For the purpose of this article, we’ll only be focusing on the timelines from the films, not the TV show, since that has created its own separate timeline.
Through four films, a TV series and videogames, we’ve seen John Connor and his army of resistance fighters battle against the machine-based enemy, Skynet. We’ve been shown how the fight against man and machine is a destructive one, and that they are mortal enemies. However, is John Connor, leader of the resistance, holding out on his comrades? While the humans are fighting against the machines, Connor is also fighting for something else: his existence. The time machine Skynet creates is not only important for Skynet, but is also the whole basis for Connor’s existence.
The time line for John Connor is straightforward in that Kyle Reese, in 1984, went back to save Sarah Connor, and in doing so impregnated her. It is also in this time that the first Terminator sent back is destroyed, its remains acquired by Cyberdyne, and the formation of Skynet begins. (The Terminator)
Years later, in 1995, Sarah and John blow up Cyberdyne’s headquarters and destroy the T-1000, with the aid of a Terminator sent back to protect John. The result of Cyberdyne being destroyed is a huge blow to the development of Skynet, but it serves only as a delay for judgement day. (Terminator 2: Judgement Day)
In 2006, John Connor and Kate Brewster are protected by a sent-back Terminator as a T-X tries not only to kill them, but also start up Judgement day. Since Cyberdyne’s destruction, the US air force has acquired the remains of the Skynet project and restarted it. The T-X is unsuccessful in killing John and his future wife, but it is successful in starting up Skynet and thus Judgement day occurs. (Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines)
In 2018, John rescues his future father, Kyle Reese, and also becomes the prophesied leader of the resistance (Terminator Salvation). In 2029, Kyle Reese is sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor.
Through the time line we can see that many things are dependent upon John Connor, not only for the salvation of humanity, but also of Skynet’s legacy. Yes, Kyle Reese impregnated Sarah Connor and John was conceived, but the first Terminator killed also started the conception of Skynet’s life as the Terminator’s remains were acquired by Cyberdyne.
In the third film, John meets Kate Brewster, a woman he learns is his future wife. Yes, they are saved and left in the fallout shelter to wait until the radiation subsides, but it is also during this time that we’re left to assume that the two get to know each other better and fall in love. If the Terminators never came back a third time, John would’ve probably never met, let alone married Kate, because she was already engaged to another man.
In the fourth film, we see John becoming the leader/hero we’ve been lead to believe he’ll be. It’s only through his previous knowledge, his mom’s recordings and training that John truly has an upper hand in the battle against Skynet. It is also in this film that John finally meets Kyle Reese, who’s only a teenager, and we’re lead to believe that John will be Kyle’s mentor, something of a reverse father/son relationship.
Yes, John Connor has been through a lot in life, but they were all trials for his eventual place of becoming the leader of the human resistance. What we must realise, and John must realise as well, is that he cannot destroy Skynet if he wishes to survive. In Salvation, John listens to one of his mother’s recordings, in which she explains the importance of saving Kyle Reese, saying that if Kyle dies before he sends him back, then John will never exist. John does save Kyle, but that’s only in 2018, eleven years before John is supposed to send him back. The time machine Skynet constructs hasn’t even been built yet, something that is crucial to John’s life.
During these eleven years, if John Connor wishes to still exist, he cannot destroy Skynet. If, for instance, John had a chance in 2021 to completely wipe out Skynet for good and save humanity, he couldn’t. The reason John can’t is that Skynet constructs the time machine, not the humans. If John destroys Skynet before they build the time machine, then how is he supposed to send Kyle back? I’m not saying that humans aren’t smart enough to construct a time machine, but let’s face it, the machines are way more advanced in technology then we are and if even we did construct one, Kyle Reese would probably be dead by the time it’s created.
Returning to the original scenario, would John Connor destroy Skynet before sending Kyle Reese back? One would say that it’s selfish to endure more years of war just for the sake of one man’s fate, but the fate of this man is the saviour of the human race. One could even make a solid argument that John Connor is humanity’s savior, perhaps even the second coming of Christ. If John were to destroy Skynet, thus erasing his existence, would there be someone else to take his place in the past to organise the resistance, help humanity, etc? The gamble for Connor would be that if he destroys Skynet and erased his existence, would Skynet then win the war in the new timeline that would be forged?
The other question would be if Skynet would even exist in the new timeline, due to the fact that there would be no reason to send Terminators back if Connor didn’t exist. If no Terminator is sent back, then that Terminator can’t be destroyed and its parts used to start up the development of Skynet.
It’s through these questions of uncertainty that we see that Connor and Skynet are more like allies rather than enemies. Connor’s existence gives Skynet its life and its development, and in return, Skynet gives Connor a childhood of trials, a wife and the fate of becoming a Christlike leader to the rest of the human race. Through this we see that the creation of the time machine is a vital mechanism in the creation of this timeline, and we see how fatal it would be if it wasn’t created.
