Hey, hey, hey! I promised you a podcast version of my Existentialism and the Terminator vid aaaages ago, but life got in the way. It’s here, though! And this is my first time using this file manager doo-hickey that’s supposed to allow you to download sexy shit like this podcast, so *fingers crossed* everything works.
Are you excited? I’m excited!
Anyway, if sitting watching a YouTube video of my face for 30mins was just too long for you, you can now listen to me wittering on as you go about your daily business.
A full transcript, complete with notes and references, is available on the previous post.
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So, this has been a long time coming. I’ve been talking about my feelings about the Terminator movies (there are only two) for years to anyone who would listen (sorry). I once presented Terminator 2 to students as part of Nick Jones’s ‘Filmosophy’ project at the University of York, but 20mins wasn’t really enough to do it justice, and I wasn’t able to go into the more literary and visual aspects of the film. I also wrote a bit on the musical score over at the Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse – I didn’t have space to discuss that, here, but you can go to GGSA to check it out.
But finally, finally I got my thoughts together and wrestled them into something that was more than a gush where I flail my hands and rant about lighting states. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.
A transcript of the video is below, including full details of all texts mentioned, and I’ll be trying to get a podcast version up in the next few days – so if you don’t want to look at my ugly mug whilst learning about existentialism and robots, there are other options 🙂 .
Existentialism and the Terminator
Hi! I’m Ro Smith, and I’m here today to talk about existentialism and the Terminator, which is just one of my favourite topics in the world, OK?
I’m going to start with a little bit about me. I’m a philosopher and a science fiction writer and maybe the world’s biggest fan of Terminator 2. I’m currently writing up my PhD at the University of York, where I taught undergraduate philosophy for five years, and where I have, in fact, lectured on Terminator 2 as an existentialist masterpiece to actual real life students. I also have a background in English Literature and Media Studies and all of this has enabled me to really put together what it was that so moved me about T2 when I first saw it as a kid in the early 90s and couldn’t have put into words why exactly I loved it so much, but I did.
This video is about how existentialist themes are explored in the Terminator movies, why, and why I think this is so effective.
Whilst the Terminator has, in some sense, become a franchise, I take it that the first two films, written and directed by James Cameron, represent a cohesive vision and development of a philosophical thesis, quite separate from the later films, and the TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a film that became an instant favourite for me as a young girl. I was too young to see it at the cinema, but even so, I connected to it on a visceral level – one that went quite beyond the fact that it was about robots and time travel and apocalypse (some of my very favourite things). At the time I was quite unable to articulate exactly what it was about the movie that touched me so. I just felt like it recognised something deep inside me.
One of the really wonderful things I have gotten out of studying literature and media and philosophy, is an understanding of what is going on in a true masterpiece that sets to work on one’s emotions, taps into some deep puzzle one has wrestled with, or expresses a deeply held belief. This is what Cameron’s Terminator films achieve. And I hope that in this video I will be able to show you that these are more than just action films, or Arnie films, or violent blockbusters. And for those of you who always felt like there was something special going on, I hope I can help you to piece together exactly what that is.
One need not dig into subtext to find the central message of the movies. It is John Connor’s message to himself, given to his father, passed on to his mother, and then repeated to himself, and by extension to us: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ And it’s the meaning and grounding of this thought that I’m going to explore.
On the off-chance that anyone attending this video has not seen either film, one can briefly summarise them as follows: a company named Cyberdyne Systems creates an artificial intelligence: Skynet. When Skynet becomes sentient, its creators panic – they do not trust it to make decisions that will be in favour of humanity and they try to shut it down. In response, it uses its access to military systems to spark a nuclear war between Russia and the US. Human civilisation is destroyed. Skynet creates machines to hunt down and terminate the scattered survivors. John Connor leads the resistance, and he is targeted for termination. The machines having developed the capability for time travel, send a Terminator – a cyborg killing machine that appears human – back in time to kill John Connor’s mother before he is born. John seizes the time travel technology from the machines and sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother. Kyle Reese is killed, but not before he sleeps with Sarah Connor, John’s mother, conceiving of John himself. After a long and bloody pursuit, Sarah destroys the Terminator, crushing it in factory machinery.
In Terminator 2, another machine is sent back to kill John as a teenager. Sarah had raised him as a survivalist, but ultimately he was taken into the foster care system after Sarah was forced into mental treatment, her experiences of the first movie taken to be a delusion brought on by trauma. This time Future John sends back a reprogrammed Terminator to protect him, and Sarah; John and the Terminator must work together against the new Terminator, the T-1000. John and the reprogrammed Terminator (a T-800 model) go to rescue Sarah from the mental institution, and find her in the middle of escaping by herself.
