Terminator franchise was resurrected with the 2003 release of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Now Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: The Complete First Season branches out to the small screen as a bevy of cybernetic assassins continues its quest to snuff the human race.
Facts of the Case
It's 1999, two years after the Judgment Day that Sarah Connor (Lena Headey, 300) and her son John (Thomas Dekker, 7th Heaven) thought they stopped forever by infiltrating Cyberdyne Systems and destroying the technology destined to end life as we know it. Unfortunately, righting future history's serpentine path proves not quite as easy as they'd believed.
Pursued by FBI Agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones, Vantage Point) and terrified that Skynet will send more Terminators to find and kill them, Sarah and John live a nomadic life, staying off the grid and hopping from one podunk town to another. Their worst nightmare is realized when Mr. Cromartie, a substitute teacher at John's latest school, turns out to be a T-888 Terminator determined to kill the 16-year-old boy. Luckily, another Terminator, disguised as fellow student Cameron Phillips (Summer Glau, Firefly), is on the scene to save the day.
In an effort to confront Skynet more directly and to stop Judgment Day (now set to occur in 2011) once and for all, Cameron takes Sarah and John eight years into the future. There they attempt to work with a team of resistance fighters sent back in time by John himself, who leads the human resistance against Skynet in 2029. The team includes Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green, Beverly Hills, 90210), the older brother of John's father, Kyle.
This three-disc set contains all nine episodes of the series' first season:
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles kicks off with a bang. The "Pilot" episode is a raucous actioner as TV shows go, featuring loads of gunplay, chases, and pretty orange explosions. But the episode's plot is mostly boring business, propelling its characters towards a gimmicky jump through time that sets the stage for the rest of the series. From writing to directing to acting, the whole affair seems paralyzed by reverence for the style and continuity in James Cameron's two Terminator features. Sarah and John Connor come off less as fully realized characters than as imitations of the mother-son duo in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Lena Headey's Sarah is a softer, prettier, less intense near-parody of Linda Hamilton's original, complete with coldly delivered internal monologues, furrowed brows, and lean female biceps shown off in a variety of tank tops. Thomas Dekker's version of John trades Edward Furlong's skater bangs and smart-ass, delinquent vigor for a shaggier emo look (apparently, fifty-dollar haircuts are easily had off the grid) and a boatload of sullen introspection. Add killing machines named Cromartie and Cameron (since when do Terminators have names?) to the mix and the pilot episode misses the mark by a wide berth. I wanted to enjoy it. I appreciate the potential entertainment value of a TV episode with more gunfire in its first 15 minutes than in the combined series runs of Combat! and The Rat Patrol as much as the next guy. Unfortunately, everything was lifeless except for the violence.
Had I been watching the show on broadcast television, the next two episodes would have lost me completely. "Gnothi Seauton" and "The Turk" contain riveting action like a search for fake IDs; John Connor moping around the house; Sarah learning from Cameron that she's destined to die from cancer (a nod to Linda Hamilton's absence in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines); the comic antics of Cameron learning to pass as a typical high school girl (even though she did so convincingly in the first act of the pilot) by describing everything as "tight" all the time; Cromartie being reassembled and going through a long process of scavenging human flesh to cover his endoskeleton (would a Terminator bother with such niceties?); and Sarah dating a Chuck Bartowski-like geek because she suspects his chess-playing robot may eventually destroy the world.
Fortunately for me and the show, I wasn't watching it on broadcast television but on DVD for this site, meaning I was ethically obligated to stick it out the very end. The series shows its first signs of life with "Heavy Metal," an episode that finds John spearheading an effort to destroy raw materials being stockpiled for the future creation of an army of Terminators (Skynet knows supplies will be hard to come by after the apocalypse). The episode's plot isn't spectacular, but it was cool to see glimpses of 16-year-old John Connor taking the kind of daring, foolhardy initiative (against Sarah's will) that will eventually make him the last hope for the human race. "Heavy Metal" and the next episode, "Queen's Gambit," also share a subplot in which Cromartie puts the finishing touches on his new face and takes on the identity of FBI Agent Robert Kester. It's not a captivating turn of events in terms of plotting, but the transformation (complete with well-executed gooey prosthetic effects) means a thespian upgrade from Owain Yeoman (Troy), who played Cromartie lifelessly in the pilot, to always solid character actor Garrett Dillahunt (No Country for Old Men), who manages to bring some personality to the role while also remaining suitably inhuman.
The show finds firm footing with "Dungeons & Dragons," an episode that should be the series pilot. Here the producers finally discover the right balance between respect for the film series and a storyline appropriate to the episodic sprawl of television. They cut between the happenings in 2007 and those in 2029 as John Connor prepares to send Kyle Reese back in time to carry out the mission that kicked off this whole mess in The Terminator. More importantly, Derek Reese is fully introduced (he actually enters the series a couple episodes earlier), bringing with him a whole lot of bad-ass in the form of a cynical distrust of Cameron that begins to rub off on Sarah as well as a ruthless devotion to mission (he doesn't hesitate a split second to off anyone who might be involved in any way in the development of Skynet). This new time-traveling paramilitary family dynamic has all of the characteristics of a good Terminator adventure, but is uniquely suited to ebbs and flows of episodic television. Headey and Dekker find their respective rhythms as Sarah and John, making the characters their own. Perhaps most importantly, the future John Connor becomes a tangible presence throughout the remaining episodes. As in the Terminator films, we can feel him manipulating events from a hidden bunker or safe house in 2029.
This three-disc set offers a decent presentation of the show. The transfer is framed at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen displays. Colors are reasonably accurate, though blacks aren't as deep as they could be. On the plus side, signs of digital manipulation are minimal.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio isn't theatrical feature quality, but it's great for a television series. The entire soundstage is used well in a natural mix with broad dynamic range. Directional panning is minimal, but doesn't feel under-utilized given the source.
Supplements include a lengthy three-part documentary on the series' production, deleted scenes for four of the episodes, and a gag reel. In addition to the broadcast version of "The Demon Hand," there's also an extended cut that runs 52 minutes. The reintegrated material has incomplete special effects and audio, but fleshes out the episode's plot in interesting ways. Finally, there are audio commentaries for "Pilot," "The Turk," and "What He Beheld." The tracks offer commentary from different combinations of cast and crew, including executive producer Josh Friedman, director David Nutter, and Headey, Dekker, Glau, and Green. Since the participants were recorded together, each track is as warm and fun as it is informative.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: The Complete First Season starts poorly, but finishes strong. The first five episodes are disposable entertainment, full of great action but burdened with lame plotlines. The final four episodes maintain the excellent action sequences, while ratcheting up the quality of the writing. The excellence of the second half of the season, plus a well-executed cliffhanger, is enough to pique my interest in a second season.
Uneven, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentaries on Three Episodes
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