Making Sense of the 'Terminator' Timeline

Terminator: Dark Fate Still 10 - Publicity - H 2019
<p><em>Terminator: Dark Fate</em></p>   |   Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures
'Dark Fate' is the latest installment in the franchise which has had five distinct continuities.

[This story contains spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate]

If there’s one constant in the Terminator franchise, it’s killer robots. If there’s two constants, it’s that there’s no such thing as a fixed timeline, with the franchise having contradicted itself on a continual basis since its second installment. The latest film, Terminator: Dark Fate, is billed as a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and ignores the subsequent sequels. But for fans who have spent years thinking about all the stories told using this property, it's time to sort everything out once and for all. What counts? What doesn’t? Read ahead.


As seen in: The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

What happens: In 1984, a cyborg sent back in time from the year 2029 arrives with the mission to kill Sarah Connor, the woman destined to be the mother of John Connor, a resistance leader that will ultimately threaten Skynet, the AI despot overlord of 2029. The cyborg is stopped by Connor with the assistance of Kyle Reese, a soldier also sent back from 2029 who — in a classic time paradox — ends up becoming John’s father before dying. 

11 years later, Connor and her son are attacked again, this time by a shapeshifting robot from 2029. A second time-traveling cyborg, this one re-programmed to be a good guy, arrives to help them. In the process of destroying the shapeshifting robot, one of the men most responsible for the future creation of Skynet is killed, leaving it unclear whether or not the emergence of Skynet in 1997 will happen as Kyle Reese had previously stated.

Technically, this is at least two timelines — the one Kyle Reese and his fellow time-travelers came from, and a second timeline after the scientist partially responsible for Skynet (thanks to researching parts from the T-800 in the first film) is killed without completing his work — but we’ll put them all together here for the sake of centering Sarah and John Connor in the narrative.


As seen in: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009)

What happens: In 1999, Sarah and John Connor are still on the run and under attack from evil time-traveling robots sent by Skynet in the future; it turns out that the events of Terminator 2 delayed Skynet’s activation until 2011, but that it will nonetheless take over the world and decimate humanity. The Connors are assisted in their survival by a re-programmed time-traveling cyborg from 2027, two years prior to the future origin point of the original time-traveling cyborg, and together the three travel through time to 2007, where they discover not only more time-traveling evil robots, but also more time-traveling resistance fighters, including Derek Reese, the uncle to Kyle Reese.

The series ends as John Connor travels forward in time to the point where Skynet has taken over the planet, only to discover that his journey has somehow altered the timeline to the effect that he is no longer the leader of the human resistance.


As seen in: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator: Salvation (2009)

What happens: Following the events of Terminator 2, the emergence of Skynet has been postponed but not, it seems, cancelled. In 2007, John Connor has been living for some years in secret following the death of his mother, Sarah, at some undisclosed point in the last decade; nonetheless, he comes under attack from another time-traveling evil robot sent to kill members of the future human resistance, including his own future wife, Kate Brewster. Although they manage to stay alive, Connor and Brewster cannot prevent the rise of Skynet, which fires nuclear missiles across the world, creating the robotic despot future central to the franchise.

In 2018, the robot dystopia has been in existence for more than a decade, and Connor and Brewster are the leaders of the resistance when they discover a cyborg who appears to be self-aware and not part of Skynet’s plans. This turns out not to be the case, with Marcus, the cyborg in question, actually a sleeper agent intended to kill Connor during a sting operation having lured him into a false sense of security; learning of his fate, Marcus turns on Skynet, and ultimately sacrifices himself so that Connor can live.


As seen in: Terminator Genisys (2015)

What happens: In 2029, John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother and ensure his birth, as seen in the original Terminator movie. Reese somehow lands in an alternate timeline where the first time-traveling cyborg actually arrived decades earlier, and helped raise Sarah Connor in the first place. Sarah Connor, along with the first time-traveling cyborg — named Pops — and Reese ultimately travel to 2017 to defeat Skynet once and for all, only to discover that (a) Skynet is actually a new global operating system called Genisys, and (b) John Connor is now an evil time-traveling robot himself because he was injected by nanites in the future. They prevent Genisys from coming online, but do not destroy the AI completely.


As seen in: Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

What happens: In 1998, John Connor is killed by an evil time-traveling robot a few years after the events of Terminator 2. In 2020, both an evil time-traveling robot and a cybernetically-enhanced human arrive from the year 2042, with the intent to find Dani Ramos, who — in the year 2042 — will be a significant figure in the fight against Legion, the AI despot overlord of the future. Grace is assisted in keeping Dani alive by Sarah Connor, who has spent the 22 years since the death of her son fighting off other time-traveling evil robots, and Carl, the robot responsible for the death of John Connor. They are ultimately successful, but it is unclear whether or not the rise Legion — an AI specifically designed for cyberwarfare — as a despotic robot overlord has been averted.