There’s a rule in fiction: Show, don’t tell. If something’s going on, show it happening; don’t have someone in the fiction talk about it.
On Tuesday night, the first season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles came to an explosive end. Apparently, this was due to the US writers’ strike, but it left the show on a very neat cliffhanger to be picked up next season (and although it’s never a sure thing until it hits the screens, signs seem pretty good that T:SCC will be picked up for Season 2).
The capstone of a very intense final episode, though, wasn’t the bright last couple of shots, but the major fight scene near the end. Except, it wasn’t a fight scene.
To explain: There’s been a B-story right through the season involving FBI Agent James Ellison, who was assigned to the Connor case right after Terminator 2. His case underwent an eight-year hiatus when Sarah, John and an unknown woman blew themselves and most of a bank up in 1999, but a couple of odd murders in 2007 have brought him back to the Connor case again, and the anomalies in the murders are bringing him to the conclusion that Sarah Connor’s psychotic tales of time travelling robot assassins might actually be true – and that one such has been using the face of an out-of-work actor in its masquerade as an FBI agent. There’s enough evidence to have the individual in question brought in, so Ellison organises an armed FBI response team and storms the apartment of the out-of-work actor.
Now if this were another Terminator movie, what happens next would probably be handled in full action style; prop firearms firing gas flares, squibs, blood and other makeup effects. But this is one episode of a TV series, so there’s no way in heck they’d have the budget or the shooting time for something like that. What the creative team does instead not only bucks the Terminator trend (the first two films featured hefty versus-cops shootouts) but it also appears to violate the “show, don’t tell” rule. See, the apartment block has a pool, and when the first of Ellison’s armoured team enters the upper-story apartment and begins firing, he’s almost immediately hurled backward. Some quick cuts show the trooper hurtle through the air, and from there on, the action is recorded by an underwater camera in the pool. While we hear muted through the water voices shouting and yelling and guns firing, trooper after armoured FBI trooper splashes down into the pool and floats, bleeding, unmoving.
Accompanying all this is Johnny Cash’s apocalypse ballad, “When The Man Comes Around”.
It’s a powerful contrast to the films, where we’re routinely shown Terminators shot, stabbed, burned, run over, all the while dishing out as much death as is being served to them, just to demonstrate to the audience how tough they are, usually to Brad Fiedel’s stark synth soundtrack. In this case, though, what we see is what usually gets glossed over in the films: the body count. Not in any gory detail, just corpse after corpse after corpse, falling, floating and bleeding. And not to anything hard or synthesised or industrial, but instead to a doom-laden folk song chock-full of biblical symbols, written and performed by one of America’s best-known country singers. Telling us what’s happening turned out to be even more bloody powerful than the best action scene could ever aspire.
And in case we’re left in any doubt of the cause of the carnage, the final sequence of shots shows us Ellison, staring down the barrel of the very image of the apocalypse that his religious upbringing has been nagging at him over for the last few weeks, a man whose face has been torn in true Terminator fashion to reveal parts of the metal endoskeleton beneath.
As TV series go, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is pretty damn grim; I’d go so far as to say it’s even grimmer than Battlestar Galactica, itself telling the story of a desperate band fleeing the apocalypse. It’s not been quite so consistently great as Galactica was in its first season, possibly because it has a smaller cast of characters to draw plotlines from. But if the creative team can keep breaking the rules with as much style I’ll stay up as late as Channel 9 screens Season 2.