The Terminator timeline explained – the events of every movie in chronological order, including Dark Fate

(Image credit: Fox)

While he's widely hailed as a visionary director, James Cameron likely had no idea just how unwieldy the Terminator franchise would become when he first sent a from the future to eliminate Sarah Connor in 1984. Since then, the Terminator timeline has grown into the past and the future through four more movies and a TV show – not to mention numerous books, comics and videogames.

That expansion has meant a lot of time travel and rewriting of history, meaning the Terminator timeline is now a complex beast – far less linear than the chronologies of the Star Wars and Star Trek universes. History is repeatedly rewritten and character fates routinely altered as the Terminator saga branches off into numerous alternate timelines – there are at least three dates given for the world-ending Judgment Day, Sarah Connor has “died” a couple of times, and some instalments even pretend that previous movies never happened. 

Indeed, Dark Fate (the first Terminator movie to boast the involvement of Cameron since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day) is a direct sequel to T2 that acts as if  Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator Salvation (2009), Terminator Genisys (2015) and the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-09) TV show never happened.

For those looking to understand every Terminator, we’ve pulled together all the disparate strands of the Terminator timeline into one coherent history, all the way from the birth of Sarah Connor to the death of her son, John – aka the saviour of humanity. To make it a little easier, we’ve flagged up which of the saga’s many timelines the event is taking place in: the “Prime Timeline” is the one established by James Cameron’s first two movies; the “Terminator 3 Timeline” follows on from Rise of the Machines; the “Sarah Connor Chronicles Timeline” shows the arc of the TV show; and the “Genisys Timeline” reveals the rewritten Terminator history established by the 2015 movie. 

So boot up for the ultimate ride through the Terminator timeline – and remember, there is no fate but what they make… Warning: spoilers for every Terminator film including Dark Fate.

A quick breakdown of the main Terminator timelines

The Prime timeline

• The Terminator (1984)

• Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Dark Fate timeline

• Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

The Terminator 3 timeline

• Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

• Terminator Salvation (2009)

The Sarah Connor Chronicles timeline

• The Terminator (1984)

• Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

• Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-09)

The Genisys timeline

• Terminator Genisys (2015)

The Terminator timeline

1965-ish – Sarah Connor, mother of the hero of humanity’s resistance against the machines, is born. 

Why is the Terminator timeline so vague about the date? The script for The Terminator specifies that she’s 19 years old in 1984, suggesting she was born in 1965, which could also tally with psychiatrist Dr Silberman saying in Terminator 2 that she’s 29 in 1995. But… in Terminator 3, Sarah’s gravestone says she was born in 1959, while Terminator: Genisys reckons she was nine in 1973, which suggests a birth year 1964. That’s what living your life off the grid does to you…

1973 (GENISYS TIMELINE) – A shapeshifting T-1000 arrives from the future to kill a nine-year-old Sarah Connor, but luckily a T-800 has also come back to protect her. Sarah’s parents are killed by the T-1000, leaving that particular T-800 model to become an unlikely father figure known as “Pops” – and kickstart a whole new Terminator timeline. (Terminator Genisys)

1984 (PRIME TIMELINE) – A T-800 cyborg from the future arrives in mid-’80s Los Angeles, and embarks on a killing spree whose victims include several women named Sarah Connor, and a police station full of cops. Ultimately, however, the Terminator misses its target, failing to assassinate the one Sarah Connor who’s essential for the future survival of humanity – it ends up crushed in a hydraulic press, though crucially, a processor chip and an arm survive... Kyle Reese, who travelled back from the future to protect Sarah, dies. (The Terminator)

(GENISYS TIMELINE) Kyle Reese’s mission to intercept the original Terminator is instantly made a hell of a lot easier when another version of Sarah Connor and her Terminator dad, “Pops”, intercept the cyborg assassin on its arrival in 1984. They also save him from a T-1000 who’s come to sample the joys of the mid-’80s. Based on the “Genisys is Skynet” message that Reese hears during his journey back in time, Sarah and Pops alter their plan to time travel to 1997 to prevent Judgment Day. Instead, Sarah and Reese set their time coordinates to 2017, where a new computer operating system called Genisys is about to go live… (Terminator Genisys)

1985 (PRIME TIMELINE) – Future military hero John Connor is born on February 28 – and spends his life dealing with the impossible expectations placed on him by his mother.

