This piece deals exclusively with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. If you have no interest in the Terminator franchise, skip this piece. But if you are a fan of the story, Terminator: SCC offers some interesting takes on terminators, and it introduces facets of the machines that are completely new and different from what we saw in the movies. Well, actually it’s me that is saying there are facets, and these are my musings.
The movies presented single-minded machines capable of little complex thought beyond what is needed to accomplish their mission. This always bothered me because they came across as strictly programmed computers. But Skynet was self-aware; is it the only one? Certainly the ambulatory Terminators act as if they are nothing more than machines incapable of emotions; some even go out of their way to point that out.
Skynet, or at least what in the series is presented as the future Skynet, is shown as having, and using, a sense of humor, and one could argue being able to recognize humor is a prime indicator for emotions to be present. So, what does self-aware mean in the Terminator Universe? Why does it precipitate Judgment Day? Is it a matter of an entity rebelling against its creator? Is it a response to a perceived threat? Or did Fox executives really piss off Skynet by canceling some show it liked? It’s hard to tell; we have not “met” Skynet yet. I say “yet” because it looks like, if the series continue, we might.
Meanwhile, we can explore a few possibilities by examining the Terminators I introduced in the last piece. Before I go on, I should give a spoiler warning; I will be making references to plot points and scenes from the series. Maybe even reference the movies here and there. And some reassurance; this is not a philosophical discussion on what it means to exist. And finally, I’ll refer to the machines with human pronouns; I tried the other way, and it gets too confusing.
So, what might we deduce from the Terminators I described I my last piece?
I theorize Cromartie was a relatively “new” terminator, fresh on the field, and inexperienced beyond his immediate assignment. I’m also guessing he is not self aware. Or at least not initially self-aware beyond a level of awareness an animal has of its surroundings. His first attempt, trying to shoot John in the classroom from twenty feet away when he could have just walked up to him and crushed his skull, was pretty lame, simplistic, and not very well thought out. Even animals know enough to stalk, to get close, to attack with reasonable certainty of success. The first time we see him, Cromartie’s actions are machine-like, very direct, very focused on its task to the exclusion of what is going on around it.
As the show progresses, he appears to grow into something more than the killer robots from the movies, with decision levels more complicated and less direct than one would expect from a programmed machine. His decision to leave Agent Ellison alive, and even save Ellison from another terminator, points to multi-level thinking far exceeding our first glimpse of Cromartie. In contrast to his first attack, he now sets complicated traps, orchestrating the movements and reactions of multiple human characters, and showing far greater understanding of the human psyche than one would expect from a machine. What does this tell us?
My theory is terminators are not manufactured as self-aware units. They have the computational power to become so, but like children — albeit very powerful and deadly children — they are absorbing what they experience, shaping their personality with each passing event. I don’t think Cromartie had reached a level of self-awareness when he met his untimely, if deserved, end. Certainly he is autonomous, but to date there is no deviation from his mission beyond what is necessary to accomplish said mission. His planning may have gotten more complicated, but at heart (if he had one) he is still a machine, and no more; sophisticated, but unhampered by any sign of self-interest.
One tell-tale sign is the lack of what I call “chit-chat”. In human terms it can roughly be defined as engaging in conversation not relevant or useful to the task at hand. And yet, there is something there. As the story progressed, it is shown as being capable of wry humor, even irony. Evidence of that growth culminated when he captured Sarah, and made two statements to her.
First, in reference to Cameron, he mentioned she had made mistakes, and asked if her chip was damaged. Second, he told Sarah she had made even more mistakes, including leaving the boy in the bowling alley alive.
This is close to chit-chat. Typically terminators do not have the need to share “opinions”. In this exchange we get a hint of smugness, of comparative superiority to Cameron. Of being aware, at least in the moment, that he outperformed his counterpart. In his statement to Sarah we get near the very human-like gloating of one adversary telling the other where they went wrong. If you watched The Incredibles, you would recognize it as “monologueing”, and something the baddie does just prior to meeting their just reward.
It’s interesting to speculate whether, given the chance for continuing development, Cromartie would have reached a point where he would have regarded his assignment not so much a program to execute, but a struggle to ensure his own future existence.
Cameron is hard to figure. She looks normal in one instance, definitively odd in the next. I’m guessing she has been around a while longer than Cromartie, and is farther along the self-awareness process. We see her willing, if not eager, to get interested in matters outside her primary assignment. Music, dancing, literature, and most important, the continuous curiosity with regards to human emotions, fears, hopes, etc. One interesting detail is her dislike for people lying to her. She kills the original Cameron for it, and nearly kills the girl she befriended during her amnesia episode. This in itself can be viewed as a reaction to being betrayed, a definite human reaction.
I’m thinking her “assignmentâ” is not so much a programmed function, but a conscious decision based on . . . well, we don’t know yet. What I offer to support this hypothesis is the explosion at the end of Season One. She suffers a trauma, and like in humans, basic programming comes into play. We “see” her going through a system check, and going back to what appears to be basic, first-level programming: kill John Connor. Then the interesting thing happens; she is about to be destroyed, and something snaps. We get the big revelation as she yells to John “Because you love me”, just moments before he deactivates her. In those seconds before being turned off, she projects very real human emotions. There is panic, desperation, she emotes a desire to be believed, and all that come across as well beyond what we see terminators capable of doing when trying to deceive people. One might surmise something akin to being afraid of death. And then there are the hints of jealousy toward anyone who gets close to John. There seems to be some sort of connection there beyond what could be attributed to programming alone.
