Terminator: Trying to Sort Out The Timelines

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) didn’t set fire to the box office, but if it’s the final film in the franchise (I wouldn’t bet on it) it’s still better than 2015’s Terminator: Genisys.

It says something about the way my mind works that much as I enjoyed the film (or maybe that I wrote a book about this sort of movie), all the time I was watching it, I was pondering how it fitted in with the timeline of the other films and the Sarah Connor Chronicles (unlike Greg Hatcher’s excellent post on Planet of the Apes, I’m not worried about other media). Or if that’s even possible.

The first film, 1984’s The Terminator, doesn’t pose any time paradoxes. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg (robot body and mind, covered with living flesh) sent back to murder Sarah Connor, thereby preventing her son John from becoming leader of the resistance against the murderous AI Skynet. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) goes back to save Sarah, and succeeds, at the cost of his own life. In the process Kyle becomes part of the future he came from, as John Connor’s father.

The Terminator actually does change history. He kills two other women named Sarah Connor, among others, and changes the life of psychiatrist Dr. Silberman. But the Terminator universe is not ruled by the butterfly effect: the timeline takes a lot of stomping before the big arc of history changes.

In 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Dayset in 1995 — the combined forces of John, Sarah and Ah-nuld’s reprogrammed Terminator not only defeat the newest assassin, the T1000 (Robert Patrick), they successfully change history to prevent the birth of Skynet. Where the original film showed time-travel as a one-time deal, a Hail Mary play by the defeated Skynet, obviously that wasn’t accurate. While it’s possible that history was, in fact, changed by the events of Terminator, my guess is that John was overly optimistic and Skynet had an escape hatch somewhere. Sure enough, 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (set in 2005) confirms that the war ran several years longer, and Future John was eventually assassinated.

T3 also reveals that stopping Skynet is as futile as stopping the Sentinel-ruled dystopia in the X-Men: in some form it’s going to happen. We also learn that after Judgment Day, Sarah died of cancer, leaving John alone. At the end of the movie, the military activate Skynet and John finds himself stepping into the role of resistance leader.

The 2008 TV series Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles changes all of that. Two years after the original “judgment day” in 1997, both the resistance and Skynet are sending agents into the past to alter history or take each other out. Cameron (Summer Glau), a Terminator sent back by John, transports the Connors to 2007: all the time-tampering has delayed Skynet’s rise to 2011, but 2007 is when human science puts the components together. Not only does this erase T3 from continuity, Sarah gets cancer treatment and survives.

I really wish that series had run longer. It was well done, and opens some new angles on the mythos, such as a new faction of Terminators fronted by Shirley Manson that wants to create Skynet, but as a feeling being with a conscience. Two seasons, alas, was all we got.

But in the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter, as Genisys (I’m completely ignoring the execrable Terminator: Salvation which didn’t involve any time travel) rebooted everything yet again.

The film begins with Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) jumping back to save Sarah. By the time he arrives, Skynet has sent assassins back to Sarah’s childhood, where they succeeded in murdering her parents. Sarah (Emilia Clarke) survived because some unknown player sent another version of the Schwarzenator back to save her; she and “Pops” have been fighting Terminators ever since. The timeline of the previous films has now been rebooted away.

In the new timeline, the threat is Genisys, an OS that will take over the world in 2017, so like Sarah Connor Chronicles, the trio jump into the future to stop it. They apparently succeed, but had the anticipated sequels come to pass, they’d have learned otherwise. (According to the link, the sequels would have revealed Genisys came from an alternate timeline, not our own future, but as that was never made clear in the film, I’m ignoring it).

And then came Dark Fate which gives us an entirely different divergence. Dani (Natalia Reyes) becomes the latest target of the new AI of Doom, Legion; for protectors she has the cyborg time-traveler Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and a pissed-off, 60-something Sarah (Linda Hamilton again) packing heavy firepower and attitude.

Sarah eventually explains that Skynet bought the farm permanently in T2 but it had already sent some extra terminators back through time. One of them shows up and kills John shortly after the events of the film. Sarah has since devoted her life (apparently she got her cancer cured in this timeline) to finding the other Terminators and destroying them.

This doesn’t fit with the previous films at all. If Judgment Day destroyed Skynet, there’s no way T3 or Sarah Connor Chronicles can happen. And if Genisys erased all those events, how can Dark Fate take place?

I see a couple of options:

We’re actually in a multiverse of branching futures. Sarah Connor Chronicles and Genisys created new timelines but didn’t erase the existing one. Destroying Skyline in T2 likewise created a new timeline, in which Dark Fate takes place, but the old timeline continued on, though Skynet’s rise was slightly delayed.

Or, everyone who claims the Skynet future ceased to exist is wrong. Sure, one of the Terminators says it’s gone, but there’s no cross-time communnication, so how would he know? What happened instead was that coupled with other changes caused by all the Terminators coming back through time, the Skynet project got replaced by Legion, and its birth delayed yet again. Of course that still doesn’t explain Genisys …

Of the two, I think the first is more plausible, though “branching timelines” feels a little like a convenient hand-wave.




  1. Matt

    I think the only sensible approach to take is that of Doctor Who.
    It’s all true.
    Even if it’s not true any more, it once was.
    It may no longer have actually happened any more but it did once.
    Even if it makes no sense that it ever happened, it did.

    Otherwise known as Timey Wimey Wibbly Wobbly Stuff.

  2. fit2print

    To (kinda) echo Matt, here’s a passage I happened across just today from Tom Sweterlitsch’s terrific time-travel/police procedural “Gone World” that might also apply:

    “… we physicists interpret existences as something like a symptom of wave-function collapse, some quantum illusion to exploit, a brief fermata of indeterminacy, but I prefer to think of myself and all my selves as the falling star, every permutation of every choice I’ve ever made and ever will make existing in every moment, forever. ‘Merrily, merrily’ — isn’t that what the truest sailors say? Nothing blinks out, nothing ends. Everything exists, always exists. Life is but a dream…. Self is the only illusion.”

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