I have no problem with the fact that the Terminator TV series appears to take place in a different timeline than the events of Terminator 3 (and if you don’t want to know why — in great detail — stop reading now). I mean, hey, it’s time travel, so why not?
By my count (ignoring comic books and other spin-off material), there have been at least three Terminator timelines (though I’m using the term “timeline” loosely, since the general implication in the Terminator universe is that there is, strictly speaking, only one timeline and that it undergoes changes — read my old Metaphilm article about the nerd obsession with continuity issues if you want to see me geeking out about these sorts of issues as they apply to other franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek):
The first timeline, seen in the first movie and in the second movie up until the
CompuDyne Cyberdyne HQ gets blown up (don’t examine the causal logic there too closely, please), was characterized by a causal loop in which the sentient computer program Skynet caused a nuclear war in about 1997 but was itself destroyed circa 2029 by post-apocalyptic rebel leader John Connor, who then sent a man back in time to 1984 who became his own father.
At the end of the second film, a new timeline is created (branching off from the point in 1995 [though the film came out in 1991] when
CompuDyne Cyberdyne HQ was blown up, two years before it could trigger the nuclear war). In this new timeline, though (as we learn in the third film), the nuclear war still happens eventually (“Judgment Day iss inevidduble”) — specifically in 2004 (though the film came out in 2003) and more dueling robot assassins are still dispatched to the past from sometime around 2032 (when vengeful robots, operating after the destruction of Skynet, kill the adult John Connor).
I think the impending new trilogy of Terminator films, featuring Christian Bale as the adult John Connor, will take place in that second timeline, after the nuclear war of 2004, and depict a kick-ass conflict between early-model Terminators and human resistance fighters. Good!
But a third timeline was created Sunday night. Many fans who were bummed out by the nuclear war of 2004 may be pleased about it. A robot played by Summer Glau comes back from 2027 to stop a Terminator dispatched to kill John Connor in 1999 — with the fourteen-or-so year-old John Connor confusingly referring to the prior robot attack (from Terminator 2: Judgment Day) as “two years ago,” but presumably he means that the originally-scheduled date of the nuclear war was 1997, which is fine.
(Note: as I recall, there was some confusion evident in the third film about whether T2 had taken place in ’91, when it was actually released, or ’95, when it took place, but Wikipedia gets it right, so let’s assume the producers will from here on out, too.)
What makes the TV series a clear-cut third timeline (and possibly a fourth, with the potential for more to come) is that the Glau-bot does not come from a timeline in which the nukes came in ’97 (as in T1) or even ’04 (as in T3) but in ’11. Furthermore, in perhaps the biggest surprise of the premiere, she yanks John Connor and his mom from ’99 to ’07 at the end of the episode (putting them four years prior to nuclear destruction if they’re in her home timeline but well past the point of destruction if they were in their own original timeline, so clearly they aren’t).
So how did the nukes get delayed from ’04 to ’11? The most logical conclusion would have to be that Glau’s removal of the Connors from the ’99-’04 period actually saved civilization (for now) by causing the Terminators to call off the attack seen in T3, which had led directly to the “rise of the machines,” thanks to the code-speaking Terminator played by the lovely, athletic, and rumored-to-be-bisexual Kristanna Loken (she is said to have slept with her BloodRayne co-star Michelle Rodriguez and is seen in the photo montage atop another of my Metaphilm articles — I just mean you can see Loken, not that you can see them sleeping together, which would make Metaphilm a far, far more popular site).
Of course, as I’ve noted before, this all quickly gets absurd if the time travelers of 2032 have potentially unlimited power to keep going back and changing things — Terminator quickly becomes Groundhog Day, or at least becomes that bit from Family Guy where Peter keeps going back in time and screwing up his first date with Lois. But let’s assume there are limits to how many time-missions they can launch and what they can try to change, just to keep things remotely plausible and dramatic.