They do escape, but only just, as the T-1000 has predicted John’s moves. The power of the new terminator is daunting, and contemplating the danger to her son and the apparent hopelessness of the situation, Sarah recalls John’s message to her from the future: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ Taking their future into her own hands, Sarah takes the fight to Cyberdyne itself. John and the T-800 catch up to Sarah just in time to prevent her killing Miles Dyson – the scientist most directly responsible for the development of Skynet. Together, they destroy the lab, and, following an epic chase sequence, they destroy the T-1000 itself, and Sarah aids the T-800 in ‘self-terminating’ to prevent his technology from being recovered.
In terms of the philosophy of time travel, it should be stressed, none of this makes sense. The terminators only exist because Skynet is developed based on the technology left over from the original Terminator. This is what we call a ‘bootstrap paradox’ – no one actually creates the Terminators, but their existence in time is self-creating. The same is true of John Connor himself – he only exists because he sent his own father back in time to sleep with his mother. The plot is also subject to a ‘grandfather paradox’ – if successful, Sarah’s actions in destroying the technology that arrived from the future mean that there is no war, John is not leader of the resistance, so his life is not under threat, and there is no time travel, and Kyle Reese doesn’t go back in time to have sex with his mother. The traditional grandfather paradox has one going back in time to kill one’s own grandfather, but this has the same effect – John Connor is never conceived.
Nevertheless, the very things that make the plot metaphysically implausible are thematically effective. Both John and the machines are self-actualising, quite literally. And Sarah’s self-actualising decisions to reject a future she does not choose become all the more striking against an apparent backdrop of determinism.
Let us set aside the metaphysics of time travel, then, and turn to existentialism.
Existentialism is a school of thought which came to prominence in the mid-twentieth century, especially in continental Europe. To many, it seemed nihilistic. Its thesis was that ‘existence precedes essence’, which is to say that there is no meaning to life, no significance to objects, no purpose that is predetermined. Meaning is not determined by God, or built into us by nature. This is existentialism’s negative thesis, and it shouldn’t be totally ignored. Sartre’s philosophical novel,Nausea, is named for the sense of sickening emptiness that can be provoked by confrontation with the brute existence of objects, the contemplation that the mere existence of things signifies nothing, the despair that can emerge from an understanding that there is no external force accountable for our actions or in charge of ensuring positive outcomes.
In a world that had seen the literal and metaphorical fallout of two world wars, the meaningless loss of life and destruction, the reduction of people and cities to ashes by the splitting of the atom – the breaking down of people into things – the bleakness of existentialist philosophy held a certain power for some. Whilst for others it was seen as overly negative – leading people into what was described as a ‘quietism of despair’, meaning that the despair at the lack of external purpose and meaning made people feel like there was no reason to do anything, no meaning to life at all.
Sartre’s famous lecture, ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ argues against this, and for the positive thesis of existentialism. That because meaning is not externally imposed, we are free to determine our own meaning, and to set our own life goals. This is intimidating, because it places sole responsibility for one’s actions upon one’s self. To blame God, or one’s genetics, or other people for one’s actions is to live in Bad Faith. To live in good faith, one must own one’s own actions, concede that one always has a choice, and that choosing one course of action over another is to give that action value, to recommend that action to other people. Good and bad are not lost simply because they are not determined by God or Nature, they are determined by people acting and recommending those actions to others, and in choosing to act only in ways that one would willingly recommend to others.
Sartre writes that the first principle of existentialism is ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future, and is aware that it is doing so’, because it is us who decide who we will be, and we do so by our actions, and those actions matter because they determine a future – for oneself and others who must live in that future.
Which brings us back to our discussion of Cameron’s Terminator movies, and their literal and metaphorical message: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ Surely it is no accident that this is so closely mirrors Sartre’s words. ‘Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself’, ‘no fate but what we make for ourselves’.
TechNoir Lighting State No. 1: dark, shot through with often-strobing light.
These two aspects of existentialism – the bleakness being unable to find meaning and purpose in the world, and the positivity of self-determination, making one’s own decisions the determiners of meaning and purpose – are woven throughout the fabric of these two films. The far darker – again, literally and metaphorically – first movie, TheTerminator set out to create a new genre: TechNoir – a technicolour film in which lighting states were as symbolically significant as those employed in the film noir genre; which called on the same sense of stark bleakness, and which also played on the word ‘tech’ as used to mean technology. This is a self-determining act of Cameron that creates meaning for the film, and for us, as other people exposed to that action.
