The Sarah Connor Chronicles: “Strange Things Happen at the One Two Point”

Sarah Connor

Humans and their thinking, autonomous creations have had a rough relationship for a long damn time and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (T:SCC) was looking to change that, right around the time it got canceled. I’ve gone off at great length about what I call the twin heads of this relationship, namely “the Pinocchio Complex” and the “Frankenstein/Shellian Syndrome” (again, 1 here, 2 here, 3 here, 4 here, 5 here, 6 here, 7 here, 8 here, and most recently 9 right here ). Pinocchio Complex stories are those where the creation wants to be a “Real Boy,” and, in the end, to some degree or another, gets to be. In Frankenstein/Shellian Syndrome (F/SS) stories, the creation may start out wanting to be real or it may start out confused or with a clear purpose–but the hubris of the creator is shown and she is forced to try to destroy it, ultimately being destroyed by it. This last has been around at least since the ancient tale of the Golem created by a Rabbi to wipe the land clean of those who would oppress and kill Jews, and that really speaks to the age of this feeling, in humanity.

[ad#longpost]Noted and notable futurist Jamais Cascio has spoken very clearly about what this strain in representative fiction meas to our “real world operations” with what he calls Autonomous Created Intelligence, in his Laws of Robotics, but my concern is the same thing, from a slightly different angle. I believe that our fiction reflects our hopes and fears, but it also helps shape them. This means that, if we make Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror that shows warring factions coming to a better relationship, rather than a plain old victim/victor model, we’ll see that as more and more possible. As I said in my Splice review, it’s long past time for Science Fiction to move beyond this simplistic “Kill The Monster Or Make It Real” dichotomy into more of a “recognition, integration and correction of our failures” kind of place, and I think T:SCC was on it’s way to doing just that.

T:SCC was developing a interesting narrative, consisting of changing the nature of the interaction between machine and human, about exploring what living in a post-apocalyptic world does to the psychology of the people who, though used to living in it, are now living somewhen else (it shows in the little things like what happens when they hear a dog bark, or how they brush their teeth). It was serious about the business of developing and exploring the existent complexity in the interactions of its characters, not shying away from the fact of them. People had different desires, agendas, plans, and preferences–all of which meant that, even if their end goal was the same (i.e. Stop Skynet), the actions by which they tried to get there were very different. In other words, the show was Smart. And I could go off for days and days about the characterisation of humans and machines, and what it means that such a smart show was canceled…but I don’t think you want to hear me whine. What I want to talk about is exactly how I started this extended rant: Humans and their autonomous creations have had a rough relationship in fiction, for a long time, T:SCC seemed to be trying to change that, and then it was canceled.

Skynet shirt

So, before we continue, some background, if you don’t know what the hell I’ve been yammering on about this whole time: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (T:SCC) is an American television show which ran from 2008 to 2009. The plot concerns the continuing lives of Sarah and John Connor within James Cameron’s Terminator universe. It picked up a few years after the events of T:2, and pulled the two main characters eight years into the future, skipping over the events of the third film in the franchise. T:SCC got two seasons, with the first season foreshortened to nine episodes due to a mid-season start and the early 2008 WGA writer’s strike. The second season had a full compliment of twenty-two episodes, after which the show was canceled, making thirty-one total episodes. A number of factors went into the cancellation of the show, but they all boil down to the thing that usually always cancels a show: low ratings. There were not enough eyes on the screen at time of air.

Now, I’m not going to use this space to go off on a rant about time-shifted viewing being just one major aspect of a vast landscape shift, the whole of which needs to be taken into account for the sake of the continuation of serialised entertainment, even if I think that’s something that really needs to be talked about. This isn’t really the place for that. And, like I said, it’s not the place for is talking about the fact that television networks recently seem extremely eager to cancel smart television, as soon as it doesn’t conform to the older ratings models; to know that, just look at your TV-scape these days and you will see a vast, shallow sea of “reality-based” and soap-operatic mediocrity, pocked with little islands of extraordinarily complex, engaging shows, and these latter islands are constantly in danger of sinking. I do think that problem is an interesting one, though, so I’ll say this: Think about it. Anyway, now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, let’s talk about why you’re all here: Killer Robots are Awesome and Summer Glau is Hot. Am I right? Yeah, I thought so.

To be fair, killer robots are completely awesome, even as they’re completely terrifying, and that’s what keeps us coming back to the Terminator franchise, even when it hurts us. To be completely honest, I was swayed by Internet rumour mills, and I went to see Terminator: Salvation based primarily on the vain hope that the film was going to be the proper ending to T:SCC. So great was my love for ass-kicking robots, deeply complex readings of “artificial intelligence” and the awesome, crazy stuff they pulled in that show, that I convinced myself that the movie had to be following from that timeline. And I was wrong. The show and the film had nothing to do with each other, and we are all poorer, because of it. The machines and cyborgs in the show were far more interesting, to me, than anything that film had to offer.

