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The timeline in the Terminator universe is greatly complicated by time travel. Many events have been altered as to when, and/or how they happened (such as the creation of Skynet, and Judgment Day). There has also been a series of events that have been undone or postponed due to interference from the travels of the machines and the resistance back into the past, such as Miles Bennett Dyson's involvement in Skynet, or who constructed Skynet (From Cyberdyne Systems Corporation to Cyber Research Systems). Some events also seem to be a predestination paradox of sorts, where time travel seems to be required to maintain a timeline (rather than to alter it).
The question of multiple timelines, however, is highly contested. Many pursue the belief that there is but one timeline, and that everything that happens just happened. This falls under the category of the predestination paradox. This article, however, will focus on the theory of the existence of multiple timelines, created by the different travels in time.
Understanding the theory of multiple timelines and time-travel
To understand the timelines, one needs to have a basic understanding of timelines and time-travel. A good source is M.J. Young's analysis of the Terminator movies and his theories on time-traveling. Keep in mind that there are many theories when it comes to time-travel. When it comes to understanding the timelines of the Terminator saga, some fans of the series base their conclusions on current theoretical physics, while others just let the Terminator films speak for themselves or even use theories from other time travel themed movies to explain it.
One very fundamental understanding of the theory of multiple timelines is that something cannot happen before it happens (though this is not necessarily true). For example, in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the viewer learns that the adult John Connor sends back a terminator to 1995 to protect his younger self. It follows that John must first live out his life, without meeting this terminator, to the very point in the future where he sends back the terminator (again, complicated, but not necessarily true). From this point, when the terminator arrives in 1995, a new timeline is created, a new future is set, and the previous timeline–from 1995 into the future–ceases to exist. However, the "future artifact(s)" (the reprogrammed terminator and anything else sent back from its time) still exists because its/their own past has not been changed.
This means that, if we assume the existence of multiple timelines, events evolving in time occur on two axis: by the actual date and by timeline. Time move forward in a axis from left to right. If someone arrives from the future to the past, the timeline is shifted down, and the time starts moving from that point in the past, forward again, but on a different track.
When does a timeline start?
When referring to the different timelines, like the Terminator 2: Judgment Day timeline, some may think it starts and stops at the same time as the movie does. It doesn't. A specific timeline starts from the point where something arrives from the future. It's also important to know that all information from the robot about events belongs to the previous timeline, not the current timeline, in this case The Terminator-timeline. All actual events occurring after its arrival (which you see in the movies) belongs to a new timeline, the Terminator 2: Judgment Day-timeline.
The terminators or Kyle from the future know only what happened in the future from the previous timeline, they don't know what's going to happen in the current timeline. Information in a source may go back several timelines. Like in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines it is revealed that Kate and John, as children met and kissed the day before the T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day arrived. So this is actually events going back to The Terminator-timeline.
It's not enough to know when something is sent from the future, you also have to know in which specific timeline it was sent from. In some cases a hidden timeline can exist between two timelines:
Let's use five mythical, apples that never rot or grow stale. Say "Person A" on 01/01/1950 sees the 5 apples and he eats one apple. This event occurs in 01/01/1950 until 01/01/2000 this action belongs to Timeline 1. Then, on 01/01/2000 (we assume he comes from Timeline 1) "Person B" goes back to 01/01/1960 and says to "Person A": "You ate one apple on 01/01/1950." Now, "Person B" also say that "Person C" was sent from 01/01/2000 to 01/01/1940. If "Person C" ate one of the five apples, his actions changed realities for "Person A" as well as "Person B." Before "Person B" says "Person C" ate an apple, we correctly assumed he came from Timeline 2a. Once he says "Person C" ate the apple, this statement becomes incorrect; he actually comes from Timeline 2b because "Person C" changed history for both "Person A" and "Person B." However, if "Person C" did not eat the apple on 01/01/1940, then it created Timeline 2a, in which case "Person A" saw the five apples on 01/01/1950 and ate one. We can resolve the timelines like this:
- Timeline 1: "Person A" saw the 5 apples on 01/01/1950 and ate one apple on the same date. On 01/01/2000, "Person C" goes back to 01/01/1940.
- Timeline 2a: "Person C" arrives from Timeline 1 and creates Timeline 2a by NOT eating an apple. On 01/01/1940, he sees the 5 apples and eats none. Thus, on 01/01/1950 "Person A" sees five apples and eats one. This timeline exists until the year 01/01/2000 when "Person B" goes back to 01/01/1960 to talk with "Person A."
