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The Terminator Time Paradox Explained Part 1

Updated on July 24, 2013

What is a Time Paradox?

I know that some of you are wondering "What the heck is a time paradox?" Well to explain it in simple terms, it's basically a plot device for films or stories that deal with time travel. A time paradox, from what I understand, is that there is an original timeline that exist until someone or something from the past or most often times the future, alters the original timeline and creating a new one changing history. A best example of a time paradox is the film Back to the Future. Marty McFly(played by Michael J. Fox) ends up going back to 1955 to make sure his parents stay together due to his appearance in the past( his mother has a crush on him) or else he and his siblings cease to exist.

In The Terminator films, time travel is a plot device in which the super computer Skynet sends back a machine to 1984 to kill a woman that is supposed to give birth to a child that would one day fight back against the machines in the future war. That child's name is John Conner who in the future sends back a lone soldier back to protect his mother and his existence.

The Terminator film series has a time paradox within each film. There is an article or blog I should say written by M. Joseph Young, who is an author on Temporal Anomalies. In his blog/article, he takes films or stories that have time travel or time paradoxes. In one of the articles he breaks down The Terminator films and uses some scientific jargon to explain the time paradoxes in each film. For this topic, I may have to break this down into parts to try to explain the paradoxes in each film, but in lamen's terms. This article will part 1. So, lets jump into it shall we?

The Terminator

In the first film in the series, everyone knows the plot of this story. Plus I already explained what the plot was earlier. So without getting into it again, lets talk about the paradoxes in this film. Basically we know that Skynet sends a Terminator back in time to 1984 to wipe out Sarah Conner so that John Conner is never born. For this to happen, Skynet must know that somewhere in it's existence, John Conner becomes an enemy that is set to destroy it.

Original Timeline

For this to happen, an "N-Jump" is considered to be a solution to the problem that some people have with the premise of the first film: the birth of John is dependent on his adult self to preserve his future and existence by sending his father back in time to protect his mother. The N-Jump basically is a term that states that in an event of time traveling, the timeline that is from the past is considered Point A where the traveler from the future will return to the past. Then when the traveler leaves for the past is considered Point B. Basically in this timeline, nothing has changed or been altered. It's basically saying that the traveler has not changed a thing while time traveling to the past because nothing has happened, time just happened to reach a point (point A) where the traveler appears in the past (point B). But when the traveler leaves Point B, the timeline of A-B stops when the traveler reaches Point A(the past) which begins the timeline.

So let's say that in the original timeline(Point A), Sarah doesn't know anything about Terminators, Skynet and Judgement Day. Somewhere in this timeline, Sarah has a child with an unknown father, possibly getting married. Her child possibly could have a different name all together and even possible that John could have been a girl. Sarah lives a pretty ordinary life. But it is certain that Sarah's child will become a thorn in Skynet's side. In this timeline, it is unclear how Skynet was created but will become clear when everything begins to unravel. Which brings me to what changes will occur in the original time line.


First Change: Skynet

If at one point did the Terminator succeed in killing the correct Sarah Conner, then there would be no reason to send it back(Point D) and the original timeline would be restored, creating an infinity loop: a continuous time loop where all occurrences continue to be replayed over and over again.

At some point in time, John must know that The Terminator failed or he would not be alive. For him sending back Kyle Reese to protect his mother is a very risky move because if it goes wrong, John may cease to exist. There is a way for this to be fixed which solves John's dilemma. Let's say in the original timeline where Skynet does exist and does send a Terminator back to 1984. Sarah, seeing the murders of women that share the same name as hers hides somewhere, meets an unknown man and becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. This would be considered "Timeline B" since nothing has happened just yet. The Terminator ends up tracking her down, kills her and finds a place to shut down knowing that it completed it's mission, not knowing that a basic failure has occurred: John Conner has been born. Now, with this theory, John, in the future knows that this happens. He finds Skynet's time travel displacement unit and sends back one of his soldiers to protect his mother and his existence.

Future John Conner
Future John Conner | Source
Kyle Reese
Kyle Reese | Source

Second Change: The Resistance

Future John Conner he doesn't like this future. Not only does he want to save himself, but to save his mother. For him to do this, he sends Kyle Reese back to 1984 with Reese not knowing that the first Terminator failed in order for him to protect Sarah and her child. However, with his presence in the past, he drastically changes the timeline by replacing the original father with himself and second, he gives vital information to Sarah in which in turn gives to John to be an formidable enemy to Skynet. And third, John jump-starts the Skynet Program.

The third point here may need some clarification. In the second film; Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Cyberdyne Systems was the major contributor of the Skynet Program due to using backwards engineering of the first Terminator model found in it's factory. However, in the original timeline, it could be possible that Cyberdyne wasn't the original creator, someone else was. Someone that was very close to a technological breakthrough and ends up bringing Skynet online. In a sense, the original time frames of Skynet going online shifts to an earlier time frame giving the other company credit for the creation of Skynet.

