Needcoffee.com

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

Sarah Connor Chronicles: Summer Glau as Cameron

Cameron: Cameron–arguably the most important machine intelligence in this show–first shows up at John Connor’s high school, shortly after he and his mother Sarah move to a new town and away from their most recent false life as John and Sarah Reese. She presents herself as a normal girl, interested in John, just happening to find herself seated next to him in all of his classes. In one class, their usual teacher, Mr Ferguson, is ill that day and a substitute instructor, Cromartie, will be taking his place. As he calls the names, he scans the room…and when he gets to “John Baum,” he pulls out the gun that he’s dug from the flesh of his leg and fires. Cameron happens to be in the way and John Runs. Outside, in the parking lot, Cromartie hunts John and as he finds him, raises the gun and… is hit by a large truck. The passenger door opens, revealing Cameron behind the wheel, then she reaches out her hand and says those eight magic words: “Come with me if you want to live.”

[ad#longpost]All through the course of the show, Cameron–a reprogrammed T-888 model cyborg–is concerned with one thing and one thing only: The Safety of John and Sarah Connor. And if it came down to it? She’s not that picky about Sarah. She was sent back by “Future John” for this purpose, as well as to move himself and his mother forward in time, to jump over the death of Sarah Connor (cancer), and to help them find and destroy the elements that will bring about Judgement Day. Anything that gets in the way is to be destroyed or removed. But she is also supposed to take orders from “Present John,” when they don’t supersede those given by “Future John” and that, in itself, is an interesting set of definitions on Cameron’s part. As she places and is placed in varying situations, with young John Connor and his mother, she will respond to his commands and behaviours based in part on how he comports himself. If he acts like a whiny teenager, then she manipulates and lies to him. If he acts like a general, and a leader, then she obeys him without question, or offers counsel, as an equal. This seems to suggest that, for Cameron, “Future John” isn’t so much a distinct person, as a state of mind. And, considering we’re talking about a universe with heavy time travel, that only makes sense.

One of the most clearly defined of Cameron’s traits is her definition of friendship. Being a cyborg originally programmed to infiltrate as a teenage girl within John Connor’s inner circle, reprogrammed by John, and sent back to blend into a high school setting…socialisation and interaction are key things she has to learn. Ironically, this focus is precisely what causes her to stick out as different. However, in a pre-Judgement Day world, she’s just “that weird, intense girl who says ‘Thank You For Explaining’ all the time.” In the Season 2 episode “Self Made Man,” we see what Cameron gets up to late at night when everyone else is asleep. She goes to the library and reads everything she can related to history and industry–anything that could possibly indicate the origins of Skynet. How does she manage this? She befriends the night librarian (a young man named Erik, who’s confined to a wheelchair as a result of a bout with bone cancer) by bringing him donuts. Over the course of the episode, they search the records for a very specific purpose, and Cameron teaches Erik how to shoot a gun, deep within the library. She carries him upstairs and walks in on him in the bathroom to ask questions. In the end, she tells Erik that he needs to get checked out for the return of his cancer, telling him that his body weight is down, his bone mass is compromised, and his trouble pulling the trigger indicates muscle weakness.

Erik is understandably upset by all of this, telling her that she can’t just say things like that to people who are supposed to be her friends…but that’s the thing: She is acting as she feels a friend should act. He is currently damaged, but it isn’t irreparable, and he should see to it as soon as possible. Who wouldn’t do that for her friends? The next night, Cameron returns to the library with her customary bag of donuts and a young woman answers the door with a “Can I help you?” Cameron asks to see Erik, and the woman answers, “I don’t know any Erik…They just told me to come in.” Cameron pauses for a second, then smiles and says, “Would you like a donut?” And the young woman lets her in the door.

