We didn't really know what we had in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles until it was cancelled — just as an apocalypse makes you realize what a fantastic world we've lost. Luckily, the season-two DVDs give you one more chance.
(Sorry, I know this DVD box set came out a couple weeks ago — I didn't get a chance to sit down and look through it until this week, for reasons too complicated to go into.)
Watching the second season of Sarah Connor Chronicles in one go, you really get way more of a sense of how cohesive and powerful this story actually is. Watching it in weekly installments, the show often felt frustratingly uneven, until its final six-episode burst of genius. But when you sit down and watch four or five episodes in a row, a lot of the episode-to-episode flaws fade away, to be replaced by a much stronger sense of character development, and a really clear narrative arc. The awesome ass-kicking moments also just keep coming.
In particular, when you watch the whole thing in one go, you realize it really is about Cameron, the Terminator played by Summer Glau, and what happens when she goes bad. In the season opener, a car bomb damages Cameron's chip and she reverts to her original programming — to kill John Connor. Instead of shutting her down, John Connor decides to try and repair her, and take a chance that she'll work properly again. (Is this partly because she tells him she loves him? We'll never know.) And at the end of the episode, Cameron tells John that he made the wrong choice, and this decision has changed everything — people are going to be upset that John spared Cameron's life. John thinks that Cameron means his mom and uncle, but she says that's not whom she means.
And then in the very next episode, we meet Riley, the chirpy blonde chick who cozies up to John — and it turns out she's one of the people who were indirectly affected by John's decision to spare his Terminator friend. It's a lot clearer, watching the season in a few sittings, that when John makes that choice, he's changing the future — and bringing it a lot closer to the future we see in the nuclear submarine flashforwards, where John Connor is a ghostly presence that nobody ever sees — he only speaks through his Terminator companion, Cameron. That future drives Jesse Flores to go back in time and bring Riley, to seduce John and then become a victim of his jealous Terminator, to drive John away from Cameron — basically, to unmake John's decision to let Cameron go on functioning.
A lot of the episodes, one way or another, deal with whether Cameron can be trusted, including the one where she "reverts" to the original human she was based on, and the one where we start wondering just what she's been doing at night while everyone sleeps.
I also gained a slightly better impression of Thomas Dekker's acting as John Connor — he really does grow as a character throughout the season, becoming tougher and more like a leader, even as he's more and more compromised by his dependence on Cameron. Dekker is probably my least favorite actor in the series, but he does manage to sell Connor's transformation way better than I'd remembered, and his scenes in "Today Is The Day, Parts 1 & 2" are pretty heart-stopping.
And of course, the other great story strand in season two is the artificial intelligence that Sarah Connor thinks is destined to become Skynet, but which we discover is actually a separate A.I., called John Henry. While the Connor clan struggle with just how much they should depend on Cameron — and by extension, how much people can rely on machines in general — a machine super-intelligence has been gestating, learning to play with action figures and hashing out the tricky details of human ethics and morality. Every time Garret Dillahunt, as John Henry, and Richard T. Jones, as Ellison, are on screen together, it's just fantastic to watch.
It's too bad those two strands only come together in the very last episode, and we only really glimpse how John's Cameron issues and Ellison's John Henry issues intersect. It's just enough to make you wonder how great a third season could have been.
But all in all, the season feels much more satisfying when you view it as one novel with individual chapters (despite the occasionally clunky episodic bits), and when viewed as a novel, it does reach a conclusion that stays with you. John's been wondering about the future world all this time, and now he's stuck there. He has tangly emotional ties with Cameron, and now he's meeting her human version. And John Henry is finally going to see for himself a world built by another A.I.
Not every storyline flows perfectly, though — the business with the dying man from the future writing all over the wall in blood still feels a bit contrived and random, and the "three dots" that he leaves behind never quite gel as a plot device.
On the other hand, in case you ever forget how lucky you are to be watching this version of Terminator, each disc begins with a trailer for Terminator Salvation, to make you give thanks all over again.
The special features are pretty much a Summer Glau fan's dream — if you're one of the people who thinks Glau can beat Darth Vader and Galactus with one hand tied behind her back, then you owe it to yourself to get these DVDs. The first disc has a great feature on storyboards for the big "Cameron goes bad" sequence that include lots of great pulpy drawings of Glau looking evil and menacing — suitable for framing! I like the way they compare the original storyboards with the final filmed version:
And then, the second disc has a great featurette showing rehearsal footage from the big fight between Cameron and Rosie the contortionist Terminator (the big elevator fight sequence). You get to see Glau in a T-shirt and sweatpants, running through this incredibly complicated fight choreography in real time — I knew she'd been a ballet dancer, but this definitely gave me a new appreciation for how limber and dancerly she really is. Plus you get to hear the second-unit director telling the actors, "You can kick and Summer just grabs it — and choke her with her own leg!" And you watch Summer do just that.
The best featurette is probably the "Writing The Future" documentary, which lets you inside the writers' room, giving you glimpses of the whiteboards on which the writers sketch out the show's future direction:
And there's a great bit where we see Creator Josh Friedman saying that we already "know" the Turk (which becomes John Henry) is Skynet and we're just waiting for it to wake up and become evil — and the implication is that Friedman is about to suggest that the writers should subvert that premise, and make The Turk not turn out to be Skynet after all. You also see some great discussion happening about just how much Cameron is evolving — is she having an emotional awakening, or just pretending? How much is she programmed to pretend to evolve as a human, and to make John love her?
And then there are these fascinating glimpses of directions the show didn't actually end up going:
There are also some great design featurettes, including one about the making of iconic sequences like the urinal-becomes-Catherine-Weaver sequence. You also get some lovely behind the scenes glimpses of Rob Hall's distressed Terminator-face makeup and the endoskeleton action, and then all of the show's surprisingly ambitious sets, including the submarine and the horrible future world.
Not all of the special features are that great — the deleted scenes are mostly pretty disposable. There's one scene which seems to exist purely to allow Derek Reese to namecheck the family's black Dodge truck — just an extra bit of product placement for the show's main sponsor.The "gag reel" is also pretty meh.
But generally, this box set will really make you see Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles in a whole new light — even if you've already watched every episode. And if you've been on the fence about joining Sarah Connor's army, and you're still not sure what the fuss is about, this is your best chance to discover it for yourself. Not to mention, with Christmas coming up, it makes for a tight present.