"Alpine Fields" *works.* It shows what the series can be when it fires on all cylinders, and it shows the techniques that really suit the show. It also shows that the series is getting better. One thing I like about SCC is that you can see experimentation. The show hasn't just stuck in the mold of the clunky pilot, or even of last season. It's been experimenting, and the experiments are telling. Sometimes they work, sometimes they fall short, and the show has been slow to learn what it does well. But then, so was STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, and that turned out okay.
Lately, the show has been doing some very interesting stuff, even if it hasn't always worked. "Self-Made Man," in particular, was a really neat idea, and it was executed about as well as it could be, but there was no getting around the fact that it was Cameron and a guy in a library giving us exposition dumps for most of the hour. The character scenes between Cameron and Eric, the librarian, were terrific; I especially loved the bit where Cameron taught him how to shoot, and I'd like to see the character again. Still, the episode tried to do something really difficult, and it didn't quite work out. But it was a neat try.
"Alpine Fields" knocks it out of the park. The hard thing about a show getting set up is that it's hard to figure out the dynamic that will work best, but when one does you can sure as hell point to it and say, "Yes, *that.*"
For example, conside a scene that often starts episodes of the show: the characters sit around the kitchen table and discuss the upcoming mission. We have seen that scene a bazillion times. We don't need it any more. These scenes are difficult to do, and they're harder the more characters the show has. (Witness some of the later seasons of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, when there were so many goddamn characters in the library that it was physically impossible to get all of them in the same shot.) What's more, these scenes often are repetitive from a character standpoint. This is especially problematic for Sarah's characterization. Sarah wants to keep John protected, so she'll bring that up a lot; but the show requires John to see action, so necessity requires that Sarah's objections are overruled. So she looks ineffective at best, shrewish at worst, and by trying to keep John out of the action she's placed in opposition to the audience. Not good.
"Alpine Fields" knows just what to do with that scene: deep-six it. We don't want to see our heroes squabbling over what they should do and how. We want to see our heroes going out and doing stuff. Fuck Buffy and Giles in the library for exposition; go out and stake some vamps. When SCC opens in medias res, it works really well. The heroes don't squabble about what to do, so as a result the heroes look like heroes.
"Alpine Fields" also knows what to do with its characters: break them up. This puts the characters in different situations, which means the characters get to shine in different ways and are not competing with each other for screentime. Have Sarah and Cameron here, Derek there. Or John and Sarah here, Derek and Cameron doing something else. "Self Made Man" did this: it was a pure Cameron episode. "Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today" did this: it ran from one perspective to another. "Alpine Fields" did this, with Sarah and Cameron in the thrill-heavy part and Reese in the character-heavy part. Guess what? This dynamic works *brilliantly.* It cuts down on the number of characters in a scene, which means that each scene can do more because the writers don't have to serve too many characters. It means the characters get to do more and varied things. It means the actors get occasional respites from 15-hour days. All of these are good things. The nonlinear structure of some episodes helps, too. As the "Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today" and "Alpine Fields" episodes show, the series works very well with non-linear stories. These also cut down on the need for exposition and kitchen-table talk: we get to *see* the background for what happens in that episode's story. It also provides a good way to break the characters up.
In retrospect, the way was shown by the plotline with Agent Ellison. Consider what's happening there: he rarely meets up with our heroes. He is on a different path. It doesn't matter. The character and actor are two of the show's greatest assets. There has yet to be a single Ellison scene in which he is not really damn good, and the little glimpses we see of Ellison's life make him wonderfully sympathetic and relatable. We don't need him to meet up with our heroes too often. He has a supporting role in the larger dynamic, and that's just fine. And if Ellison works, then it stands to reason that we can let our heroes drift into different avenues a bit as long as they work together on the larger goals.
Another area where "Alpine Fields" shines is the way it handles the enemy Terminator. Encounters with Terminators are very, very difficult to dramatize effectively on a television series. This is a problem that honestly had not occurred to me before the show started, and with every episode I've seen I've realized anew just how much of a challenge it is. Terminators need to be formidable, but must not be unbeatable; they must be implacable and terrifying, but they have to lose because we want to see our heroes win. These things are really tough to balance out. It is easy to make the Terminators too vulnerable, or the heroes too foolish and risk-taking.
Part of the problem is that Cameron has beaten the snot out of other Terminators. Often. This makes other Terminators look weak. The audience does not worry about what the characters will do when a Terminator shows up, because the answer is "Let Cameron beat the other Terminator up." Consider the fight at the end of "Self-Made Man." It's dramatically interesting, because we've seen how the other Terminator did so much to lead up to its moment of glory, but as action it's kind of boring. Cameron does not have a problem with the guy. There is no point at which she is in serious trouble. So why should we worry? This is old hat. We've seen her kick Terminator ass before.
"Alpine Fields" handles that problem wonderfully. Cameron goes up against another Terminator mano-a-mano. And *loses.* She gets the snot kicked out of her and gets tossed through a window. This is terrific. It shouldn't happen every time, but that it does happen reinforces the idea that our heroes need to fight smarter, because they're facing formidable opponents. If Cameron continually gets away unscathed, then we wonder why they're worrying about Terminators, which means we're wondering why *we* should worry about Terminators.
In "Alpine Fields," the characters don't kill the Terminator. They get away from the Terminator. This works just fine for dramatic purposes.
One thing the show has done consistently well is casting. The guest cast members turn in solid performances, and every once in a while somebody really surprises you. "Alpine Fields" has a very good guest cast. In both "Alpine Fields" and "Self-Made Man," the key guest actor is really terrific. And that's not counting the name guest stars like Richard Schiff and Andre Royo. Keep that up. I've already warmed to Thomas Dekker this season, and I had thought he was the most irritating John Connor possible. He's not; when he's got good material, he's great. I was slow to warm to Lena Headey as Sarah, but she turns in her best performance yet in "Alpine Fields."
I think the show's look is improving as well. Or maybe it's just growing on me. So, all-around, the improvement continues. The show isn't firing on all cylinders consistently, but it's getting there, and when it's firing on all or most of its cylinders it's really starting to live up to the potential of the property.
In short, techniques that work really well for this show:
* Cutting exposition.
* Breaking the cast up.
* Nonlinear stories.
* Heroes having defeats or small victories, not just clear wins.
"Self-Made Man" was getting close to what the show can do. "Alpine Fields" is there. More like that, please.