In Too Deep: The Time Travelling Terminator Temporal Paradox (or, Where Does The Time Machine Come From?)
Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
The Terminator franchise has always had a paradox at the heart of it: Namely that it needs to use the time travel mechanics to get the plot in motion, but doesn’t have any way of making it so those mechanics actually make sense across a franchise. Many blogs and much discussion has been devoted to how the timeline works in the Terminator franchise, and I’m proud to say that I am… going to completely ignore it for the far more interesting question that no one has ever seemed to ask: Where does the time machine come from? And why does its existence mean the inevitability of Judgement Day?
So before we start, lets work out how time travel actually works in the franchise. Fortunately enough it’s the latest film in the series, Terminator: Genisys, that actually gives us the clearest answer about the mechanics of it. Put simply, the Terminator franchise works on multiverse theory. In the fifth film we have Kyle Reese see two different versions of events in his ‘past’: the past that led him to where he was now, and an alternate past where Judgement Day happened a hell of a lot later. So right then and there we get a very clear explanation that time travel creates branching timelines more than anything else. So, problem solved, right? Time travel via the ‘multiverse’ theory, rather than the ‘one true timeline’ theory? But lets explore that even more, since it reshapes every aspect of the franchise. Simply put, any time the time machine is used, the people in it are sent to a different universe. Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Terminator: Rise of the Machines all exist in different parallel universes, rather than the same universe. This would explain the countless continuity errors, like Judgement Day constantly being shifted around. However, this doesn’t seem to make sense when it comes to the problem of Kyle Reese. After all, without Kyle Reese coming back in time, John Connor is never born in the first place. So in fact the multiverse theory doesn’t explain the story, since the story is actually taking place within the same universe. Confused? Well let me explain.
Now the biggest problem with this supposed theory of it all being in the same universe (at least in terms of the films) is that Judgement Day gets moved about. First it’s suppose to happen in the 90s, then it actually happens in the 00s. What we do know for certain is that the humans win the war in 2029. But how do we explain this conflict in when Judgement Day happens. Well, we have to look at who tells us when Judgement Day actually happens. In the first two movies the only date we get to know for certain is August 29th, 1997, as told to us by… The T-800 from the future. The one programmed by John Connor to protect John Connor. So we have to ask ourselves one simple question: How do we know the T-800 is telling us the truth? After all, if what the T-800 said is true, John Connor is only 12-13 when Judgement Day happens, and yet despite being a kid he somehow manages to lead a resistance to win in 2029 when he’s 44. So between the ages of 13 and 44 he rises up to take down Skynet. But that’s 32 years of humans being at war which is… unbelievable. There’s no way humans would be able to fight and survive for 32 years, not in a wasteland where they can’t even grow food. So we have to accept the simple explanation that the Terminator is lying to both the Connor’s and the audience. Judgement Day didn’t happen in 1997 and was never going to happen. The Terminator just told them that in order to set events in motion to allow Judgement Day happen when it’s suppose to: July 25th, 2004. Judgement Day was always going to happen on this day, despite what the Connor’s did in the second film. This would make John Connor 19 by the time the events of Judgement Day actually come about, with humanity fighting the war for 25 years. This actually fits in well with Terminator: Salvation which, set in 2018, shows that the war has been going on for 14 years. This also explains Kyle Reese quite nicely. If he was born sometime in 2002, that would make him 16 in the fourth movie, 27 by the time he gets ready to travel back in time. So in a lot of ways this all makes sense. Reese would no doubt presume the war had been going on all his life, since he’d have no way of recognizing if it had or hadn’t. John Connor was a young man by the time Judgement Day happened that, thanks to all his training from his mum, meant he was ready for it when it actually hit. So far our timeline fits in perfectly up to the point where we get to the fifth film, where the multiverse theory comes into effect and we have two timelines. But, when you think about it, the first film’s chronology holds just fine. In fact, up to the point where Kyle Reese steps into the time machine, we’ve been seeing one timeline. And when Kyle does go into the time machine he gets split into two: One that goes into the original Terminator film, and one that goes in the Terminator: Genisys film and all that comes with it. So it’s only with this fifth film we get two timelines, since up to that point we’re watching one complete timeline loop around in on itself. So the Terminator timeline actually works as just a single line if we make the logical presumption that the T-800 is lying in order to make sure John Connor is ready for the events of Judgement Day in 2004 (which, among many things, involve breaking Sarah Connor out of prison). So we don’t have multiverse time travel to the very end. What does this mean for our time machine?
Well before we start we better address the inconsistencies of the Terminator TV series universe and explain that away… which is pretty simple to do. As I said, the fifth film shows Kyle Reese travelling to two different timelines. Well, the TV series starts with the characters travelling forward in time. It’s entirely possible that Cameron, Cromartie and all that happen in the same universe… except in this version the characters travel forward in time, whereas in the main universe discussed above they don’t. That could be why the TV series goes off in a completely different direction: Much like T5, TTVS is set in a completely different universe. So again, our timeline is kept somewhat pure. Everything that happens before the time travel part of TTVS happens in the main timeline, there’s just enough changes where they end up not travelling in time and instead continue on events towards T3. Right, that’s cleared all that up. So, what does this mean for our time machine?