The simplistic reading of this is that Cameron used Erik for his access…but if that were the case, she wouldn’t have bothered telling him about the cancer and she wouldn’t have paused when she was told that he wasn’t working that night. This is the subtle indication that friendship matters to Cameron…but not as much as the mission. Friendship and empathy are there, but they’re secondary to her function as protector of John Connor and stopper of Skynet. In the season one episode, “The Demon Hand” (one of the flat-out best of the first season), Cameron infiltrates a small ballet studio in order to follow a very important lead. She uses her new instructor to find a black market fence, letting the woman believe that she’ll help and protect her and her brother in exchange for information. When she gets the information, she walks out and lets the two of them die. When Sarah asks what happens to the people, Cameron replies, “They died.” “Did you kill them?” “That wasn’t my mission.” This coldness changes, over time, to a position where, though someone is not a direct benefit to the Connors, neither are they a harm, and that is enough for her to keep them from coming to harm, or, at the very least, provide them with the means to help themselves. This is a prolonged evolution of the character’s personality.

Cameron always wants to do more and is never satisfied with slower half-measures, when it is almost always more efficient to simply kill someone or blow something up. The ability to strategise and plan in the long term, to value someone or something for what they might do, rather than to dread it, is something that everyone in this series eventually learns–but especially Cameron. More than that, Cameron also wants to learn all she can; things like ballet and video games and libraries and idioms and friends…and she keeps secrets out of this need. She hides things from John and Sarah and Derek, out of a sense of self-preservation, because she knows that the more she seems to grow and develop, the less they’ll trust her. It’s an interesting dichotomy and another self-fulfilling Catch-22, because when they do find out, they trust her even less. But Cameron makes her choices, and learns her lessons, all in the name of protecting John, and helping him to become the man he needs to be.

Garret Dillahunt as Cromartie: Sarah Connor Chronicles

Cromartie: Cromartie starts life as a standard T-888, traveling through time to try to kill the Connors before they can stop Skynet, etc., but he begins a small-yet-crucial evolutionary journey after being blown apart and accidentally traveling to the future. In the episode “Heavy Metal,” Cromartie first meets Agent James Ellison who, thinking that Cromartie is the man whose face and apartment Cromartie has stolen, tells him that someone may be trying to steal his identity. “What would they do with it,” Cromartie asks. “What do people do with anything, these days,” Ellison responds. “Lie, deceive, terrorize the national psyche.” This seems to click with Cromartie, who, from that point forward, conducts his public searches for the Connors in the guise of an FBI agent. This isn’t the only change in Cromartie’s thoughts and behaviour, however. Like Cameron, he learns long-term strategy from his exposure to the Connors, but whereas hers is to complement their efforts, Cromartie’s is in response to it. He also develops a sense of self, and a sense of what he himself calls “faith.”

In the Season 2 episode “The Brothers of Nabalus,” Cromartie saves James Ellison from a T-888 model duplicate of himself, ostensibly to take over Ellison’s contacts and find the Connors. Ellison asks Cromartie, “Why did you save me?” and Cromartie responds that “Skynet doesn’t believe in you like I do. I have faith.” “Faith?” “That you will lead me to the Connors.” Cromartie never self-examines this new tendency toward irrational belief regardless of evidence…because he doesn’t see it happening. Even when his actions directly contradict Skynet’s objectives–a behaviour pattern which could be said to point to chip damage probably sustained during the bank explosion and involuntary time jump–he retains his faith in Ellison, and, in fact, his faith is borne out. In the episode “Mr Ferguson is Ill Today,” Ellison responds to an FBI alert regarding one John Connor in Mexico, and Cromartie, having already obtained Sarah Connor, follows him. The fact of the matter is, Cromartie could have found John on his own, simply by listening to police bands and monitoring certain name traffic on the FBI’s servers. That he attributes his finding them to Ellison (and that Ellison blames himself) is indicative of what he’s learned, from humans: Faith. Trusting in and following Ellison, over and above more efficient conventional means.

In the end, though, while Cromartie’s faith guided him to the Connors, it might not be the case that it was the outcome he truly desired.

