Back to the Future and Time Travel
I have been working on this blog for over five months now, and while it appears to be really long, I can assure you, it has been very thought out and can be quite interesting. I would suggest at least having some basic knowledge of the Back to the Future series or time travel films in general.
For so many years, I’ve been hearing and reading how Back to the Future is the best time travel film series around. People have spoken about the characters and relationships, but really nailed down on the time travel aspect and how the series handles it with respect. I don’t agree with the latter half of that.
Lets talk time travel in the way Back to the Future films use it. Take for instance in Part I when Einstein, the dog, travels forward in time and vanishes from sight. He reappears a minute later and we are told by Doc Brown how time travel works. Below you will find the actual dialogue from the film after Marty questions seeing Einstein and the DeLorean vanish.
“The appropriate questions is, when the hell are they? You see, Einstein has just become the world’s first time traveler. I sent him, into the future. One minute into the future to be exact. And at precisely 1:21am and zero seconds, we shall catch up with him and the time machine.”
Seconds after this exchange of information, Doc pushes himself and Marty to safety as the DeLorean reappears out of thin air now having arrived at 1:21am and zero seconds. This proves the film makers knew exactly how travelling forward in time should work; literally ripping someone out of existence and throwing them into the future. They did it with Einstein, so why not do it with Marty and Jennifer in Part II?
In Part II of the franchise, Marty and Jennifer are enjoying a well deserved kiss when Doc Brown returns from the future in the DeLorean. He says that he needs help as their kids in the future are in trouble. Marty and Jennifer jump in the DeLorean while Doc flies off into the future of 2015. While this happens, Biff stumbles out of the McFly house and see the DeLorean vanish. Somehow though, the lives of Marty and Jennifer are still being lived for the next thirty years because they eventually marry and have two kids together. So can someone tell me how this is even possible?
Because the way it should be, is Doc, Marty and Jennifer arrive in 2015 to find that Marty and Jennifer went missing in 1985. They shouldn’t be married and no kids should be in trouble because Doc removed them from the timeline. You can’t travel on a train from platform A to B, yet still be present on the platform, can you?
Many people will probably say the future of 2015 is possible because Marty and Jennifer were always coming back to 1985 to live and get married, but that doesn’t explain anything. Yes, I’m sure Doc would drop them back if everything with the mission went well. However we see the events of Part II and Part III happen on film. We know that Marty is triggered by the word ‘chicken’ and this causes all sorts of problems in 2015 which spin off to 1985, 1955 and 1885. At the same time, Marty also learns from this and in turn, prevents the accident with the Rolls Royce in 1985. So if he is no longer triggered by the word ‘chicken’, then how did the events of Part II and Part III ever happen? They can’t have! And please don’t start about the future not having been written yet.
Wouldn’t Marty have memories of the new events when he changes the timeline? In the first film, he wakes up and is confused by the new happy and successful life his family has. So if the film’s logic is to be believed, you can go back in time, change history drastically and not have any memory of it? You have to think the McFly family would’ve gone on family holidays together, and Marty can’t remember any of it. He would only know anything from conversations or photos.
When it comes to other movies explaining time travel, I find The Butterfly Effect handles it quite well. Ashton Kutcher changes events by going into the mind of his former self. When he returns to his adult body, he suffers a brain aneurism and new memories are implanted. This is something we never see in the Back to the Future series. The future is changed and everyone is stunned by the new results. No questions asked, it is just excepted as fact.
This is fine, but you’d think the film makers would have figured this out considering the first film attempts to explain time travel on a realistic level.
I need to get this off my chest right now, how the hell did Doc Brown create a time machine out of a train in 1885? Obviously he and Clara have children no older than ten. The train has the hover conversation, so it has at least been to 2015, which could explain Doc and Clara’s ageless appearance, but regardless, how did the train travel to the future in the first place? He had no way of cannibalising the DeLorean he stashed in the mine, or else Doc would create a paradox and Marty wouldn’t be able to travel to 1885 to begin with. See, you can’t just make things up or you end up pissing off my inner nerd. I have watched plenty of time travel media to know this isn’t time travel. Doc Brown must’ve created a machine capable of dimensional travel. Just think about it, it all makes sense.