- Timeline 2b: "Person C" arrives on 01/01/1940 from Timeline 1 and creates Timeline 2b. He sees the five apples and eats one; thus, "Person A" sees four apples and also eats one. When "Person B" arrives on 01/01/1960 to tell "Person A" he ate one apple on 01/01/1950 AND "Person C" ate one apple on 01/01/1940, it is the first mention "Person A" has ever heard of the apple eaten by "Person C." "Person A" now realizes there were originally five apples, not four. Also, "Person B" could have only heard of the fifth apple if he had been told of its existence by either "Person C" or another historical source; "Person A" could not have told him about it in this timeline.
Regarding the timelines below
To fully understand the story and the timelines in the Terminator saga, it is divided up in sections. It's not possible to combine and retain all information in one single timeline, because some events cease to exist in a later timeline. A new timeline for each source (in this case all movies and the TV series). In a given timeline, this is the only timeline that exist.
The sources we use, in this case movies, novels, comics, games, holds the information on when and the circumstances on the how a new timeline are created. Sometimes, like in the movies, it contains several time travels, like Kyle and the T-800 in The Terminator. This means there are actually two timelines in The Terminator, but on this page we try to make it simple, by letting it be one timeline.
Problems connecting the timelines
According to which theories and "truths" you accept by the creators of the whole Terminator saga there are certain timeline problems which occurs.
- We know Terminator 2: Judgment Day happened in 1995. In the opening narration (of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) John Connor says that he was attacked by the T-1000 when he was 13 years old. This is an inconsistency. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, John Connor was only 10 years old, as shown on the police computer when the T-1000 accesses it.
- In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Sarah Connor's grave site says she was born in 1959. In previous movies, her birth year had been given as 1965. However, it is important to note that she and John were living "off the grid", routinely using false names, birthdates, inter alia; and that her grave site was really a weapons cache.
- Josh Friedman states that the TV series is set in an alternate timeline, which means the timeline of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is not "ceasing" to exist, but it has never occurred from the TV series point of view. The pilot of the show begins four years after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
- After the events of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines the war starts between humans and machines. John becomes leader of the resistance. Skynet manage somehow to make advanced robots earlier than the previous timeline (maybe from the remaining parts of the T-X and T-850), which lead to creating the "Cameron"-model and using it on the battlefield. After the previous attempts of killing Sarah and John Connor (T, T2 and T3), the war still goes on, and it's getting tighter. Skynet now use all resources on the battlefield. In a last effort they send a T-888 (an older model) back to 1999 to kill John Connor. As a counter attack, the Resistance are able to catch a terminator from the battlefield (a "Cameron"-model) and send it back to protect John Connor. Sending terminators back before the previous timeline results in "erasing" the Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines-timeline completely (or, alternatively, creating a separate parallel timeline).
Terminator Salvation's director and cast explain the timelines
After the release of Terminator Salvation, the film's director McG, and actors Christian Bale and Anton Yelchin answered several Q&As submitted by the fans. A few of the questions address various aspects of the Terminator franchise's timelines, including the original timeline, the predestination paradox, and how multiple timelines work in the films.
- Anton Yelchin talks about his character, Kyle Reese's origins, and the original timeline he came from in The Terminator. "When Connor sent Kyle back, that was a world in which Kyle wasn't Connor's father. So when he sent him back, it then started this chain of the Connor that you have in [all the sequels] where Kyle Reese is his father — it'll be interesting how they tackle that [in future sequels] if we ever get to a point we have to send [Kyle] back."
- Christian Bale discusses what John Connor knows about time travel during Terminator Salvation, "Yes, it hasn't been invented in this movie, so it can't be utilized yet. He knows entirely that there's a bizarre situation where he knows Kyle Reese — who is a teenager but who is his father — and that he'll have to send him back in time. But Kyle Reese is not aware of that."
- McG states that Terminator Salvation uses "... the spirit of parallel worlds, as theorized by Einstein. We try to pay attention to that approach to a fundamentally theoretical construct." This allows Skynet to be aware of the other attempts on the life of John Connor, and allows it make plans based on it's past successes and failures. This likely explains why Skynet would lure John into combat against the T-800 Model 101, because it is the model that managed to successfully kill him in a different future on July 4, 2032.
- McG mentions how it is able to identify and target Kyle Reese while he is just a civilian in 2018. "It’s a function of their recon during the dark period, and a function of their awareness of the events that had happened since Kyle Reese traveled back. By virtue of John Connor being alive, that means Kyle Reese did meet Sarah Connor and impregnate her. That data exists, and was brought into the fold at Skynet."
