Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: why it failed

News Stuart Turton 5/21/2009 at 12:16AM

Sarah Connor fan Stuart looks at the cancellation of the show, why it happened, and if the Terminator name proved to be a hindrance...

The news that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has been axed is about as shocking as finding blood on a slaughterhouse floor. The ratings were poor, and only got worse and when fans finally get done bombarding the Fox offices with ball bearings, or whatever other doomed scheme they come up with to keep the series going, the finger pointing will undoubtedly begin.

I always look forward to this stage. The fans write letters, flood forums and march on studios, while the execs peer out of their windows and wonder where all these people were on Friday nights. In the case of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the apologists and accusers will both have a case.

I'd be interested in seeing how many hardcore fans the series picked up over the course of its run, because I suspect the majority caught the first episode, loved it and stuck around. If you caught it midway through and still managed to fall in love with it, then God bless you, because at that point the series really didn't give a damn about you. Three episodes in and it was immediately obvious that Terminator had lived up to its name by infiltrating a network on which it quite clearly didn't belong.

Sarah Connor was a non-populist, meditative, complex piece of television on a smash-bang, show-me-the-ratings kind of network. The two were never going to get on, but kudos to Fox for giving it two seasons to prove itself, especially when it was obvious after the first, unsuccessful season, that showrunner Josh Friedman had no intentions of changing the formula.

He and his writers set out to tell a terribly complex story with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. That's commendable but it means anybody joining after the first episode would soon find themselves choking on loose plot threads and crushed beneath snowdrift-heavy relationships. This is something that needs to be managed. Terminator never bothered. Beyond a terse "last time on..." message there were no concessions made to ease in newbies, and absolutely no attempt to appease disgruntled existing viewers. Throughout, Friedman showed a ruthless, single-minded devotion to his story worthy of the show's gleaming antagonists. This works if, like Lost, you pick up 16 million viewers off the bat or, like Battlestar Galactica, you fool your audience for an entire series into believing it's actually a shooty, space opera, rather than a talky, submarine series that just happens to be set in space.

But surely the Terminator name alone should have been worth 16 million regular viewers? Possibly, but somehow, it always seemed more hindrance than aid. The name brought a budget, but it also brought expectation. The Terminator franchise suggests explosions, robot fights and balls-out, backs against the wall carnage. The series offered these things grudgingly, and quite often as the culmination of five episodes worth of navel gazing. God, Terminator loved a bit of navel gazing. This is not a criticism, though it was for those millions who stopped watching. Personally, I thought it was superb. Wrapped in a tight script full of brilliant lines and observation, top heavy with philosophical ponderings that were wonderfully acted by a group that will walk away from this train wreck with a great deal of pride.

The name also did it a disservice in that this was never Sarah Connor's story, at least not for me. The series shone brightest when a light was trained on John Connor's transformation from whiny teen to reluctant leader. It was in relation to John that the other characters made sense. Despite the title, Sarah Connor doesn't really deserve chronicling - she isn't that interesting a character. Obsessed people very rarely are, especially when the cause of that obsession has been explained. Sarah's obsessed with protecting her son, because he's going to save the world. This means that her attitude to everybody is always exactly the same: aggressive, surly and suspicious. She doesn't change. It's her moulding of her son that strikes a note. Her attempts to protect him increasingly push him away, turning him into the man he needs to become, even as she's trying to connect. It was this journey that was at the centre of the series - watching John grow into the role he didn't want. Watching how the other characters shaped him, and he them. Watching a mythology being spun.

This rule holds throughout the cast. Cameron was a wonderful character, creepy and cute, forever at odds with her own nature. It was, however, her knowledge of present and future John that made her special. When she observed that future John would not have done what present John just had, it was never entirely clear whether she was praising or rebuking. What was her relationship to her, why had he sent her back, what's between them, was John actually having sex with a robot?

These are among the dozens of question I still want answered, and yet I won't mourn the passing of The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It was brilliant, but wilfully impenetrable. Extremely clever, but remarkably dumb in its treatment of its audience. Terminator without all the bits that most people love Terminator for. Josh Friedman reckons it will still be remembered in ten years time. I don't doubt it, I'm just not sure what it will be remembered for.

See also:
Our review of the final episode;
10 badass movie gals;
Sarah Connor Chronicles axed, creator says farewell

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