The Terminator is the only film that uses time travel as a plot device that I respect. This is because there is no paradox: although Skynet tries to change the past, it inadvertently causes exactly the future it was so desperate to escape. This raises all sorts of horrible questions about free will, so I hope it’s not how the actual universe functions, but as a narrative structure I find it satisfying, even poetic, that all the time travel shenanigans simply create a self-sustaining loop.
All the other films throw that out the window. Chris and I argue they should not.
BONUS: The Sword of the Terminator
I totally forgot to bring this up during our recording session, so I’m doing it now, in the only place where Chris can’t deflate my ill-conceived thoughts. Yes, I’ve got my own idea for how to take the Terminator franchise in a Bold New Direction — with no filthy rebooting required.
Consider this: Skynet has thus far been focused on trying to prevent John Connor and/or his pals from being able to form the resistance and ultimately defeat it. That’s one tack at which it has failed consistently, so maybe it’s time to try something else.
The films never discuss how far back a time machine can send things, so let’s crowbar open that oversight and send a Terminator back… to medieval times. Its mission? To ensure Skynet is born… much, much sooner.
I recently worked out that I actually prefer the “sword and sorcery” genre to the “high fantasy” I’ve sort of assumed I was into for… well, most of my life. Legend Channel (née The Horror Channel) showed Red Sonja last year, and I realised that I really enjoy that setup — where magic is rare and powerful and almost invariably evil. You know what would look like magic to people in the Castle Age? Laser guns from the future, that’s what. Seemingly-invulnerable automatons stepping out from balls of electricity.
Think about it. An army of the undead? Silver, skull-faced robot warriors. The evil sorceror? A highly intelligent infiltration unit Terminator clothed in human flesh, leading the efforts. An evil kingdom abducting and enslaving villagers? Workers for the mines and factories. A blight that destroys crops and withers the lands? The waste and pollution from this nascent industrial empire. A long and elaborate demonic summoning ritual that can be interrupted just in time? The birthing of Skynet itself.
This works a lot better if there is some kind of two-way time portal, which I think we might as well go with considering how much bonkers crap the franchise has generated thus far. I am stretching this because it allows room for some escalation, so bear with me.
In its early days, the Sorceror Terminator has extremely limited resources and so cannot summon much in the way of backup from the future — small portal, small prizes, but enough to bootstrap its technology. As the evil industrial kingdom expands, it is able to create larger and larger portals, enabling future Skynet to accelerate the preparation and send some giant demonic machines through to assist the conquest.
This also creates a natural escalation of threat when our hero(es) get involved, which we can conveniently visualise with the expanding pollution and maybe a few sky-beams on the horizon. The more smoke and lightning, the less time we have until disaster.
(It is occasionally mentioned that the magnetic fields of time travel mean that naked machines cannot be sent through time — they must be clothed in organic flesh to avoid being ripped apart. Now I’m not usually one for squick and body horror, but all that says to me is that you can pack your crates of arms and armour and just grow some flesh around them. Nobody ever said the organic coating had to be human-shaped, and it only needs to “live” long enough to get through the portal. However, this does give us an excuse to make walking tanks into “demons”.)
Where is the resistance in all this? Well, they would obviously find whatever mad factory Skynet has in the future that’s sent all this shit ultra-far backwards in time, but by then it’s too late… They must send somebody back to clean up the mess.
But what could they possibly do? No matter who they send back, they’ll be severely outgunned and won’t have a ready source of ammunition — I know, let’s make a sword that can cut through Terminators, and send a melee combat specialist! If we send them before Skynet’s nascent empire is born, they can cut down the Sorceror and stop those dastardly plans.
It goes wrong. The machine explodes or overloads due to the vast chronological gulf. The Soldier and the Sword are both sent spinning off course, in time and space. The Soldier wakes up, far too early, and must live out his life in the past, waiting for the moment when the Sword — and the Sorceror — finally turn up. He wanders about asking strange questions and is treated as a madman, eventually giving up to become a reclusive hermit. It’s only when the Sorceror’s armies arrive in this land where we’ve ended up, that the people who previously shunned the Soldier for his madness start to put two and two together. A brave Knight (party of knights?) seeks him out, hoping that this prophesied Sword will enable them to defeat the invincible “undead” army that’s been abducting their people.
They must undertake a quest to find out when and where the Sword turned up so they can grab it. The Sorceror learns of this, and knows the only thing that can stop him is somebody with an understanding of modern technology. The Sorceror sends both infiltrator assassins and blindingly obvious but overpowered monsters to attack the intrepid adventurers and the aging Soldier/Prophet. After all, if the Sorceror gets the Sword, he’s effectively invulnerable and cannot be stopped. But of course we need a happy ending, so fending off these attacks, the party is able to grab the Sword and assault the Sorceror’s evil keep.
While the plucky young Knight does battle with the Sorceror using the Sword, the Soldier sneaks his way into the bowels of the evil keep, trying to find the self-destruct button. He realises this cannot be done while the Sorceror is alive; there’s some kind of override tied directly to the Sorceror’s head, a security system protecting the heart of Proto-Skynet.
Once the Sorceror dies, the slaves are freed and the party reassembles. The old Soldier delivers the bad news: the only way to truly end this tyranny is to destroy the keep and all its infernal machinery, and this can only be done manually. Somebody has to stay behind, and it can be only him… Only he understands tech, after all.
With everyone at a safe distance, the Soldier finally hits the button, and it all ends in a nuclear explosion — all evidence of the Sorceror Terminator is eliminated from the past. The timeline is preserved but we had tremendous fun and maybe spawned a myth or two along the way. Huzzah! (And we didn’t need to spunk our entire budget on Arnie either.)
Call me, Hollywood.