Terminator’s Many Timelines

Lon Harris
Movies Sci-Fi
Movies Sci-Fi

With the release of Terminator: Dark Fate, the franchise now contains six movies and a TV series, formally making it the anti-Community. And at this point, most feel the same way about how things have turned out thus far:  Those first two movies are pure gold and then… well… those first two movies are pure gold.

The fact that the series involves time travel, literally allowing new writers to go back to the moment things went wrong (after Terminator 2, apparently) and set them right, means we’re not looking back at a straight-ahead narrative, but a convoluted Retcon-verse, filled with offshoots and reinventions.

The fate of the Connors has wound its way around space-time more than Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan at this point. But, with a little patience, it’s still possible to step back and unwind all these threads, even if you don’t have access to a neural net processor. A learning computer.

After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger told Fandom this franchise is a “thinking person’s movie.” And he would know… he’s been in most of them.


James Cameron’s first two films are the solid bedrock of the entire Terminator franchise. Though some minor elements of their original timelines have been tweaked over the years, the events of these films have never been retconned away. They remain, through Dark Fate, the lead-in to just about all of the other stories.

So here’s what we know based on the first two films:

Sometime in the future, most of humanity is wiped out when an artificially intelligent defense network, known as Skynet, goes rogue and declares war against humanity, kicking off a nuclear apocalypse known as “Judgment Day.” With most of the human population decimated, a lone hero named John Connor leads a Resistance against the machines which threatens to turn the tide of the conflict.

“How can Kyle Reese exist in the future and be killed in our present? There are always those questions, but time is fluid and when you realise that anything can be undone by arriving before that and stopping it then you have a free pass to understanding.” — Linda Hamilton talking to Fandom about getting to grips with the Terminator timeline.

So, in the year 2029, Skynet builds a time machine (!) and sends one of its hunter-killers — a cybernetic organism known as a Terminator, or T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) — back through time to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), before she can give birth to him. After the T-800 goes back, Connor and the Resistance find the time machine, and send a soldier named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back, to protect Sarah.

Both Reese and the T-800 arrive back in the year 1984 in Sarah’s hometown, Los Angeles. They both track her down around the same time, and Reese saves her life. He tells her all about her future — John, Skynet, the war, Terminators — and she sees enough robotic sci-fi mayhem to eventually come to believe him. During the course of their adventures together avoiding murder, they fall in love, and use a rare break in the action to conceive John Connor.

Terminators prove exceedingly hard to kill — this is going to be important for later episodes — but Sarah ultimately manages to do the job using a hydraulic press to smash it up real good, though Reese is killed beforehand.

The Terminator leaves behind one undamaged hand extended out of the press, which is recovered by scientists — presumably connected to the US government — along with a damaged portion of its CPU chip. There’s a cover-up and no one besides Sarah ever finds out what really happened.

As the first movie ends, a now-pregnant Sarah heads off to Mexico, to live “off the grid” and raise her son to one day lead the human resistance against Skynet.

Halting Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day updates us 11 years later, in 1995, and things have not gone at all according to plan. Sarah was secretly pulling covert missions on her own, trying to prevent the company Cyberdyne Systems from developing Skynet, but got caught and sent to Pescadero State Hospital. John entered the foster system and uses his mother’s survivalist training to dodge cops and steal from ATMs.

An undaunted Skynet has sent a newer, upgraded Terminator, called a T-1000, back in time, hoping to kill John (Edward Furlong). Forget Sarah. She’s old news. The T-1000 is made of liquid metal — a “mimetic polyalloy,” in the film’s parlance — making it even MORE difficult to kill, and also able to disguise itself as anyone, instead of just a very strong Austrian gentleman.

Fortunately, the future Resistance also found their way back to the TDE, or Time Displacement Equipment (yes, that’s really what it’s called), and sent back a reprogrammed T-800 — who always looks like a very strong Austrian gentleman — to serve as John’s protector.

