Let's Unravel the Time Travel Paradox of Terminator: Dark Fate

Terminator has been retconned within an inch of its own life. The long-lived franchise, which began in 1984 with The Terminator, has been sequelized (twice) and rebooted (three times) and adapted for TV (once). And because all of them involve some element of time travel—generally a sentient AI system sending back a Terminator to kill the human that would eventually overthrow the machines—the canonical timeline looks something like an ouroboros Möbius strip.

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Confused yet? Yeah, everyone is. That’s OK. The Terminator franchise never really set out to, like, make sense. The whole point is robots, and guns, and explosions, and computers, and more explosions. There’s no need to complicate things with actual physics. They’re not meant to hold up to actual time-travel paradigms. But if you know the Novikov self-consistency principle, they’re a hell of a lot more fun to watch.A primer: The Novikov self-consistency principle holds that, well, time paradoxes are not entirely possible. What physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov stipulated in the 1980s was: If you went back in time, the probability that you could change the past in any significant way is zero. Novikov and his contemporaries held that while the theory of general relativity maintained that “closed timelike curves” were possible, and thus so were trips back in time, people could only perform actions that wouldn’t change the past; they had to be consistent with what had already happened (hence the name). Unlike the grandfather paradox, which frets over what happens if you go back and kill your father or mother’s dad and eliminate your own existence, Novikov’s principle states that you simply would not, could not do that. What’s already happened has already happened.

The Terminator movies can adhere to Novikov principle, mostly, if you generally accept the timeline that John Connor sent back Kyle Reese to protect his mother, Sarah Connor, knowing that Reese would then become his father. It falls apart, though, in Dark Fate, where the events of Judgement Day mean Skynet was never created and thus a new AI, called Legion, pops up in its place. These events, theoretically, couldn’t have happened because the time travel would’ve changed the larger outcome. There is also an implication, which we won’t entirely spoil here, where the leader of the new resistance, Dani, implies that she won’t allow something that the audience just saw happen to occur again. This is a huge no-no.