Marty wouldn’t know his parents being happy and successful because it is an alternate dimension. Yes, the same events happened, but now Doc Brown is alive. I get he read the letter, but the previous Doc was all about not messing with the space-time continuum. Now, Doc is happy to ruin it all? Nope, I don’t buy it. This is an alternate dimension where the Marty we see at the beginning travels to Earth 2.
Still doesn’t explain why he hates the word ‘chicken’ so much other than it being convenient for the plot.
Now let me take the time to explain why the logic of this series sucks. Goldie Wilson is Mayor in 1985, but is this because Marty said he should run for Mayor when talking in the diner in 1955? The movie implies it was Marty’s idea for him to run for Mayor, so is it telling me this Marty, at the beginning, is actually the second time he has lived these events? Because if that is the case, I’m just left confused and disappointed. If it isn’t the case, are you saying Goldie Wilson ran for Mayor even without Marty suggesting it to him in 1955?
A simple solution for Marty being stuck in 1955 could be easily fixed by just talking with Doc Brown in 1955. Tell him to remember to place an emergency plutonium in the DeLorean in 1985. That way Marty has a spare for when he arrives in 1955. And if time travel worked correctly in the series, they would only need to open the boot and the spare would be there.
Again, I still deeply love this series.
This brings up the question of paradox in time travel media. In the movie, The Time Machine (2002), based on the story by H.G. Wells, a man builds a time machine to go back and save his loved one from dying. After going back multiple times and watching her die in many different ways, the man eventually comes to the conclusion his partner will always die no matter what, because her death was the catalyst for inventing the time machine. So if he manages to save her, he wouldn’t have reason to invent the time machine which would meant he had no way to go back in time to save her. And that is how you create a paradox.
Another issue with time travel media is the whole, ‘did it happen because it was meant too, or because it happened previously in the film?’ Case in point, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I love the Harry Potter books and films, but this one really bugs me. The movie features time travel very prominently in the final act. In the film, the gang of kids are hanging with Hagrid when a rock is tossed into the hut alerting them of people approaching. Later on, we discover it was actually Harry and Hermione who threw the rock in to make them aware of the approaching threat.
Later on, Harry is being overrun by Dementors, when out of the blue, a Patronus charges through knocking the creatures clear from Harry. Harry claims it was his deceased father and when time travelling, he witnesses the encounter from afar. Harry sees his past self being swarmed by Dementors and summons a Patronus to clear them away because his father hadn’t shown up. Harry them realises it was he who set the Patronus on the Dementors.
WAIT A SECOND!
Did Hermione throw the rock into the hut because the rock was thrown in to begin with and she stole that idea? If that’s the case, who tossed the rock in the first time, if no one was there when travelling back in time? And if Hermione was always the one to throw the rock in, was the movie implying the events of the film are actually the second time they have happened?
This also applies to the Patronus scene. Who cast the spell in the first place? Remember, if the Patronus was never cast, Harry would’ve received a Dementors kiss and been lost forever in his own mind. Which means (wait for it) he wouldn’t be able to travel back in time which wouldn’t let him cast a Patronus to save himself to then allow himself to travel back in time to cast the Patronus in the first place to save himself!
If that hurt your head, imagine how it feels to be writing all this.
Even the video game, Metal Gear Solid 3, has a similar issue. While the main games up to this point were set in the 1990s, number 3 was set during the 1960s. If you manage to kill a character named Ocelot, the game ends with a game over screen showing the text, ‘Time Paradox’. In the Metal Gear Solid series, Ocelot is alive and well in the 1990s, so his death in the 1960s can’t be.