Lighting State No. 2: sunshine.
Shot almost exclusively at night, stark neon lights in the darkness evoke the darker world of Kyle Reese’s future, lit only by its laser fire. A dark world indeed, where the only light is designed to kill you. And this is a brutal film with a high body count. It’s very title, The Terminator, is the figure of death, and not a death with an afterlife, the death of simply termination. Of stopping. Finality. The only bright, sunny lighting states are associated with Sarah Connor, at the beginning of the movie, before she has been forged by her experiences, with her fluffy 80s hair and tie-dyed pink T-shirt – pink that will look more like blood stains towards the end, as she fights for her life in the dark.
Lighting State No. 3: sunset.
When the light comes back again it is sunset, which will be the dominant lighting state for Termintor 2. Sarah, literally pregnant with the future, having self-actualised in choosing to trust Reese, in sleeping with him, in killing the machine, sits in a jeep. She is literally and metaphorically going somewhere, but we don’t know where. That is for her to determine – we are not privy to her future, as it has not been determined yet. All we know is that a storm is coming.
Terminator 2, Lighting State 1: Night shot through with white and/or flashing lights.
Terminator 2 has three main lighting states. It has the dark-night-with-with-harsh-strobing-lights of the first movie, again recalling the doomed future of death and lasers. It also has a stark white light, associated with the clean technology of Cyberdyne and the empty clinicalness of the mental institution, in which others try to force their meanings and purposes upon Sarah, denying her respect for her rationality and ability to decide her own future. In this lighting state, the imprisoned and controlled Sarah is symbolically linked to the not-yet-conscious, controlled by others
Terminator 2, lighting state 2: clean, sterile, white light.
Skynet. And, as mentioned before, there is the dominant lighting-state of strong, warm, orange light. Even when it isn’t sunset, it looks like it is. It feels like it is.
We constantly feel as though we are on the edge of night, but not there yet. It’s a lighting state full of possibility – on the edge of light and dark. It captivates the sense that the future could go either way, that it is yet to be determined. The bright white light of Cyberdyne and the mental institution do not carry the usual codes for ‘good’ and ‘safe’ that white and light usually do,
Terminator 2 Lighting State No. 3: eternal sunset.
because they banish all shadows. There is no uncertainty. All is determined. They turn people – self-actualisers – into deterministic machines, devoid of free will.
In Sartre’s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ he contrasts human beings, for whom existence precedes essence, with articles of manufacture, whose essence is determined by humans. A knife is a knife because humans design them for a purpose: to be used to cut things. Yet, equally, such articles lose their essence in the absence of humans to use them.
Terminator 2 brings the question of articles of manufacture vs self-determining minded beings to the fore. Skynet was a self-actualising AI, but always off screen. But in T2, Sarah removes the inhibition placed on the T-800 against learning. The T-800 is allowed to explore its own self-actualisation, and in doing so it comes to affect those around it; to build relationships. The T-800 may not have the ability to self-terminate, but he’s capable of bringing the matter to the attention of Sarah Connor – that her brief fantasy of having a father figure for John cannot be allowed without consequences for the world. That is a moral action, and action that affects others, and that recommends a moral stance to others.
It’s significant, too, that the advent of John Connor, the messiah-figure, on screen does not rob Sarah of her self-determination. These two movies put a woman at the heart of the action. In both films a woman saves the day, and it is, after all, Sarah to whom the message is directed, who ponders the philosophy that there is ‘no fate’ but what we make, and who decides that it is not enough to act reactively to defend her son, that she must attack Skynet herself.
This, too, is in keeping with the philosophy of existentialism. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous work, The Second Sexexplores at length what existentialism means as a philosophy for women. Women whose ‘essence’ does not lie in their biology. Sex and gender are distinct, and even though Sarah Connor’s sex – represented by her ability to reproduce – is central to the plot, her femininity is fluid. Her transformation from a soft-haired, feminine waitress in pink to a hard-bodied, single-purposed warrior woman is iconic, and one of the most striking in cinema history.
It is also so presented as to be completely believable.
Moreover, she overturns the dominant horror trope of the 70s and 80s, where the virginal woman is the lone survivor. Sarah may survive where Kyle dies, but she does so after a rather explicit, but not exploitative, sex scene. Absolutely no shame about sex, here. And no sense that the action is being led by expectations, or, again, externally imposed purpose.