The T-1000 wastes no time, taking on the persona of a police officer and killing John’s foster parents. The T-800 finds John, keeps him safe and also reveals that, because Future John reprogrammed him, he has to follow all of 1995 John’s commands. This is how we get him saying “Hasta la vista, baby,” while vowing not to Terminate anyone anymore, AND this is how John convinces him to go on a daring rescue mission to free Sarah instead of just hiding out somewhere.

John and his new friend free Sarah from the facility and narrowly avoid being sliced up by the T-1000. The trio heads south, toward Mexico (a popular destination in this series!), to rest and gather supplies at the camp of Sarah’s old connection, Enrique (Castulo Guerra). But Sarah ditches the others to pull off another mission of her own: she plans to kill Cyberdyne scientist Dr. Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the man whose research is primarily responsible for the creation of Skynet.

John and the T-800 go after her, and manage to stop her in time. The T-800 peels the skin from its forearm to prove that it’s actually not human, and is in fact the ultimate result of Dyson’s current research. Dyson, now convinced, sneaks them into Cyberdyne HQ, so they can destroy all of his research. There’s a huge shootout with the cops and the T-1000, Dyson is killed, but it seems like the plan worked and the Connors get away with all the needed Skynet ingredients.

The T-1000 chases them to a factory and eventually dies after falling into a vat of molten steel. As one does. The CPU chip and the Terminator arm go into the steel as well, followed, voluntarily, by the T-800 himself, the last remaining Skynet technology on planet Earth.

He gives John a thumbs-up on his way down into the steel, though, so this is totally a happy ending! The film culminates with a hopeful Sarah and John driving off into the night. And this is the point where the series forks, and all manner of alternate timelines are proposed, including the latest film, Dark Fate.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, we’ve got…


So T2 ends with John and Sarah Connor destroying Cyberdyne Systems and any trace of Skynet technology, thus preventing Judgment Day from ever happening. What Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines pre-supposes is… maybe they didn’t? This is the first of many subsequent Terminator projects to suggest that Judgment Day is inevitable, and can only be delayed, never prevented entirely.

Sarah Connor, in this timeline, died in 1997 from leukemia. Ever since, John (Nick Stahl, as the role of John begins to move from one actor to another) has continued to live “off the grid,” just in case Skynet ever comes back. In the year 2004, John gets into a motorcycle accident and breaks into a veterinary hospital to patch himself up and administer some painkillers. So, things are going really well.

Just as he’s being confronted by hospital employee Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), they’re both attacked by yet another Terminator from the future. This one’s an even more advanced model than the T-1000, known as the T-X. In addition to the whole liquid metal steal your identity feature, the T-X also has a lot of high-tech future weaponry at its disposal. Plus, in a series first, a Terminator finally looks like a lady!

This time, Future Kate has sent back a reprogrammed Terminator (a T-850, not a T-800) through time to save his own skin, and once more, he arrives just in time and comes armed with several catchphrases. This Terminator introduces the idea that Judgment Day can’t be prevented; he’s programmed to keep John from dying in a nuclear explosion so that he can one day assume his role as head of the Resistance.

The T-850 ALSO reveals that the T-X is hunting not only John, but Kate, who in the future, is one of his top lieutenants and his wife. Awk-ward. Sure, these future machines want to wipe out humanity, but they also seem dead-set on wiping out any spark or thrill of new romance, too, and that’s too far!

The T-850 leads John and Kate to Sarah’s grave in Victorville, California, which is filled with not a body but a cache of weapons. No, this doesn’t mean Sarah’s secretly alive. She was just cremated and had her ashes spread at sea. But the weapons do allow the heroes to keep one step ahead of the T-X, as they track down Kate’s father, General Robert Brewster (David Andrews).

“Our movie [Dark Fate] mostly makes sense to me but if you pressed me on [the timeline] I would not be able to answer.” — Dark Fate actor MacKenzie Davis, who plays enhanced human, Grace, on the confusing nature of the Terminator timelines.

See, Gen. Brewster runs the Air Force program that basically picked up right where Cyberdyne left off, and his team has continued developing Skynet. So the thinking goes that, if our heroes can get to him in time, before he gives Skynet access to the full firepower of the US military, they can stop Judgment Day after all.

