Monday, August 25, 2008

From the Archive: "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Season One" DVD Review

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original DVD Review of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Season One."

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
The Sarah Connor Chronicles”
Season 1 DVD Review originally published August 25th, 2008

James Cameron’s two Terminator films are masterpieces; they represent the apex of action films, sci-fi films, and general storytelling.  Terminator 2’s ending is definitive, and after seeing it, I couldn’t imagine the story continuing.  As such, I haven’t seen the third film; James Cameron didn’t have anything to do with it, and fans pretty much hate it.  Fox’s television series, however, seemed rather intriguing.  I missed it when it first aired earlier this year, but that’s what DVD is for.  After hearing some really good things about the show, I went ahead and picked up the DVD set.  Is it a quality DVD set?  Is the show even worth watching?  Both of these questions and more are answered in my review of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Season One.

The Show:
In taking James Cameron’s complex world and turning it into a TV series, creator Josh Friedman and his team had to overcome dozens upon dozens of hurdles; failing at even one of these hurdles would have killed the show.  Before the series started, fans were not enthused about the idea of a TV series, simply based on the monumental amount of ways it could have gone wrong.  First, the creators would have to recast every role, and with so many memorable performances in the Cameron films, it would be tough to the casting justice.  Then the creators would have to come up with a story that could keep the show going week-by-week.  They had to fit their plots completely within the Terminator universe.  The show also has the dubious task of continuing the plot from T2, which was a fairly definitive conclusion, without disrespecting that film.  Furthermore, they had to make Terminator work without Arnold Schwarzenegger.  You would have to be crazy to attempt making a Terminator TV series.

Not only did the creators overcome each one of these hurdles with apparent ease, they gave themselves new, risky challenges each episode to keep the show fresh, and best these challenges as well.  What we get is a show that is a perfect continuation of T2, but also something new and different.  As a Terminator fan, I was in heaven.  This show is as close to perfect as any TV series I’ve ever seen.

Much of the praise must go to the talented cast, led by Lena Headey as the titular heroine, Sarah Connor.  Next to Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah is the most memorable performance from the films, and the idea that anyone could replace her sounded ludicrous at first.  But Headey hits it right on the mark; she takes the essential elements of Hamilton’s performance, but really makes the character her own.  The performance isn’t an imitation of Hamilton; had she tried that, she would have failed.  Instead, she makes it original while staying true to the character.  Her Sarah is a little more laid back, a little less crazy, but still determined to stop Armageddon and protect her son at any cost.  In short, the character still feels like Sarah Connor, which is the most important thing. 

Thomas Dekker takes the role of John Connor, and does an excellent job.  Throughout season one, many things happen that begin to shape John into the leader he will one day become.  These events can be as obvious as infiltrating a base of villains, or subtle, like when he deals with a classmate’s suicide.  In the 9 episodes that comprise season 1, we get a very real, 3-dimensional view of the character that couldn’t be achieved in the time-frame of the movies.  By the end of the pilot, Dekker’s John was already my favorite character, and the episodes that followed only cemented that.

And then there’s Summer Glau as Cameron, the femme fatale Terminator sent to protect John.  She’s perfect in the role, and the character is extremely endearing; I say that for reasons other than the fact that I’m totally crushing on Summer Glau right now.  The character essentially plays the same role as Schwarzenegger did in T2, but is also very different.  Cameron has a harder time understanding humans, and obviously feels (if a robot can feel) alienated from everyone she hangs around with.  Her attempts to act human are usually greeted coldly by everyone around her, and while we can never be sure of her true allegiance, she’s a character we can root and care for.  

Rounding out the main cast is Richard T. Jones, who is well-cast in the role of FBI agent James Ellison, a character who seems pointless early on, only to become more endearing and important as the show continues.  The cast for Season one is small but powerful, and all of them are excellent.

But the element of the series that most impressed me was the plot.  The 9 episodes in season 1 are only vaguely episodic, and plots continue from episode to episode.  At first, the pilot felt like a well-done remake of T2.  A terminator comes back to kill John.  A terminator comes back to protect John.  John and Sarah run.  Despite the lack of originality, I was enthralled by the production values and the excellent cast, but in the back of my mind, I knew that the show wouldn’t work if this was all they had.