Which brings me back to Back to the Future Part II. Old man Biff steals the DeLorean in 2015 and travels back to 1955 to give his younger self the sports almanac to make him rich and powerful. This in turn changes the future of 1985, but for some strange reason, old man Biff is still able to travel back to 2015 which is unchanged, drops off the DeLorean and dies. How is this possible? Later in the same film, Doc explains to Marty, old man Biff created an alternate timeline and they can’t travel to 2015 to stop old man Biff from stealing the DeLorean because it would be the 2015 of that alternate timeline.
Speaking of alternate timelines, Doc says old man Biff created one by handing the sports almanac to himself in 1955. By that logic, the timeline of 1985 at the end of Part I should also be considered an alternate timeline! So shouldn’t that be corrected by Doc and Marty? I mean, they can’t change the timeline to benefit themselves and punish others, right?
You can see now how problematic this series is. Concepts of time travel and alternate realities are thrown out the door and only used correctly, if ever, to help move the plot along.
In Part I, the night of the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, George stands up for himself and ends up with Lorraine. As Marty is leaving and wishes his parents good luck, he tells them both to go easy on their 8-year-old son for accidentally setting fire to the living room rug. You know, in the future. He leaves and Lorraine says how much she likes the name, Marty. Now I’m left with a few burning questions. Number one, they will remember the rug burning incident and won’t chastise Marty so harshly as they would’ve because they remember their friend telling them to go easy.
Second, we know the parents will remember their friend, Marty, because Lorraine likes the name so much. Again, this implies the genesis for their third child’s name. But again the question is asked, did they name Marty after their 1955 friend, or were they always going to name him Marty? Because even before time travelling, he was always called Marty.
So back to the naming of Marty. Their friend and son are identical in appearance and attitude and have the same name. You could say with time, their memory has diminished, which I’ll give you, but in the original timeline Lorraine sits at the dinner table with her kids and speaks clearly on events from 1955. Mind you, in the original timeline, she’s a bit of a drinker. Something which science as proven to reduce memory retain. So even with diminished memory recall, Lorraine does exceptionally well to explain the way George and her got together for both her kids, and us the audience. She remembers those details quite clearly 30 years later, so why can’t she remember Marty from 1955?
“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” This is something Marty hears from Doc Brown and mentions it often enough that Jennifer knows who the originator of the quote is. Marty then proceeds to quote it to his father in 1955. It has such a profound impact on George’s life that in alternate 1985, he repeats it to his son, Marty. You would think George would’ve remembered who told him this. I mean it gave him the confidence to release his first novel, and helped shape him in life, but no. He doesn’t seem to remember Marty 1955. Oh, the novel also depicts the radiation suit worn by ‘Darth Vader’ in 1955 that spoke to George in his room. But still, no one remembers what Marty 1955 looked like.
Now obviously his parents ever bringing up their mysterious friend, Marty, and how he looks similar to their own son is never said in the films. Maybe the conversation happened off-screen. I understand this is a heavy possibility, but the writers of this film series don’t strike me as the type of people who wouldn’t mention the little details on-screen. From the dinner scene in the beginning of Part I, we know everything about the family relationship and how the parents met, fell in love and what type of people they were back in 1955. The writing is smart and packs loads into the five-minute scene. Nothing is ever left for the audience to piece together. The film makes a clear point of detailing everything and laying it out on the table. I mean, seriously, this film has been my bible when it comes to writing. It foreshadows events and gives clear growth to each character. So why are these little details missing? Why wasn’t the time found to effortlessly insert this type of information into the final scenes? They just rush off with Doc into the future.
In conclusion, the Back to the Future series is a favourite of mine. I hold it near and dear to my heart with the DeLorean being my dream car. My love for science fiction, time travel and alternate dimensions started with this series and has had a profound impact on my life. However the series is not without faults. And if you have taken the time to read this far, I would honestly love to continue the conversation in the comments below, or on Twitter @truthfulnerd.