The Sarah Connor Chronicles starts on TV3 tonight, a TV spin-off from the Terminator films, that promises to be better than the last movie. Joe Griffin examines how telly can breathe new life into cinema
THE surprisingly fun first episode for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (now showing on Virgin 1 and starting tonight on TV3) left many viewers, including this one, pleasantly bewildered: Shouldn’t this be awful? After all, the TV spin-off was once a laughing stock – MASH was a creatively rich TV show based on Robert Altman’s film, but AfterMASH was a joke. And the small-screen Fame may have been a creditable follow-up to Alan Parker’s movie of the same name, but Fame LA took the TV spin-off to new depths.
However, though many don’t yet realise it, we are in television’s golden age. It shouldn’t be surprising that the TV instalment of the scifi saga is a damn site better than the last film, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.
Despite a whopping budget and the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terminator 3 was a bloated, expensive rethread of the previous sequel. The first episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, on the other hand, makes up for its lower budget with a nimble, inventive new take on the story. Even the unavoidable recasting of some roles gives the characters a shot in the arm: Lena Headey is well able to fill Linda Hamilton’s combat boots. It will be interesting to see how this affects the new Terminator film due next year.
Previously, the TV spin-off was where movies went to die, often in animated form. Men in Black was an obvious candidate for a cartoon, as was the spirited Beetlejuice series. These were likeable cartoons, but one imagines that nothing was expected of them beyond decent kids’ TV ratings.
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was a similar deal. Many believed that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was the final film, not least because of the title. But the workmanlike TV series was set so long before the first film that there are few references in it to popular characters.
The renaissance of television in the 1990s had a number of rippling effects, including the improvement of those spin-off shows. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman gave the brand an old-fashioned innocence that was absent from the awful movie franchise. A few years after Lois & Clark, Smallville quietly entered living rooms and became a runaway success (see panel).
Two advantages TV has over movies are greater artistic freedom and lowered expectations. The ratings for the first episode are undeniably important, but don’t have the make-or-break power of a movie’s opening weekend. An audience can grow with positive word of mouth. Also, the structure of a series of one-hour shows means that the writers can tell a long arc story and still maintain a brisk pace with each episode. Producers can hire a stable of writers to toy with the characters, and even the genre – leading to, for example, a classic musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It’s good news for audiences. Although movie sequels have got a tad out of hand, if they’re going to keep serving us up the same characters they might as well do a decent job of it. The improved TV spin-off has indirectly led to more interesting film franchises, and it sure beats Alien vs Predator.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – starts on TV3 tonight at 10pm