When Battlestar Galactica made its US series premiere on the Sci-Fi network in 2005, it didn’t take much time for entertainment critics and media to notice they had a gem on their hands. The quality of the writing, acting and production were so much higher than the usual Sci-Fi original fare, the story had a clearly expressed mission and endpoint, and the focus was, for once, off the science fiction tropes, whistles and bells. Three years later, it was one of the most highly regarded series on television, for its compelling story and the clarity and open-handedness of its political pursuits and developments.
We can be forgiven, then, for assuming that Bionic Woman would be a similar success. The shows share not only a creator-producer (David Eick), but their pedigree: a warmly regarded but ultimately campy show from childhood, poured into shiny new bottles and aiming for cultural relevance. The show’s basic premise — woman with superpowers is forced to comply with the government spooks that created her — managed to translate well to a post-feminist mindset, providing an easy pretext to ask questions about women’s rights, our rights to privacy and control of our own bodies, and government control.
To look at it with the new, serious eyes that brought Battlestar into the cultural limelight should have been an easy trick, and resulted in something combining the sly social commentary of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer with the high-velocity technology and accessible, fantasy violence of 24. Instead, what we got was a mushy-mouthed retread of one-size-fits-all spy tropes that would have seemed limp five years ago on Alias, an anti-heroine/antagonist more vital and intriguing than the show’s lead, and leaden, emotionally tone-deaf dialogue.
And now, thanks to the WGA strike, we’ve been confronted with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a new take on a beloved franchise that debuted in 1984 — a bit later than those others, but still well within that warm nostalgic glow that old sci-fi tends to cast.
While the Terminator movies are more highly regarded, in general, than the television series mentioned above, that actually makes the show harder to swallow. The time-traveling premiere and subsequent episodes feature long, foreboding speeches from the main character — a paranoid single mother predicting doom and apocalypse at every turn — played by Lena Headey, best known for being an intense but replaceable beauty in genre flick 300. The young man at the center of the story is played by Thomas Dekker, straight from Heroes where his intriguing storyline switched horses midstream before ditching him altogether. His John Connor spends most of the premiere declining to do anything interesting, flirting with decade-old “hacker rehab” behavioral problems, and mostly shivering in fear. The third lead, played by the strange, robotically beautiful Summer Glau (Firefly), isn’t even human: she’s a new Terminator model who spends every moment straddling the roles of father, big sister and love interest with a barely concealed, subversive glee.
An entire show about a time-displaced family of three which spends most of its time freaking out and hiding in seemingly abandoned houses? An whole show about a single mother’s constant acts of terrorism and sabotage against a conspiracy that may not even exist? Given the demographic makeup of the leads, one might imagine a mutant cross between Gilmore Girls and the Ashley Judd vehicle Bug — and one wouldn’t be too far off with that diagnosis.
So why on earth should this show succeed where Bionic so spectacularly failed? And how on earth can America be expected to swallow a bizarre, complex story so far off from the niche division between mainstream women’s comedies and dramas, and men’s adventure stories? By following the Battlestar model more closely than Bionic Woman ever imagined possible, Terminator succeeds, full throttle. Not a scene of this story goes by without an emotional high point, a truly funny line of dialogue, a believable and heartbreaking interaction between family members, or a suddenly brutal surprise — and this last, usually performed shockingly by one of the leads, without warning. All of these are Battlestar hallmarks, and of the desires of the sophisticated TV audience of 2008. Where “family,” “honor,” “identity” and “respect” are gestures for Bionic, invoked with all the subtlety of an American Idol hopeful’s sadsack sob story, Terminator keeps them center stage, upending whole scenes and stories around them to explore their darker crannies and corners.
The characters are real, inhabited completely, in a way that could take most shows an entire half-season to coalesce. The pacing is dramatic, moving and often terrifying. Most of all, the show treats its female leads as real women, never forgetting that they are more than simple incubating grounds for violence. By turning these expectations on their heads — and by making the end of the world as we know it a metaphor for the terrors and vulnerability of pregnancy and parenthood — Terminator even proves itself a viable critique of television stereotype. By subjecting characters and audience alike to an almost unbearably fierce pace and pressure, and bringing that into balance with its quiet, emotional portraiture of a family in crisis, Terminator proves to be as unique and powerful an experience as we’ve had in a few seasons.
We can hope that Bionic Woman takes a few pointers from this scruffy upstart; TV is finally big enough to carry multiple sci-fi tales about women driven to super-powered violence. We can hope that the writer’s strike ends soon, and safely enough for everybody involved, and for our favorite shows. But it’s possible that, in the end, it’s the shows that were given a chance by the strike and knocked it clean out of the park, like Terminator, that we’ll remember about the fucked-up winter season of 2008.
All of which is to say, thank Tinkerbell Jesus I’m not recapping it.