Mar 7 2014 11:00am

But That Contradicts the Entire Premise of The Terminator!

Terminator Arnold SchwarzeneggerRumor 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.

Terminator 2 Liquid Metal

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.

Terminator Sarah Connor Chronicles Summer Glau

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

Chris Meadows
1. Robotech_Master
It's worth pointing out that, by the same token, Abrams Trek's parallel universe generation contradicts time travel as seen in prior Trek stories. When Kirk et al traveled back in time during the Old Series, or in Star Trek IV, they came back to the same universe they left. When someone changed history in Gateway on the Edge of Forever, the galaxy changed around them.

We just shrug and deal with it.
2. Cybersnark
The Sarah Connor Chronicles went into more detail than you acknowledge: Derek and Jesse eventually realize that they come from different potential futures (though they both ended up in the same present), and we eventually see a future without John Connor (where he was not present during/after Judgement Day), where the Resistance is alive and well, headed (at least in part) by the Reese's Pieces.

It also flatly rules out T3 and Salvation, by time-jumping over that period (the Terminatrix might have still arrived, but neither Sarah nor John would've existed then).

It also establishes that Skynet didn't rely on that one T-800 arm, but actually springs from a number of different potential sources, and had been sending infiltrators back in time to ensure both its eventual rise, and an advantageous position in the war (by establishing cachets of weapons and materiel).
Andrew Gray
3. madogvelkor
I think the various incarnations have established that the future is changable, but that so far no one has been able to change the past enough to avert Judgement Day. It's not like Looper, where changing the future changes the time traveller -- once you're in the past whatever changes you make don't affect you even if you prevent your own existence.

We also don't know that the first movie was the genesis of either John Connor or Skynet. Was it the first cyle, or the 50th? I've always thought one of the interesting connundrums was whether or not John Connor was the same John Connor, and whether Skynet was the same SkyNet. There seems to be ample evidence that Skynet changes. But the John Connor created in the first Terminator was probably not the original John Connor who created the resistence.
4. hoopmanjh
My own theory (based on the four movies but without having watched Sarah Connor Chronicles) is that Skynet has completely been selling us a bill of goods -- Skynet has sent all of the Terminators back (Arnold in T1, Arnold & the T1000 in T2, Arnold & Kristianna Lokken in T3) not in an effort to stop John Connor's inevitable victory over the machines, but to create Skynet's preferred timeline (i.e. one in which Skynet becomes self-aware, triggers Judgement Day and wipes out humanity). The only human from the future who ever makes it back to the present is Kyle Reese; he says John Connor was on the verge of victory, but we don't actually see the impending destruction of Skynet. When Arnold2 and Arnold3 come back and say they've been sent by Future John well, they're robots and we have only their word for it; and given the way that events unfold (especially in T3), I think it makes a lot more sense to imagine that Skynet is sitting uptime pulling all the strings.
5. hoopmanjh
Oops. Double post. Or maybe it's a post from an alternate timeline.
Alan Dionne
6. amdionne
The Blinovitch Limitation Effect would neuter any attempt to interfere with the events of the first two films. (I believe that would be the Third Doctor's position, as well.)

I might just pretend T:G doesn't exist. It may make money, but it doesn't have to make mine.
jeff hendrix
7. templarsteel
with constant time travel by Skynet and the Resistance, I going with the fact that there is no "real" future that either party could claim as the current future
Chris Nelly
8. Aeryl
This is why we have the internet. In my RL world, I have no one to get outraged over this stuff with.
Mouldy Squid
9. Mouldy_Squid
Re-boot fatigue setting in… cannot summon energy to care…
Walker White
10. Walker
T2 already contradicted itself by allowing Sarah to avert the nuclear war. I don't understand the problem here. The franchise has not been consistent since the second movie.

(This, by the way, is one of the reasons I did not like T2)
11. Jeff R.
I've got to go with the "each movie changes the future" point of view, if only because if the Skynet of the first film had liquid metal terminators available to it they would never have sent a clunky old T-800 to get the job done. Having the T-800 arm means that they were able to build terminators faster, which led them to get the T-1000 model running on time.

Unfortunately, there's another rule in play as well, which is "to avoid paradox, all futures must lead to John Connor as resistance leader capturing Skynet's time machine." So there are strong limits to how much better humanity can do under any possible iteration. ("No fate but what we make" is ultimately a lie that Conner (through Reese and Sarah) has to tell his younger self and allies to allow them to cope with the real truth.)
12. csgrady78
@1 Abrams did not contradict anything. Just like the "Mirror, Mirror" universe and the many, many universes shown in the episode "Parallels" from tNG. The new universe runs parallel but slightly different to the classic time line.

As to Terminator: I would rather have a new series entirely centered on people during the war itself, not another "modern" time displaced hero stroy that only exists due to budget.

