I’ve seen some evidence of movement on a new Terminator film, bringing back Linda Hamilton as the once-central character Sarah Connor, the mother of the savior of mankind. Some people want this new movie to erase everything after Terminator 2: Judgement Day. I find this annoying. I don’t like uncomfortable parts of a movie series to be erased from the canon. I want them to be embraced, and hopefully given added value with additional context. And, come on, this is a series about time travel. You can reboot in-universe. (See Star Trek.)
So I hope this new movie carves itself a place in the mythology, all of the mythology.
But can it? Are the five extant films even logically self-consistent? (I’m going to ignore the TV show, largely because I barely watched it.)
The other thing about most time travel movies is that they present alterations to the timeline as if history is a chalkboard and the past is simply erased and rewritten. I find that approach more appealing than the “it’s all alternate history” explanation, which tends to remove a lot of the stakes. It doesn’t matter if this version of the character dies, since there’s another version over there in that timeline.
Another thing time travel stories love to do is create an unmotivated causal loop. (Chuck Berry learned how to rock from Marty McFly, who learned how to rock from Chuck Berry.) This kind of construction is cute and kind of mind-bendy, but it feels like a cheat.
With all of that in mind, can all five Terminator films be analyzed as a series of rewritten futures without the use of causal loops? Why yes, yes they can. Strap in. I’ll be describing six different timelines.
In 1984, Sarah Connor, a simple waitress living a simple life, meets a guy, gets pregnant, has the kid alone and names him John. At some point before 1997, someone invents Skynet. In 1997 Skynet becomes self-aware and tries to kill humanity. In the ensuing human resistance, John Connor becomes a key figure and comes to the attention of Skynet. Just before Skynet’s final defeat, it invents time travel and sends a T-800 terminator to 1984 to kill Sarah based on the best information it has about her whereabouts. John defeats Skynet, captures the time displacement device and learns about the plot to kill his mom. He enlists Kyle Reese to travel to 1984 to save her. [Note: Kyle’s flashbacks in The Terminator are from this timeline.]
In 1984, Sarah Connor is menaced by the T-800 and saved by Kyle Reese. She learns about her son’s destiny. But now Kyle is John’s dad. This is a completely different John from Timeline A, but his upbringing ensures that he will fulfill the destiny that Sarah assigns him. [These are the events of The Terminator.]
Afterwards, Cyberdyne gets the remains of the T-800 and Miles Dyson uses them to reverse engineer Skynet. Judgement Day occurs as in Timeline A. [It isn’t too similar. The date of Judgement Day isn’t given with much precision in the first film. In T2, the date is given very specifically, but that is a reference to Timeline B. The date for Judgement Day in Timeline A could be different.]
The new John follows his destiny in the resistance. Skynet now has enough information from history to understand that this is a new iteration, so it decides to double-down on the time-travelling-assassin plan, and sends two terminators into the past, to 1984 and 1994. When John captures the device, he sees the records of these transits, and so sends two protectors into the past.
The events of this timeline are identical to Timeline B until 1994, when the T-1000 and the fatherly T-800 arrive. Miles Dyson ensures that Cyberdyne will never create Skynet. [These are the events of Terminator 2: Judgement Day.] Enough of Dyson’s work remains that Robert Brewster develops a new Skynet, but on a delayed time-frame. This version of Skynet isn’t ready until 2004, but Judgement Day comes anyway. This John is once again instrumental in the resistance. Skynet, with more history to review, decides to triple-down on its plan, and sends three bad terminators into the past: to 1984, 1994, and 2004. John finds the records, and sends three protectors, this time adding a dickish T-800 to the mix for the 2004 trip.
As before, all events are identical until 2004, when the T-X and the dickish T-800 arrive from the future. Despite his best efforts, John cannot avoid Judgement Day, and we get to see it happen in the movie. [These are the events of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.]
