I watched WarGames over the weekend with some friends; I'd wanted to see it again ever since Noel's review. He's right, it's surprisingly good–solid performances, a clever hook, and the screenplay's a textbook example of how to raise stakes while maintaining forward momentum. And hell, the ending still gets me a little. Maybe I'm just glad to find out that Tic-Tac-Toe can actually be used for good.
But looking at tonight's Terminator episode, "Allison from Palmdale," it was the beginning of WarGames I kept thinking about. In case you haven't seen it, it's these two soldiers in a room. They get a coded order to launch the nuclear missiles under their control, but when the moment comes to turn the key, one of them can't go through with it. Human error, we're told later on. People get all twitchy if you ask them to murder millions.
Obviously "human error" isn't really the right phrase. What got me about that set-up is how the least rational response to a stressful situation was, in the case of those two soldiers the most rational response. Like Joshua says, some games just aren't worth playing; unfortunately, that doesn't stop people from showing up.
"Allison" has three running threads: there's Sarah taking the pregnant Kacy to the hospital, there's Ellison continuing his talks with Weaver, and there's Cameron going AWOL. Of the three, the second was the least interesting–I'm still curious as to where Ellison is headed, but much of the negotiations we saw seemed like old ground re-covered. But hey, he's signed on to work for robo-Manson, so at least that's taken care of.
Not a whole lot happened at the hospital, either, but we did get decent character stuff. It was nice seeing Headey lightening up a little, and I liked how she played Sarah's reaction to Kacy's doubts about her pregnancy and about her abilities to protect her son. Hell, I even liked the moment when Sarah, looking in on a baby room, decides to call John; for once, their mother-son connection seemed less about saving the world and more simple affection. (Although I noticed they ditched the phone code. I understand they'd have to change it after Cromartie, but to drop it entirely seems rash.)
Really, though, "Allison" was all about Cameron and her freak-out. Terminator has shown itself more than capable of delivering on the action front, but when it comes to plotting and solid ideas, the mainstay of good sci-fi, things have been considerably shakier. This week's ep doesn't have a single explosion or car chase, but it managed to hold my interest with some smart writing. Cameron's development has always been the series strongest element story-wise, and here we're seeing that really paying off.
Throughout the episode, we get flash-forwards to the post-apocalyptic future, with Summer Glau (her character isn't immediately identified) trying to escape from some kind of containment facility. These flashes are intercut throughout the main arc of Cameron's story in the present, and while they aren't exactly the robot's memories, there's a definite connection between them. Cam has a meltdown in a grocery store when she catches her reflection in a silver balloon; given her confused, near-catatonic state and the large wad of cash she's got on her, the cops bring her to lock-up to dry out. In lock-up, a young woman befriends Cameron; the woman gives her name as Jody, and Cameron, who apparently has cyber amnesia, says "Allison." Which is the name of the Glau we see in the future.
Once Jody and Cameron are released, they do some wandering; Cameron, thoroughly convinced she's human, gives up the money stash to a guy who threatens her, and then the two check in at a halfway house where Jody regularly crashes.
I'm largely indifferent to Jody on her own; I liked how the wad of cash initially seemed to seal their friendship, but it's the sort of relationship you only see on TV shows, where strangers are more than happy to do a guest spot if it means teaching the hero a valuable lesson. At least Cameron's interactions with her make the cliché a good deal less painful.
Even better are Cam's sessions in therapy. It goes between the therapist trying to draw the terminator out about her past, and future-Glau Allison being interrogated by an unknown presence. Cameron mimics Allison's responses, even down to being visibly upset; she's completely unconscious of this mimicry, and as far as she knows, she's behaving the way she's supposed to behave.
But then things get more complicated. It turns out that Cameron isn't actually Allison, but a terminator copy of Allison designed break into John Connor's future hide-out. Cameron has Allison's information (including where she grew up, Palmdale) because the robot needed it to be as convincing a replica as possible; and now, after being reprogrammed by future-John for good and getting her chip fried, she's trying to define her identity, and the first thing she goes to is what she was originally designed to be. She follows the train of the flash-forwards until she reaches the final confrontation between Allison and Cameron, when Cameron kills her source material. This leads to a tense moment between Cameron and Jody where Cameron seems ready to kill all over again; it's a fake out, to be sure, but a believable one.
The whole reason the W.O.P.R. (aka Joshua) is built in WarGames is so the military can find away around human fallibility. If a machine controls the weapons, there is no hesitation, no doubt, no mercy; it's the same reasoning that gave Skynet the keys to the kingdom back in the first Terminator film. Skynet doesn't have any problems with a no-win scenario, which doesn't bode well for us, but in trying to create a killing machine that would pass the toughest Turing Test around, the AI may have undone itself. Cameron is a robot made not only to look like a human but act like one, and we are who we pretend to be. Even robots. I'm thinking fallibility is the next step for our cybernetic heroine, which means we'll get explosions and ideas.
--Weaver: "We have to be careful not to anthropomorphize machines." Heh.
--So, Ellison has an ex-wife. I presume her life will be endangered at some point, because otherwise, not really caring.
--I am, however, intrigued to learn he's no longer wearing his cross.
--I totally fell for that "robots who want peace" line. I would be a huge liability to the Resistance.