Well before we start, we need to work out what our time machine actually is. How does this bad boy even work? Well, there are a few key points that we can take away from it:
1)It can send things back in time (evidence: Just the franchise in general).
2)It can send things forward in time (evidence: TTVS and T5, which funnily enough are also the only two that have alternate universes, so it’s entirely possible that it’s the forward part of time travel that creates the alternate universes more than the backwards travel).
3)Only living flesh can go through the machine (evidence: Again, see the franchise).
4)It can apparently be built with technology dating as early as the 1980s, if not earlier (evidence: again, TTVS and T5 both feature time machines built before the 1990s).
5)It can send you through time and space, though the latter seems to be a tad unpredictable (since the time travellers only ever seem to land in the general area, not in close proximity to their target, in a different place than from where they started).
6)It destroys all matter that comes in contact with it (evidence: again, all of the series).
7)It can be fooled by liquid metal taking on the components of flesh (evidence: T2 onwards).
8)It can’t seem to send more than two separate things to the same time zone at different times.
So then, what conclusion can we draw from all of this? Well…
Firstly, it wasn’t built by Skynet. Reason? Well, why would the machines bother to build a machine that had to have skin over it in order to send things back in time? Only a human would care whether or not flesh would survive the trip, since it’d be a human taking the trip. As such, only being able to send a naked human back in time wouldn’t be seen as a drawback to a human as much as it would be a machine. Likewise, what would the test subjects have been? Mice, or some other test animal. If the machines couldn’t be sent back in time you know they’d have tried testing it on live animals, no doubt with a tracker chip in them. Once it was proven that flesh could be sent back in time, they’d work on the next step. So humans built the time machine, not machines, due to it being designed to send humans back in time and not machines.
Secondly, it’s incredibly imprecise and can’t be used more than twice in one go. Reason? Well, why did the machines only send one Terminator back in time each time? I mean surely the machines would have dog-piled a whole bunch of Terminators to go back to the same point, except they don’t. No, instead a very interesting pattern happens: The time machine can only work in roughly ten year intervals. It sends Terminators back to 1984, 1995 and 2004. Even more telling, Sarah is only suppose to be 19 in the first film. Why is this important? Because, if memory serves me true, a Terminator was sent back to when she was 9 years old back in 1974. So it appears that the time machine can almost work in decades at best, at least when sending people back in time. But even then, why don’t they send multiple Terminators back to 1984 or 1995? Well, that’s the most logical thing to do. After all, why wouldn’t you abuse your time machine. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the more you pollute the past, the more you’re likely to screw up the future. I mean having one anomaly in the past would be dangerous, imagine having a hundred. But secondly, and perhaps more tellingly, it’s a technical limit. After all, how many humans wouldn’t want to travel back to pre-Judgement Day? If I had the chance to go back to the past, twenty years before the war, you bet I’d take that opportunity. Furthermore you could send plenty of people back into the past to save the day. Humans aren’t logical and would know that the more people in the past, the greater the chances of success, even if it does increase the risk of screwing up the future. Whether it be to stop Judgement Day or just live in peace, humans would jump at that. So, given that they only send two people at a time, what can we deduce from this? Well, you can only use the time machine twice in one go. It’s such a massive power drain that they can only use it for a limited amount of time before it needs to stop and recharge.
So lets construct a timeline. John Connor and the humans storm Skynet’s base in 2029 and, in its desperation, it sends a Terminator back in time 45 years back in time. The humans then send Kyle Reese 45 years back in time. The machine then has to recharge for 9 years, 9 years in which mankind tries to get itself back on track. But that doesn’t mean Skynet is defeated, not by any means. It manages to gather up its forces enough to invent one singular robot, one T-1000, and throws that back into the past. The humans follow suit, sending back their own T-800. The machine then goes dormant for another ten years when Skynet, with its very last chance, sends a T-X back to 2004. Now in many ways this explains the T-X’s mission. While the first two Terminators were sent back to try and kill John Connor, this one was sent back to kill John Connor’s lieutenants. It was probably these lieutenants that were making sure Skynet couldn’t use the time machine any more than it did. It was really getting desperate and decided it was better to try and balance the odds into its favour. Once again, the human resistance (who have all but beaten Skynet, this being the last remains of it) send back a T-800, trusting it due to its connection with John Connor. Since Skynet died with the T-X, the humans essentially win. So the time machine can only be used sparingly, and takes almost a decade to recharge.
