Playing with narrative structure on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

The regrettably short-lived Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles had a lot of stuff going on for it, but one of the most fascinating elements of the show for me was the narrative structure. Television tends to be very rigid and linear: Once it picks a format, it sticks with it, with each episode progressing logically and within the framework of the established series precedent. Occasionally, an episode might be structured differently — see ‘Out of Gas’ on Firefly — but in these kinds of instances, the episodes involved stand out because they’re meant to stand out. The audience recognises them as unusual and sits up to pay attention because the narrative structure is different, alerting them to the fact that something important is happening in the episode.

Yet, on Terminator, the writers and production crew were constantly exploring different ways to tell stories, while retaining the fundamental narrative thread. Part of this may be due to the freedom created by the franchise itself, which encourages timeskipping and other shifts from predominant narrative, practically encouraging writers to rethink the way they tell stories. Without the constraints of linear progression, writers can feel much more free to tell stories any way they like — and this is especially important for the handwavey complexities of time travel, in which rigid storytelling can slam into time travel paradoxes and create significant problems for writers and characters alike.

From the start, Terminator alerts the viewer to the fact that this is not a conventional action series — the camerawork and staging in the pilot are intriguing, demanding, hauntingly beautiful. Careful, thoughtful composition can be hard to find on episodic television because of the more demanding production schedule, which pushes for quick storytelling over elegance. Tellingly, shows with shorter episode runs (Hannibal, Six Feet Under, Sherlock) tend to be known for their really beautiful staging and camerawork, highlighting the heights that television can reach when producers are allowed more leeway — and budget, because beautiful cinematography does not come cheap.

Intriguing storytelling doesn’t come cheap either, and it’s a bold move for network television, where viewers have certain expectations that the show often defied. It certainly had episodes that followed the predicted and expected course we have come to expect from television, in which characters progress along a set timescale and through a series of interrelated scenes. These made up the majority of episodes, rooting the viewer in the present of the series and making it easier to get key components of the story across without having to go through elaborate, potentially pretentious acts of storytelling.

But the programme also explored other approaches. Flashbacks and flashforwards — depending on how one views these things — were a key component of the narrative and they managed to occupy a role on screen without feeling trite. They were, of course, suited to the story being told, where people are traveling through and across time in intersecting and diverging narratives; in that setting, it’s nearly impossible to tell a straight story from beginning to end without running into problems.

Some episodes rely almost entirely on a flashforward narrative, providing context and depth to the story and the characters. To learn who people are, we need to see their future, not their past, because their future is their past, which can be a challenging notion for narrative storytelling — yet, for both Derek and Jesse, it would be hard to add any depth of characterisation without seeing their previous lives. This ‘show, don’t tell’ approach allows the viewers to connect more deeply with the people they interact with, and provides chilling, ominous precedent to heighten the experience of the show and create dramatic tension without feeling artificial.

In other episodes, we not only follow the paths taken by different characters as their idea and projects diverge, but the show explicitly shows us different points of view. While it’s called Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it’s not limited to Sarah’s POV and reads at times almost like a series of separate records pulled together and stored in a single document, a narrative move with clear intentionality in the context of a series about information, records, storage, data, and communication as much as it is about survival. In a panopticon world, Terminator illustrates what happens as the edges of society and privacy begin to break down, and as notions of mental illness are informed by a more complex reality.

The exploration of the gendering of mental illness is really key here, as Sarah is consistently treated as someone with a serious mental health condition not just because of beliefs doctors assign as delusional, but also because of her gender. She faces the role of a Cassandra in a society that refuses to listen to her not just because what she says is making no sense, but because she speaks with a woman’s voice and not with the authority of a man. Narratively, this is key, as the assignation and treatment of mental illness as a ‘female problem’ or ‘women’s issue’ is an elaborate component of everything wrong with how we treat mental illness on a social level.

Sarah Connor isn’t mentally ill — the world around her is rife with bigotry and confusion about how women interact with culture and society. Yet, viewing the world through the lens of a woman routinely treated as though she’s mentally ill put viewers square into a frame some might have viewed as distinctly uncomfortable: Which other women in their lives were they neglecting in favour of writing them off as ‘crazy’? The patchwork quilt, wildly distributed narrative really contributed to this, by pushing at the boundaries of narrative possibility and notions of the orderly mind.

Image: Summer Glau, Jaina, Flickr