Then, at the end of the first episode, Cameron takes John and Sarah 8 years into the future; Judgment Day was not prevented in T2, but delayed until 2011, so Cameron brings them back 4 before the end of the world to prevent it.  This was certainly an interesting twist, and episode 2 really brought the series into its own.  We find out that future John has sent back multiple resistance fighters, and that the war for the future is essentially being fought in 2007.  T2 started out feeling very similar to the first film, but then becomes its own separate entity, just like The Sarah Connor Chronicles does. 

John and Sarah are still trying to prevent Judgment day, like in T2, but it’s a much more complex task this time.  There are many, many people involved with the eventual creation of Skynet, and everything they do seems to create another problem they must fix.  In this regard, the show is able to respect T2 while continuing the story in a logical and well done way.  They couldn’t have done a better job. 

It’s also amazing how well the show, which has none of the cast of crew of the films, fits itself into the Terminator universe.  It doesn’t change the history of the films to tell the story, but respects the history and builds on it.  The best example of this is the episode Dungeons and Dragons, where the back story of new character Derek Reese was explained.  At first, the idea of giving Kyle Reese (Sarah’s protector from the first film, who fathered John) a brother seemed ludicrous, but this episode made it feel natural and inevitable.  Through flashbacks (or flash-forwards, because they technically happen in the future), we learn Derek’s back story.  It revolves around events established in the films, and fits so completely into those events that it becomes very easy to accept Derek as a character.

In fact, Derek quickly became my second-favorite character on the show, next to John.  Brian Austin Green did a great job, portraying a man who has lived his life in a post-apocalyptic hell and is finally getting to experience the world of his childhood again.  This is an element that couldn’t be explored in the first film with Kyle, but that a TV series has time to develop.

In fact, that’s my favorite thing about this show.  While a Terminator TV series seemed ludicrous at first, by the time I had finished the season, I realized it was the only logical way to continue the story.  The TV format lets us spend more time with the characters, and allows us to get to know them better than a film could ever allow for.  The show isn’t better than the movies, but the fact that it often reaches the same heights of quality is nothing short of astounding.  In fact, I think this is currently my second-favorite show on television, behind only Lost.  I can’t wait to see what the creators do with Season 2, when they will have a full 22 episodes to explore the universe.

Program Rating: A


Before TV shows were filmed in hi-definition, DVD TV sets were awesome for reasons other than just having all the episodes in one place; they were cool because the video quality was so much better than the TV broadcasts.  Now, that’s backwards; shows look better on TV because of hi-definition.  As with most TV sets, I was resigning myself to experience that with this DVD set…and how surprised I was. 
From the opening moments of the pilot, the video quality is amazing.  Colors are vivid and accurate, while flesh tones are very realistic.  The level of detail in the image is nothing short of astounding; you can see every bit of detail in the image at all times.  For much of the time, the image looks hi-def.  The TV hi-def broadcasts were probably even better, but if they were, it couldn’t have been by much.  My only quibble with the image is that some dark scenes in early episode have poor contrast, making them look grainier than they should.  But this only happens a few times, and most dark scenes retain a level of detail that is unusual in standard definition.  Simply put, this is the best image I’ve ever seen for a TV DVD.

The audio track isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it is very good.  Dialogue is always strong and easy to hear, even in loud firefights.  Sound effects are crisp and realistic, and the excellent musical score is at a perfect volume throughout.  It’s a very good audio track that complements the image nicely.

Video Rating: 9.5/10
Audio Rating: 8.5/10


So far, we’ve got a practically flawless show, presented with practically flawless A/V quality.  For this set to continue being flawless, the extras section has to be really, really good.  Is it?  Judge for yourself as I sift through the hours of bonus material provided here.

First off, there’s an Audio Commentary for the following episodes: Pilot (w/ Summer Glau, Creator/Writer Josh Friedman, Executive Producer James Middleton and Director David Nutter), The Turk (Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Josh Friedman and Writer John Wirth) and What He Beheld (Summer Glau, Brian Austin Green, Josh Friedman, and Writer Ian Goldberg).  The commentaries are pretty good, and everyone has plenty to say.  There are some interesting tidbits; for instance, the script for the pilot, which involves a Terminator attacking John at school, was handed into the studio on the day of the Virginia Tech Massacre.  All three commentaries get better as they go along, and if you listen to all three, you get input from most of the cast, as well as the writers and directors (who, as usual, have the most to say).  Best of all, you get to listen to the sweet voice of Summer Glau on two of the three commentaries.   

