Sometimes the best messages can come from the most unlikely sources.
A good example is “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”
The weekly television series, which ended its second season on Good Friday amid rumors of possible cancellation, has proven to be a surprising show.
Based on the three “Terminator” films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the series has been enriched by its allusions to the Judeo-Christian tradition, its reflections on faith and doubt, and its exploration of what it means to be human. In fact, some viewers have even complained on internet message boards that the show has “too much religion.”
The series, which is broadcast on the Fox network, tells the story of a mother and son – Sarah (Lena Headey) and John Connor (Thomas Dekker) – and their efforts to alter the future. In each episode, they work to save mankind from an artificial intelligence called Skynet, which according to “Terminator” mythology, will be created in the near future and launch an apocalyptic war against humanity. Robotic assassins called “terminators” are sent back in time to kill the Connors and all who stand in Skynet's way. Cameron (Summer Glau), a re-programmed terminator, serves as the Connors’ protector.
In one scene from “Samson and Delilah” (Season 2, Episode 1), Cameron sits inside a church, gazing intently at the large crucifix hanging on the wall.
“Do you believe in the Resurrection?” she asks Sarah. “The story of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection – do you believe in it?”
“Would you,” Sarah asks, “if you’d seen what I’ve seen?”
As a machine, Cameron lacks the uniquely human capacity for faith. But earlier in the episode, she underwent her own resurrection of sorts, and something about the image of Christ on the cross seems to capture her attention. For religious viewers, the scene might serve as a reminder that faith itself is a God-given gift that humans often take for granted.
“Faith isn’t part of my programming,” Cameron says.
“Yeah, well, I’m not sure it’s part of mine either,” Sarah replies.
Cameron is incapable of faith; Sarah has rejected it. But another major character, former FBI agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones), is a Bible-believing Christian. Ellison has seen at least some of what Sarah has seen, but rather than abandoning his faith, he has turned to it for strength and solace.
From a religious standpoint, perhaps the most interesting episode has been “Earthlings Welcome Here” (Season 2, Episode 13). In one brief scene from that episode, Ellison speaks with his pastor about his ex-wife’s abortion. After Sept. 11, 2001, he says, she was so shaken by the terrorist attacks that she no longer wanted children.
“She decided she didn’t want to get pregnant anymore. … But she already was. I didn’t find out until after she had terminated it,” Ellison says, explaining what led to the unraveling of his marriage.
The scene is impressive for several reasons.
First, how often does a television series acknowledge the reality of post-abortion grief, let alone present us with a male character who has been emotionally devastated by a woman’s “choice”?
Furthermore, this was a non-essential scene, and a show that deals with time travel and killer robots could easily have steered clear of such a controversial issue.
However, the most fascinating aspect of the scene might be the word Ellison uses to describe his ex-wife’s abortion: “terminated.”
Abortion advocates have long used the phrase “terminate a pregnancy” as a euphemism for “murder an unborn child.” But in the “Terminator” franchise, the verb “to terminate” is used almost exclusively in reference to the murderous actions of terminators. In that context, could there be a worse euphemism?
(Interestingly, abortion was also referenced in “The Terminator” (1984). In that film, the title character (Arnold Schwarzenegger) was sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), before her son could be conceived; a skeptical criminal psychologist said the terminator’s mission sounded like “some sort of retroactive abortion.”)
In another scene from “Earthlings Welcome Here,” Ellison plays chess with an advanced artificial intelligence, which has been plugged into the body of a terminator. Covered in flesh and wearing clothes, the supercomputer – named “John Henry” – looks astonishingly human. As they play, Ellison attempts to teach him about the difference between good and evil, and in the process addresses the sanctity of human life.
“Human beings aren’t like chess pieces,” he says. “It matters if we live or die,” because “our lives are sacred.”
“Do you know why human life is sacred?” Ellison asks. “Because we’re God’s creation. God made everything – the stars, the Earth, everything on this planet. We are all God’s children.”
In our increasingly secular world, Ellison’s assertion that human rights are derived from God is a decidedly countercultural message.
These are just a few of the welcome surprises that “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” has had in store for religious viewers. And, since the series premiered in January 2008, there have been many other examples.
For instance, in “To the Lighthouse” (Season 2, Episode 20), John Henry is briefly taken offline and then reactivated – a process that one character describes as, for a supercomputer, something comparable to dying and returning to life. Upon reactivation, we see how much John Henry has been influenced by Ellison’s discussions of religion and morality; communicating via text on a computer screen, the artificially-intelligent being uses words recited by Jesus on the cross: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
In “The Good Wound” (Season 2, Episode 14), a gravely injured Sarah has a vision of Kyle Reese – the father of her son, the man who sacrificed his own life to save hers. Throughout this episode, Reese’s shade stands by her side, accompanying her in her pain and providing much-needed comfort and encouragement. Is his presence a figment of her imagination? Likely. Just a hallucination? Perhaps. But, for Catholic viewers, these scenes can also serve as a beautiful metaphor for the communion of saints, a reminder of our conviction that not even death can separate us from our relatives and friends, or from their love and prayers.
To praise “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” is not to say that the series should be screened in catechism classes throughout the country. Nor is it to say that the actions of the show’s characters are always praiseworthy or even morally acceptable. But the series has served as an unlikely vehicle for discussions of religion and morality, and it deserves recognition for the times it has risen above mere escapism, presenting faith without mockery and handling questions of human dignity with sensitivity.
One can only hope that more television shows might follow its example and, if the series is renewed for a third season, that it will continue along the same path.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.