Rumor has it that the upcoming Terminator: Genesis film will pull a similar hybrid-soft-reboot trick as JJ Abrams’ recent Star Trek films, in order to simultaneously exist in tandem with the rest of The Terminator franchise, while also establishing a clean slate for itself from which to launch a new series of films. Allegedly, this new Terminator film will revisit several key moments from T1 and T2. But at some point, somewhere, something will go awry and create a parallel tangent universe that enables the story to continue free of the restraints of the established continuity.
That’s all good and well, except for the part where that completely contradicts the established rules of time travel in The Terminator universe.
The Terminator films are based on an ontological paradox, a complete closed loop of time travel where the effect leads to a cause which then leads to the effect. It’s like the future-tense version of LOST’s “Whatever happened, happened” mantra, but with more Austrian robots. The inciting incident of the storyline is SkyNet sending the first T-800 back in time to kill the mother of resistance leader John Connor. In response, John Connor sends his friend Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother. If neither of these things had happened, then neither of these things would have ever happened, because the entire Terminator universe is dependent upon these actions. If Kyle Reese had never traveled back in time, he never would have had sex with John’s mom, Sarah Connor, meaning John would have never been born (which makes Kyle either the best or worst friend, ever), meaning SkyNet would have never had a reason to send the T-800 back in time to kill Sarah Connor.
This circular chain of events gets even more complicated in T2 when it’s revealed that the technology that created SkyNet and the Terminators was only possible because of a computer chip found in the wreckage of the first T-800 in 1984. So having-sex-with-your-friend’s-mom-in-order-to-guarantee-your-friend’s-birth-aside, SkyNet was only able to send the T-800 back in time because SkyNet had already sent the T-800 back in time, which allowed for SkyNet to be created in the first place.
Now, these key moments might be included in the re-visited scenes of Terminator: Genesis, and one could argue that as long as the events of T1 remain unscathed—specifically, Kyle Reese sleeping with Sarah Connor, and the T-800 being destroyed but leaving an arm behind—then the reboot should be free to dance between the temporal raindrops and do whatever the hell it wants. But that’s still not entirely true, based on the rules that were established in the first two films, which are the foundation for the entire series. There are tons of different rule sets when it comes to time travel—ontological paradoxes, parallel alternate realities, grandfather paradox, wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey handwaves, butterfly effects, Nokikov self-consistency principles, et cetera—but not all of them can co-exist at the same time (unless we’re talking superhero comics, but that’s a different conversation). If the central premise of your story is based entirely around a closed timelike curve, then that same science can’t also create a parallel alternate reality, unless your circular logic loop never actually closed—except we already know that it did.
“But what about T3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles?” you ask (because I can hear you because I live inside your computer and you’re talking to yourself outloud again). Writer/director James Cameron was not directly involved in any of those continuations, which may lead some people to question whether or not they “count” in the canon. But none of those installments explicitly contradicted the rules that had been established in the first two films. The end of T3 revealed that Judgment Day had not been averted by the events of T2, but had simply been delayed. This makes sense because, again, there must still be a SkyNet in the future in order for the first T-800 to have been sent to the past. Whatever was going to happen is still going to happen.
As for Terminator: Salvation, well, I don’t really want to talk about it. I already suffered through it once. But again, it doesn’t explicitly contradict anything. Granted, the events of T3 and The Sarah Connor Chronicles don’t necessarily lineup. But there could be ways to make them work, and more importantly, they both depict Judgment Day and the machine takeover as inevitable. Maybe tiny details change or dates get pushed back, but in the end, it all balances out—in accordance with the rules established in the first two films.
Not every instance has to adhere to this perfect ontological paradox, as long as nothing happens that changes those few locked in events. Is this new movie going to reveal some new retroactive continuity, and revisit old scenes in a new light before taking off with a new storyline set post-T2? That might work. Is a wildcard time traveler going to revisit those original events and try to interrupt the ontological loop forcing someone else to go back and correct it? Well, that couldn’t happen, because no matter what, the loop would get corrected, and the end result would be the same, not a parallel tangent universe. And if the end result’s the same, well, that kind of sucks all the dramatic tension out of the story, doesn’t it?
Look, I have no problem with rebooting the franchise. There’s money to be made, I get it. And sure, time travel is already built in. But thanks in part to the success of Star Trek and—potentially—X-Men: Days of Future Past, it seems that Hollywood is obsessing over eating their cake and having it, too. Yes, there’s a vocal part of the fan community that is concerned about which stories “count” and don’t like seeing their favorite tales lose value. But the original Terminator films will still be there. Time travel is an important element of the story, but it doesn’t work in the same way as it does in those other film series. And if you are going to change the rules, then you may as well reboot the entire thing and start from scratch. Then the new Terminator continuity won’t have to follow any of the same rules. That way, everyone wins.
Except for humanity, I mean. Humanity gets decimated when SkyNet takes over. That part still happens.
Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. Thom enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve whiskey and robots). He is a graduate of Clarion Writer’s Workshop at UCSD, and he firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net.