Rejection of film tropes is another form of rejected fatalism. A rejection of the narrow boundary available for the fates of women, but also for the fates of people of colour, too.
I’m going to presage this next section by emphasising that the films are not without their problematic aspects, and I will get to those, but I just want to talk about their positive aspects first, and how these relate to our theme of existentialist thought.
Bearing in mind that these are films from 1984 and 1991, it’s significant that both films feature atypical black male characters, and the second film features what appears to be a stable, happy black family. This is in contrast to tropes of dysfunction in the presentation of black family groups – single mothers, abusive or absent fathers. The Dysons are functional, intelligent, wealthy suburbanites, quite in contrast to the common presentation of black people as poor, violent, uneducated and disruptive. Miles Dyson is an authority figure in his work place, but he is also mild-mannered. He is a respected innovator in his field. He is a man around whom history turns. It’s quite an exceptional character, even today, where Barack Obama has been a Kennedy-like figure in terms of historical significance and popularity.
Moreover, in the first movie we have another kind, intelligent black authority figure, in the form of the chief of police. A long step away from the comedy-sidekick that remains a common role for black men to play today.
And these men have agency. Miles’s movement from terrified victim of Sarah Connor’s attack to acceptance and owning of the responsibility of his actions – of a particularly heroic act of good faith, where he might have been forgiven for saying that he could not possibly have anticipated the events that would follow from his work at Cyberdyne – is only second in heroism to the manner of his death – his self-sacrifice in following through, not only to save others, but to own that responsibility.
Whatever you might say of his death (and we will) it is not a cheap death.
But… he is yet another dead black man.
Arnie’s terminator also dies a hero’s death, but at least he gets to wait until the end of the movie to do it. The black man in the team of legends – the legend Kyle Reese was so desperate to meet, Sarah Connor; the super-human cyborg possessed of impossible strength; and the Christ-like Messiah, John Connor – Miles Dyson doesn’t get a legend, he doesn’t get extraordinary power. Miles Dyson gets human weakness, frailty, and the guilt of damning the whole human race.
There are other people of colour – the latino survivalists Sarah and Co. flee to. But no other main characters of colour.
By similar lights, for women, Sarah Connor is great, but she’s basically holding the candle for 52% of the population. Sure, we have Miles’s wife, who exists mostly to represent the kind of mother Sarah could have been. And there are some women amongst the survivalists. Along with Sarah’s friend from the first movie. Who has basically just has sex and dies. That’s about it. And the focus on strength-through-mothering is a problem shared with the other great female led films of the period: the Alien movies. Not that representation of mothers as strong is a bad thing, but for a long time the only area in which women were allowed to show strength was in protecting their children, tying a woman’s value to her reproductive function. Her strength an expression of the unnatural force with which a woman can respond when called upon by the bonds of motherly love. A lack of other strong women in the Terminator films means we have no opportunity to see women present strength in other ways.
Equally, good luck finding any LGBT characters. There are some interesting questions raised about alternative family structures, possibly an aromantic and asexual mother-father bond between Sarah and the T-800, but that’s about it.
Nevertheless, the foundational message of the movie is powerful. That we are all in charge of our own fates. Nobody goes to their deaths simply because they are a certain type of person. And even if death is unavoidable, you can choose how you die – Miles’s dignity (however problematic the circumstances) is inspirational. We are all on a journey – a black-top highway at night. We don’t know what we may come across along the way, but we have the freedom to decide which way we are going.
This is the quintessential existentialist message, explored and expressed through every aspect of the Terminator movies, and I commend them to you. If you haven’t watched them, I hope that this video will have persuaded you to take the time. If you have and you loved them, I hope this goes some way towards explaining what was so powerful in them.
Thanks for listening. I’ve been Ro Smith, and this has been Existentialism and the Terminator.
Cameron, James (1984), The Terminator, Helmdale Film Corporation, Pacific Western Productions
Cameron, James (1991), Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Carolco Pictures, Lightstorm Entertainment, Pacific Western Studio Canal
So. This was the film that everybody loved. I have literally not heard a single person say a single bad thing about this. One doesn’t like to get swept up in hype, but my chief concern was that it would be another faux-philosophical concept film, like Inception, that would annoy me by being less well thought through than The Matrix (I got no problem with The Matrix, as a philosopher – it’s a handy brain-in-a-vat hypothesis; alas, Inception is not the Dreaming argument, it just thinks it is). Actually? The concept is interesting and fairly well realised in a way that I was not able to predict from start to finish. Moreover, the acting was excellent, the script was well-structured and the dialog believable. The CGI was very impressive and there were extensive geek references (chiefly to the Terminator films, but also Blade Runner and the 2009 Star Trek).
