Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – Why it’s the Best Terminator Story

Terminator Week

I’m definitely a fan of the Terminator franchise. Particularly the first two films by James Cameron. But while the first film is a great thriller and the second one is a flawless action movie, the central sci-fi ideas at its center don’t truly have a lot of room to be explored. Not just the nature of time travel but ideas about fate vs free will, the seeming inevitability of artificial intelligence, our fears about nuclear war, and our children taking our place.

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These themes were explored in greater depth alongside rich character development over two seasons of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (TTSCC). In no way am I suggesting that the original movies are subpar. They’re fantastic, efficient and entertaining while also giving you big ideas to digest. But I will argue that because of its serialized, ongoing nature and due to the hard work of the writers, directors and actors involved, that the TTSCC is ultimately the best take on the material.

WHAT IS TERMINATOR’S GENRE?

It’s so easy to overlook what kind of emotional response the original film, The Terminator, was going for? But the answer is clearly helplessness. James Cameron intended to make a horror movie and that is the overriding sensation that it delivers. The movie played out our Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation and of our general fear that technology is taking over our lives. Everything else in the movie is important but secondary. Kyle Reese is terrified of his situation, constantly looking over his shoulder. Reese and Sarah Connor are completely over their head dealing with the unstoppable killing force of the Terminator. He kills a LOT of people in this one. And Arnold would be remembered as one of the all-time great movie monsters alongside Dracula and Freddy Krueger if this was the only movie. But it inspired sequels.

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The interesting thing about The Terminator that keeps it from being JUST a horror movie, is that it has amazing action sequences (especially impressive because of the film’s modest budget) and a clever sci-fi time travel idea. But that’s all texture for the story and it doesn’t dwell on any of those elements. The sequel, T2, had a much larger budget because the star and director had earned that kind of  faith from Hollywood. So the action is bigger, the horror is lessened. And it continues its overall genre mashup by adding family drama to the equation. But it is not primarily an action movie. The action all evolves naturally from a character perspective. In other words, it isn’t just set-piece, set-piece, set-piece. For T2, the fears are now a bit more based on the military industrial complex and what machines of death they might be secretly creating. But the overall emotional beats of T2 concern Sarah protecting her son. Not only did T2 neatly tie up any lingering questions the time travel idea brought up, but it gave us a physical embodiment of the future. Of course Sarah Connor wants to protect the future – we see that in her son.

So ultimately, what worked for the Terminator franchise was efficient horror and family drama. Those are the two elements that TTSCC focuses on the most. Terminator 3 tried to remix elements of the second movie but added nothing new and unlike the TV show, it didn’t have the space to grow its characters. Terminator Salvation, which came out just months after TTSCC‘s second and final season, tried to do something different than focusing on Skynet trying to eliminate John Connor, which is to its credit. However, by exclusively setting the film in the Future War setting, it completely lost the emotional result of the first two films. It was a war movie, which leads to themes of honor, bravery, camaraderie. It just FEELS different. That doesn’t make it wrong, but franchises that work hit the same emotional beats regardless of plot or character. Terminator Genisys only just came out and tried to remix things again, but once more focused too much on an element that was a stylistic texture to the story, not the story itself – time travel. And in return, it ended up with a very confusing and muddled story that jumps all over the place.

So TTSCC avoids the mistakes of the later movies and refocuses on the emotional beats that the early movies delivered. That’s the core of what works for Terminator. Two more important elements that it still needs to tackle are character work and themes. It delivers horror in scenes like a Terminator actually infiltrating humanity as a teacher and opening fire in a school. It gives us family dynamics by tossing in an uncle and a surrogate sister for the Connor family and then, in season 2, creating a family of sorts to create and guide what could become Skynet.

WHO IS SARAH CONNOR?

Sarah Connor is definitely the protagonist of the first movie. She wants to live her life, maybe get a better paying job. She has a kinda crappy roommate and a dead-end job as a waitress. She is just existing. She hasn’t figured all of it out yet, but she’s only 19. Once the Terminator shows up, she is forced to decide that she wants to LIVE. She’s reacting for most of the film, like many protagonists in horror do, until she ultimately claims her agency and strikes back against her foe, outwitting it. Along the way, she does the one thing she can do that her enemy can’t. In fact, the exact opposite. The Terminator exists only to end life, but Sarah (along with Kyle Reese) creates life.

