An Analysis of the Terminator Series Timeline

Recently I was thinking about the TerminatorIs it a series about a future nuclear war and the survivors of the aftermath? Is it a series of chase movies set in the present day? Is it a series about time travel? That fact is that the Terminator series is all of those concepts. The mash-up of genres and ideas shouldn't work, but the films have proven adept at mixing into a heady series unlike any other. series. I read something about the failure of Terminator: Genysis (on so many levels) and how the whole series was being soft-booted by James Cameron to eliminate everything after Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I'm actually a big fan of this, although not entirely because everything after T2 sucked -- I really liked The Sarah Connor Chronicles and if anything should be kept in the continuity it's that. Still, there are some serious issues with the internal timeline of the series that make any kind of continuity problematic.

The Terminator

To explain we have to go back to before the first movie took place. No, not back before Sarah Connor met Kyle Reese. Instead we have to look at the timelines that had to have happened before the events in the first Terminator film could even take place. This is a timeline that has nothing to do with Sarah Connor, terminators trying to kill her, SkyNet, time travel, or whatever fate would eventually befall her. This is the original timeline, the Prime timeline, and everything that happens after is a modification of this original timeline.

Somewhere along this Prime reality, at an unspecified date, SkyNet (or a similar system) had to have been built, in some form, by some company (not necessarily Cyberdyne). For all the rest of the adventures to happen in the movies, for some reason SkyNet has to go bad and decide that humanity is a blight that must be eliminated. They launch Judgment Day (although it might not have had that name), kill as many humans as they can, and then start its genocidal war to finish what was started.

It's important to note that Judgement Day didn't necessarily happen in 1997. In fact, if we take into account the end of the first movie/plot of the second and how it influences the technology that creates SkyNet (a terminator dies in a Cyberdyne plant at hands of Sarah, and then its body is found by the corporate owners), then it's likely that SkyNet came about later in the Prime timeline, and as such, Judgement Day happened later in the Prime timeline.

So this original Skynet launched a war against humanity. During this war, a human leader had to rise. I'm not going to state that it had to be John Connor. It could have been anyone, male or female, so long as the role of "Leader of the Resistance" is filled. This leader does such a good job that the humans start winning and SkyNet is pushed up against the proverbial wall.

Up until here, the Prime timeline is set, there's no time travel, there's no anomalies. Everything happened as it had to happen, and nothing has gotten mucked up... and then...

Any point after SkyNet starts to lose on the Prime timeline, the computers have to discover time travel (or maybe the humans did and the computers stole the tech, either or). Presumably they attempted a few trial runs before sending anything back of consequence. These trial runs would cause only minor fluctuations to the timeline, nothing that would cause any major changes and instead would simply prove the time travel worked. It's not of any major importance how many minor trips were made for testing purposes, only that the technology was perfected to the degree that the machines figured out the rules for how to send material back to the past and were able to launch the next portion of their plan.

At this point, then, a terminator is sent back to kill the resistance leader. This has to happen, in some form, for every subsequent timeline to occur. This terminator may even succeed the first few times, causing a different person to rise through the ranks and become the new leader. However many times this occurs isn't important. Eventually Sarah Connor's kid (maybe John, maybe Jane, it doesn't matter specifically yet), born in 1985, will become the leader in the future. At this point, the first details of the whole time travel morass settle down, and from here we're just trying to solidify everything that occurs in the movies.

Presumably:

  1. A terminator is sent back to kill Sarah Connor.
  2. Sarah is likely on her own for this first encounter.
  3. Sarah eludes the terminator long enough to have a kid (she hasn't already had it before the terminator was sent, as then the kid would be the target, not Sarah).
  4. The terminator probably kills Sarah.
  5. Her kid grows up to lead the resistance, finds out SkyNet has sent a machine back to kill Sarah.
  6. The kid sends a human to help Sarah and defeat the terminator.

We have to assume the guardian that is sent back is Kyle as he's important to the timeline as established in the first movie. Of course, sending Kyle back (for whatever the original reason may be) causes another shift in the timeline, one where Kyle and Sarah fall in love, have a kid, and Kyle is then killed by the Terminator. This kid grows up to be the John Connor glimpsed in the series. After another repeat of the timeline, John comes to realize that his father is the man he sends back.

There is, however, one more detail to take into account: as I noted above, the terminator leaves technology behind at Cyberdyne. The company then reverse-engineers the terminator technology from the future (either an alternate reality's future, or, once we're into a second loop of the timeline, this own reality's future), which causes SkyNet to come online sooner, which causes Judgment Day to occur sooner...

All of this until we get to a stable time-loop where:

  1. A Terminator is sent back from 2029 to 1984 on a mission to kill Sarah Connor, mother of the (then) future leader of the human resistance.
  2. The Human Resistance, led by John Connor, sends Kyle Reese back from 2019 to 1985 on a mission to save Sarah Connor from the Terminator.
  3. During their harrowing two days together, Sarah and Kyle fall in love and conceive a John Connor.
  4. Kyle Reese dies protecting Sarah.
  5. Sarah destroys the terminator at a Cyberdyne facility.
  6. The technology from the terminator leads Cyberdyne to create SkyNet.
  7. SkyNet comes online on August 27, 1997. Judgment Day.
  8. Humans form a resistance, start to win war, cause SkyNet to look into time travel.
  9. Go back to step 1.

At this point we're now officially on Timeline A, a stable timeline with a self-fulfilling loop that will always occur exactly as designed. This holds true until SkyNet sends a second terminator back, this time to kill John Connor, age 10, long before he can grow up to be the leader of the Resistance. Once this happens we then have a gap in the timeloops that we have to account for. The most likely scenario is that the T-1000, as seen in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, comes back to the 1990s and goes after John. Since he doesn't yet have a protector, John likely dies.