The paradox that’s created in the Terminator series is that Skynet is built because an already built Skynet sends back a machine that will ultimately be destroyed and become the basis for Skynet. The question here is which came first, the machine or Skynet? The same goes for John Connor’s life. John Connor is only conceived because he sent his dad back to impregnate his mother. It basically goes back to the original question of what came first, the chicken or the egg?
It’s also in these events that we not only see how taking out one part of the equation would equate to a whole another timeline, but it also shows us how closely connected John Connor and Skynet really are. To put it simply, Connor and Skynet can’t survive without each other, almost like Harry Potter to Voldemort. Their legacies are so intertwined that taking one out would possibly ruin or enhance the other, but ultimately create a timeline that cannot be predicted.
Solving The Paradox
As it’s been discussed, there are a few options Connor could take if he was met with the possibility of destroying Skynet before the time machine was built. In terms of John Connor looking at his life and how it’d be effected, you can look at the Novikov self consistency principle which negates the paradox problem by stating that anything a time traveller does in the past was meant to happen, thus nothing is being changed – rather, it was supposed to happen.
This, just as it sounds, plays into the concept of fate or destiny, something the series has long toyed with if John Connor can really prevent his fate from Judgement Day.
In this scenario, Judgement Day has happened and now Connor is contemplating destroying Skynet. The Novikov concept would say that anything that happens is meant to happen, but it applies with time travel and changing the past, and John is making this decision in the present. If Connor destroys Skynet before they build the time machine, will Skynet cease to exist and thus Connor ceases to exist, or does the Novikov concept apply and perhaps Skynet is rebuilt or comes back from a further unseen future and the time machine is thus built?
This then plays into the restricted action resolute, which is a spinoff from the Novikov concept. For example, if a man were to go back in time and kill his grandfather, he would cease to exist. The restricted action resolute would say that when the person goes back, the person he kills could be the wrong one, the grandfather could be injured and not killed, etc. The point is that the grandfather won’t die due to the fate of him having eventually to help conceive the man’s father and so on.
This applies to our scenario by Connor choosing to destroy Skynet, but maybe the plan fails, maybe Skynet rebuilds itself, or just a series of things go wrong and Skynet isn’t destroyed. The fate that Skynet must build a time machine protects it from being destroyed until that time. This rule then applies to the safety of John Connor and Kyle Reese, as they are part of that fate and thus cannot be killed.
The other scenario that Connor faces is simply the unknown of having yourself “erased.” I say erase to reference another time travel movie, Back To The Future. In Back To The Future, Marty Mcfly must make sure his parents dance at their prom and eventually fall in love, or else Marty will cease to exist. We are reminded of this by the family photo Marty carries with him. When things were not going in Marty’s favor, family members from the photo would disappear, and Marty’s own hand started to flicker in and out, reminding him that he needed to set things straight, otherwise he would disappear from existence.
The disappearance of one’s own existence is definitely a scenario that would plague Connor’s mind before he made his decision. If Connor destroyed Skynet and he suddenly disappeared, would time go on, or would every action that Connor has an effect on, past and present, vanish as well? If those decisions vanished as well, Skynet could then still survive and perhaps the human race would be extinct due to John Connor not being there to save them.
While I can’t speak for John Connor, I can guess that he would actually leave Skynet alone until the time machine is built. I say this because in the film series, events in time change according to the actions made in the past and future. For example, when Kyle Reese comes back in time in the first Terminator, he not only mentions the exact date of Judgement Day in the year of 1997, but also talks about the his experiences in meeting and learning from Connor in workcamps.
Through the actions of Terminator 2, the Judgement Day of 1997 is delayed and the workcamp experiences never happen in Salvation. One could speculate that perhaps an alternate timeline was created due to the delay of Judgement day, something seen in the most recent Star Trek, but Terminator 3 connects it back to the previous line.
In Terminator 3, Kate Brewster remembers a time when she briefly made out with John Connor, before the events of Terminator 2. The timeline is kept unbroken. If I were Connor, destroying Skynet before the time machine is built would mean my existence would be erased.
Whatever decision Connor makes, it would definitely be a choice that would either reinforce his predestined fate or possibly create a whole new timeline. It is these facts, however, that help to show that Connor and Skynet need each other to survive. In Terminator Salvation, Connor goes against orders from resistance leaders and goes on a suicide mission to rescue Kyle Reese, which he does, and ultimately proves to everyone that he is their leader.
This action could be debated as part of Connor’s fate to prove his leadership qualities, and if Connor was going to nearly kill himself to save his father, then I feel that deep down inside, he would have to wait for Skynet to create the time machine before destroying them.
For Connor, it seems, his fate is laid out before him and also the rest of the entire human race.