This also helps explain why the good guys and the bad guys end up going to the same time. Skynet set the time and place, the humans piggyback along with it. So they have enough for two bursts of time travel, but no more. Likewise, the machine can only travel a pre-set 45 years back in time, no exception. It would explain the somewhat random choices Skynet chooses to send Terminators back to, after all. So the time machine can only send people back 45 years at a time, takes a decade or so to recharge, and can only be used twice before it needs recharging. A lot of that seems to make enough sense.
The time machine works by switching the matter in the two time periods. Reason? Well the ball of electricity that forms when the time traveller lands indicates that it’s designed that a time traveller doesn’t materialize in the middle of something. It’s actually makes quite a lot of sense, from a safety point of view. So how does it actually work? Well, it could be a simple matter of swapping the matter in both points. So everything in the past ends up going into the time machine in the future, where it no doubt falls to the ground. So it must take a lot of power to send something back in the past, with the time travel sphere no doubt being a visual representation of how much power is needed.
The time machine is remarkably simple to make. Reason? Well, TTVS and T5 both feature ‘home-made’ time machines, even though that shouldn’t be possible. However, both of these are only seen sending people forward in time, not back in time. This is the crucial difference. Moving forwards in time is actually the easiest thing in the world. You’re doing it right now. So to move forward in a jump could be a simple matter of jumping out of the timeline and entering another part. While the process seems instantaneous, the time travellers are actually held on the outside of time. This might also explain why they move so much: The world rotates enough in the trip that the end up in a different place to when they start. But forward time travel seems like it’s possible to make at home, even if backwards time travel isn’t. So making a time machine is easy enough that you can almost literally do it in your backyard.
Skynet has a connection with the creation of the time machine. Reason? Well, if they didn’t have a hand in it, how did they end up finding out about it? And even if they did find it, why would they finish building it? What logical reason would there be to have a time machine when it ends up risking the timeline? So the time machine must have already been built and existed in a way that Skynet knew it existed, so that it had a reason to use it when the war seemed lost. So it’s possible whoever created Skynet helped create the time machine. This theory is the one supported in T5, since it shows that Skynet and the time machine are linked together. If not because the villain of T5 helped build both, then because the heroes need to use the T-800 chip to make their time machine work.
So then. What can we conclude from all this?
Well, simply put, a bunch of scientists working for the same people who made Skynet work on a time machine. It’s possible that the time machine was created as early as the 1980s, at least as a working prototype. The one in T5 can only work when they get the T-800 chip, so it makes sense that Skynet and the time machine use the same sort of software. The scientists made it for human travel and no doubt tested it with mice and whatnot, first by sending animals forward in time and then backwards. The machine is designed to make sure the user gets to the past safely, so they can do whatever they want. It takes a hell of a lot of power to use, meaning that by the time the scientists get most of the pieces in place the end of the world happens to stop them. Skynet then picks up the pieces and go on from there. So that seems to explain it all, right? Scientists built the time machine, Skynet then hijacks it after Judgement Day? Well there’s one more thing that needs to be brought up.
The Terminator franchise hinges on a paradox, the ontological paradox to be specific. Namely, Skynet has no beginning nor end. Skynet is only created because of the Terminators that got sent back in time; and in turn they only got sent back in time because the Terminators were created. As such, Skynet is a temporal paradox. It shouldn’t exist, seeing as it has no beginning, and yet it does. This might explain why it’s so unusually powerful. It’s a paradoxical anomaly and, since we don’t know how paradoxical anomalies would actually act, whose to say that said anomaly wouldn’t gain sentience? Aside from that, this also explains why Skynet doesn’t send more than one robot back into the past. As John Connor puts in the fifth film, he has essentially been cheating the entire time. He knows how the future is going to play out because he got told by various sources. He knows that he’s invincible to 2029 so that he can set the story of the first film in motion. He knows a lot of important things from what the characters in the future told him. He is cheating the system, something that Skynet doesn’t know. So when they send the T-800 back in time they don’t know they’re playing into fate’s hands, since it only became self-aware in 2004. It can’t remember its history the same way a human can. It doesn’t have any memories pre-2004, except from what it can find in the archives. But lets say it figures out that it’s the one behind the T-800, T-1000 and T-X. It sets itself into a trap of knowing it has to build a T-800 to send back in time in order to get created in the first place. This would explain why it chooses to make human robots, even though there’s no logical reason to (I mean yes the ‘skinned’ ones make sense, but beyond that, why choose the inefficient form of ‘human’?). It knows that it has to make humanoid robots even though they’re inherently weaker in order to create its own existence. Now since the creation of Skynet is probably closely linked to the creation of the time machine, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have time travel without Skynet, you can’t have Skynet without time travel. So at the end of the day the entire thing is a temporal paradox, with each needing the other in order to exist. The heroes cannot stop Judgement Day since the only way they know about it is from the use of the time machine, the very time machine that causes Judgement Day to happen. At the end of the day, once the time loop started, there was no way of stopping it at all.
So there you have it. A very dense and very complicated look at the Terminator franchise and where time travel comes from. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel to leave a comment. Till next time.