There are Terminated Scenes (what an awful pun) for the episodes Pilot, The Turk, Dungeons and Dragons, and The Demon Hand.  I’m not the biggest fan of deleted scenes, and these did nothing to change my mind; they belong on the cutting room floor.  But if deleted scenes are your cup of tea, then you’ll be very happy.  There’s lots of them and they’re presented in full anamorphic widescreen, with video quality matching that of the episodes.

Everything I’ve just listed is only the episode-specific stuff; there’s plenty more.  Disc One features three terrific featurettes, grouped under the title Creating the Chronicles.  The first, Reboot (16:41), is a general overview of the production.  It discuses the origins, the casting, the special effects, etc, and gives each category an ample amount of time.  They pack a lot of valuable information into these 17 minutes.  There’s a lot of talking-head interview footage, but we also get a ton of on-set footage, which is awesome.  TV sets don’t usually show this much on-set footage, and it’s great to see here.  Next is Future War (10:23), which is essentially the making of the episode Dungeons and Dragons.  This episode tells Derek’s story, which happens in the future.  The featurette discuses what a challenge it was to bring the huge level of effects to the small screen; budget concerns caused a re-write of most of the episode.  They also talk about some of the complicated effects featured in other episodes. 

The final featurette is The Demon Hand (11:54), which talks about the episode of the same name.  This is obviously the staff’s favorite episode (same here), and beyond talking about the making-of, they also provide analysis of the episode.  It’s great.  All three featurettes are essential viewing.  The final feature on Disc 1 is the Gag Reel (3:35); like most gag reels, it’s not very funny, except for a few moments where Summer Glau breaks character.  I would call this gag reel disposable, but then again, anything with Summer Glau in it is essential viewing.

Disc 2 has 3 Cast Audition Tapes, for Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, and Richard T. Jones.  These might have been cool…if you could tell what the heck was going on.  They’re all presented non-anamorphic, and look like they were shot with really bad hand-cams (my digital camera looks better than this).  You can’t really hear what’s going on, which renders these somewhat pointless.  The best is the Jones audition, mostly because the quality isn’t so poor.

After this is the Summer Glau Dance Rehearsal (1:40).  It’s just Summer Glau doing ballet (presumably for The Demon Hand, where Cameron takes ballet), set to music from the show, and I’m not sure why it’s on here, though I’m not complaining.  I would assume that the DVD producers are as in love with Glau as I am; that being said, it might be the best feature in the entire set… Rounding out Disc 2 is the Storyboard Anamatic (2:23), which is the storyboard version of the scene where Croamartie tries to kill John at school in the pilot.  This is kind of interesting from a technical standpoint, but ultimately disposable.

Disc 3 features a 52-Minute Extended Cut of The Demon Hand, and the words ‘Extended Cut’ couldn’t be more deceiving.  This is basically a rough production edit; there’s no music, no sound effects, or anything other than the raw footage as originally shot.  There is footage that was absent in the televised cut, but it’s not anything extraordinary.  This is interesting if you want to see the amount of work done in post production, but otherwise, it’s deceiving and a missed opportunity. 
So, do the extras strike you as extensive?  The DVD producers threw in everything and the kitchen sink.  Some of it is superfluous, but there’s also a lot of good stuff here.  This is a very strong extras section.  As presentation goes, the discs all look good with a cool holographic effect, and an episode guide is included (nifty).  If you buy the set at Best Buy, you get awesome steel book packaging, which looks spiffy and takes up as much shelf space as a regular DVD.  Plus, it has Summer Glau on the front cover.  Overall, the extras have everything you could possibly want, and the presentation is great.

Extras and Presentation Rating: 9.5/10


The show is terrific, and I’ve rarely seen a show that found its footing so fast.  These nine episodes are virtually flawless.  The A/V presentation is near-perfect.  And the extras are extensive, leaving no gaps.  Yep, this is as close to a perfect TV-DVD set as one could ever hope for.  I’ll be back…for more when season two starts.

Overall Grade: 10/10

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