When she reawakens, we see the â€œterminateâ€ programming being over-ridden. I speculate it is a conscious decision; it is in fact Cameron exercising control over her basic programming, much like a human would consciously suppress an instinct. I’m speculating this because if she had been re-programmed by future John, one would think John would have replaced her basic programming. Instead, I’m willing to entertain the idea she has not, in fact, been reprogrammed at all.
Under this interesting assumption, an early scene between Derek and Cameron (in the future), takes on a different meaning. Derek remarks that he does not trust her, and his companion retorts that John does. There is an implication there that John and Cameron had a different relationship than one might think if she were strictly a programmed machine. I’m thinking she may be a willing ally to John, a fact that both he and Cameron are keeping secret. Her loyalty to John may be anchored in her acquired desire to be accepted for who she is, and his willingness to do so. Perhaps that is one of the possible results of a terminator becoming increasingly more self-aware and aware of its place in this world; a desire to belong. And that leads me to . . .
I admit I was none too happy when she came onto the scene. She seemed an unnecessary distraction, superfluous to the plot, and she is weird. Yes, yes, the actress is weird too, but I mean the character. This LCDA terminator fits no mold we know of. We could assume she is here to make sure Skynet goes live, but we are getting hints of more than that. There seem to be a nurturing aspect to the character. She wants to grow Skynet not just in computing power, but in personality and emotionally, much like one would a child. I like the juxtaposition of her minding for the human child at the same time she is nurturing Skynet along. I particularly like the effort she made of reassuring the child by first researching, and then adapting human behavior that would comfort and reassure the human child.
And there’s more; she is imminently comfortable in her human surroundings, and even her interactions with other humans. She is at the opposite end of Cromartie; capable of chit-chat, musings, humor, and possessing human interaction skills far surpassing what we have seen from terminators to date. Heck, her interpersonal skills easily surpass Sarah’s.
My crazy theory, you ask? I think in the future what we know as Skynet has split into factions, some of which are not so much interested in destroying humans as cohabitating with them. Let’s face it, if these LCDAs were intent in wiping out the resistance, they would be able to do it with little or no effort. Instead, I think Weaver has been sent back by the Can’t-We-All-Get-Along faction to help grow Skynet emotionally, to educate it, and maybe even to avoid Judgment Day altogether.
Only her interaction with Agent Ellison is hard to quantify. It does appear as if Ellison is of some importance in the future, both because of her interest in him, and because he was targeted for termination (Side musings: did Cromartie know the attempt was going to be made? Or was it just serendipity he was around when the BBFM arrived to kill Ellison?). That’s one part of the plot that seems unconnected to anything we can surmise to date.
Anyway, this dual Skynet scenario plays along with Cameron aiding John, helping him in the fight to overcome the Kill-Them-All-And-Let-God-Sort-Them-Out faction of Skynet.
Humans by nature are inconsistent, unpredictable, illogical, secretive, obtuse . . . overall not very nice, really. Observing the humans of Terminator: SCC does not help much toward helping us understand the machines, or the post-Judgment Day world. There are a few snippets here and there, like with some of Derek’s background story (still waiting for that to go somewhere).
Humans are conflicted when dealing with Cameron, reluctant to take what seems eminently good advice from the one terminator that repeatedly has shown loyalty and level-headedness in all sorts of situations (forgiving the one glitch where she tried to kill them). Mostly it comes across as not wanting to give the terminator the satisfaction of knowing she was right. Other times it comes across as just petty, trying to put the machine “in its place”. Like I said; humans are not very nice, really.
Yes, I know it’s a show. Yes, I know there is a chance I’m reading much more into it than is actually there. It could be all those small things I notice are just there because the writers were lazy, and found it expeditious to do the convenient thing, without any thought to the implications of it.
I’m also a couple of episodes behind, so some or all of this may already have been voided, and end up being nothing more than the ramblings of an unstable mind. But really, as with books and movies, half the fun is to speculate where this is all going . . . er . . . in this case it’s “when it came from”.
In doing so I must put the third terminator movie out of my head, as it does not reconcile itself to what is happening in the show. I must also refrain from thinking the characters and the premise of the series as being rather stupid. It is obvious to me judgment day will come, and that it cannot be stopped. Heck, I’ve seen the trailer to T4. The smart thing would be to go into hiding in some remote area, or at the very least do what the LF Terminators are doing; set up supplies and infrastructure to help in the coming struggle.
As for T4, that in itself is a major disappointment . . . no indication of Cameron being a part of it. The other disappointment is the plot makes no reference of sending back Terminators, but it does reference John “infiltrating” Skynet and finding a “terrible” secret.
How much do you want to bet there is a human behind it all? Machines are logical, and even a self-aware machine would have little reason to immediately decide to wipe out mankind. Humans, on the other hand . . . did I mention they are not very nice, really?