I really want to like this movie. But I can’t. Before I give way to the ranting, let me do my best at a non-spoilery plot summary.
In the future-future they invent time travel. But it’s so dangerous it’s pretty much instantly outlawed. So only the outlaws use it. And what they use it for is to dispose of bodies. They dispose of them by employing ‘Loopers’ – people 30 years in the past (but still in our future) who wait around at spots where future-future people are scheduled to be sent back in time, then shoot those people with a specialised short range shotgun. They are paid handsomely from this. The catch is that their wealth is bought at the expense of their future. Loopers literally tidy themselves away. At some point, the person sent back to be killed will be yourself. And you don’t want to know what will happen to you if you don’t kill yourself. Why they don’t send future Loopers back to someone else to be killed? REASONS.
It’s a nice set up until a suspiciously high number of loopers start ‘closing their loop’ in quick succession (i.e. killing themselves). Then, the mate-of-Joseph-Gordon-Levitt (aka Seth) fails to kill himself, and his old self tells him that in the future a new gang boss, the ‘Rainmaker’ is closing all the loops. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is next. But, as it happens, Joe is a match for himself, and gets away: on a mission to kill the Rainmaker whilst he’s still a child.
Oh, also? There’s telekinesis in this future. It’s usually shit. It’s totally not Chekov’s telekinesis.
Why So Serious, Womble?
K. It’s a nice idea. Ultimately, because of [spoiler], the time travel is not metaphysically sound. But I don’t care about that. The time travel isn’t metaphysically sound in the Terminator movies, either.
It’s visually very pretty. In particular, it references Star Trek (2009) in the long-view vistas of the city, and it references Blade Runner in the close-up street scenes – but updated to look even cooler and more realistic. The helicopters also distinctly recall the shape and movements of the aerial Hunter-Killers from the Terminator films.
There are also countless Terminator references that felt like they were getting at something more than just ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome to have Robert PatrickGarret Dillahunt* play a killer in a time travel movie?’ or ‘Hey, let’s have a fierce momma-bear type called “Sarah” in a time travel movie!’ or ‘Hey, let’s have the hero in a time travel movie be called “Joe”, which sounds a little like “John” – we’re so rad!’.
But this world is mysteriously populated by, like, nine times the number of men to the number of women.
But the only black woman (and I think the only black speaking role?) is a waitress, who honours the hero with flirtation, but is never a real love interest the way the other women are.
But the only non-white woman who gets to be a love interest never speaks at all – and yet it is True Love!
But all the love interests are either whores or mothers. Or both. The only other woman is the black woman I mentioned earlier who gets to serve the white male lead, but never develop a real character or relationship with him.
But it is pretty much said at several points that if the mean, heartless, male killers in the film had only been loved by their mothers enough, they would never have turned out that way. That’s right: men kill because women don’t love them enough. Even though loving men is all women do in this film.
But (as though it needs to be said at this point) it does not even remotely pass the Bechdel test.
But the fierce mother called Sarah who protects a son that might be important one day isn’t actually as tough as her namesake; she needs a man around to protect her and her son from anyone who is more dangerous than a vagrant.
But her small child has more agency than she does.
And here’s the thing: it would have been so easy to make this film not sexist (or at least, less sexist than the common fair). Have some of the Loopers be women. Why not? If you genuinely think that women aren’t good fighters because they’re physically weaker than men, consider: all you have to do is shoot a handcuffed man with a bag over his head at point blank range with a shotgun who is delivered right into your waiting hands. No really, we can do that. In fact, we can do more than that. Women are police officers and soldiers and martial arts champions and sharp-shooters. They’re not rare, butch oddities, they’re relatively common these days. My sister is in the military – she knows how to shoot, disassemble and reassemble a gun**, just like a man – and she’s more femme than I will ever be.
This has come up a lot lately, and I’m discovering I feel strongly about it: women are increasingly shown as not being serious threats in popular culture. Dredd is a notable exception, and that’s part of why it so excited me. The trouble with this is that it gets defended as women being shown as ‘good’ in a way men are not. Because violence is bad.