But they’re wrong, and the Terminator was right. (He’s always right, in addition to always being back.) The T-X kills Gen. Brewster, Skynet launches all of the nuclear missiles, and Judgment Day happens as planned. The T-850 is able to destroy the T-X and, before his own demise, get John and Kate safely inside a mountain bunker known as Crystal Peak, where they wait out Judgment Day, jump on the radio with other survivors and start plotting the Resistance.

Jumping Ahead to 2018

Terminator: Salvation then jumps ahead to 2018 with John Connor (Batman himself, Christian Bale) now married to Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), with both serving in the war against the machines under Resistance General Hugh Ashdown. This film also finds John first encountering a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), discovering an early version of the T-800, and meeting a Terminator prototype who thinks he’s a human named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), thanks to a pre-apocalypse brain transplant.

John has also made a startling discovery: a certain sound frequency that can disable Skynet’s weapons. Along with Reese and Wright, he invades the machines’ HQ — known as Skynet Central — and uses the device to deliver a crippling blow to their war effort. John’s badly wounded in the attack, but Marcus gives his life in order to save the new leader of the Resistance.

And that’s how this timeline ends, presumably with John and Kate (plus eight lieutenants!) going on to win the war against the machines and finally shutting down Skynet for good. But we’ll never know for sure because of…


Terminator: Genisys alters one key moment in the franchise’s early history, which shifts everything off to an entirely new, alternate timeline where things get REALLY strange. Biff is corrupt and powerful and married to your mother and — no, wait, sorry, that’s Back to the Future‘s dystopian Hill Valley. Terminator: Genisys had been set up as a reboot, to kickstart a brand new series of films but, with Dark Fate slipping back to the Terminator 2 timeline, this is now just a peculiar one-off. A Terminator “What If?” story.

The one big history-altering change happens as John Connor (Jason Clarke) prepares to send Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to save (and knock up) his mother. Just as Reese enters the TDE, he sees a machine, who was disguised as a Resistance fighter, attack John. But he’s already started to time travel, so he’s helpless to put a stop to it.

On his way back to 1984, Reese has visions of a brand new timeline, where Judgment Day never happened and he grew up in the suburbs with a nice family. A younger version of himself sends him a message, telling him to look out for something called “Genisys,” because “Genisys is Skynet.”

Once in 1984, Reese meets up with Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). But this isn’t the Sarah Connor of the first Terminator, who worked in a diner and had no clue Robots of Doom were coming for her. This Sarah was first visited by a T-800 back in the early 1970s, when a Terminator killed her parents. She calls her guardian “Pops” and he’s been raising her ever since, just waiting for Kyle Reese to arrive, so they can mate. Seriously. This is in the movie. A robot instructs the two heroes to mate.

This version of Sarah and “Pops” have their own TDE, which they planned to use — along with Reese — to jump ahead to 1997, shut down Skynet and prevent Judgment Day. But based on his new memories, Reese convinces them to go to 2017 instead, so they can shut down Genisys, which is Skynet, and prevent Judgment Day. Everybody got that?

They make it to 2017 and meet up with John Connor, but he’s not a human anymore. It seems that he was attacked by a humanoid personification of Skynet (Matt Smith), which infected him with nanobots, turning him into something called “Machine-Phase Matter.” He’s basically indestructible, except for a real weakness around magnets. So, not at all indestructible. The machines maybe should have mentioned that part. Kind of a big deal, and he’s taken totally by surprise. Regardless, John Connor is now all machine, and super-determined to kill his parents.

In 2017, “Genisys” is a new app being released by Miles Dyson (Courtney B. Vance) of Cyberdyne Systems. Oh, that rapscallion. Dyson doesn’t know that the John-Bot has secretly infected Genisys with Skynet, so once it goes live and connects to everyone’s phones, Judgment Day will happen once again.