I always thought a series of three movies each ending with the lead in directly to the original series, kind of a sequel/prequel series.
13. sofrina
first, thank you so much. i have been saying this since seeing "salvation." that is the one i don't rewatch or much care to think about too. it may not have violated the original time-loop in action, but john connor running around shouting, "kyle reese is my father" was a pretty huge violation. the fact on which the entire story hinges is that skynet does not know who john's father is. if it did, it would not create the time machine at all. it would simply infiltrate the resistance with t-800s targeting kyle reese. further, it's not that kyle betrays john by sleeping with his mother. john sets that in motion, knowing that he must. he gives reese the picture of sarah, but - as is necessary - never tells him that he will sire john. skynet doesn't know because no one but sarah and john ever know.

the more they tinker with this, the more i miss linda hamilton and michael biehn's one crazy night on the run. and that awesome sequel.
David Allkins
14. Ghostword
But isn't there a theory that time-travel creates alternate time lines anyway? To be honest, if this has to be a franise, why not have Skynet keep trying to set up time-lines where it dominates, only to get trapped in wars with other forces, or versions of itself from different timelines?
Dan Rice
15. driceman
@9 is right. Couldn't we try something original? Terminator has had its day. If you want to watch Terminator, watch the first two movies. Make some new sci-fi series that has something unique to say.
Emmet O'Brien
16. EmmetAOBrien
That’s all good and well, except for the part where that completely contradicts the established rules of time travel in The Terminator universe.

Feh, I say, and feh again.

The Terminator is a closed-loop, unchangeable future time-travel story.

Judgement Day is a malleable-future story.

Rise of the Machines is a history-has-inertia, "you think you've changed it but it finds a way of making itself happen the way it's supposed to in the important points" story. A terrible one, but then that's a pretty terrible model of time-travel anyway; don't look at the philosophical implications behind the curtain. (Unless you're Andrew Hussie.)

Given those three datapoints, the logical consequence is that contradicting the "established" rules of time travel is a required part of a new entry in the Terminator franchise. (This would also be true of the original script of Salvation in which John Connor dies and the Sam Worthington character takes over the identity.)

In an ideal world, the movie I would want to see is an accurate adaptation of the plot of the lovely knot of shifting timelines that is the Frank Miller Robocop vs. Terminator, by a screenwriter who can write actual people better than Frank Miller.
17. Thomas Korn
I'm with Moldy Squid.... re-boot fatigue... don't care anymore.
Liz J
18. Ellisande
Actually T1 and T2 considered by themselves aren't a closed loop, since T2 ends on the assumption that Judgment Day actually has been averted. Only T3 takes it back and makes it inevitable (which is one of the things people hate about T3, that they made "No fate" into "Yes, fate").

TSCC begins after T2, and ignores T3 (except for Sarah getting cancer). TSCC!John doesn't meet Kate Brewster and due to the time jump becomes several years younger than she is, probably averting his future marriage and child with her, as described in T3/T4. In any case, it's meant to be a parallel timeline by Word of Powers That Be (and as said above, there are several parallel timelines within TSCC canon, including the one in the series finale).

It's funny to me actually that anyone should complain about any "one, true canon" for Terminator-verse, because there isn't one. Heck, of all franchises, it's the best one suited for a soft reboot of this kind, since time in Terminator-verse is like taffy already. It's a canon multiverse, like comic books, and this is just one more.

I object much more to Arnold's involvement than I do to whatever continuity they use. His cameo in T:S was creepy, and I don't think I can take a full movie of it.
Chris Nelly
19. Aeryl
@13, sofrina, I'm pretty sure Kyle did now. It's been awhile since I seen it, so I could be wrong, there's something about the way he longingly looks at the picture(in the future) that gives it away. Plus, I'm pretty sure he mentions it after.
20. sofrina
@20, kyle mentions that no one knows anything about connor's father, but that his mother died before the war. and that he never understood why connor gave him a picture of her - which he could not bring through the portal with him. kyle admired her legend, fell in love with her photo and volunteered to go back in time because he wanted to meet her. but he never knew that he got her pregnant. that's the strength of the ending when we see she's pregnant.
Chris Nelly
21. Aeryl
@20, I just always felt that he kinda had to tell her that, but that he knew it was him, but also knew if he admitted to it, she'd think he was lying, thus preventing it from happening.
22. Gregor Lewis
@4 hoopmanjh -
Get yourself an agent mate, trademark those ideas and write 'em up!

Would love, Love, LOVE to see a new Terminator film based on the premise of those potential 'reveals'.

Great stuff!

23. hoopmanjh
@Gregor Lewis -- Thanks! I hadn't even gotten to the point where I drew a direct line between Skynet and the MCP from Tron, the system in Wargames and Colossus: The Forbin Project. And maybe the old guy in the sphere at the end of Matrix Reloaded.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
24. Lisamarie
I have no intention to see the reboot, but I also was a bit irritated in the way Terminator 3 re-closed the loop, as I personally liked the 'no fate but what you make' message. But maybe that's just the (brutal) point.
25. Phigment
I think all the hate directed at Terminator 3' s time travel plot is misdirected. T3 was brilliant, for one specific reason: It points out that all the information we have about the future comes from unreliable narrators.

