The Terminator’s increasingly tangled timeline

Dammit, I have work to do, but news of the upcoming The Sarah Connor Chronicles hit a nerve — my time-travel continuity- checking nit-picking nerve — and I found myself wondering which of the Terminator movies‘ contradictory timelines the series would follow, or whether the series would just invent a brand new timeline of its own. And, naturally, I just had to go through my DVDs looking for all the contradictions and whatnot.

Note: I did not actually watch all three films; instead, I just went to the key scenes in all three films that, according to my memory and a couple other sources, give us some clue as to when these stories take place. If I have missed anything, by all means, let me know and I might expand this post at some later date.

So, first up, The Terminator, which came out in October 1984:

Now this seems clear enough. The future part of the story takes place in 2029, and the present part of the story takes place in 1984 — and it begins on the evening of Thursday, May 12, no less. Actually, this last detail is a bit of a problem, since May 12, 1984 was actually a Saturday — but let’s ignore that for now.

Then, there is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which came out in July 1991:

Again, this seems clear enough. Once again, the future part of the story takes place in 2029, but this time, the present part of the story takes place in 1995 (or, possibly, in January or February 1996). We can discern this from the fact that John Connor’s date of birth is clearly listed on the police officer’s computer as February 28, 1985 — exactly nine-and-a-half months after the events of the first film — and from the fact that his age is clearly listed as 10.

The second film affirms the timeline of the first film in other ways, too — on two separate occasions, the events of the first film are said to have taken place in 1984, once in Sarah Connor’s opening monologue, and once when the police come down to the insane asylum and show photos from that first film to Sarah Connor:

And the second film certainly couldn’t take place much later than 1995 or early 1996, because the characters are trying to prevent an event that is supposed to take place at some later point, on August 29, 1997 (coincidentally, exactly nine years ago today):

The second film also lets us know that Sarah Connor is now 29 years old — which means she was 19 when John Connor was born, and she was possibly only 18 during the events of the first film (unless the first film takes place right after her 19th birthday and the second film takes place right before her 30th birthday):

There is also a scene where the Terminator sent back to protect John Connor says he came from 35 years in the future:

This last scene is a tad problematic, since Terminators tend to be very precise with their numbers, and the gap between 1995 and 2029 is actually 34 years. Perhaps he was sent back from 2030 instead, one year after John Connor’s supposed victory? That might explain why the T-1000 is a more advanced model. Alas, it would also mean that Kyle was wrong, when he said in the first film that John Connor had already won the war against the machines.

One last note: It might seem a little odd to say that this film takes place in 1995, since the film itself came out in 1991; and it may seem a little odd to say that John Connor is supposed to be 10 years old here, since Edward Furlong, the actor playing him, was 13 when they filmed it; and it may seem a little odd to say that Sarah Connor is supposed to be 29 years old here, since Linda Hamilton, the actress playing her, was 34 when they filmed it (and she was 27, not 18 or 19, when they filmed the first movie).

But, well, that’s what the numbers on the screen say.

Then, there is Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which came out in July 2003:

Right away, we got a problem. This film says John Connor was 13 years old and in eighth grade — and not 10 years old — when the second film happened. It gets even more complicated:

We are told that Sarah Connor died of leukemia in 1997. John Connor then tells us that she lived for three years after the disease was diagnosed, so she was apparently diagnosed in 1994 — and after the events of the second movie. That means the second movie must have happened even earlier than 1994, even though the second movie itself tells us it takes place later than that!

Note, too, that Sarah’s year of birth is now given as 1959 — so if she was 29 during the events of the second film, then that film must have taken place in 1988. Oh, but wait — if John is now supposed to have been 13 in the second film, then Sarah would have been only 16 when John was born and possibly only 15 when Kyle saved her from the first Terminator and impregnated her.

Hmmm. That doesn’t seem right.

My guess is that the third film is treating the second film as though it basically took place in the year it was released, and as though John Connor were basically the age of the actor who played him; if that is the case, then, as far as the third film is concerned, the events of the first film took place around 1978 — six years before The Terminator, a very 1980s kind of movie, actually came out.

Coincidentally, these revisions to the back story permitted the filmmakers to set the third film more or less in the year when it came out, and to allow Nick Stahl, the new actor who plays John Connor, to more or less play his own age; he was born in 1979.