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The Sarah Connor we meet in the second film is a secondary protagonist, with her son John being a somewhat passive but defacto lead. In the sequel, what Sarah wants more than anything else is to secure John’s future. She has gone to extreme lengths to ensure that, training with soldiers around the world and eventually getting herself locked up in an asylum. It’s a great starting point for T2 because she starts almost unrecognizable from the first film but eventually learns to soften. She learns that being too hard alienates John and the world around her, at which point she can’t effectively protect him and has cut herself off from the world she wishes to save.

Sarah is gone from Terminator 3 and Salvation but reappears in Genisys as a mixture of the Sarahs from the first two movies. She’s young and learning, but has grown up for 10 years with a Terminator as her protector and teacher. She’s in the early stages of being a soldier. It’s not really new and she also doesn’t really have a well-defined character arc. Basically, she’s tough when we meet her and eventually she learns to lighten up enough to fall in love with Kyle Reese. Uh oh, that’s kind of the least empowering arc for her.

The TV show finds a different way to look at Sarah. The Sarah from TTSCC is from shortly after T2. So she’s still mostly in soldier/protector mode for her son but is trying to fit into the real world. She has some paranoia because she is scared Judgement Day, when the machines wake up and attack, could still take place. Ultimately, she’s right. Similar to Terminator 3, TTSCC has the idea that Judgement Day has been delayed but not stopped. Maybe. It gets more complex. Basically, the actions of Sarah in the present against a potential Skynet keep rewriting the future. More Terminators are sent back in time as the Skynet of the future is aware of its past, Sarah’s present. And Skynet, like in the first two films, does not want to risk eliminating itself by disturbing the timeline by sending Terminators even further back in time. Anyway, this Sarah wants to protect her son but she also wants to integrate him into the world. She’s learned that neither of them can be a soldier 100% of the time or they’ll crack. It’s a form of realism. But this Sarah’s paranoia is treated like PTSD in a very nuanced manner. She wants to be able to leave this life behind but literally cannot figure out how. On top of that, the show takes an idea from Terminator 3 and reshuffles it since the show follows an alternate timeline from that film. In Terminator 3, we learn that Sarah died from cancer after waiting for 1997’s Judgement Day to come and pass. In TTSCC, Cameron, a new Terminator from the future assigned to protect John, leads them to a time machine that allows the three of them to jump FORWARD in time, from the 90s to the early 2000s. Along the way, Sarah learns she originally was dead by this time, from cancer. She doesn’t have cancer yet, but she lives with the threat of it over her head. She faces this fear quietly. It’s an interesting look at the fear of disease.

I have to say it: Lena Headey plays a better Sarah Connor. Obviously Linda Hamilton is fantastic, especially with her physical transformation for T2. But Headey has more room to play the character and grants her greater depth and empathy while showing us a deeply flawed person. Not to take anything away from Emilia Clarke as an actress but Genisys‘ script gives her a lot less to work with than either Headey or Hamilton had so she isn’t in the running.

And just because Sarah is the lead doesn’t mean the supporting cast of TTSCC is short-changed. Her son John is a teenager who believes he may one day become a military leader against the machines (he’s seen Terminators after all) but does not want that life. It’s the definition of Joseph Campbell’s hero mytharc – the hero who refuses the call. Eventually, he has no choice but to cross the threshold and begin his adventure, taking him away from what he’s known and changing him before he can return and defeat his opponent. Cameron is the new Terminator, who has the ability to mimic humans much more than the Terminator from T2 ever did. But she has massive gaps in understanding humanity. It’s the classic Pinocchio story where she has a (sublimated) desire to become real. But she is built to kill. Her nature is against her current programming. She’s extremely dangerous and the show shows us this frequently. Can being adopted into a makeshift family with the Connors change her nature? Discussing Garret Dillahunt’s performance as a Terminator would warrant its own post. He goes through so many changes and finds ways to be threatening, hilarious and innocent as various permutations of his character. Finally, Derek Reese is added, as the uncle and surrogate father figure. Who is Derek? Kyle Reese’s older brother, sent back in time. His soldier is even more haunted than Sarah, which helps give her contrast. The show avoids any real romance angle between the two, keeping him a part of the family but also just slightly outside. The mystery of his past (our future) helps provide that fear of a horrible future that Terminator needs to work effectively.