(Image credit: Fox)

1995 (PRIME TIMELINE) – Another of Skynet’s cyborg goons arrives in the 20th century – the difference this time, however, is that the target is 10-year-old John Connor, and that the T-1000 is a liquid metal mimetic polyalloy shapeshifter perfectly placed to make the most of ILM’s pioneering CG technology. A reprogrammed T-800 who looks a lot like his 1984 predecessor arrives to serve as John’s protector, and follows the boy’s order to break his mother, Sarah, out of the secure psychiatric hospital she now calls home. 

In the ensuing carnage, the trio destroy the Cyberdyne Systems research facility that’s developing Skynet from reverse-engineered parts harvested from the 1984 Terminator – inventor Miles Dyson is killed in the blast. With Judgment Day seemingly averted and the T-1000 eliminated, all is seemingly well – though the cuddly T-800 takes his newly installed casual vocabularly to a fiery grave. No problemo! (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

1997 (PRIME TIMELINE) – The US government gives Skynet full control of strategic defence on August 4. After learning at a “geometric rate”, it becomes self-aware on August 29 – a key date in the Terminator timeline, because at this point, it’s too late for humans to “pull the plug”. Calculating that all humans are a threat to its survival, the super-computer launches a missile attack on Russia, who subsequently retaliate in kind. Three billion people are killed on Judgment Day, initiating a decades-long war between humans and machines. (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

(TERMINATOR 3 TIMELINE) – At least, that was the original plan, but the Skynet trampling events of 1995 postponed the apocalypse – at least for a few years. Even with Judgment Day averted, however, it’s still a bad year for the Connor family. Suffering from leukaemia, Sarah lives long enough to see the world not ending on August 29, but dies from her illness before the year is out. (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)

1998 (DARK FATE TIMELINE) – A Terminator finally hits its target, as one of Skynet’s many T-800 assassins kills John Connor on a Guatemala beach, sending Sarah Connor on a downward spiral that will lead to her hunting down other Terminators. (Terminator: Dark Fate)

1999 (SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES TIMELINE) – It turns out Sarah Connor wasn’t dead after all, as the short-lived TV show pretends erases the events of Terminator 3 from the Terminator timeline. Instead, Sarah and John are still on the run from law-enforcement authorities who think they’re responsible for Miles Dyson’s death when they meet Cameron, a reprogrammed female Terminator sent back to protect John. She transports the Connors forward to 2007 to continue their fight against Skynet because you just know that, er, it’ll be back. (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)

2003 (TERMINATOR 3 TIMELINE) –  Just before his execution, death row inmate Marcus Wright agrees to sign his body over to Cyberdyne Systems Genetic Research Division. It’s not the last we’ll see of him – he survives Judgment Day in stasis. (Terminator: Salvation)

(PRIME TIMELINE) Kyle Reese is born – at least, he is in the original Terminator timeline, as James Cameron’s script says he was 26 years old when he travelled back from 2029. However, in the 2017-set Terminator Genisys, Reese meets his 12-year-old self, which suggests he’s born in 2005. 

(Image credit: Fox)

2004 (TERMINATOR 3 TIMELINE) – A T-X Terminator arrives from 2032 with a mission to wipe out figures who’ll be key members of the humans’ resistance. With his mother having passed away seven years earlier, John Connor is living off the grid in LA, and he’s done such a good job of disappearing that it’s pure coincidence the T-X finds him – she gatecrashes an early meeting with his future wife (and future military leader) Kate Brewster. 

With a reprogrammed T-850 acting as a guardian angel (yes, this one looks like the original 1984 Terminator as well), they go on the run. Meanwhile, the US military activates Skynet to counteract a computer virus that – in a cunning ruse – has actually been unleashed by Skynet itself. So Kate’s dad, a military general, gives them the location and access codes to Crystal Peak, a facility John believes houses Skynet. However, he’s unable to destroy the computer. Crystal Peak is really just a shelter to protect the couple from Judgment Day, which is, by now, unavoidable because Skynet has become totally integrated with the internet. After a couple of false starts, the world belatedly ends on July 24 – leaving John to take up his mantle as the saviour of mankind. 