- McG goes on to discuss what would happen if Kyle were killed in Terminator Salvation, and the repercussions it would have on the timeline. "Will he be erased in the photograph, like in “Back to the Future”? That’s an excellent question that theorists have been bandying about for the ages. We play it more simply. Kyle Reese must be kept alive, so he can be sent back in time from 2029 to protect Sarah Connor, impregnate her and she’ll give birth to John Connor who will save us all. And the simplest way to understand that is to protect the triangle of Kyle, John, and Sarah. Any deconstruction of that leads to more headache than satisfaction."
Timelines of the Terminator saga
Since the release of The Terminator the most highly debated issue is the predestination paradox of Kyle from the future impregnating Sarah and then become his father. Some just overlook this fact while other try to find solution to this paradox. Most fans want Kyle to always be John Connor's father, but in the original timeline it is possible that John Connor previously had another father, and later Kyle impregnated Sarah.
Regarding the original timeline
In order to understand and make the story and timeline from the start of The Terminator work, it is suggested that there are numerous timelines before the actual event of the first movie. We know Kyle Reese accounts for two key events/objects from the future - First: Skynet sends back a T-800. Second: Kyle has a picture of Sarah Connor.
- First: There must be a reason why Skynet sends back a T-800. Its because of the future leader of the Resistance. Likewise, there must be a reason why John Connor in the future sends back Kyle Reese to protect Sarah. John Connor in the future, cannot send back Kyle Reese before the T-800 already been in the past.
- Second: The photo of Sarah Connor. The reason why this picture is taken, is the cause and action of the T-800 and Kyle Reese in past. Without these two events, Sarah would not decide to go on this trip at the end of the movie, which leads up to a boy taking a picture of her. Which means, there have to be a timeline where Kyle Reese is going back, without a knowledge of a photo. Simply, because it doesn't exist yet.
The list below is a short illustration to resolve the different timelines that has to occur in order to make the story in The Terminator work. It all starts with a unaltered timeline, with no T-800 and/or Kyle Reese.
The following timelines (grouped by sources)
The following timelines are ordered chronologically, based on the movies, novels, comics and games. The main link would direct to the product itself, and the little (t) direct you to the timeline-page of the product.
- Cross-over comics are not included.
- The gray fields represent unknown events which has to happen in order to make the timelines before and after connect together.
- Bold text are the main source. Italic text is references in the source to another timeline.
|1950 - 1985||1985 - Judgment Day||Judgment Day - 2033|
|Timeline #1||Original timeline||The Terminator, (references)|
|Timeline #2||The Terminator (t)||The Terminator: The Dark Years (future part)|
|Timeline #3||The Terminator: The Dark Years (present part)||The Terminator: Secondary Objectives, (references)|
|Timeline #4||The Terminator: Secondary Objectives||Terminator 2: Judgment Day, (references)|
- Timeline leading to Terminator Salvation
|1950 - 1985||1985 - Judgment Day||Judgment Day - 2033|
|Timeline #5||Terminator 2: Judgment Day (t)||Terminator 2: Judgment Day - Nuclear Twilight|
|Timeline #6||Terminator 2: Judgment Day - Cybernetic Dawn||Terminator 2: Infinity|
|Timeline #7||Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, (references)|
|Timeline #8||Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (t)|
|Timeline #9||Terminator Salvation (t)|
- Timeline leading to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
|1950 - 1985||1985 - Judgment Day||Judgment Day - 2033|
|Timeline #5||Terminator 2: Judgment Day (t)||The Sarah Connor Chronicles, (ref: 101 and 102)|
|Timeline #6||The Sarah Connor Chronicles, (ref: 101)|
|Timeline #7||The Sarah Connor Chronicles (ref: 101)||The Sarah Connor Chronicles|
Year index through the saga
- Main article: Years
- ↑ "Exclusive Interview: Writer Josh Friedman fights the future for 'Terminator's' tv 'chronicles'"
- ↑ "'Terminator Salvation' Stars Answer Your Burning Questions"
- ↑ "'Terminator Salvation' Director Answers Fans' Burning Questions"
- ↑ "McG Talks ‘Terminator’ Sequel, Common’s Music, Timeline And More Fan Questions"
- ↑ [[Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (film)|]], The T-850 states that Katherine Brewster sent back the terminator.
- ↑ Episode 101: Pilot, Cameron states that someone is sent back to 1963 to build a weapon and a time machine.
- ↑ Episode 102: Gnothi Seauton, Cameron states that there are Resistance fighters sent back to help them.
- ↑ Episode 101: Pilot, Cameron is sent back to protect young John Connor.
- ↑ Episode 101: Pilot, Cameron states that someone is sent back to 1963 to build a weapon and a TDE.