A deft mix of character drama and rock-'em, sock-'em robot action, Fox's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" (8 tonight, 9 p.m. tomorrow, WPGH) should delight casual fans.
Some die-hards may be frustrated by inconsistencies in the timeline with "Terminator 3," but unless you get overly wrapped up in the details of time travel, tonight's pilot is an intense adventure.
Set after the events of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Chronicles" opens in 1999 as Sarah (Lena Headey of "300" fame) and 15-year-old son John (Thomas Dekker, who played Zach last season on "Heroes") attempt to have a normal life. She's in love with a decent guy (guest star Dean Winters) whom John sees as a father-figure replacement for his own dad, soldier-from-the-future Kyle Reece, who died in the first "Terminator" movie.
Soon Sarah and John are on an adrenaline-fueled run from a pursuing FBI agent (Richard T. Jones) and another termination-minded robot who shoots up John's school. (In July, producers said they'd re-film parts of the pilot in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, but it didn't look much different to me. A publicist says some changes were made, including fewer gunshots.)
Starring: Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau.
A plot twist that came as a surprise when I first watched the pilot earlier this year has been spoiled by Fox's promos, but out of respect for the storytelling, I'll tip-toe around it. Suffice it to say, Sarah and John receive assistance from the future and wind up transported through time to 2007. They stay in one place, evading evil robot detection, determined to stop SkyNet, the computer system of the future that's hellbent on destroying humanity.
Arnold Schwarzenegger may be too busy as governator of California to reprise his cyborg character on TV, but the playfulness he brought to the "Terminator" saga remains.
Short, declarative statements carry on in the TV show. There's no, "I'll be back," but there is "Come with me if you want to live." In addition, Sarah's mantra is "No one is ever safe," and a robot from the future, after shooting up a classroom, intones, "Class dismissed."
Stepping into the roles of these iconic sci-fi characters, Headey and Dekker acquit themselves well. Headey, especially, is suited to portraying this tough, ferocious mother (played by Linda Hamilton in the movies), displaying both steely strength and vulnerable concern for her son.
Dekker is a softer John Connor than either Edward Furlong ("T2") or Nick Stahl ("T3"). He grows his hair out more by Monday's episode to give John a broody look, but he still comes across as a good boy playing mopey-bad. That's OK: Emo kids are all the rage, and Dekker is a natural.
Nine "Chronicles" episodes were completed before the writers' strike began, so the show won't be terminated until early March, lousy ratings notwithstanding.
"Terminator" mastermind James Cameron has no role in producing this program. Writer Josh Friedman, who scripted the Tom Cruise "War of the Worlds" movie, developed "Chronicles" for TV. He hopes it will replace "T3" in the minds of fans, even though a fourth film following the "T3" timeline is in development (Christian Bale is slated to play an older John Connor).
"This is a continuation of what I would call the Sarah Connor trilogy," Friedman said at a Fox press conference in July. He said the series would not feel obligated to address the events of "T3," but Monday's episode does reference Sarah's death from cancer in an alternate timeline, which matches up with details revealed in "T3."
In addition to exploring these characters in greater depth than the films -- TV's specialty -- "Chronicles" will have a link to current culture with a reference to Sept. 11th in tomorrow's episode.
"We have a really great opportunity to explore human value and humankind," Friedman said. "There's a race of Terminators coming who think that humankind has no value, and a lot of the show is how do you prosecute a war against a force that doesn't value you at all or value themselves? How do you do that and still maintain your own humanity?"