Here, M. Joseph Young states that in this timeline, this creates a minor loop. Basically he's stating that the technology for Skynet is created sooner which prevents it from being developed later by someone else(Cyberdyne). He states that this may seem like an impossibility but it can be solvable: through a small saw-tooth snap. A saw-tooth snap is a term that states that two or more histories cause each other's in sequence so that each causes the next one in line. Basically it means that two or more histories occur in sequence creating a the next sequence in line. An example is A-B, B-C, C-D and so and so on until it reaches an end point which can create an infinity loop.

In The Terminator's case, the Terminators that were sent back by the original Skynet could possibly be created by someone else(the original creators), but as Cyberdyne takes over in the alternate timeline and built by them and sent back at the same point and time with the same tasks, may have a different memory of their constructions.

Third Change: Skynet in Terminator: 2 Judgement Day

In this timeline, the war still rages on and John and Skynet are still enemies. The super computer still does not know the consequences of trying to change history and sends an advanced Terminator to kill John as a young boy in 1995. This time, Skynet radically changes history. Nobody can remember a past time when a Terminator did not return from the future. Therefore, there is a small segment that is lost in which The T-1000 model failed in it's mission in killing John, in which John felt it to be pivotal to send back the first Terminator model to protect himself in which he knew the outcome of the failure of The T-1000.

Basically, this means that John must evade the T-1000 at all costs with aid of his friends and ally's he finds along the way. In the original timeline of T2, it was shown in the film that The T-1000's backup plan to kill John was to use it's ability to mimic Sarah by baiting him towards it. Obviously John doesn't take the bait and recognizes that his only hope is to survive. But in the altered timeline, Sarah does manage to defeat the advanced Terminator but dies in the process. In this altered timeline, John is now even more determined to save his mother as the stakes are a lot higher. If in sending help back in time to save his mother, he leaves the door open for The Terminator to kill both of them, in which he will lose everything including time itself. So in order for John to preserve the timeline, he sends back the original Terminator reprogrammed to protect himself and his mother in which he keeps the timeline intact.

The T-800 in T2
The T-800 in T2 | Source
Cyberdyne Systems
Cyberdyne Systems | Source

Fourth Change: The Resistance in T2

Here, Sarah Conner has no idea about time paradoxes or time anomalies. All she knows is the machines and Skynet, Judgement Day and the War. Here she even finds out information on how Skynet came to be. No one realizes that all of the information has been based on an altered timeline that has been changed less than 5 times from the original timeline. All of the critical facts from the original creators of Skynet have now changed. By relying on this information she receives from The Terminator, Sarah destroys all of the information of Skynet at Cyberdyne thinking she has stopped the War. She hasn't; just merely causing a new timeline.

In the new timeline, the original company that created Skynet will eventually bring it online on the original schedule. Basically with all the information at Cyberdyne destroyed, this will shift the original company to build Skynet back to it's original timeframe, albeit only slightly later now instead of earlier, in actuality in 2004 which is stated in Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines which we'll get into later.

With this timeline, she may even changed information about herself. By her destroying Cyberdyne, she basically threw Skynet to the unknown company. Also in this timeline, The Terminators have no knowledge of this unknown company who developed Skynet if Cyberdyne failed. The only information that the Terminator would have in the altered timeline of T2, would know that Sarah destroyed the wrong computer company as it was the competitor all along.

Another possibility would be that John lied to his mother about the future and who created Skynet. This theory states that John relying on the information that The T-800 model(original Terminator) knows and sends it back to protect him and his mother, knowing that Sarah will destroy Cyberdyne only delaying Judgement Day about 7 years( Judgement Day happens in 1997 in the film timeline). Here she also changes the information that Kyle gives her when he appears in 1984. This brings up the fact that in 1997, Kyle isn't even born yet. Doing a little math here, in Terminator Salvation, Kyle is around 16 years old, which makes him around 2 years old when Judgement Day happens in 2004, give or take a few years(In math terms, he's 14 in Salvation). From this information, Kyle may not know the actual truth on how Skynet was created and by whom. But relies on the information that John gives him to give to Sarah when he sends him back to 1984. This also shows that it is not impossible for John to cover this information up due to his soldiers not trying to piece the past together but winning the War.

From Sarah destroying Cyberdyne and placing Skynet into the hands of the original creators, this also shows that the setback to Skynet is also a setback to The Terminator Program which the killing machines won't be as nearly sophisticated if they were brought online early. In a sense there are some variables that we as an audience don't really know. However, what we do know is that first time displacement machine is only capable of sending a machine back encased in flesh, therefore it cannot send the T-800 until it has been developed. We also know that the information that the early Terminator had about John Conner was limited as it was seen killing several women named Sarah Conner. So Basically history was saved by a lie to preserve the timeline of Terminator 2 and brings us to the beginning of Terminator 3 without destroying time too severely. On to Part 2...

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