Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Queen's Gambit
B+

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Queen's Gambit

B+

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Queen's Gambit

Season 1, Episode 5

Hey there, everybody. I'll be your new Terminator: The Sarah Connor (and Moody Son and Ex-Ballerina Foxbot) Chronicles host here at the T. V. Club. I wish I could tell you that Keith Phipps has handed this over because his TV died, or Skynet took over his DirecTV satellite, or any other slick reason. But I think he just gave it to me because he's thinks I'm obsessed with killer robots.

Yes, I watch Battlestar Galactica. I loved A.I.. And that book Love and Sex With Robots by David Levy is on my nightstand – 'cause, um, we're reading it in my book club. Still, one of the things I'm liking about this show is that nobody's trying to have sex with Cameron the Terminatrix. And while she's still paralyzed by culture clash and puzzled by the crazy, irrational things the humans around her are doing, we're starting to see glimmers of emotion – like when she kills a T-888-model Terminator and later, shows grief over it.

Like Cameron, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is starting to show signs of humanity. Everyone who had faith that this was more than just writer's strike airtime filler and a jobs program for bodybuilders with facial nerve damage, should've found a lot to dig this week. Tonight's the episode when they really hit their stride and started to act like they know what they're doing.

The metaphor for the week is chess. We learn that when John Connor was training in the wilds of Central America, the most important thing he learned was how to play that game: "[it] taught him everything he needed to know about war." This is also a good metaphor for the show: it clearly aspires to be chess, whereas the Terminator movies were more like a game of checkers where the pieces kept blowing skyhigh. This week, some of the many plot threads start to converge, the Terminator mythos gets richer (big applause to Brian Austin Green as John Connor's uncle, Derek Reece), the big chase and fight at the end worked great – and even the jokes aren't so grating. (John: "I call shotgun!" Cameron: "I call 9 mm!")

The story this week comes in two parts. First, Andy, the cell phone salesman/closet A.I. researcher that Sarah's been watching has come up with a new computer that can play chess, and the military's interested – or at least, they were interested, until it lost in a game against a computer from Japan. This takes Andy off the Connors' hitlist – except that he winds up dead anyway, with his chess-playing computer stolen and a mysterious drifter as the most likely suspect.

This gets us roughly to the halfway mark, where the episode changes gears: in the second half, Sarah Connor tracks down the drifter, discovers that he's Derek Reece and that she slept with his brother, and decides to break him out of prison. But during a gunfight with a T-888, Derek winds up critically wounded – and who shows up to save the guy's life? That's right, Charley Dixon, Sarah's old fiance, who hasn't talked to her in eight years. I told you it's all starting to come together.

All the stuff with the humans and robots tracking each other down is working really well. On the other hand, I'm still not convinced by the high school storyline. Sure, John's settling in well at school. He has a possible love interest, Kristina Apgar – who has a mysterious past – and he's also picked up a wisecracking sidekick (Luis Chávez). But the whole "We have to save the world, but first we've gotta pass the math final" thing doesn't work unless you really commit yourself to it, and so far, the jury's out. I still get the impression John could skip town, or just skip class, at any moment. I won't believe they're in this for the long haul until, like Buffy, they have to start digging around in the swim team for story ideas.

But speaking of Whedon, one other thing that sold me on this show was the Whedonesque touches – and I don't just mean the casting of Firefly's Summer Glau, or those few jokes that are actually funny, but the dysfunctional family chemistry that's developing between mother, son, and sisterly robot sidekick. The characters are good at playing off each other's flaws and staying together in spite of them, which was always the most affecting theme on Whedon's shows. (I mean, wasn't the entire fourth season of Angel basically about Angel wishing he could get everyone together for a nice Thanksgiving dinner?) I'm starting to think that Cameron the Terminatrix might one day learn what it means to be human. And somewhere along the way, the makers of this show might, too.

Grade: B+ Stray Observations: - In this week's "tease-the-robot" line, Sarah refers to Cameron as "Tin Miss." Is this a pun or a reference to something? I feel like I should get it. I dunno, maybe I'll get it when she disses Cameron next week. - Is the "Queen's Gambit" that won the crucial chess game foreshadowing, that one of the female characters is going to have to bite it in order to defeat Skynet? Or did it just sound cool? - The scene between Sonya Walger, Dean Winters and Garret Dillahunt proved that this show has a surprisingly strong supporting cast. Let's see how well it makes use of it.