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Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles—The Complete First Season

(2008) *** Unrated
394 min. FOX. Cast: Lena Headey.

/content/films/3175/2.jpgWhen the notion of FOX's weekly series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles arose, I wasn't too sure it was a keeper. The Terminator franchise has tied itself in knots trying to sustain itself since James Cameron seemingly retired the storyline in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and any TV version would have to devise some kind of Tucked Double Overhand knot or perhaps a Double Figure-of-Eight Loop in order to tell a convincing Terminator-themed story of Sarah and John Connor after T2. And yet Josh Friedman, who developed the series for television, has done just that, creating a viable science-fiction show (with a built-in audience) that seems built to last a while.

Friedman does what it takes to get back to the basics of the Terminator concept, beginning by ignoring 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (made without James Cameron or the Sarah Connor character). The Sarah Connor Chronicles take place in an alternate timeline following the events of T2. Sarah (Lena Headey of 300, taking the baton from Linda Hamilton) and John (Thomas Dekker of Heroes) are fugitives from the law, constantly moving and changing identities. Though always on the alert, they're surprised when a Skynet-programmed Terminator shows up to assassinate John; luckily, a Resistance-programmed terminator named Cameron (Summer Glau of Firefly) is on the scene to protect the future savior of humanity. Faced with the knowledge that Skynet is still fated to cause an apocalypse, Sarah once again begins a mission to create a better fate, even as FBI agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones) stays on her trail.

Effectively pressing the reset button may not be very satisfying on a narrative level, but it allows the series to explore at length the core conflict of the franchise: ragtag human rebels versus the enablers of a coalescing artificial intelligence (Skynet) that will launch an apocalyptic nuclear strike and hand over the planet to cyborgs. In a clever stroke of plotting, Friedman sends the heroes through time, from 1999 to 2007, but the showrunner's insistence that this was done to keep The Sarah Connor Chronicles from becoming a chase show is mitigated when the relentless Terminator dubbed "Cromartie" follows the characters through time (Garrett Hedlund of Deadwood eventually assumes the role of Cromartie). The storyline does bear dramatic fruit, allowing future Resistance-leader John to convince Sarah that it's time to make a stand and fight back instead of continuing to run.

/content/films/3175/1.jpg"Pilot" and "Gnothi Seauton" bring out impressive production values and action sequences to launch the series, but the best example of the show functioning effectively as a weekly science fiction series is "The Turk," the third episode to air. The episode has none of the action scenes that characterize the first two outings, but fascinates with a well-written narration for Sarah (about the nuclear scientists in the company of Oppenheimer), a philosophical plotline about whether or not Sarah would be justified in killing an innocent science geek who appears poised on an AI breakthrough, and a high-school trauma that causes John to reevaluate his own destined heroism. Not every piece fits neatly (the high-school storyline is badly rushed), but writer John Wirth definitely has the right idea.

The series' ambitious plotting extends to new supporting characters, such as the religious Ellison, Sarah's ex-boyfriend Charley (Dean Winters of Rescue Me), and Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green of Beverly Hills 90210). The latter character, brother to Kyle Reese (John's father), provides another bridge to the Cameron films (Bruce Davison also guest stars as Dr. Silberman from T2). Charley and Uncle Derek provide alternate male role models to John as well as complicated potential love interests for Sarah as the show moves forward. In a particularly provocative move, Friedman is strongly hinting at a romance between John, a sixteen-year-old, and Cameron, a cybernetic organism over a hyper-alloy combat chassis. Meanwhile, Derek insists Cameron can't be trusted as a member of the Resistance's inner circle, a slight that Cameron feeds into with her often surreptitious behavior.

The Writer's Guild Strike truncated Season One of this midseason replacement series to only nine episodes, which serendipitously halted at a suspenseful turning point for the show. Though Headey will never be Linda Hamilton, the series has a solid cast, stylish production values and, under its belt, a season that demonstrates great potential. The series returns to FOX for a second season in the fall, while the first season is available from Warner Home Video on Blu-Ray and DVD (review below...).

