Thomas Jones · Marx and the Terminator
America's Fox TV network has an irritating habit of cancelling half-decent science fiction shows after only one or two seasons. The network seems especially to enjoy junking series made by Joss Whedon, who as a result is still most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy ran from 1996 to 2003 but should have been cancelled sooner: the last season and a half were rubbish. The latest Whedon venture to have bitten the dust is Dollhouse, about a sinister, top-secret company that is able to erase and replace its employees' memories, effectively turning them into different people every day. It then hires these 'dolls' out to its rich and secretive clients. The show was often as daft as this bald summary makes it sound, but quite a lot of the daftness was the network's fault, demanding that it appeal to what Fox executives imagined to be the lowest common denominator. And when it was good, Dollhouse was – nearly – very very good.
Much the same goes for Josh Friedman's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Picking up not long after where Terminator 2, the movie, leaves off, the show followed the ongoing adventures of Sarah Connor and her son John in their fight against the cyborgs sent back in time from a dystopian future to murder them. This is because, as anyone who's seen any of the movies knows, John will grow up to be the leader of the human resistance against the machines. It often suffered from clunky dialogue and robotic performances, especially from the actors who are meant to be playing people; the lead cyborgs – Summer Glau and Garret Dillahunt – act most of the human cast off the screen. All the same it was a lot better than such implausible glossy TV behemoths as 24 or Lost, both of which squandered their promise after barely a dozen episodes but have run and run for season after season.
Not the least interesting thing about Terminator was its crypto-marxist view of history. Following the premise of the original movie, the soldiers from the future, both human and machine, who show up in the present trying either to change history or to ensure it continues as before, invariably do so either by murdering someone or saving their life. But neither killing nor saving anyone in particular seems to have any significant effect on what happens in the wider scheme of things. The emergence of Skynet, the all-powerful artificial intelligence that will declare war on mankind, is inevitable, regardless of which individual human beings are actually responsible for developing it. As Steven Shapin said recently in the LRB:
It’s hard to accept that if Watson and Crick – clever and ambitious though they were – had not found the double helical structure of DNA, no one else would have done so.
Or, as Ellen Meiksins Wood put it, summarising G.A. Cohen's account of Marx's theory of history:
History is, even if in complex ways we still don’t understand, inevitably and naturally driven by the progress of the technical ‘forces of production’, and each prevailing social form will necessarily be replaced by another more congenial to technological improvement.
Such a view not only introduces a hefty dose of dramatic irony to Terminator but goes against the grain of everything that Hollywood stands for – which may be the underlying if unconscious reason that Fox cancelled the show.
It still leaves one large question unanswered, however. In the first episode, the Connors and their trusty – or not so trusty – reformed terminator sidekick leap a few years into the future, from 1997 to 2007, to escape their pursuers. (What do you mean it was a cheap trick to make the show easier to film?) They're amazed by cellphones and horrified to hear about 9/11. Yet at no point do they seem in any way surprised or concerned by the identity of the governor of California.