Utilizing that “susceptible to magnets” concept against him — who’d have thought that’d be a problem? — Pops manages to isolate and destroy John-Bot in the TDE. Meanwhile, Sarah and Kyle blow up Genisys HQ and stop the program from ever going online. Their mission complete, they visit young Kyle Reese and give him the message he’ll need to remember, so that Kyle knows to jump ahead to 2017 and oh, look, I’ve gone cross-eyed.


Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles aired for two seasons on Fox from 2008-2009. It also takes place in its own isolated timeline, and that’s a good thing, because it’d take like 31 articles to sort through all 31 episodes if it were all still canon. But we can just do the short version.

The series picks up after, say it with me now, Terminator 2. So John (Thomas Dekker) and Sarah (Lena Headey) believe they prevented Judgment Day, at least for now. They’re wanted by the feds, though, for the killing of Miles Dyson and the whole “blowing up Cyberdyne Systems HQ” thing, which no one believes was actually intended to prevent a future war against machines. So John and Sarah are living, say it with me now, “off the grid,” moving frequently from town to town under assumed names.

In the year 1999, John starts a new school under a new identity in New Mexico, when he’s attacked by a Terminator. Fortunately, another Terminator — a T-900 model, called “Cameron” (Summer Glau) — had been posing as his classmate, and intervenes to save his life.

The T-900 informs John and Sarah that Judgment Day still happens, but was just pushed way back. It’s now coming on April 19, 2011. Cameron, it seems, was sent to protect John from the year 2027. She has some upgrades of her own, including the ability to eat and experience some basic emotions.

“I do think that the magic of this [is] when you can play with time travel you can do anything. You can create different realities at the same time, you can create different worlds; ages. It’s just part of the fun of these movies — actually anything can happen because we’re travelling in time.” — Dark Fate actor Natalia Reyes, who plays Dani Ramos, who believes anything is possible in the Terminator franchise because of time travel.

She also has access to a Time Displacement device, which they all use to travel forward to 2007, the main setting for the series. They’re joined there by Resistance soldier Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green) — Kyle’s older brother — who’s been sent back to gather vital intel about Skynet’s development. Ultimately, the series focuses on Skynet’s murder of computer executive Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson), who is replaced by an advanced Terminator known as the T-1001. Posing as Weaver, the T-1001 assumes control of the Zeira Corporation, and pioneers the development of an artificially intelligent machine known as The Turk, which will one day become Skynet.

The series ends with John and the artificial Weaver — who suggests that maybe she’s on his side after all? — jumping ahead in time, to an alternate and unrecognizable version of the future  (most likely an alternate 2027.) Unfortunately, I hope you like cliffhangers because… thus endeth The Sarah Connor Chronicles.


The newest film in the franchise, Terminator: Dark Fate once more wipes out everything that’s ever happened after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

In this timeline, Sarah Connor never had cancer. As the returning Linda Hamilton told Fandom, “When you are dealing with the themes of time travel, time goes on different threads and in different directions but truly, if you’re interrupting time, something could have happened [such as] Sarah’s death – what was it leukemia or something is what they wrote in the third film? That was how they explained my absence. But interrupt time before that, she doesn’t have leukemia.”

Also no Kate Brewster, no Marcus Wright, no Genisys, no Derek Reese, no Zeira Corporation. Just driving at night and going off the grid.

After some dramatic action in 1998 that I would not dream of spoiling, the new film jumps to 2020, nearly 3 decades after Sarah and John saved the future, with a young girl in Mexico City named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). She’s attacked by a never-before-seen Rev-9 model Terminator (Gabriel Luna), mysteriously sent from the future (but is it by Skynet?), and is rescued through the intervention of an older Sarah Connor as well as another machine/human hybrid, known as Grace (Mackenzie Davis ).

So hopefully, you’re now ready to embrace this new storyline, unfettered by lingering concerns about who sent a Terminator to 1973 to kill Sarah Connor’s parents in Genisys. I mean… that’s just crazy.

Terminator: Dark Fate opens November 1st.

Lon Harris
Lon writes for Screen Junkies and "Honest Trailers," Rotten Tomatoes, Inside Streaming and elsewhere. He still can't believe critics didn't like "Three Amigos" when it came out.