Does the film give us any other reasons to believe that it takes place around the time of its own release? Yes, it does:

The Terminator’s internal chronometer counts backwards from the future to July 2004 — one year after the film’s release — and a nuclear fallout shelter with 1970s-style architecture and technology is said to be 30 years old. In addition, the events of the second film are said to have taken place “over 10 years ago”, and presumably not all that much over 10 years ago.

Oh, and lest there was any doubt that the sequels have debunked Kyle’s claim that John Connor won the war decisively in 2029 …


So, anyway, when will The Sarah Connor Chronicles take place? Will it take place after the second film and pretend the third film doesn’t exist? If so, will they set the series in the mid- to late 1990s, to be consistent with that film? Or will the producers follow the timeline of the third film, and set the series even earlier? Or will they ignore all the various timelines, and set it today?

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  • Head. Hurt.

  • Trent

    All I can think of when I read this was our low budget movie script that never got finished, or to be honest, even started.

    Rhere was a lovely scene where you and B. are sitting on the front steps when Sarah and Kyle-alikes run into the shot and Kyle says “Look out! Killer Robots from the future have come to destroy mankind! Run for your lives.” And the you character gets into a long spiel about time travel inconsistencies, and as you talk the Ahnold character walks into frame, stops, shoots at the fleeing pair, then walks offscreen again.


    I miss those days.

  • I can’t believe I read the whole thing! That was awesome! You clearly know how to make a point and drive it home. Good job.

  • I know that I’m trying to pretend that Terminator 3 never came out…

    So I don’t mind if the TV producers do, as well.

  • It’s for the best if Terminator 3 is just ignored…it’s what pretty much all of us are doing already!

  • Note to Geosomin: You said it would be best if we ignored Terminator III. Why? I think perhaps that is the most interesting installment. Not for the acting, or the representations, but more for character, characterization, political commentary, and a break from it being simply all-Arnold all-the-time. I think John Connor is perhaps meant to be some kind of Bush prototype. But a lot of aching questions remain. What post-apocalyptic universe is this that he is destined to lead. And John Connor is basically a blank. A bit chilling. And really, I think, the third installment supplies us with more questions and just as much action for the adolescents in all of us.

  • Carv

    What if Sarah was diagnosed with leukemia a year or two before the events of Terminator 2, but never told anyone until she was dying of the disease? Then I think most of this can be reconciled.

  • Anonymous

    I cant wait till you watch the new Chronicles series. Guess what it takes place in 1999, two years after she supposedly died.

  • Actually, I downloaded the pilot episode five months ago and wrote some comments on it here. In the last paragraph of the post above, I asked five questions, and it looks like the series is answering “yes” to the 2nd, 3rd and 5th questions, to one degree or another.

  • McFetty

    What ‘Terminator 3’?
    I’ve got one for you – T-1000 was metal and couldn’t get squished, T-x (the new, IMPROVED, model) gets squished by a big bit of metal? Hrm…
    For Terminator 3 they wanted a John Connor to authentically look like he’d been through hell and back… Why not use the original John Connor actor who’d, guess what? Been through hell and back! As opposed to the wee blondey they used… Argh!

  • Anonymous

    Just a note: the John Conner that sent Kyle Reese to protect Sarah Conner could not be the John Conner that Kyle and Sarah made. So, John caused his own demise in the timeline and, therefore, the victory over the machines. Every thing he and Kyle knew changed when Ahnold was sent back.

  • If that were true — if the cyborg and Kyle Reese came back in time from Timeline A and thereby created an entirely different Timeline B — then how do you explain the photo of Sarah Connor? John Connor gave that photo to Kyle Reese in Timeline A, but according to your theory, the photo was created in Timeline B and therefore could not have existed in Timeline A.

    I think we just have to acknowledge that the original film is very much one of those classic perfect-loop time-travel stories (cf. The Final Countdown and The Philadelphia Experiment, both of which also came out in the early 1980s), and that the sequels have messed with this premise by going in a different direction.

  • you must take into account some things can be excused like his death because of judgment days postpone so some things after t2 could have changed tho they cant excuse the screw ups in their ages.