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- One persistent law of Time Travel across the franchise is that things can only Time Travel if they are made of meat (so people, but not the organic fibers of clothing), wrapped in meat (i.e., Cyborg Terminators), can do a reasonably good imitation of meat (i.e., "Liquid Metal" Terminators) or sneak in when nobody's looking (Cromartie's head, which was still covered in meat). Which is to say, the mechanism here appears to be exactly analogous to airport security. The jury still is out on what would happen if you tried to bring a Ham and Fusion Grenade Sandwich with you.
- This actually gets answered in the comic book continuity. A group of skinned-up Terminators gets sent back, but bring along an extremely fat human they captured because he's literally a meat bag. Full of guns. Whom the others have to kill to open.
- The theory they use is that only living tissue can travel back in time. A deleted scene from the second film indicates that the T-1000 traveled back in a sack of living flesh and cut its way free before killing the cop. One inconsistency is a scene originally in the script for the first film indicates that Kyle Reese's partner, who travels back with him, gets fused into a fire escape and is instantly killed. This was removed from the film, as it doesn't much affect the time portal energy cutting through things in the 2nd film.
Almost every installment of the Terminator franchise uses a different theory of Time Travel, though it's at least consistent within each movie. To note, a writer from Entertainment Weekly attempted to make sense of the various timelines and causality loops, while others (like RedLetterMedia's "Scientist Man Explains Terminator: Genisys") put a more humorous spin on the trope.
- The original film is the easiest to follow, with a Stable Time Loop being the endstate. In 2029, Skynet (having become aware that it will be destroyed) sends a T-800 back in time to kill Sarah Connor and ensure its own survival. Conversely, the human Resistance sends back Kyle Reese to ensure that Sarah survives. What results is that, in the process of saving Sarah, they conceive John during their night together, and the T-800 is destroyed... save for its arm and CPU, which are later used by Cyberdyne Systems to jumpstart development of Skynet (as seen in a Deleted Scene and in the sequel). The ending suggests that You Can't Fight Fate.
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day pins down the exact date of the titular event as being on August 29, 1997, and initially subscribes to the same You Can't Fight Fate theory. It is revealed that Skynet had a backup plan, as it sent an additional Terminator back to kill the young John Connor (and the Resistance subsequently sent an additional T-800 to protect John in 1995). However, the film later reverses its stance and has the characters adopt the mindset "no fate but what we make", seemingly destroying Cyberdyne Systems and its backup copies for good (not to mention that Miles Dyson, the creator of Skynet, perishes during the raid on the building in the third act).
- Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines goes back to the original film's way of thinking — all outcomes lead to Judgment Day, regardless of the actions in the past, and many of the actions taken were All for Nothing. Both John Connor and Skynet are seemingly destined to take over major roles in the future, as the computer system is created in a completely different capacity in 2004 (this time, by the U.S. Government), while John Connor and Kate Brewster are strategically guided to Crystal Peak, where they will have control over operations and communications within the country (setting up John's role as a leader). The film also creates a Temporal Paradox — it's just about possible to buy that Skynet had time to send back two Terminators before it was destroyed, but the narrative makes it clear that it was aware they'd failed when it sent back the third. Never mind that it's now a totally different Skynet doing all this since the first was never built.
- Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles:
- The show implicitly ignores the events of 3 by throwing the characters twenty years into the future and taking a Broad Strokes approach. Sarah may have a risk of cancer, there is a female Terminator and Skynet is still being worked on in one way or another, but there are now several factions who have time-traveled to the past (including Resistance fighters, several Terminator models and a friendly T-1000 working to help the heroes), who are all working to further their own agendas under the assumption that the future can be changed.
- In general, the show introduces so many timeline alterations (caused by the aforementioned factions and various victories the heroes have over Cyberdyne/Skynet) that major plot points are moved forward by characters using the ever-shifting date of Judgment Day to figure out which timeline they originally came from.
- The second-season finale also establishes that you can change the future — and it will stay changed. Paradoxes will not rip the universe apart or erase important characters from the present. John Connor time-travels several decades into the post-apocalyptic future, and learns that while he seemingly hasn't existed since he left the current time of 2009, other characters are still operating as normal without him.
- Terminator Salvation disregards The Sarah Connor Chronicles and uses Time Travel as part of the plot — John Connor, now several years older but not in a position of overall authority, realizes that the Stable Time Loop originally stated by his mother in her audiotapes is beginning to break apart, with Skynet's forces gaining greater sophistication and progress ahead of schedule. Skynet knows that Kyle Reese will be an important member of the Resistance in the future (how is not made clear), and is trying to pre-emptively kill him before John can get to him.
- Terminator Genisys:
- The film is the first in the series to suggest that there are multiple alternate timelines, via the character of the T-5000/Avatar of Skynet, who suggests that he leapt through several timelines looking for John Connor. Kyle Reese comes from the future to a past where a Terminator further in his future tried to kill Sarah Connor when she was just a child. It is also revealed that whoever programmed Pops/The Guardian had full knowledge of the original altered timeline, and was aware that Kyle is John Connor's father, and also knows that Judgment Day would happen in 1997. As a result of killing the 1984 "original" T-800, this sets up a scenario where John Connor/the T-3000 must travel back from 2029 to 2014 to ensure Skynet's survival.
- The series also integrates a Ripple Effect Indicator, which motivates the plot — Kyle realizes that his memories of 2017 do not have any moment where Judgment Day occurs, which motivates Sarah and Pops to realize the future has changed — and with it, the timing and nature of Judgment Day. At the end, Kyle seemingly reinforces a Stable Time Loop by asking his younger self to remember specific Arc Words.
- Terminator: Dark Fate:
- The film is a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and overrides the Screw Destiny message that Sarah Connor relayed in the ending of the film. Three years after the events of that film, John Connor is ambushed and killed while he and Sarah are hiding out in Guatemala, thus overriding the effort keeping him alive for the past two films. The rest of the film, which takes place in the present, once again suggests that You Can't Fight Fate, as Judgment Day is still set to occur — only this time, Skynet is replaced by a new AI, Legion, while the savior of the apocalypse becomes Dani Ramos, a teenager who eventually rises in prominence to become the leader of the Resistance.
- The film also subverts the Ripple Effect Indicator — the Terminators created by both Skynet and Legion exist in the same time period. In the interim between the prologue scene and the rest of the film, Carl, realizing that killing John Connor was All for Nothing because Skynet was already destroyed, gives Sarah Connor coded instructions on where to find other Terminators so that she can kill them. By the time Sarah meets Carl, he outright tells her that he is the Last of Its Kind. The film also doesn't address the point that the Stable Time Loop created by Kyle Reese being sent into the past by John, thus fulfilling destiny and becoming Kyle's son apparently doesn't exist anymore/never happened.
- Skynet's capability to send Terminators to the past is also rewritten. Whereas in T1 and T2, it is suggested that the AI sent out one (later two) Terminators in a last-ditch effort to save itself, Dark Fate suggests that Skynet sent numerous Terminators, including Carl, to a period of time spanning at least thirty years (from the original T-800, sent in 1984, to a time shortly before the events of Dark Fate). Carl is also explained as having full knowledge of where the other Terminators would arrive, which is in stark contrast to the villains of the previous films, who all appear to have been sent one after the other to later points in the timeline.