Though there was some complaint about a “Terminator of the week” kind of vibe in some of the episodes of the show, there are really only four important Artificial Intelligences in the T:SCC universe: Cameron, John’s cyborg protector in the form of a young girl, sent to blend in as a part of the Connor Family and to serve as a companion for John’s younger self; Cromartie, the cyborg hunting the Connors through time and changes of body; “Catherine Weaver”, the T-1001 model that has come back through time, killed two people and assumed the form of one of them to run her vast electronics and computing software firm (sounds both ominous and obvious, right?); and John Henry, the AI created by Weaver’s company, and taught and raised by humans (bwhuuu?!). Now each of these machines showcases a different kind of development in the course of the series and each of the kinds of development is a piece of a very important puzzle: and the title of that puzzle is “How Do We Learn?” When we look at what Cameron learns from her time with the Connors–the things, actions, and opinions that matter to her–it’s a different set of things than Cromartie learns from Agent Ellison (the FBI agent hunting Sarah Connor, following the Destruction of Cyberdyne in 1995), which is in turn a different set from the concerns and lessons of Catherine Weaver, which are different from John Henry’s lessons. It’s the way in which those lessons interconnect that matters.

The beauty of this show is in the intricate, subtle interplay of the characters–human and cyborg/machine–and how what they learn, what they know, and what they don’t know that they’ve learned…all play off of each other and create lives and a world, while they are all in the midsts of seeking to not just save but literally create and sustain their futures. Now, the show is ostensibly about the human element: human reactions to robots, robots impacting the lives of humans, OMG Uncanny Valley, blah blah blah. If you can’t tell, by now, let me put it simply: I think that’s boring. I’m not saying that there isn’t useful, interesting fiction there, mind you, just that I’m bored by it, because it has been done to death. Yes, human psychology is a fascinating thing. Yes, the end of the world (personal and collective) is deeply affecting. Yes, stress and change and madness all take their toll on the mind living in the constant glut of it, and watching that can be deeply jarring, on an emotional level. But I know all that, already. What I don’t know is: what is the psychology of a created intelligence? Why does Skynet persist in viewing us as a threat to itself, seeking to hunt us down to the irrational end of self-fulfilling prophecy? What does a machine that is programmed to feel… feel? There are some really interesting tastes of this in T:SCC and I would now like to talk about them, at length.

I don’t even think I should have to talk about spoilers at this point, so if you haven’t seen it yet and want to stop here and let what I’ve said so far stand to convince you to read it, that’s cool. Just bookmark this page, and come on back after you’re done over at Netflix or whatever. Otherwise, let’s get to the heart of this thing. Let’s talk about these robots.

On to Page 2.


  • This very thoughtful piece asks more questions than it answers — not a bad thing, and certainly not surprising, considering its author.

    Much as I appreciate Wolven’s attempt to avoid blatantly whining about the cancellation of T:TSCC, the truth that rings loudest throughout the article has everything to do with the show’s cancellation: there were thought-provoking, challenging themes present in the show’s narrative that weren’t enough to keep the series a viable player in Nielsen’s numbers game.

    I’m one of those that didn’t tune in (and therefore arguably contributed to the show’s untimely demise). I remember hearing about the upcoming series and being vaguely interested. I remember some hauntingly evocative images of Summer Glau as a half-constructed robot. But let me level with you: the TV promos completely turned me off. They featured “the voice of Fox” (that irritatingly canned deep male voiceover that we are all nauseatingly familiar with), lightning-fast cuts, loud sounds — all things that say to me: “Quick! Change the channel! You don’t want this mindless garbage!”

    I think it’s fair to say that at least some folks changed the channel like me. I think it’s also fair to assume that some folks who tuned in looking for mindless kersplosions discovered the deeper themes that would have captivated me and got bored. When the network does a bad job of getting the word out in a way that truly connects with the RIGHT AUDIENCE, it falls to those fans who find the show on their own to get the word out. And that takes time–too much time, in most cases.

    But enough about that. If, like me, you’re still working your way through the episodes in your Netflix queue, Wolven’s article should give you lots of incentive to keep going.

    I mean, isn’t it amusing that within the progressive frontier of science fiction we so often see the same old story lines played out? Wolven’s illustration of the ways T:TSCC subverted the traditional “man v. machine” story arc should excite you.

    But I do respectfully disagree on one point. Wolven wrote that “the show is ostensibly about the human element…I think that’s boring…because it has been done to death.” I would argue that in analyzing the psychological development of a machine, particularly the way the AI in T:TSCCare influenced and shaped by their human interactions, Wolven invites an irresistible discourse on human responsibility that is anything but boring.

  • Neuronimo:

    Thank you for your comments, and I will definitely agree that the the idea of human responsibility and of people actually taking and holding that responsibility in a mature and novel way, rather than simply trying to destroy their creations, is something that T:SCC was doing really well.

    And that probably contributed to its being canceled.

    People often don’t want to hear that they may have to take a long term role in their salvation, rather than simply blowing some shit up, and hoping for the best, and waiting for someone else to fix it, for them. John Connor.

    Moving John from given saviour to fallible human boy, showing him being a fuck up, showing him struggling to find a way out of this war that didn’t end with millions, Billions dead, isn’t the kind of thing a lot of people want to see. But I think it’s exactly the kind of thing they need to see, and I really hope that those of us who can recognise that will keep doing what we can to make and distribute this calibre of story, in the future.