Post #4: “I’ll Be Back” to the Future: Past and Present in the ‘Terminator’ Series (Part 3)
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Thursday July 3 2014
Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles (TSCC) had two seasons in 2008 and 2009 and is the deepest exploration of Terminator mythology of all the post-Cameron entries. Bear McCreary, the series’ music maestro, described the series as a direct sequel to T2, and indeed the first shot of the pilot episode is of a highway at night, the same as the closing shot of T2. The series engages with the Terminator mythology in nuanced ways, but also builds on it.
Cameron is an unknown model of terminator sent back from 2027 by future John to protect his younger self. She uses phrases familiar from other good guys in the series like “come with me if you want to live” (figure 1) and “we have to go. Now.”
But in a masterful move the series consistently explores and problematizes Cameron’s ethical character. She may be one of the good guys, but all it takes is for her CPU to be damaged and her original programming, to eliminate John Connor, returns (“Samson and Delilah”, 2.1). The ambiguity of her character is expressed in the opening scene of the episode “The Demon Hand” (1.7). Dressed like a motorcycle cop (figure 3), Cameron looks exactly like Robert Patrick’s liquid metal terminator from T2 (figure 2) and the special features on the DVD confirm that the actress wanted the exact same pair of glasses worn by Patrick. The creators named this terminator “Cameron” in an homage to James Cameron, but the name also indicates this entry’s affinity to the philosophy of T1 and T2. To a knowledgeable audience, then, Cameron is reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s T-800 from T2 and T3, but at the same time is radically unpredictable.
A side note: I wonder if the title of “The Demon Hand” was inspired by “Demon with a Glass Hand”, a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits by Harlan Ellison. Pre-2001 several media outlets mistakenly claimed that Ellison sued Cameron with the claim that “Demon with a Glass Hand” inspired T1. Ellison has since said that his (successful) suit claimed that T1 plagiarized a different episode of his (“Soldier”), but “Demon with a Glass Hand” has so entered mainstream consciousness that the claim can still be found on The Terminator’s Wikipedia page. Another nod to this is that the FBI Special Agent who becomes embroiled with the Connors and the terminators pursuing them is named (James) Ellison. Through the title of this episode TSCC’s producers are acknowledging this history while also drawing attention to a central conceit of the Terminator series: so that no one will reverse engineer Skynet technology, every part must be destroyed. This episode revolves around the Connors searching for a T-888 arm that had been severed in a previous episode and then lost to police custody (figure 4). “The Demon Hand” refers to a whole history of the series, stretching all the way back to Cyberdyne’s retrieval of one of the first T-800’s arms from the factory that Sarah destroyed it in (a deleted scene from T1 makes this explicit). So the terminators are the demons of the title, and that includes Cameron. Even though she protects John, she too can be a demon, as revealed in the conclusion of this episode, when she allows an innocent woman to be killed. Yet another layer is the Christian symbolism of the series that becomes especially prominent in this episode with the revelation of Ellison’s faith and Dr. Silberman’s belief that Sarah heralds the Apocalypse. Both Silberman and Ellison describe the terminator’s hand as the “hand of God.”
TSCC turns on Sarah and John’s desire to prevent the war and a re-assertion individual will. Sarah’s voiceover in the opening sequence is relevant here:
SARAH: In the future, my son will lead mankind in a war against Skynet, the computer system programmed to destroy the world. Machines have been sent back through time, some to kill him, one to protect him. Today we fight to stop Skynet from ever being created, to change our future--to change his fate. The war to save mankind begins now.
In the pilot episode Cameron saves John and Sarah from another Skynet assassin, and the three of them prepare to cross into Mexico and go into hiding. John, however, convinces his mother to make a stand instead of run because he rejects his future role as the leader of the Resistance.
JOHN: Why is this happening again?
SARAH: I don't know.
JOHN: You stopped it.
SARAH: I guess I didn't.
JOHN: Well, you can. You changed the future. You just didn't change it enough. So you can do it again.
SARAH: I don't know, John.
JOHN: I can't keep running. I can't. I'm not who they think I am. Some messiah.
Sarah agrees with her son, but is unsuccessful in her first attempt to track Skynet. Cameron eventually takes them to a bank vault that contains a time-traveling device, which they use to jump from 1999 to 2007, quite literally skipping the events of T3, which took place in 2004.
CAMERON: You want to find Skynet? You want to stop Skynet? This is the way.
SARAH: You don’t know who builds it!
CAMERON: No, but we know where, and we know when. We can go kill it before it’s born. We can stop running, stay in one place. Fight.