So: whatever happens next in the series, it would appear we will now have two rival Terminator timelines at work (besides the one in the original film), one on the small screen and one (next year, if all goes as planned) on the big screen, with the big screen world presumably being the T3 timeline in which the nuclear war already happened back in 2004 (which is not much weirder than Star Trek’s Eugenics Wars supposedly taking place in the 1990s, when Khan conquered a third of the Earth without you noticing, I suppose).
Which timeline will prove more popular, I wonder: Summer Glau’s or Christian Bale’s? (And on a related note, who would win a fight between River and Batman?) Interestingly, the TV timeline (or rather, a TV timeline) would still seem to offer the hope of becoming one in which the nuclear war never happens, at least for the as-you-see-them-now version of Sarah and John visiting 2007, which would be nice (though for Glau, the war is already a fait accompli from sixteen years earlier in her native timeline).
One other bit of chronology to keep in mind: unless we’re to believe that time-traveling with Summer Glau (which sounds like a nice Travel Channel show) cures leukemia, Sarah Connor should still die in the TV series within about five years (having died sometime between ’99 and ’04 in the T3 timeline). Perhaps they’ll depict her being saved by treatments that didn’t exist in 2000 but do exist in 2008, which would be entirely plausible (leukemia death rates are plummeting) and a nice little reminder of how quickly real-world technology advances, without any help from time-traveling cyborgs, for good or ill.
Why Glau-bot gives “2005″ for the originally-scheduled time of Sarah’s death (had they not time-jumped to 2007 in the premiere), though, I cannot imagine — Glau-bot comes from a timeline, apparently, in which not only was the nuclear war delayed past the point at which it occurred in the T1 and T3 timelines (1997 and 2004, respectively) but in which for some reason leukemia took at least a year longer to kill Sarah. Hard to imagine why that would be the case — though perhaps her timeline features a time-traveling doctor as well (I recall hearing of such things).
Unless, of course…the Glau-bot’s own trip back to 1999 without the leap forward to 2007 created her timeline (no weirder a timeloop than the one in the original movie) and perhaps gave her the chance to treat Sarah for a few years, keeping her alive past ’04, had the Glau-bot not leapt forward to 2007, the leap perhaps creating a subsidiary timeline in which the TV show now occurs — but that way lies madness, obviously. Madness…
(When in doubt, safest to assume that what we see now is “the” dominant timeline, though — for now, it’s a world with no nuke war yet as of 2007, robot visitors from a possible 2027 who recall a 2011 nuke war, and a Sarah Connor presumably likely to die come 2013 from cancer even without nuclear weapons going off. Interesting to see if the series is still on then — and it might be, as it’s not half-bad, I should say.)
P.S. Brown alum Josh Friedman created the Terminator TV series, and another Brown alum, Lisa Loeb, sings at
the 57th and Park Ave. Borders [CORRECTION: the Columbus Circle Borders!] one week from tonight (1/22) at 7pm, if anyone’s tempted, as I am, to represent. And she, too, is a robot, though she’s not all in your face about it, which is sweet.
UPDATE: This Time Out New York article by Andrew Johnston contains an interesting example of how even people paying close attention can get confused about this stuff: he says Sarah can’t meet herself in the TV series because she died in 2005 — and it’s true she’s in no danger of meeting herself, but not because she died earlier in this timeline: that death did not occur in this timeline. In this timeline, as we can plainly see, she simply vanished in 1999 and reappeared, still very much alive, in 2007. In between, there simply was no Sarah Connor walking around (or dying, or getting nabbed by cops for blowing up
CompuDyne Cyberdyne Inc.). Must I personally take control of the entire spacetime continuum to prevent these errors being made? Must I?
UPDATE 2: One quick, final question: If you were a human being trying to prevent a robot apocalypse, who would you dispatch backward in time: anti-Dalek fighters, Kitty Pryde of the X-Men, resistance fighter Kyle Reese, Federation officers who like Zefram Cochrane more than the Borg do…or Neo?