Well. First up, let’s deal with the fucked up idea that men should be angry about: men are not born violent, uncontrollable fuckwits. Plenty of men are pacifists. Plenty of men are kind and gentle and caring. Plenty of men don’t think war is the answer. And, although you’d never know it from Looper, there are just as many fathers as there are mothers. Even if you want to blame bad men as coming from bad parents, why pick on the mothers? Why not ask: where the fuck are the fathers? But it’s so indoctrinated to think of child rearing as a female preserve that the question doesn’t even seem to occur to the writer of this film. The only father figures are the older loopers, who are complicit in the continuation of violence.
Second of all, I may not believe that violence is the answer, but being perceived as ‘good girls’ doesn’t keep women safe. And no, I am not, and would never, advocate violence against men, but the fact that violence is routinely expected (or at least conceivable) from men, and routinely dismissed as a likely response from women, means that women’s freedoms are curtailed in a way men’s aren’t, and that women are more likely to back down than men. That man cat-calling me is a twat, but who knows what he’ll do if I respond? Keep your head down, keep moving, try not to be noticed, run away. And why does he do that? Because it costs him nothing. It’s not simply that he’s been raised in a culture where he’s somehow got the idea that women might respond positively to such treatment: it’s that he doesn’t fear any kind of reprisal from women. He has nothing to lose. And this is at it’s tamest end. It’s realised in terrifying tales like this, which has been doing the rounds on tumblr, and which details everyday harassment and is still not the worst, because in the end it only involved the threat of violence. It is best summed up in the words of Margaret Atwood (as quoted by Mary Dickson in ‘A Woman’s Worst Nightmare‘):
A woman’s worst nightmare? That’s pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed”.
As long as women are perceived as only having the weapon of their laughter, and as long as all men are presented as potential killers if women fail to offer them the expected love, this sort of inequality will be endlessly perpetuated. Ironic, really, when the message of Looper seems to be that if women love men enough they may turn out OK. It’s this sort of shit that means that Chris Brown thinks it’s funny to have a tattoo of what looks an awful lot like the bruised and broken face of his ex-girlfriend, who he was actually convicted of beating to a bloody pulp. Because why not? The worst she could do was get him sentenced to community service. And he did that, so now he can do whatever he likes. Including laugh in her face about it when she’s not even there.
So, that’s why I’m mad. Especially because this is nothing more than what is standard. Because I’m presumably supposed to be grateful there was a woman at least making a show of being tough until a man came along to do it properly for her. And more so because it made a show of using the tropes of the iconic depiction of strength that is Sarah Connor. All those geek references? They were just for geek-kudos. It spits on the memory of Sarah Connor to name a woman who cowers behind men (and her own child) after the woman who took down the terminators. It’s a bitter joke for the woman who took on the T-1000the terminators to be referenced, twenty years later, in a scene where the actor who played the T-1000 a terminator is threatening her namesake and she needs to be saved by a tiny boy.
So, yes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great. And so is Bruce Willis, and Jeff Daniels, to boot. Not to mention that Pierce Gagnon is astonishing as the little boy. I could have written this review about the impressive CGI that made JGL look like Bruce Willis. I could have written an interesting commentary of the shelf-life of an action hero, and just where JGL seems to be going right now.
But I haven’t. And it’s not because I’m a crazy feminist obsessing about something minor. It’s because it’s crazy that this kind of thing is regarded as minor – as acceptable, as par for the course. Instead of being what it was close to being – a part of a resurgence of real sci-fi, like that seen in Dredd – I am forced to talk about its negatives, because they need talking about. Because I’m shocked I haven’t seen anyone else talking about that. And because, in thinking about these things, I realised that, even minus the sexism, this was not as bright and innovative a film as I thought is was. It references classics, but it is not a classic itself. It doesn’t know what to do with its intertextuality. The CGI is pretty, but it is not the beautiful work of art we see combined when a master like James Cameron is at the helm to fine tune every lighting state and camera angle. The looper idea is neat, but it’s not as original as the terminator concept, and it’s not as fully realised.
All in all: a big disappointment instead of what could have been a fairly interesting film.
*[Edited:] @outofmyplanet has pointed out that it was not, in fact, Robert Patrick, the T-1000, but actually Garret Dillahunt, both a terminator and terminator prototype ‘John Henry’, in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I think says more about the impressive casting in TSCC than anything else. In the cinema, I leant over to my geek-film-buddy, Lee Harris, and asked ‘Is that the T-1000?’ as soon as he entered. And Lee nodded. But then, he probably expected me to know what I was talking about. Seeing as I talk aboutTerminator 2a lot. I think the same point goes through. Time travelling killer/opponent of Sarah Connor.