The friendly terminator in T3 explicitly lies to John and Kate at the end of the movie, to manipulate them into a safe bunker to ride out Judgement Day. It also, earlier, explicitly tries to conceal the fact that Future-John is dead and Future-Kate is leading the resistance and giving it orders. This highlights something which has been true all along, but which was glossed over: everything we know about the future comes from time travelers who are trying to manipulate the future.

The three Terminator movies make a very nice, tidy package from their contrasting explanations. Stronger than the sum of the parts.

T1 says you can't change the future.
T2 says there's no fate but what we make.
T3 says you don't know whether the future can change or not, and you just have to muddle along doing the best you can.
26. Gregor Lewis
23. hoopmanjh-
Ah..........TMI for even my empty head to fit in.
My eyeballs are rolling in their sockets like fruit in a slot machine.
Or maybe its just having to think about The Matrix Reloaded that's doing it.
You wouldn't by any chance be a physicist with all this Grand Unified Theory of Evil A.I, would ya?

Joseph Newton
27. crzydroid
I'm going to have to agree that the time travel "rules" in the established Terminator films is not as set as you claim. The whole point of T2 was changing the future...even as Dyson was on his way to creating the skynet computer, Sarah decides to preemptively take it out.

The closed loop of making Skynet from the terminator parts could also be considered to be part of the first movie if you ignore T2, because in a deleted scene the people who find the arm talk about sending it to R&D, and the camera pulls back to reveal the building Sarah had been in was Cyberdyne systems--mentioned by Kyle in another deleted scene as the company that created skynet. I think someone might be able to come up with logical inconsistencies with the first one but it is the one that is most consistent with what you're saying. T2 just totally changes it.
28. HeWhoComesWithTheNoon
Something you're not considering. In T2 the Arm and CPU from Arnold1 was what led to the construction of SkyNet -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that was the way SkyNet was born in the timeline in effect in T1. It's entirely possible that the T1 SkyNet did not require the t800 materials to be designed.
29. garrek42
I'd much rather they had shot the S.M. Stirling novel trilogy, as the post T2 story. It makes a logical progression through the years leading up to and post judgement day.

It's also a great read, if you've missed it.
30. Capac Amaru
Presumably at some point there was an original timeline, where the Neural Net Processor and SkyNet were created via original research (likely a lot later than depicted in T2).

For the sake of simplicity, lets assume that SkyNet becoming self-aware inevitably leads to time travel (i.e. time travel is not only possible, but within easy grasp of an awakened AI).

So lets say in the original timeline SkyNet becomes aware in the 2050s. For whatever reason SkyNet goes rogue, bombs fly, men fight robots. SkyNet is eventually defeated thanks to John Connor, a brilliant strategist in his late 50s, whose planning ran rings around the machines.

But John Connor was born in '85 you say? In the original timeline, John had a different father, someone Sarah had a child with sometime in the nineties, probably in a more normal family setting than those shown in the films.

SkyNet sends a Terminator back to the '90s to prevent John's conception, a last ditch effort at self preservation with the least calculated probability of altering SkyNet's awakening adversely. Future John learns of the plan and sends a trusted and experienced agent (Kyle Reese in his grizzled mid-forties).

The Terminator kills the original John's father. Sarah and Kyle are on the run, one thing leads to another, baby and dead Terminator. Kyle survives, but Sarah dies in childbirth on the run. The Terminator's remains are recovered and studied by Cyberdyne. Kyle trains John to survive, always keeping a picture of Sarah with him.

SkyNet's awakening occurs sooner thanks to the recovered Terminator. With the technological jump start, it develops more advanced models sooner, and sends one back to eliminate John, whose survival training and military experience have pushed SkyNet almost to defeat despite its massive technological advantage.

John and Kyle destroy the Terminator, and Cyberdyne's research, pushing back judgement day, Kyle sacrificing his life for John.

Then the cycle starts again. Each cycle has SkyNet awakening a little earlier, and the Terminators being sent earlier to take out Sarah. SkyNet recovers scraps of data from the first Terminator's remains with each loop. Kyle Reese carries information back with him in each loop.

Each cycle has its differences, Kyle or Sarah survive, or neither. Different models of Terminator, different remains recovered by Cyberdyne, etc etc, but John always survives and beats back the machines.

So, you have 'Terminator: Origins (lol)", followed by T1a, T2a, T1b, T2b, T1c, T2c... T1n, T2n... until you get to 'our' T1 and T2 (with assorted interstitials like T3 and Salvation).

So you have a classic 'cycle of violence' with each side gearing up for war, when the only real solution is to find a way for both sides to peacefully co-exist.

Eventually we get a John Connor whose love for his surrogate father Terminator in T2 carries over to trying to find a way to make peace with the machines. Like T2 implied in the first place...
31. Skoojoo
They could try to pull a Back to the Future 2 move where a closed time-circuit is tangentially split at the first point focal point of time travel (in BttF: 1955) potentially where a 3rd party time traveller interupts the process of Sarah Conner surviving and the T1-800 being partially destroyed. This would create an alternate timeline that they could manipulate, however it would probably obliterate the original premise on which the franchise was built. Then again, they kind of did the same thing with Star Trek and it played out quite well.

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