THE SINGULARITY

Because TTSCC has a lot more time than all of the movies put together, it not only explored its characters in far greater, more realistic and nuanced detail than the movies (or in fact, this article can adequately summarize) but it also allowed it to explore the sci-fi ideas behind Terminator without any single episode overriding the emotional beats it needed to hit. TTSCC adopts the futurist idea that many scientists have hypothesized about, called the Singularity. This idea posits that artificial intelligence is probably inevitable and that when it actually happens, it will allow itself to create new artificial intelligence that’s even smarter at an exponential rate, immediately surpassing what humans can do. The question then becomes how will artificial intelligence react to the world around it? Would it view humanity as an enemy, as Skynet does? Or ignore us completely, content to think about things we can barely comprehend? Something else that we can’t even guess at? The show takes this idea and runs with it. Kudos to showrunner Josh Friedman and his staff who really knew how best to explore the ideas behind Terminator, even if they didn’t create it.

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The destruction of Skynet is Sarah’s self-imposed mission. That means finding out who creates the software for it and eliminating it. But the show introduces the idea that Skynet could still be built but not necessarily be evil. Or that it may not be a unified intelligence. By season two, we meet a T-1001 who is impersonating a high level executive at a software firm. She kills people and seems to be a threat, until we learn that she has a mission apart from Skynet’s. Exactly what is never 100% explored, but it seems that she is part of a faction of machines that wants to build a peace with humanity. Not only that, but she is taking steps to create Skynet but potentially a Skynet with a moral compass. What a fascinating take on the idea. Instead of being a binary look at artificial intelligence existing and hating humanity or humanity stopping the artificial intelligence from being created, it creates a new idea: maybe the artificial intelligence could be created to live in harmony alongside humanity. Now that responsibility of raising and guiding Skynet becomes humanity’s chance to save itself. Can we? Or are we still doomed to wipe ourselves out?

NO FATE BUT WHAT WE MAKE

The original Terminator movie featured a closed-loop time travel idea. John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to father John. And the Terminator sent to kill Sarah is destroyed except for his arm, which allows scientists to figure out how to make what will become Skynet. So there never had to be any sequels. But the second movie opened the idea up and gave a more hopeful idea: Okay, so Skynet will be created and send back these Terminators but maybe Sarah and her team can destroy Skynet in its infancy and stop Judgement Day from ever happening. Sarah teaches John her philosophy: No fate but what we make. Basically, Sarah doesn’t believe the future is written, at least not completely. And in fact, the heroes are successful in destroying both Terminators and Cyberdyne, where Skynet was born. Terminator 3 undid that by saying Judgement Day was not stopped, just postponed.

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TTSCC finds a happy medium. Okay, maybe Judgement Day was postponed, but that means each version of Judgement Day is different. They ARE affecting the future. The Future War that Kyle Reese came back from in The Terminator is NOT the same Future War that Derek Reese came from. It’s very similar, but not the same. This is explored when Derek meets up with his old girlfriend, a fellow soldier from the future, but their memories of their past are not quite the same. So maybe it IS possible to avert Judgement Day. It’s ultimately a hopeful message. I’m convinced the show would have liked to have ended on that message. It didn’t get the opportunity to do so. There seemed to be a good chance for a season 3 but it did in fact get canceled by Fox. The season 2 finale was intended as a type of cliffhanger for different stories – it brought young John Connor to the Future. So if the show had continued, he would have had to lead much earlier than he ever intended. Instead, it works as a type of closed loop: John Connor is alive in the future to stop Skynet then. So the show is certainly worth watching. It does not end on a cliffhanger that can’t be resolved. And if Terminator Genisys did anything for the franchise, it confirmed within the movies (which ultimately seems to be what “counts”) that history basically keeps looping with slight changes. That means every Terminator story, from TTSCC to comic books to movies, fits within a type of multi-timeline cohesive story universe.

Go to TTSCC to feel the same emotional results you got from The Terminator and T2. It’s a TV show with a healthy budget, much closer to what the original movie had. So it has to find efficient ways to be scary. That takes the form of the season 1 finale with the Johnny Cash song “The Man Comes Around” playing while FBI agents drop into a hotel swimming pool, dead, after going up against a Terminator. It shocks you when a main character goes up against a Terminator without any backup and is simply shot dead with no buildup. But it also works on the family drama. Interpersonal relationships. Support. The intense anger John feels towards Sarah, even though he knows its not her fault, when he is forced to kill a man to protect them both. The feelings he has towards Cameron which are doubly wrong – she is both his surrogate sister and a machine. It explores some very unpleasant aspects of the human condition and what we are willing to do to one another to survive, especially in the glimpses of the Future War we get from Derek’s perspective. But it also delivers fantastic production values and action scenes. Plenty of ideas about cause and effect when dealing with time travel (without looping over itself and getting lost in paradoxes). Overall, it delivers the best performances and best written stories in all of Terminator.

  • dan

    interesting perspective. thanks for writing it up!