Why doesn't he have a protector? Because when looking at timelines we have to assume that each jump is independent of any other jump. If the T-1000 jumped separately from John Connor's future protector then that causes two new timelines, one with just the T-1000 in the past and then a second with the chosen protector there as well.

As established above, if John isn't around to lead the Resistance, someone else, obviously, naturally comes to lead them (as in the Prime timeline). SkyNet, of course, plays its old tricks and sends a terminator back to kill that person, and then eventually (after a few of these attempts) some version of John gets to grow up, and we're back and forth until the timeline settles down again because John somehow survives the attack from the T-1000. The only explanation is luck: somehow he's able to evade the T-1000, probably because his mom taught him well enough.

It's worth remembering that in the second movie, Sarah Connor is in an insane asylum because she blew up a ton of technology firms and wouldn't stop ranting about the evil machines and the future war. She seems insane (even though we know she's right), and they commit her. In the movie, the T-1000 goes after her and, without the T-800 around to aid John, likely killed her. So either John got to the asylum before the T-1000 showed up, visited her, and she sent him into hiding, or he got there too late, realized she was already dead (one way or another), and managed to evade the T-1000. Either way, he eventually goes off the grid (much like he eventually does in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), and evades the machines until he takes over the Resistance.

So why send back a T-800, then, if it's not needed to save John? Because John wants to save his mother. It's the only explanation that makes sense: the T-800 is put into John's care so that John doesn't have to go through Hell hiding from the T-1000, but also so that maybe Sarah can be saved. And, as we saw in the movie, it eventually works.

There's a side-effect, though, that wasn't expected: Sarah elects to try and end SkyNet before it can start by blowing up the tech the first terminator left behind (at the end of the first film). They blow up the Cyberdyne building and end that version of SkyNet. It's played as a happy ending in the movie, but we know that Judgment Day is still waiting out there. Why? Because if Judgment Day never happened, then SkyNet wouldn't have existed to send back a T-800, and none of the events in the movies up until now would have occured. Otherwise we have a paradox. Instead, without any outside tech influence, Judgment Day is just delayed back to when it originally occurred. This gives us:

  1. A terminator, T-800, is sent back from 2029 to 1985 on a mission to kill Sarah Connor, mother of the (then) future leader of the human resistance.
  2. A second terminator, T-1000, is sent back from 2029 to 1995 on a mission to kill John Connor, future leader of the resistance.
  3. The Human Resistance, led by John Connor, sends Kyle Reese back from 2029 to 1985 on a mission to save Sarah Connor from the terminator.
  4. A second protector, this one a reprogrammed T-800, is sent back to 1992, on a mission to protect John (and also do whatever he says, like save his mother).
  5. In 1985, during their harrowing two days together, Sarah and Kyle fall in love and conceive John Connor.
  6. Kyle Reese dies protecting Sarah.
  7. Sarah destroys the terminator at a Cyberdyne facility.
  8. The technology from the terminator leads Cyberdyne to create SkyNet.
  9. In 1995, John, with the help of the "good" T-800, saves his mother. They then go on a mission, blowing up Cyberdyne in an effort to end the war against the machines. All terminators (in part or whole) are destroyed in the process.
  10. SkyNet is delayed, and instead comes about at some later date (if we use the events of Terminator 3 as cannon, then Judgment Day is delayed until 2004 as part of a military defense project).
  11. Humans form a resistance, start to win war, cause SkyNet to look into time travel.
  12. Go back to step 1.

This is now our second stable timeline, Timeline B, now with two overlapping perpetual loops. Everything happens exactly as it has to happen and what ends up being important is that John Connor will always rise up and lead the resistance despite what SkyNet wants.

At this point, everything that happens in the series afterwards is pretty inconsequential to Timeline B. The TX, our new villain in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, is sent to kill various other resistance leaders since John, by this point, is living off the grid and can't easily be found. It does come across him, and he survives with the help of a new reprogrammed Terminator, an upgrade T-850 model. Sure at this point maybe John dies on a few of the attempts, but maybe he doesn't. It's entirely possible he survives in various ways, with or without the love interest introduced in this movie, Kate. And by the time the timeline settles down, we see that the T-850 isn't sent there to aid them in stopping Judgment Day -- the Rise of the Machines (title drop) happens no matter what, so the T-850's entire job is to put John and Kate somewhere super safe that also provides them with all they need to start the Human Resistance.

Yes, sure, this would lead us to a new Timeline C, but it's really only a variant to the events was have to assume happened before. Hell, we see in the next flick, Terminator: Salvation, the culmination of these plans as John and Kate lead the resistance. But then we always knew John would lead the resistance, so what did this really change?

The most interesting thing about Terminator Salvation, really, is that it doesn't feature any time travel, the first and only entry in the series where this happens.

So yeah, in the end, the Terminator series may be a chase series, a sci-fi war series, and a time travel series, but what it really is all about is the futility of trying to change the inevitable. Not exactly an up message but, when you consider how the timeline constantly shifts and nothing really changes, that's about the only moral you can take away from it.

That said, if you pay attention to any of the other works in the series -- Sarah Connor Chronicles and it's constantly shifting timeline where two people from the future can end up with different memories of events as the timeline changes; Genysis with its screwed up timeline that tries to reinvent the original timeline in the worst way possible -- maybe paradox doesn't exist (although pretty well any scientist will tell you that if time travel does exist, paradox is a real thing and you can't avoid it).

Perhaps we'll get a better explanation when the James Cameron sequel comes out in 2019.