Building Terminator – A Plan For Future Life

I’ve noticed (and been a participant in) some discussions on various fan boards concerning the stories of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. What’s amazing is that it’s largely been about the actual method of telling a story of this length in weekly 43-minute segments. I’d like to discuss some of what’s gone wrong, what’s gone right, and what can be done to ensure a successful run.

That’s Tight

I can’t help but hearken back to the first two seasons of Lost. I was seeing the same sorts of discussions…from professional screenwriters. It wasn’t until the show was at a nexus where both the ratings and long-time viewers were getting shaky that it was guaranteed that an end was in sight. That the writers knew where they were going to the end. That solidified the base. Unfortunately, it did little to assuage the lingering thought that the start of the series wasn’t so much planned but being made up as it went.

This was in stark contrast to the show Babylon 5. From the beginning it was known that it was a novel for television and that all the main storylines had been thought out before the first script was written. It even had built-in trap doors for cast changes and early cancellation (if given warning).

TTSCC, I believe, finds itself at a crossroads, much as Lost did in its early seasons. It needs to look like there is a direction to the series. It had that in the first (partial) season. Every episode seemed to be heading toward a larger resolution. It’s understandable as the producers had every reason to suspect that a show of this time, on the FOX network, would likely only survive one season, if that. In the word of Cameron, it was “tight”.

The second season began with the popular episode, “Samson and Delilah” (see poll) and then started veering from the focus of season 1. New characters, an expanded mission, inter-character conflicts…a lot of new items got introduced in a very short order. Worse, an increasing amount seemed to be lacking in the focus that had made the first nine episodes worthy of loyalty and growth.

What happened?

I think the creative team, given the extra time that the WGA strike provided, decided to model itself on the Lost or X-Files sort of model (or muddle, if you aren’t a fan) instead of the standard set with B5. As a result, they lost some of what made TTSCC distinct. Now, being relegated to a cult show, but one that is still liked by the powers that be, there is an opportunity to shore up those weakened parts of the foundation and start building a new edifice.

Where You Are…Going

The first step any “script doctor” (SD) would do is look at the story structure. Not just of where you’ve been, but also to where you are going. For a series like TTSCC, that has an in-place mythology PLUS the complications of time-travel, a good blueprint is not only a good idea, but a requirement. The SD will want to see that there is a plan for the hoped-for run of the series at both 5- and 7-seasons. The key here is that if a writer (or staff) knows what the ultimate goal is, then it serves as a touchstone for a lot of creativeness leading up to it. Hit the plot points and the characters can otherwise be true to themselves.

The conscientious SD will also be examining the detailed character bios (I’ve written a blog on developing characters). Every single main character’s past—those events and relationships that formed their world view—needs to be accounted for. Much of this will never see the light of storytelling…at least not directly…but it will inform the actions of each character. It also gives actors insight into how they should play their characters. Too often, even from TTSCC, I hear about actors creating their own backstory for a character so that they have a foundation. You can see their frustration when the creative team isn’t as forthcoming with character details as they should be. This leads to unnecessary character inconsistencies when the actor’s assumptions don’t quite mesh with what’s happening in the writer’s room.

I don’t think that it’s necessary to inform the actors where their character is headed…not unless you are relying on flashforwards with a future version of the character. Actors only need to know as much about their character as the oldest age they are playing the character.

Getting back to the plot lines… While the story needs a coherent end point at the series-end marks, it also needs a lot of exit points along the way at every contractual break. I’m not just talking about season climaxes, but also at the 13-episode mid-season break in the event the series “back-9” aren’t ordered for that season. For any established (i.e. it got a back-9 renewal or a new season pick-up) serialized (or semi-serialized) series, a way of resolving the story has to be considered. I’m not saying that the climax has to necessarily be revealed, but that the story be left in a creative place sufficiently satisfying that the loyal viewers won’t be grumbling (much) at the end.

I can give as examples the tale of two mid-season climaxes from TTSCC. In the first season, the climax had John seeing his (yet still a child) father as a birthday present, the possible success of a mission, and the possible destruction of Cameron. While open-ended with a story not yet finished, it had a sense of at least being the end of a chapter of a book. The second season mid-season finale wasn’t quite as focused. Characters who were allies in the first season had been estranged. Mysteries abounded with three or four different story threads with not a lot of cohesion or apparent aim. And it ended with a cliff-hanger that was more of a beginning of a chapter than an end. As a result, the fans that were expectant at the first climax example are now anxious with the second.

Why does a mid-season climax matter? Simple…what if the show doesn’t get their back-9 pick-up? In that case, that’s where the series ends. With serial story telling in the world of television, you cannot depend on cliffhangers being given the opportunity to resolve.

This is where I have to give major props to J. Michael Strazynski, the creator and writer (almost exclusively) of Babylon 5. As the fourth season of his five-season saga was winding down and renewal seeming to be increasingly unlikely, he restructured his story and made sure that he filmed a finale episode that would work at the end of the fourth season, if necessary, or for the end of the series’ fifth season if a miracle happened. (The miracle happened, but so late that it damaged some of the fifth-season story lines…but that’s a different topic.) He wanted to be certain that the series would have the proper denouement.

And this goes back to the importance of knowing where you are going. Along the way you can film some extra scenes that “oops, cutting room floor” that in reality are the basis for a series-ending episode either filmed or cut together upon notice of cancellation (to be included in the disc box set if it isn’t aired). Ideally, it would be in the series contract that a finale episode could be produced upon cancellation notice, but in these days of tight-production purses, that’s not likely.

TTSCC is at a point where it can right a ship that, while not sinking, has a few leaks here and there. It really takes nothing more than the sort of disciplined prep work to develop a road map that should be the foundation of any non-episodic TV series. Once the signposts are up, then the characters are free to play.

All Together Now

It’s likely too late to do much about TTSCC’s second season. As I write this I can’t imagine they have more than three or four scripts left to write and none left to break out. The show will have to stand or fall on what’s already in place. That doesn’t mean that things can’t be done.

For the second season finale, pains should be taken that it can serve as a series finale and not depend on a cliffhanger ending. History has shown that cliffhangers do nothing to force a renewal, and are tiresome in any case.

Next, the signposts need to be put into place. The farther away the vaguer they can be, but they need to be there. The last scenes should be decided on if not yet written down. Every break that could be a series-ender needs to have its climax decided upon. If character backstories haven’t been detailed yet, then do it now…and consult with the actors who might have done much of this work for you.

After that…I say start focusing on character interaction more than sweating the plot. Given the same plot you get Pyramus and Thisbe or you get Romeo and Juliet. Or…for those less classically-inclined: you get Casablanca or you get Barb Wire. Too often in scifi, the writers get so invested in creating plot that they forget that people (a/k/a viewers) relate to people so much more readily than they do to esoteric storytelling devices. That’s just the nature of the beast.

I’m looking forward to how the creative team at TTSCC manages to reintegrate its estranged characters and stories so that the package is as tight as a terminator’s hand around a studio executive’s throat. The fate of the show is what they make of it for themselves. However they get there, it should be an interesting ride.

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