Friday, August 29, 2008

"I'll be back!"

The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a recent SF series. It’s a spin-off from the famous movie franchise. It tries to stay faithful to the original premise, and—to that extent—reflects the limitations of the original, but it also takes it in a new direction. The most interesting developments occur in two later episodes (“The Demon Hand,” “What He Beheld”). More on that later.

This time around, Sarah Connor is played by Lena Headey, an elegant Englishwoman. There are certain problems, both with the character and the casting.

Sarah Connor is heir to the women’s lib tradition of the kickboxing superheroine. It’s a tedious, unconvincing convention which is foisted on us by Hollywood feminism.

This is exacerbated by the fact that Headey is not as gutsy as Linda Hamilton in the part.

Not only doesn’t she look the part, but she doesn’t sound the part. Like most beautiful women, Headley has a soprano speaking voice, which doesn’t work very well when she’s trying to belt out lines like a drill sergeant.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have strong female characters. But the part should be written in such a way as to play to feminine strengths, not masculine strengths.

For example, if you going to cast a beautiful woman in the role, the logical way to write the part is for the character to outwit the enemy by making deceptive use of her charm and beauty. It’s no mystery that beautiful women have a certain power over men, and can use that to get their way. The femme fatal is the classic example.

And it can be used for good as well as evil. A Mata Hari type.

Of course, that doesn’t work on a Cyborg, but the development of the Skynet program is dependent on various human beings.

To some extent, Sarah’s protectiveness of John reflects a native, maternal instinct. But human females lack the natural equipment of a she-bear or lioness. They weren’t designed to raise the young all by themselves.

And there’s something incongruous about a mother trying to physically protect a teenage boy.

This is not to say that casting Headley in the role is a total failure. She’s a fine actress. When she’s allowed to be feminine, she’s very effective. And she’s more appealing than Hamilton.

Up to a point, Thomas Dekker is okay in the part of John Connor. He’s boyish enough to be fairly convincing as a teenager. And his slight build is fine for a computer nerd.

However, it’s hard to see him as the future Savior of mankind. He doesn’t come across as a natural leader or inspirational figure. He’s just a kid.

If the battle with Skynet were purely a case of technological warfare, then a geeky wunderkind could take the lead. But the battle with Skynet also involves hand-to-hand combat with Cyborgs. It takes a warrior to inspire another warrior. To be a leader of commandos. Dekker isn’t cut out to play that role—even if you mentally age him 10 or 20 years.

Beyond the limitations of the actor are the limitations of the character. For a teenage boy, he’s abnormally submissive to his mother. It would be more realistic as well as more dramatically useful if the screenwriters gave him a bit more of an independent streak. It would expose him to danger.

The most interesting character is Cameron Phillips, John’s android bodyguard. She’s another superheroine, and, superficially speaking, she’s even less convincing in the role than Sarah.

But in this case it works because the incongruity is deliberate. Girly-girl ballerina on the outside, hyperalloy combat chassis on the inside.

To some extent she’s a variation on Data. An inhuman machine which will be humanized by its contact with humans.

She starts out as a highly intelligent, but amoral, apathetic machine. Clearly the intention of the producers and screenwriters is to make her more human, even more genuinely feminine. Make the inside correspond to the outside.

However, this raises questions about the whole AI premise. Even if we grant, for the same of argument, that computers can duplicate (or surpass) human intelligence, this doesn’t mean that what it feels like to be human is transferable to a machine. There’s more to humanity than raw intelligence or abstract information.

Our finitude gives rise to certain needs which can either be fulfilled or frustrated. Our fallenness gives rise to sinful emotions or gracious emotions. Our physicality gives rise to certain emotions distinctive to embodiment. Likewise, the process of maturation is distinctive. So is the bond between parents and children, siblings, lovers, age mates, and so on.

Is this really transferable to a machine, albeit an intelligent machine? Is this something an outsider can learn through observation. Or is it something you must actually experience. Something irreducible to the first-person experience of an insider?

At this same time, this makes Cameron unintentionally comical. There’s a childlike frankness about her, because she fails to register the human significance of what she says. She can imitate humans, but it’s literally skin-deep.

Another problem is that Sarah sends Cameron on various assignments, or takes Cameron with her. The problem with this is that while Cameron is uniquely equipped to perform certain assignments, her absence leaves John defenseless. Kickboxing and bullets are no match for a terminator. Only a terminator can square off against another terminator.

A couple of male actors play father figure types to John. And the character of an FBI agent is played with emotional depth and complexity by Richard Jones.

The most interesting development in the first season is the religious turn. At one point Sarah says: “There are things machines can never do. They cannot possess faith, they cannot commune with God. They cannot appreciate beauty, they cannot create art.”

And John says that Cameron will never have a soul. Of course, the producers and screenwriters may have the characters say some of this to later prove them wrong.

Ellison and Silberman get into a conversation about Bible prophecy, from Matthew and Revelation. Ellison also conducts a group Bible study.

There are some other nice touches, of things we take for granted, such as Derek walking barefoot in the autumn leaves.

There’s a scene in which Derek takes John to the park. There they see younger, earlier versions of Derek and his kid brother, who is John’s father (Kyle).

This raises a time-travel paradox. If you travel back in time, could you bump into your younger double? Can two of you coexist at the same time?

What if, at that point, one of you were killed? Would the other die as well? Is there a causal asymmetry between the younger and older self or selves? If, at that point, the younger version were killed, would the older version survive? Conversely, if—at that point—the older version were killed, would the younger version survive?

These are deep metaphysical questions which the episode doesn’t attempt to answer. Like the bedroom scene of Cameron dancing the Pas de Chat, it’s poignant, but is a realistic—even if you grant the narrative assumptions (AI, time-travel)?


  1. I'm a big fan of this show.

    Your objection that it should have been written so as not to undercut gender-stereotypes is problematic for three reasons. First, because not all women in real life fit the stereotype, whether you like it or not. Second, because a woman who fits all the stereotypes would not be entertaining to watch. And third, because you are reinforcing the stereotype of evangelicals as backwards and gender-repressive.

  2. Sarah Connor == Sarah Palin who will hopefully terminate, figuratively speaking, pro-abortionists Obama and Biden.