Tapdancing with Terminators

20Dec08

One of the shows I enjoy, although it lingers on my TiVo a bit longer than many, is Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It’s a show that I rarely think of beyond the time I’m watching it, but find it engrossing in the moment. Since I watched the midseason finale earlier this week, I have been thinking about a core structural problem that the series faces.

The basic premise, like all the Terminator movies, is that characters from the future are sent back to the present to try to alter the course of history – either by stopping the rise of the machines, or eliminating future resistance leader John Connor. The entire franchise plays fast and loose with time travel paradoxes, but incorporating seriality into a time travel narrative creates a whole new level of canonical confusion.

But setting that geekery aside, the underlying narrative scenario creates some core problems for a serial. We know what the future may (or may not) bring, and thus everything we witness is part of an extended narrative middle. The series by design can never really reach its climax, as we cannot hit judgment day without having our heroes fail their mission (as well as requiring a massive FX budget), and our heroes can never stop Skynet from emerging without creating both a huge set of paradoxes and an underwhelming narrative conclusion for the franchise.

So we’re left with endless tapdancing, the term that Damon Lindelof used to describe much of Lost seasons 2 and 3 before they had an endate in place. For T:TSCC, we have an array of visitors from the future from both sides (I’ve got a rough count of 15 thus far!) all trying to accomplish their missions and doomed to fail, maintaining an ongoing narrative stasis. We know that any attempts to develop the core scenario will amount to little, as neither side’s goals can be achieved without shutting everything down.

Because of the need for a series to crank out content, we’ve gotten an escalation of future intervention with very little change in the narrative present. Presumably the good guys do foil some of Skynet’s development, but the future treks onward down different paths. So effectively, on top of a highly complex serialized mythology, we’ve got episodes of The A-Team, with our gang of misfits foiling plots but never changing the underlying scenario.

This is not to say that it’s unenjoyable – it’s fun and compelling, in large part to the intrigue surrounding Summer Glau’s Cameron and the mysterious goings inside her chip. But unless the Terminators become Cylons, I can’t help but thinking that the series cannot do much more than its already doing: spinning its wheels as a pleasing distraction. And given that Fox is exiling it to the Friday night sci-fi wasteland in February, the wheels might be coming off sooner than we’d like.



One Response to “Tapdancing with Terminators”

  1. I wrote something similar about this show the other day. It seems like Anne-Marie and I make more of a point of keeping up with it than you do, but the feeling of being satisfied at the end of the hour while not devoting much additional thought to the series holds true for me as well. I also agree with the implication that the series could benefit from having a finite number of episodes to work with. It seems likely the producers are under some kind of constraint not to mess with the existing canon too much. If true, knowing how many episodes they have to work with – maybe until the next movie? – might sharpen the storytelling. As to Friday night, given that the series will paired with Dollhouse, which I want to be good, I hope that the move isn’t about killing T: TSCC, but trying to build an audience for both shows.


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