Cameron later reveals that Skynet goes on-line in 2011 (which seemingly contradicts T3, unless the timeline has been changed by Cameron’s time-travel), and the series chronicles the trio’s search for early versions of Skynet. In the second-season episode “Earthlings Welcome Here” (2.13), Sarah, following up another clue that she thinks will help her destroy Skynet, imagines a younger version of herself carving “no fate” into the restaurant table (figure 5), an echo of T2 and a reminder to the character and the audience of the guiding philosophy of TSCC.
The series ends with John traveling forward in time to 2027, only to discover that the future soldiers don’t know who “John Connor” is. Whereas other Terminator entries seem to depend on the “predestination paradox”--that the war must happen for John to exist, TSCC posits that the time travel creates another universe with different outcomes (“we work on a string theory”, actor Brian Austin Green, who played Derek Reese in the series, explained). Does John even exist in this timeline? Does the T3 timeline exist in another universe? A pet theory I have: older John who leads the Resistance is actually younger John who time-traveled to fill that role--an idea partly confirmed by Green in the same interview linked above (“What better situation for somebody to grow up in and become the future leader than that?”) and the fuzzy but still recognizable appearance of younger John in a flash-forward in the episode “Dungeons and Dragons” (1.6). In any case, TSCC truly shows that there is no fate but what we make.
Given the amount of space I devoted to talking about TSCC (and I envision another post on its treatment of the singularity soon), I clearly found the TV series’ vision and exploration of issues brought up in earlier entries more intriguing than the final entry in this Terminator continuity, Salvation.
Salvation returns the audience to T3‘s ideas about fate. The entire film takes place in 2018 during the war between the human Resistance and Skynet--the ultimate in pessimism, appropriate for a post-2008 Financial Crisis World. Judgment Day has already happened, and there’s no sense that John or any other Resistance fighters wants or is able to prevent the war from from happening. John’s objective is to protect a young Kyle Reese because he has to travel back in time to protect and have a child with Sarah (in other words, so T1 can still happen--the predestination paradox again). At one point Skynet captures Kyle and John wants to retrieve him, but he is blocked by his superiors.
JOHN: Skynet has Kyle Reese.
GENERAL: Then that is his fate.
JOHN: No, it’s our fate. I have to save him. He is the key. The key to the future, to the past. Without him, we lose everything.
Kyle, in other words, is a nexus point for continuity, connecting Salvation in multiple ways to Terminator continuity--without the events of Salvation, the series would not exist. John’s struggle between individual will and fate parallel the same struggle with the first infiltrator unit, Marcus, that I discussed in the last post. Just as Marcus rejects his Skynet programming at the film’s climax in favor of helping John, so too John ignores the higher-ups in the Resistance and sneaks into Skynet central alone to rescue Reese. His decision to do so is spurred by listening to a tape of his mother, (figure 6) the very one she is seen recording in the last scene of T1. Linda Hamilton recorded new lines for the tape, which demonstrates Salvation’s desire to recall but also build on previous entries. For the first time since T1, the original photograph of Sarah taken at the end of T1 appears on-screen, held by John as he ponders the future (figure 7). “But this is not the future you promised,” he intones before he goes to save Kyle and ensure the continued existence of the Terminator series.
Figures 6 and 7: At a critical moment in Salvation, John considers the picture of his mother taken at the end of T1 as he listens to a tape that she made in T1. Since neither the tape nor the photo appear in any other of the series entries post-T1, Salvation is staking a claim to fidelity to the “original“ source.
John’s words at the end of Salvation echo the “no fate” phrase from previous entries but also renew its relevance in the context of Salvation: “This is John Connor. There is no fate but what we make.” By fulfilling his future, John has fulfilled his mother’s past. In spite of the claims of production staff in the DVD featurette “Reforging the Future” that Salvation is completely different from other entries, Salvation is a conservative vision of the Terminator universe where the past dictates the future in a closed loop. In the trailer John doubts whether what his mother said would happen--it seems that Kyle might die and John is not (yet) the leader of the Resistance--but by the end of the film events are back on the course to cause the events of the other entries. In the end Salvation makes the same claim as T3: there is an inevitability to history, but human beings still have to fight for the future.
The phrase “No fate but what we make” is construed differently throughout the Terminator series. In some it refers to the characters’ ability to make the best of what they have and to act in the present to ensure the future. In others, it refers to the characters’ ability to change the future for the better. James Cameron has revealed on a few occasions, most recently on the Q&A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith, that he sold the rights to Terminator in the ‘90s and is not overly concerned with the series any more. To some, this means that the creative genius behind the films is gone and that entries after T2 are cynical cash-grabs. There is, of course, an element of this, but all of the Terminator entries also show our society’s changing relationship with technology and humanity’s ability to shape the course of history. And I’m excited to see how next year’s Terminator: Genisys treats the theme of an aging machine.
This is my last post on the Terminator series, though I do have an idea for a short post about the Singularity in TSCC that I will probably post very soon. My next post will analyze the most recent film in the Predator series, Predators (2010).