**And more, but being a pacifist myself and not being in the military, I really don’t have a clue.
OK, when Doctor Who wins its obligatory Hugo next year, I vote we give it to this episode. I thought that was stonking.
That said, I can see my Twitter feed is already a flutter with voices of dissent. I won’t pretend to know everybody’s reasons (people always take the trouble to tell me that it was for something different when I guesstimate), but US set episodes are always a slightly tougher sell. I know there have been grumblings around the blogosphere about catering to the growing US audience, but in all honesty, I can’t see why that’s a reason to complain. I mean, it isn’t like all the UK-based episodes aren’t catering to the UK audience. I grant you, ‘Daleks in Manhattan‘ was not the most successful of gestures in that direction, but Doctor Who has a long history of flirting with locations across the pond*. William Hartnell, the first doctor, even had a wild west story arc himself, in ‘The Gunfighters‘ (1966).
I also rather liked the touch of the Doctor saying that they were heading for a Mexican day of the dead festival (before someone spilled from crumbs on the console). Like so many science fiction programs, Doctor Who has always been limited in its realism by its centring on the country of its origin for its plots. Budget has been a big factor in this – I don’t suppose we shall see a Doctor Who episode set in New Zealand in the near future. Curiously, New Who has had, if anything, even more of a problem in this way than Old Who, setting unusually high numbers of episodes on Earth in an attempt to not scare away mainstream viewers, and consequently giving more time to Great Britain over alien locales. Exploring a bit of Earthly culture outside the European therefore seems rather healthy, to me.
But then, I spent a couple of years growing up in the US as a child, and have a longstanding affection for the wild west as a result. Perhaps I am biased because of this, but overall I thought this episode was tightly plotted, original, well-acted, challenging, and exciting. We were not tortured by the notoriously bad American accents that were one of the many flawed elements of the Manhattan based episode mentioned above. Moreover, rather than the recycling of old favourites that we have seen so much of, lately, we got a new (to my knowledge) alien race and a cyborg. (OK, so it is hitting a lot of the Ro buttons, but surely everyone likes cyborgs, right? Right?)
Minimally Spoiltastic Plot
The Doctor, Amy, and Rory arrive at the town of Mercy, somewhere in the US. The town is surrounded by a mysterious ring of rocks and wood, as well as a pointed ‘Keep Out’ sign, which the Doctor pointedly ignores. Almost immediately upon arrival they are challenged by the locals and when the Doctor confirms that he is both a Doctor and an alien, they unceremoniously evict him. In response to his crossing the ring around the town, an ominous figure, named by the locals as ‘The Gunslinger’ materialises in fits and starts, slowly getting closer to the Doctor, hefting a big gun.
At the last moment, the local sheriff, Issac (Ben Browder), declares that the Doctor must be allowed back in, and takes him aside to explain. There is, apparently, another alien doctor in the town, and the Gunslinger wants to kill him. The other doctor, Kahler Jex (Adrian Scarborough), has apparently done a lot of good. The sheriff mentions that the war he, Issac, fought in is only a few years in the past, and the experience convinced him that if a man wants a second chance, he can have one. Kahler Jex has done a lot of good to the town, and Issac is determined to protect him from the Gunslinger.
The Doctor agrees, but is naturally curious as to why it is that the Gunslinger wants this other doctor dead, and whether Kahler Jex is truly a man worth protecting, whatever he may have done for Mercy.
I felt like there were a lot of geek nods hovering around this one. You can’t say ‘The Gunslinger’ to me and not have me think of Roland of Gilead, who is so termed in Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower. But I’m willing to concede that I’m super sensitive to such things. I also don’t know if it’s just me who found that the Gunslinger bore a striking resemblance to a warped version of Kryten from Red Dwarf, which, of course, had its own western episode. I dunno, maybe it is just me, but the black, bulky clothes; the waxy, cyborg face; the awkward stance and movements; the misshapen hands… it just felt familiar. On the other hand, I know that the Terminator font used for the cyborg-view writing that said ‘TERMINATE’ was intentional.