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 3

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 8/19/2008

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner's 3-disc set for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles—The Complete First Season delivers great AV quality and a collection of excellent bonus features, just in time to bone up for Season Two. Given the series HD source, it's no surprise that the show looks terrific in a crisp and detailed transfer that smoothly preserves the experience of watching the original HD broadcasts. Great depth and true colors (including a pure black level) make this a treat for the eyes, and the image is backed up by a Dolby 5.1 surround track that's especially impressive for a weekly television series.

Disc One holds the first three episodes and the bulk of the bonus features. Commentary on "Pilot" by Summer Glau, executive producer/writer Josh Friedman, executive producer James Middleton, and director David Nutter is a mostly self-congratulatory track, and a bit slack in terms of filling the space, but it does offer some insights into the show's development and production, as well as a good feel for the friendly interaction between the producers and cast. The Commentary on "The Turk" by Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Friedman, and executive producer John Wirth accomplishes much the same, but the presence of Headey and Dekker in the same room demonstrates their giddy chemistry; it's a wonder they get any work done on shooting days!

Disc One also includes a number of "Terminated Scenes" (10:46 with "Play All" option): "Pilot a" (1:03), "Pilot b" (1:09), "Pilot c" (:43), "Pilot d" (2:07), and "Pilot e" (3:38), as well as "The Turk" (2:02). All are worth checking out, though the most historically valuable is "Pilot e," the extended cut of the school attack, censored in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre. And don't skip out on the entertaining "Gag Reel" (3:35).

Disc One also houses the three-part documentary "Creating The Chronicles" (39:08 with "Play All" option). "Creating The Chronicles: Reboot" (16:44) gathers Middleton, Friedman, Nutter, Wirth, Heady, Dekker, Glau, visual effects supervisor James Lima, stunt coordinator & 2nd unit director Joel Kramer, and special effects supervisor Steve Galich for a look at launching the series, with a focus on the crew's loving fidelity to the Cameron films. "Creating The Chronicles: Future War" (10:26) moves deeper into the mythology of the series (and franchise), adding the observations of Brian Austin Green. Richard T. Jones joins in on "Creating The Chronicles: The Demon Hand" (11:57), which focuses a bit more on the new territory the series explores.

Disc Two has the next three episodes; a warmly amusing Terminated Scene from "Dungeons and Dragons" (2:04); Cast Audition Tapes (11:19 with "Play All" option) for Lena Headey (4:19), Thomas Dekker (2:29), and Richard T. Jones (4:30); a "Summer Glau Dance Rehearsal" (1:40), and a "Storyboard Animatic" (3:25) illustrating the school attack from the Pilot.

Disc Three hosts the last three episodes, as well as Terminated Scenes "The Demon Hand a" (5:24) and "The Demon Hand b" (1:50), but a better option is to select to watch "The Demon Hand: Extended Cut" (52:03) instead of the broadcast version also included. Eight to nine minutes longer, the Extended Cut has unfinished sound, music, and visual effects, but as the video intro by Wirth, Middleton, and Friedman points out, it's a version of the episode that's closer to the creators' intent.

The Commentary on "What He Beheld" by Friedman, writer Ian Goldberg, Summer Glau and Brian Austin Green is at times pokey and largely jokey, though we learn some trivia about the actors (such as that Richard T. Jones, who is in real life a minister, caught a factual error in the script) and get to hear Friedman backpedal from a 90210 dig. Some nuances of costume and performance are usefully pointed out, and there's a bit of discussion of the episode's themes. Friedman also tells about the snafu resulting in an actor not learning about being offed until the day the scene was to be shot, and a great story about Garrett Hedlund's initial audition for a different role on the show. Ian Goldberg's fabled Schwarzengger impression gets a venue, and we learn what Rescue Me has to do with the final montage set to Johnny Cash (besides actor Dean Winters) and a tease about what'll be on Ellison's mind in Season Two.

Fans of this exciting new genre series cannot afford to be without this nicely packaged 3-disc set.



Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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