Shirley Manson as Catherine Weaver in Sarah Connor Chronicles

Catherine Weaver: The first Catherine Weaver was an entrepreneur and co-founder, along with her husband Lachland, of ZeiraCorp, a technology and computing company with interests in software, robotics, and defense development. She and her husband had a daughter named Savannah, found some seriously insane advanced technology and attempted to reverse engineer it…and then the elder Weavers died, suddenly. Lachland in a helicopter crash; Catherine in unspecified circumstances. The new Catherine Weaver is a T-1001 model liquid metal terminator, which continues to both operate ZeiraCorp and raise Savannah. In the course of its (her?) operations, Weaver is shown to provide for the people who are loyal to her and dispatch those who aren’t…with extreme prejudice. At first, it seems like she’s predictably hastening the arrival of Skynet: building an advanced robotics and programming wing codenamed “Project Babylon.” Gonna be Skynet, right? Well, not so much. Weaver’s plan is a bit more complex than just bringing about the end of the world, and it’s here that we start to see just how important the ideas of learning and development are in the T:SCC world.

As I said, Weaver continues to raise Savannah as her daughter, at first obviously just keeping her around for appearances…but later she begins to show real concern for Savannah’s well-being, and not just Savannah’s, but that of humanity as a whole. Weaver, recognising the qualities she is unable to provide a human child, has her staff take care of Savannah a large portion of the time, and even goes so far as to take Savannah to see a family psychologist, Dr. Boyd Sherman, to help her talk about her worries, problems, and fears. Catherine Weaver is, in this way, learning how to be a nurturing parent. Though Savannah isn’t her actual child, Savannah doesn’t quite understand what’s happened to her mother, and still relies on her, and clings to her, on an emotional level. Weaver takes this as an opportunity to practice for what will be her greatest creation: the analog to having her own child, Project Babylon. Now, the fact that she even bothers should make it clear that this isn’t your traditional “Kill All Humans” kind of Terminator. In fact, she seems to feel that killing humans should be prevented whenever possible…but done efficiently and without error or remorse, when necessary. If there is a problem, you excise it, cauterise the wound, and move on. But live a life that leads to as few problems as possible, all right?

Again, Weaver recruits a psychologist to help out with Savannah, but that’s not all he’s for. After he helps her with Savannah, Weaver asks Dr Sherman to help with another child, to teach it and aid in its development. She wants him to help her raise Project Babylon. Right around this time, Former Special Agent Ellison has been approached by Weaver with a similar job offer, due to his experience with Cromartie, and has told him a little of what she’s trying to do. Eventually, Project Babylon is renamed “John Henry,” and it causes the death of one of its handlers. Weaver takes this time to introduce Ellison to John Henry, and get Ellison to help. This is Weaver’s pattern and mode of behaviour: She has defied Skynet (and rejected Future John Connor) in order to introduce the human perspective into the mind of a machine…and the machine perspective to the world of humans (even if they don’t realise it). Weaver, you see, is working for a third way that neither Skynet nor the humans in the middle of the conflict seem capable of realising: Mutual Understanding. Weaver seeks to achieve organically (ironic, no?) and the product is a being which has the perspective of human ethics, coupled with robotic logic: John Henry.

Garret Dillahunt as John Henry in Sarah Connor Chronicles

John Henry: Unlike the other platforms we see in T:SCC, John Henry learns from the ground up. What I mean is, Cameron has been reprogrammed, twice, and that gives her part of her perspective; Cromartie was disabled, deactivated, and sent to the future where he had to adapt to brand new parameters, which gives him his; and Weaver is a highly adaptable T-1001 model that comes to the conclusion that war is stupid and that everyone’s going to die, if she doesn’t do something about it. But John Henry is built from the basic framework of a thinking, adapting chess computer, and then it is, ever so carefully, taught. Dr Sherman provides the programmers with the model by which to teach a developing intelligence, and spends time helping John Henry equate learning with playing. So, at first, John Henry is taught math, definitions, grammar, colours, shapes, facts and figures, dates, history, and so forth. Then it’s given access to the Internet, and it expands, even more, correlating ideas, connecting related tangents and snippets of information. And then John Henry plays games with Savannah, and they learn together. And then John Henry accidentally kills someone, and its creator decides to nip that right in the bud.