Bizarrely, this is possibly when the Schwarzenegger-esque design and voice of the T-800 model Terminators is established – though this hilarious deleted scene may not be strictly canon… (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)

2005 (SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES TIMELINE) – According to Cameron’s knowledge of the past/future, Sarah Connor dies of cancer in this particular branch of the Terminator timeline. (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)

2007 (SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES TIMELINE) – Kyle Reese’s big brother, Derek, arrives from the future with a mission to eliminate the architects of Skynet, and joins forces with the Connors and Cameron as they fight a succession of Terminators – who knew there’d be so many? And that so many of them would be so bad at their jobs? (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)

2009 (SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES TIMELINE) – Derek Reese is killed by a Terminator. John Connor travels forward to 2027 with Catherine Weaver, a T-1001 who’s the spitting image of the lead singer from Garbage. They’re trapped there for all eternity thanks to a threat even greater than Skynet – the cancellation of a TV show. (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)

2011 (SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES TIMELINE) – Skynet goes online yet again, gains self-awareness and, according to what Cameron tells Sarah Connor in 2007, initiates the latest iteration of Judgment Day on April 21, 2011. Déjà vu, anyone? (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)

(Image credit: Fox)

2017 (GENISYS TIMELINE) – After their journey through time Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese hook up once again with “Pops” who’s taken the long way round – and aged accordingly. Their efforts to stop the Genisys operating system – designed, coincidentally, by Miles Dyson’s son, Daniel – from becoming Skynet meet a formidable obstacle in the form of a Terminatorised John Connor, who’s in San Francisco to ensure his digital paymaster goes live. Sarah, Kyle and Pops defeat John and think they’ve destroyed the Cyberdyne facility, but – unbeknown to anyone – Skynet survives and becomes self-aware. Reese also pays a visit to his 12-year-old self to remind him that “Genisys is Skynet” – a piece of information that may just come in handy later on… (Terminator Genisys)

2018 (TERMINATOR 3 TIMELINE) – John Connor, a rising star in the human military, discovers Skynet’s plans for T-800 Terminator units covered in living tissue, along with a load of human prisoners captured by the machines. He also learns that he and an unknown teenage fighter named Kyle Reese are top of Skynet’s hit list. Meanwhile, Marcus Wright awakens from stasis and discovers that the medical experiments he signed up for have given him an entirely mechanical endoskeleton – causing John Connor and his wife, Kate, to suspect he’s been sent to kill them. They eventually team-up, however, and embark on a mission to destroy Skynet’s T-800 facility. John is fatally wounded in the battle when a Terminator stabs him through the heart, but saved when Marcus donates his own still-human heart for transplant. (Terminator Salvation)

2020 (DARK FATE TIMELINE) – A REV-9 Terminator arrives in Mexico City programmed to eliminate unwitting future saviour of humanity Dani Ramos – aka the new John Connor. Augmented human soldier Grace also comes to town with orders to protect Ramos, and the pair team up with Sarah Connor – very much alive and hunting down Terminators using mysterious text message tip-offs. The sender of the messages? None other than “Carl”, the T-800 who killed John Connor, who now has a human family and is trying to make amends for earlier misdemeanours. Sarah, Dani, Carl and Grace end up defeating the REV-9, but at the cost of Grace and Carl's lives. (Terminator: Dark Fate)

(Image credit: Fox)

2027 (SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES TIMELINE) – Derek Reese and Terminator Cameron are sent back in time to kill Terminators/save the Connors. And no, we have no idea why or how this happens before Skynet uses prototype technology to send the first Terminator back in time from 2029. It’s wibbly, wobbly, timey and wimey. (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)

2029 (PRIME TIMELINE) – Skynet sends the first Terminator back to kill Sarah Connor in 1984; John Connor sends Kyle Reese to protect her. (The Terminator)

(GENISYS TIMELINE) – a super-advanced T-5000 Terminator named Alex infiltrates John Connor’s team, and infects Connor, turning him into a Terminator.

(PRIME TIMELINE) – Skynet sends a shapeshifting T-1000 back to 1995 to kill John Connor as a kid; Connor sends back a reprogrammed T-800 to protect him. (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

2032 (TERMINATOR 3 TIMELINE) – A red letter day for the Terminator timeline, as Skynet finally gets its man… When a T-850 with the original Schwarzenegger design assassinates John Connor, Connor’s wife, Kate, reprograms the unit and sends it back to 2004, to protect the couple from the T-X. (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)

2042 (DARK FATE TIMELINE) – Legion, the reset timeline’s answer to Skynet, sends a REV-9 Terminator to 2020 to kill Dani Ramos. Cybernetically enhanced soldier Grace travels back to protect her.

Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.