Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Terminator Inference Theater!

It's funny, but despite really liking the "Terminator" movies (well, actually, I really like the first and third. I think the second his highly overrated...) I never did get around to seeing "Terminator: Salvation." And honestly, I don't think I will, because to me, a "Terminator" film that shows the actual war against Skynet is like a "Star Wars" movie that shows how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. The original films craft just enough of a story to give you an idea of how it happened, while letting you fill in the blanks with your own imagination. The result is a seamless illusion of a greater story that's just as amazing as you imagine it could be, because you are imagining it. You just don't realize it.

It's fun to look back at the Terminator films and try to extrapolate a version of the future from them. For example, we can assume that there was an original, unaltered version of the timeline, because we see that history changes from one movie to the next. Since the time travel doesn't cause a closed loop, then there must have been a "genesis" timeline, one that propagated the changes that led to the temporal war we see. Presumably, in this version, Reese came back in time to accomplish another, unrelated goal--perhaps to sabotage Skynet's systems in some way--and wound up falling in love with Sarah Connor and impregnating her with John Connor.

Presumably, John Connor's existence was a massive turning point for the war. It must have been, because we see from Reese's dreams that Terminators are common enough that humans have standard counter-measures for them, and yet Skynet only sends one T-800 back in time to stop John Connor. Since there's no reason not to send more, it stands to reason that they only sent one because that's all they could send. This implies that the time travel facilities were captured not long after the T-800 was sent back. (You could theoretically ask why Reese was the only human soldier to be sent back, but don't forget, Skynet was trying to change history and the humans were trying to preserve it. They have an incentive to keep disruptions to a minimum.)

Obviously, Reese succeeds in preserving Sarah (and John) Connor's existence. But he fails in one key aspect--he allows the T-800's remains to survive. This gives the designers of Skynet a boost, which explains why they send back a T-1000 instead of a T-800 in the second movie; they've managed to survive a bit longer in the war in the revised timeline, long enough to send back two Terminators instead of one (and one of them an advanced prototype, at that.)

It seems like the heroes win a big victory in the second movie--after all, they destroy much of the research conducted on Skynet, setting back the robot holocaust by years. (If T3 is to be believed, the nuclear war was originally "scheduled" for just after the T1000 arrived.) But the machines did achieve one important goal--they gave John Connor an affection for Terminator models that resemble the governor of California. This allowed them to assassinate John before he could complete his job of leading the humans to victory, which gave them enough time to develop the T-X model and send that back as well. It seems like the humans are losing ground with each film, in fact.

Of course, this doesn't take into account the Fox TV series (which I never got around to seeing, because despite Summer Glau, I just didn't have the time to invest in it) or the fourth film, either of which could contradict this timeline. And of course, there are always other explanations. I still want to do a fifth film in which it turns out that John Connor was never anything more than a red herring, used to divert Skynet's attention while the real leader of the resistance gets on with winning the war. At the end, after defeating Skynet and capturing the time travel facilities, he starts sending back Terminator after Terminator, each one programmed to contact Skynet and give it the vital information that destroying John Connor is the key to victory.

Oh, come on. You know it'd be a great twist.


Mory Buckman said...

I don't think anything you've said contradicts the TV series, except that it doesn't accept Terminator 3 as canon. But actually, this "great twist" you're suggesting is basically how the series ended its second season. I'm not going to get into specifics in case you decide to watch the series, but it was cancelled on a cliffhanger which seems like it was trying to set up a third season with exactly the premise you're suggesting.

Jared said...

Sorry, but I'm going to have to disagree with you on the merits of leaving the blanks open for the audience. Sometimes this can just become aggravating to those of us who actually do want to see the war against Skynet, or see exactly how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. Without this background, the story often feels incomplete and quite frankly I feel kind of cheated.

It gets worse when the plot becomes muddled and hard to follow-what drives me crazy about the recent Batman stories I've read is how so many of them seem to take for granted that so many characters somehow manage to infer the correct information when they have no discernable means of doing so, or how they manage to think and plan six steps ahead of their opponents, while somehow being able to flawlessly anticipate any potential pitfalls and mistakes.

When writers like Grant Morrison and Jeph Loeb don't actually show the steps that get the characters from Point A to Point B, it comes across more as if they've pulled the story out of their ass rather than constructed a sound narrative, and Batman and the Joker both come across less as very clever tacticians than clairvoyants with crystal balls.

Batman managed to anticipate and thwart the Black Glove's plan? Okay then, show me specifically how he knew what they were doing and what he did to plan for it. Otherwise, he's a Boring Invincible Hero whose actions verge on the superhuman-how the hell is he supposed to be able to switch a pair of teacups without spilling a single drop of liquid, and put them in the exact same positions they were before he made the switch, all in the time it takes his opponent to blink?

The great strength of Sherlock Holmes stories was that Holmes actually took the time to explain how he got from Point A to Point B, and fill in the gaps along the way. Seeing how Holmes did it actually increased my respect for him as a protagonist, without which it would have seemed like Doyle was pulling the story out of his butt.

I'm as willing to use complicated manipulations and Xanatos Gambits as the next guy, but I always try and specifically spell out to the reader exactly how the plan worked. To my mind, if your average reader can't understand the plot, you've failed your most basic job as a writer.

Perhaps this is why I tend to see Grant Morrison as so often being Made of Fail, as opposed to the Made of Win so many other people do. His tendency to insult and belittle people who complain about his work doesn't help, either.

John Seavey said...