This version of Skynet has even more information, knowing that not only is John Connor important, but also Kyle Reese. [It’s not clear from Terminator: Salvation if Skynet understands that Kyle is John’s father, but that’s not important. All that is important is that Kyle is important to John. That could be explained by John’s own fascination with the man, since he knows he’s his father. Skynet may simply have learned of John’s search for Kyle.]
Skynet tries a new method of attack, sending a terminator/human hybrid to infiltrate the resistance in the form of Marcus Wright. This backfires. [These are the events of Terminator: Salvation.]
John is, as before, successful in defeating Skynet.
For some reason, which is unclear, Skynet decides to reset the table and finish out this iteration by sending only one terminator to 1984 to kill Sarah. (More on this decision later.) John sends Kyle to 1984 to save her.
This iteration is identical to Timeline B. The only appearances from the future are the T-800 and Kyle Reese in 1984. After Judgement Day, a young Kyle Reese is saved from terminators by John Connor.
[The reason for me adding this diversion is that the situation that led to John meeting Kyle in Terminator: Salvation differed greatly from Kyle’s flashback in Terminator: Genisys. For both versions to be “real”, they have to be in different timelines, hence Skynet must have reset the table. There is more evidence below.]
Before its final defeat, Skynet creates a human-seeming mole to insert into the resistance forces after they capture the time displacement device. Skynet sends the T-800 to 1984. John captures the facility and prepares to send Kyle to save Sarah. [We can infer that in this Timeline Skynet did not send anything to 1994 or 2004, since the resistance person says the device was used only once. Since John is not surprised by this information, that’s what happened in his history. Hence we know how Timeline D ended. This is more evidence for the “resetting the table” explanation.]
While in transport, Kyle sees the mole capture John. This moment gives Kyle the ability to remember not only his original Timeline E memories, but also his Timeline F memories. (This is admittedly kind of silly.)
After Kyle departs, Skynet sends an unspecified terminator model to 1974 to kill young Sarah, and it sends a second terminator (a Korean T-1000) to 1984 to help kill adult Sarah and Kyle. Some unknown actor sends a curmudgeonly T-800 to 1974 to save Sarah. Skynet also converts John into a more effective human/terminator hybrid and sends him back to 2014 to reboot the Skynet project in a different way. [This could be considered an insurance policy. If the changes to the timeline cause by the 1974 terminator made Skynet not appear in 1997 (or 2004) on schedule, John would ensure it could happen at a later point in history.]
Now everything is in flux. Sarah’s parents are killed in 1974, and she’s saved from a terminator by curmudgeonly T-800. In 1984, Kyle, another T-800 and Korean T-1000 all arrive, and there is much mayhem, leading to the destruction of both “bad” terminators. Sarah and Kyle are transported to 2017 by curmudgeonly T-800.
In 2017, Kyle and Sarah, along with now aged curmudgeonly T-800, determine that Skynet has changed form in this timeline into a multi-platform operating system called Genisys. During their attempt to stop it, they are confronted by Evil John. Even more mayhem leads to Genisys being defeated and curmudgeonly T-800 being upgraded with T-1000 technology.
Why did Skynet reset the table at the end of Timeline D?
As I said, this isn’t clear. But one potential explanation ties to the two worst films in the franchise, and maybe gives them a little more resonance. In Terminator: Salvation, Skynet tries to create a human/terminator hybrid and it fails. The human wins out over the machine. Perhaps at the end of Timeline D, it tried its plan of capturing and altering John, but the process failed because of his transplanted heart. This meant that if Skynet wanted to specifically use John as its savior, it would need a pristine copy of him. Thus it reset the table.
How does Skynet learn from iteration to iteration of the timeline?
That could be explained by the internet. As events occur in the world, there are references–news reports, police reports, etc.–that could persist until after Judgement Day. Skynet could glean at least a little new information from these sources in every iteration, thus giving it the motivation to alter its plans each time.
Was this analysis worth the brain power to make it work? I don’t know, but I enjoy this film series, even the lesser quality ones. I like the idea that they are really of a piece, and not simply various riffs on a single theme.