While it presents itself in many different forms with subtle variations on theme, most science fiction can essentially be boiled down to the great debate of science versus religion and what could possibly occur when we use science to play the role of God. That’s what The X-Files was about, it’s what Lost and Battlestar Galactica are about, and it’s certainly what this serialized incarnation of James Cameron’s seminal blockbuster franchise is all about.

All too aware of the unparalleled length of the shadow in which it stands, series producers Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna (whose involvement goes all the way back to T2) have wasted no time in finding both their own voice with the series and a bold new direction. Having already established that Sarah Connor was dead by the time of Terminator 3, and knowing John was a child in T2 the series utilized the pre-existing plot device of time travel, cleverly or conveniently depending on how you read it, to slot itself in-between the two.

This time travel device also allows for a pretzel-plotted narrative whereby rebels and machines can pop up in the timeline to offer new threats or vital clues to preventing the apocalypse and keep this from becoming one long, tired chase serial. Latching onto the “no fate” idea first put forth by James Cameron, the series stars Lena Headey as Sarah, waging an endless guerilla war against Skynet, a malevolent AI from the future scouring the past to exterminate her son John (Thomas Dekker), the future leader of the human resistance.

At her side is Derek Reese (90210’s Brian Austin Green), Kyle’s brother, sent back through time to aide her, and Cameron (Summer Glau), a reprogrammed terminator, sent by John from the future to be his bodyguard in the past. On her trail is former FBI agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones), a devout Christian and skeptic who, much like Scully in the X-Files, clings to his faith fastidiously but can’t deny the things that he has seen. Hard at work in the shadows is infiltrated terminator Catherine Weaver, a T-1001 disguised as the CEO of a tech-corporation specializing in the development of AI, scooping up terminators to reverse engineer the Skynet technology.

If it sounds complicated, it’s because it is a little. This show does not reward casual interest and makes no attempt to spoon feed the audience. You are expected to know the mythology, be familiar with the series timeline, and you’re expected to keep up. For those who are able it’s a rich and rewarding experience, boasting a talented ensemble with an intricate dynamic, with more layers than a wedding cake. As the somewhat damaged Rambette, Lena Headey is superb as the dutiful but melancholic Sarah, pushing her son away with every step she takes to ensure his survival. John Conner by all accounts has every right to be the most pissed off teenager in the history of the universe, yet Dekker never resorts to mere canned angst when portraying the Jesus like figure of John, humanity’s savior.

Shirley Manson, who raised one or two eyebrows with the news she was coming aboard for the role of Weaver, now seems like an inspired piece of casting, as if a better actress would somehow diminish the all important austerity. But the star of the show is undoubtedly Summer Glau as Cameron, who sadly has found herself on the fringe somewhat this second season, as the show looks to include more peripheral characters. A classically trained ballerina, Glau effortlessly showcases the posture and body language pioneered by Schwarzenegger, but it’s the eyes that make the difference here – alive with curiosity, yet at the same time as dead as cold, hard metal.

Obviously, this series has neither the budget nor the resources to try and emulate James Cameron’s industrial horror, and to its credit it never pretends otherwise. While the Terminator franchise is at its most basic an Ouroboros chase thriller with biblical overtones, Vajna and Kassar realize that a terminator of the week idea would get old pretty quickly. While there is plenty of action here, this story is really about the gaps in between the battle; the downtime spent reflecting, the search for answers, and the struggle against faltering will. How do you build a life knowing that your destiny has been chosen for you? How do you live when you know you’re going to die?

Having been on the bubble for the first half of this season, Fox kept faith and ordered a full season pick-up which will now run through April. Sadly, they also elected to move it to partner the newly premiering Dollhouse, giving Fox a sci-fi Friday night double bill on a night when 95% of its target audience is unlikely to be sat in front of the television. We can only hope such a foolish decision doesn’t spell the termination of this unique and worthy edition to the Terminator universe that not only builds on the existing mythology, but takes it to a whole new place.

Starring: Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau, Brian Austin Green, Richard T. Jones
Created By: Josh Friedman
Network: Fox

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