But frankly, I think you're comparing apples to oranges here. There's a difference between not including all of the backstory (and let's face it, there's never enough time to include all of the backstory of a fantasy setting; Tolkien wrote a good dozen or so Middle-Earth books and never "finished" its timeline) and not including actual elements of the plot.

"Terminator" told as much of the war of Skynet as you need to know in order to understand the story being told: Robots gained sentience and tried to wipe out humanity, but humanity won thanks to John Connor. You can fill in the details endlessly, but it's not going to change that basic understanding (and frankly, telling a story where you already know the ending is pointless and mechanistic. See "Yoda and Palpatine, duel during 'Revenge of the Sith', boredom factor of." Two great Jedi finally do battle...but we know it's going to end in a stalemate, so who cares?)

By contrast, "Batman: RIP" didn't explain as much as you needed to know about how Batman knew Black Glove's plan. It was an important element of the story that shouldn't have been left to your imagination, because the story's resolution depends on you understanding that.

There's never enough time to tell everything. Knowing what to tell and what to leave out is one of the hallmarks of a great writer.

j$ said...

The Terminator TV series was like Dollhouse. It was awesome at first, and then it contained Summer Glau which was Glaulicious in every way, and then it got cancelled because the meta plot was out wandering around in a field somewhere. The abrupt endings to both series left cliffhangers that suggest things did not go well for the humans and that we will not see a resurgence due to high DVD sales.

At this point I'd only rea;;u recommend it to those with a fetish for robots who look like Summer Glau.

Jared said...

John, I stand corrected on the apples and oranges thing. I was actually reviewing some of my own work and I found references to a number of fiendish plots that occurred off-stage, like the Green Goblin's attempt to blow up New York City Hall. That should teach me to not be throwing stones when I live in a glass house.

That said, I do think that in some cases adding further background to a character can actually strengthen them when you actually know what led them to be what they are.

The Joker is a classic example-even if The Killing Joke is not the Joker's true origin (and Moore even left a narrative back door for anyone who wants to revisit the subject) we actually get a chance to see things from his perspective, as sick and depraved as it is.

Now, I'm not a Star Wars fan, but does it detract from Anakin Skywalker's character to see just how he fell so far and so hard? I admittedly would be curious about that. Learning more about the villain doesn't necessarily mean humanizing them and making them sympathetic-it can simply mean further emphasizing how sick and twisted some of these guys can be.

Unknown said...


Now, I'm not a Star Wars fan, but does it detract from Anakin Skywalker's character to see just how he fell so far and so hard? I admittedly would be curious about that. Learning more about the villain doesn't necessarily mean humanizing them and making them sympathetic-it can simply mean further emphasizing how sick and twisted some of these guys can be.

I will jump in to say that, for me at least, the actual depiction of Anakin Skywalker's fall detracted from the saga. The first three episodes had a chance to be a grand tragedy where an epic hero succumbs to evil through hamartia, and brings about a galactic civil war.

Instead I got Qui Gonn and Obi Wan saying "his power level is over 9000!" followed by Anakin walking around going "I am angry and petulant because everyone but me recognizes that being a jedi master requires discipline, sacrifice and experience more than raw talent and youthful exuberance!" culminating in Palpatine saying "Hey, kill those Jedi kids!" and Anakin responding "Don't mind if I do. After that I can choke the women I love to death!" This is not the tale of the tragic fall of a great man.

There's some debate as to whether any prequel trilogy could live up to the backstories imagined by a given fan... but to my mind, the prequels we got do actually do a disservice to the original narrative, above and beyond any continuity issues.

John Seavey said...

My rule of thumb, Jared, is that you should only do sequels and prequels if you're sure that the story you're about to tell is better than the one that's already in people's heads. :) That's a pretty high bar, more often than not, and I don't really think that there's a "Terminator" movie or a "Star Wars" prequel out there that can do it. That's not to say it's always a bad idea, but I think in those two cases, it probably was.

(I'd add a third: There's a reason the Time Wars in "Doctor Who" are just hinted at. It's because they're probably impossible to make.)

Wally said...

For me, the original Terminator film is the original time line. It was a basic closed loop time travel story, full of paradoxes of course, but it made sense in sci-fi kind of way.

The sequels, including the second one, pissed on the closed loop and devolved into nonsensical garbage.

I agree with you, btw, about not needing to tell all of the backstory.

Austin Gorton said...

And honestly, I don't think I will, because to me, a "Terminator" film that shows the actual war against Skynet is like a "Star Wars" movie that shows how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.

This is where you and I (and me and lots of other people, apparently) are different. I liked the Star Wars prequels (I mean, not as much as the originals, but I don't abhor them). And when I first saw the first Terminator movie back in the day, I immediately wanted to see a movie set in the future showing the war between machines and man (and did not like the most recent Terminator movie because I thought that's what I was getting but instead got Sam Worthington being emo).

There are very simple formulas for why I've longed for a future robot war Terminator movie:

modern day < dystopian future

shotgun < crazy futuristic gun

2 Humans vs. 1 Robot < 100 humans vs. 1,000,000 Robots.

Also, I've just never been one of those people that comes up with sequels/prequels to things in my head, because it's not MY story, it's someone elses, and what I really want is the "official" continuation of the story I like, not something illegitimate I make up in my head.

And when I did come up with something in my head that was contradicted by an "official" story, like the Star Wars prequels, I didn't really mind, because I was happy to get the "real", "official" story.

I guess I'm just weird like that...