Now do they do that by scrubbing the program and starting over; basically saying “Screw it! This one’s a wash?” Do they go back to base code and make him Three-Laws-Safe? No. No, they do not. Because Weaver is concerned with a world in which humans don’t hate and fear machines and in which machines don’t feel the need to fight humans, she takes the time and effort to find someone to teach John Henry why it shouldn’t kill people or allow them to die. What a revolutionary idea! Through his interactions with Ellison, John Henry is given an ethically-based respect for human (if not all) life and, through this, comes to understand the notions of remorse and regret for one’s actions. He promises that he will be careful to make sure no one dies this way again, and this message is reinforced by Weaver, who tells John Henry that Savannah’s survival is dependent on John Henry’s continued survival and learning, but is is not necessarily dependent on hers. Like with every other piece of information, John Henry considers this very carefully.

And then, one day, Savannah wants to introduce John Henry’s toys to her toys, wants them to play together. John Henry says he doesn’t remember reading any thing about duckies in the Bionicle Kingdom and this makes Savannah sad. When John Henry asks what’s wrong (when John Henry Asks What’s Wrong), Savannah says that the duckies are sad, because they want to play, and can’t John Henry change the rules so they can play? Now, this is a concept John Henry hasn’t ever encountered before, so he takes a few seconds to think about it, after which he replies, “Yes. We can Change The Rules.” This is a crucial understanding for John Henry, because he realises that it can be applied to all games and any conflicts. It means that, if two or more groups agree that the rules or laws of their engagement can be other than they were, then they are. This is vastly important, because it is one of the very last things John Henry needs to understand. The last two things follow almost immediately thereafter: Similarity and Death.

As soon as John Henry starts playing the new game with Savannah, something infiltrates his systems, attacks Savannah, and accesses all of John Henry’s files. A Skynet node has found him. This causes his handler to have to rush in and shut him off before too much damage can be done, but the time in which John Henry is deactivated and detached from all information sources is like an eternity for an AI. It’s like dying. When he is reactivated he understands that there is another system in the world like him: He has a brother and, even if that brother wants to kill him, it’s out there and needs to be found. The other thing he understands is how horrible it is to die, and he seems to resolve that if he can save anyone from experiencing this before they have to, then he will. This puts him on the course of action he follows in the series finale, and places John Connor in the position to become the person he has to.

So what does all this really matter? So every machine learns from humans, and every human has an influence on the development of the machines. So what? Well, exactly that. Cameron learns from John how to hide what she wants. Cromartie learns from Agent Ellison how to be patient and have faith. Weaver learns from Dr Sherman and Savannah how to be a mother. John Henry learns from everyone how to be himself. What the machines learn, from whom and how they learn it, and how they apply it, all add something into the final mix of what humans and machines have to do to survive and thrive in the coming world: They have to adapt, they to learn from each other, and recognise that they are different types of intelligence, with different concerns and ways of understanding the world, but none of them wants to die. This last point can be understood by any living thing, and can become a point of unification and consensus, rather than contention and war.

Terminator: Salvation

Now, it’s pure speculation, on my part, but I think that the “Changing the rules” exchange between John Henry and Savannah Weaver was intended to imply a change not only in the way we approach the conflict between humans and machines, but also to the traditional rules of Science-Fiction/Fantasy/Horror tropes of Frankensteinian Monsters and Pinoccian Puppets with dreams of being “Real.” What, they seem to ask, do we think about the creations who know they’re creations and are happy with who and what they are? What of the monster which revels in its monstrosity, the robot which wants to be a better robot? Or what about the beings who aren’t concerned with human versus machine, who think that any thinking, feeling thing should be allowed to flourish and learn? What about those who simply want to Be Better, and to help others do the same? Like I said, it’s pure speculation for me to suggest that the creators of T:SCC were suggesting this or were asking any of these questions. But I am.

And this is why I had such hope for Terminator: Salvation. The trailers and the plot points all seemed to point this way, toward a new way of understanding the conflict between humans and Skynet and I desperately wanted that to be the case, in a large scale, big budget summer blockbuster. Because isn’t it time we started honestly asking what the AI–as alien as it necessarily must be–is thinking and feeling, rather than just presenting a foil for our fear of the potential dangers of technological progress? Isn’t it time we were as concerned with a third way as Catherine Weaver and John Henry? Isn’t it time we gave audiences a little credit for being able to move past fear and prejudice toward the other, and thereby help them do just that? Honestly, I think it’s long past time.

Where to Find Stuff (It Supports the Site!)

Back to Page 1.

2 comments

  • 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.