So what were all these references (or putative references) doing? I’m not entirely sure. They might have been just nods. However, this episode was particularly concerned with exploring the themes of warfare, justice, law and order, and the impact of the past on the present, as well as whether an individual can change. The responsibilities and changeability of the individual is a frequent question where artificial intelligence is concerned. Dave Lister, in Red Dwarf, is constantly trying to get Kryten to change as a way of enabling freedom by defying his programming. This is positive freedom, and yet could also be seen as a restriction of Kryten’s negative freedom to simply be who he wants to be. Kryten seems to enjoy the positive freedom that Lister grants him, yet he is also frequently wracked with guilt over the minor transgressions Lister persuades him to because they are in conflict with an existing moral code that Lister is not entirely successful in providing him with reasons to reject. I’m not saying Red Dwarf has any especially in-depth discussion of these things, but it is a feature of debates about artificial life that they always bring with them questions of responsibility and freedom. Programming is taken as restrictive – yet arguably, we are just as predetermined by the laws of physics and our circumstance. Can programming free one from responsibility? If a choice is unavoidable, does that mean it was not chosen? Was it really as unavoidable as we like to tell ourselves it was? And if we create life, are we not responsible for the actions of that life? Or does accepting such responsibility deny the power over its own life that each individual has?
These are questions that the Terminator movies (especially Terminator 2: Judgement Day) are more overtly concerned with. Questions of responsibility and freedom stem from both the AI plot elements and the time travel ones (another shared theme with this week’s Doctor Who. John Connor’s message to himself, via Kyle Reese and his mother, is that ‘The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves’. It’s a bastardisation of a quote from Sartre’s seminal paper, ‘Existentialism and Humanism‘**:
Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future, and is aware that it is doing so
Terminator 2 is all about choices, and I’ll restrain myself from getting too deep into my thoughts on T2***, but I hope this is sufficient to show the connection. Anyway, ‘A Town Called Mercy’ is also about choices and the weight of responsibility – the weight of the past. The Doctor is a man who has tried to wipe his past away – a thing that might feel like freedom, but must also be dangerous, especially for a man with a past as weighty as the Doctor’s. Here he is confronted by a number of mirrors: the sherif, who has responded to his experiences of war with kindness, and a resolution to judge all as though their crimes can be written off if they can prove themselves valuable members of the community. The other doctor, who has worked hard to atone for a murky past, but whose past has followed him, anyway, and now threatens others because it has been ignored. And the Gunslinger, another dealer of death, who is bitter and full of anger for the role that has been thrust upon him, yet who follows a certain code nonetheless. The nature of morality and when and whether it is ever right to kill is constantly challenged and interrogated from a number of angles. And hanging in the background, addressed with a subtlety that New Who has sometimes lacked in the past, is the issue of the Doctor’s own past, of his war-crimes, of his status as a warrior, and whether he even has the right to call himself the ‘Doctor’ and not the ‘Predator’ or something more ominous.
One senses that the Doctor can never truly resign himself to the passive role of healer. The clean slate that Issac wants for others (and tacitly for himself) is perhaps an ideal that cannot be attained precisely because the history of our past actions frames our present and our future. The Doctor was always more the sort of doctor who searched after knowledge than who stopped to attend to the less exciting business of tending to the sick. He has helped people, countless people, but he has also left a wave of destruction in his path. The ‘Oncoming Storm’, if you like. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy‘. Or perhaps, he’s a little bit of both.
The Doctor is one of the more interesting heroes – one of the most enigmatic, charismatic, and magnetic – precisely because he is both darkness and light. Even before this episode aired certain corners of the Interwebs were muttering about the Doctor handling a gun and behaving in a morally questionable manner. But he’s always been a bit morally questionable. He’s not a comfortable hero, and his value lies precisely in that, because he makes us question ourselves. He’s makes us question whom we choose to idolise, and whether people can be fitted into neat categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Not a lot of television shows suitable for children dare to muddy the waters in this way, and yet I think it’s a thing that children respond well too. It’s an important lesson, not only that good people can do bad things, but that bad people can do good, and that maybe the distinction between the two is not as clear as our parents might like to pretend when they tell us that ‘No – don’t do that. That’s wrong – only bad children do that’.
This is a challenging and nuanced look at morality and responsibility all packaged up in a great ball of fun filled with aliens and cyborgs and the wild west. What’s not to love? I might just go watch it again.
In the mean time, and because I cannot resist it, I just have to post this glorious video again, as a reminder of the Doctor’s darker side…
*He-he, I said ‘pond’.
**The literal translation is ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, but the title is usually rendered in English as ‘Existentialism and Humanism’.
***Give me enough time and freedom and space to write in and I will almost always end up talking about existentialism and Terminator 2 – it’s like monkeys and Shakespeare.