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The Terminator's many plot holes... and why we love them


As glitched as it is, Skynet's loopy timeline is still worth talking about...

Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator

Time has a funny way of giving you a different perspective on things. For the resistance movement in 2029, it will mean finding solutions in the past to resolve current world crises. For a young man in 1984, it meant looking to the future to understand why the present was so significant.

No, that young man in 1984 wasn’t Kyle Reese. It was me.

I was a young lad at school and, as an end of term treat, our form tutor brought in a (pirated) video of some film called The Terminator for us to watch one afternoon (on a big, boxy, square TV – not one of these thin, wide things you youngsters have today). Perhaps I was impressionable back then, but what unfolded in front of me - this extraordinary tale of a woman’s flight from an unstoppable killing machine in human form - left an indelible mark on my psyche. From that moment on, I was hooked and I wanted more of this vision of a terrifying future. Why would this happen? What was Skynet? How did it create these amazing machines?

Just last week I re-watched Terminator: Salvation and I have to say that time has a funny way of giving you a different perspective on things. For one thing, it makes you repeat yourself every now and again. On other occasions, it makes you rewrite the past to fit the requirements of current events. In fictional terms, that may be a canonical oversight, an apocryphal revelation, or lazy story-telling. Looking retrospectively at The Terminator, T2: Judgement Day and T3: Rise of the Machines (certainly in light of Salvation), does it all make sense? Temporal arcs and continuity is a bugger for writers, but has this series cracked it?

In a word: no. At least not in my opinion. And it’s certainly not as watertight as the Back to the Future trilogy.

My main bugbear with the Terminator story is Skynet itself. It’s a machine. A brutal, highly-intelligent, logical and wholly unfeeling force for self-preservation. So what does it do?

It sends a robot back in time, a robot without any knowledge of what its target (Sarah Connor) actually looks like. Oh – and with no weapons, either. How can this be? Why doesn’t Skynet arm its tool with an awesome arsenal? Why did it not know Sarah’s aspect? And did Skynet know it would create a paradox by sending the Terminator back which would have its arm ripped off, obtained, studied and used to develop itself? (Perhaps these are the same paradoxical questions we should ask about John Connor sending his father back to save and impregnate his mother and then sending back a reprogrammed Terminator to save himself as a kid. Surely if he exists in the future then he must have survived both historical events in the first place to have been able to send back the… oh, my head hurts.)

Why, in 2018, did Skynet boot up a new advanced form of Terminator – one more human than ever – but in 2029 send back to 1984 a much more basic model to carry out – let’s face it – a somewhat hefty and momentous task? Let’s not even get started on the T-1000 and the T-X.

And another thing… there are at least two quotes that reverberate across time.

The Terminator has a habit of telling people that it will "be back". Then John Connor himself says it just as he is about to go off and infiltrate Skynet in Salvation. Arguably, this could be because he remembered the phrase from the 1992 encounter or he simply wanted to tell his people that wouldn’t be gone for good.

“Come with me if you want to live”, however, has to be a phrase for the whole human resistance movement. It works and it means what it says. If you don’t want to go, you ain’t gonna live. But it’s a pretty trusting statement to have to hear from someone you don’t know – and then from a machine programmed to say it. Especially a machine that some years before looked (almost exactly) like one that wanted to kill you.

You know, this deliberation and cogitation has to be one of the great delights of fandom - to sit here and pull apart the logic and continuity of something you love so much and to put it all back together again to simply carry on enjoying it.

The Terminator is no different.

I hope the movie series continues. I hope it still throws up the odd glitch here and there and I hope I still take delight in analysing it all in far too much detail. I love it. I love all the tech-noir. Because, after all, machines want to be loved too.


See also:

Can we change time?


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#1 Geeking out for a moment... Datan0de 2011-01-17 21:29
The original "The Terminator" had the same effect on me. It really did change my perspectives on causality, technology, war, and just how good we have it in our contemporary world.

But, to respond to a few of your questions about the series:
* Skynet sent the terminators back because it was out of options. The novelizations for T1 and T2 make this clear. It was losing the war, so sent the T-800 to wipe out John Connor's existence. It couldn't send weapons along with it because only something surrounded by living tissue (or mnemetic poly alloy) will go through, but given the physical capabilities of a T-800 that'd hardly be a detriment.

The T-1000 was a prototype, and its internal mental processes weren't completely known, even by Skynet. According to the T2 novel, Skynet didn't know that it could trust the T-1000, and sending it back in time was its very last resort. (This is obviously before T3.)

* Skynet didn't know what Sarah Connor looked like because most of the records were lost in the war. Kyle mentions this.

* Why did Skynet send a T-800 instead of a hybrid? It's hybrid prototype turned coat and betrayed it. The T-800 was a known factor- 100% loyal and far more physically powerful than Marcus Wright. The mission didn't require an agent that could have extended interactions with people, develop relationships, and subtly gain the trust of its targets. It required an agent that could pass long enough to locate and kill an unwary civilian.

As far as the recurring quotes go, I think that's just a literary device. :-)
#2 Canon? Elliot Thorpe 2011-01-18 15:22
Nice response, DatanOde and some good observations made! The whole living tissue issue, as it were, could have been overcome if Skynet had just encased require weaponry in such an organ! But then we get into Hellraiser territory!!! :-)

Oh - and novelisations...we could open up whole canonicity debate here. Any takers...?!

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