I was originally planning this post to be the special #100 post, a feat that should have been accomplished about a year ago should my consistency for daily writings be able to endure the fatigue of a wandering mind. I have written about various movie trilogies before and how some are better serials than others but one has a special place in my heart. Today, as I travel in planes, trains, and automobiles for a temporary stay back home I will be writing about Back to the Future. On this post I will talk about seriality but over at The Satin Bag blog I will have a guest blog post on some of the science fiction and fantasy elements of time travel and how they are done in these films Link to come soon.
The first things you notice about these films are the titles. It’s simple, no extra stuff as a subtitle in any of them. Just Back to the Future and an additional roman numeral for the appropriate sequel. The second thing once you see all of them in a row is that even with all the crazy time travel stuff, everything takes place over two or three weeks of actual perceived time while the very beginning of the first film and the end of the third one are technically about 36 hours apart, tops. Maybe a summary of the trilogy will help in understanding this whole temporal confusion.
On a regular day in 1985, Marty McFly wakes up and goes to his friend’s house. Dr. Emmett Brown is a local eccentric inventor and genius. “Doc” is still on a trip and he has charged Marty with feeding his dog, Einstein, while he is away. While there, the good doctor calls and informs that he will return that night, requires Marty’s assistance with an experiment, and that he had successfully synchronized all the clocks in his house to be 20 minutes late, thus making Marty late for school. In this scene we already see the desire and ability to manipulate time and how it can have negative consequences, which is pretty much the entire theme of the trilogy.
Fast forward to that evening and we get Doc Brown making his first foray into time travel. He had the science and knowledge to make the necessary flux capacitor; he just needed the power of 1.21 gigawatts to make it a reality. Of course to get that much power you need something rare. At the beginning of the film, it’s plutonium, which is why they are wearing radioactive suits, just in case but near the end a perfectly placed lightning bolt can do it. Much like in space travel, they decide to send the dog in first. Einstein is sent one minute into the future and we know the experiment is a success because the watch they put in with him is one minute slow. Here we see a difference between time elapsed and time perceived, which is kind of a big deal for me.
From out of nowhere, the Libyans come for revenge. Remember, Doc’s trip and where he got plutonium? Yeah, turns out he promised them a bomb and now they want him to pay in blood. I wonder how NSA or Homeland security today would get him before he even got the car loan for the DeLorean. In a moment that actually shocked me as a kid and still a little bit today, the terrorists shoot and kill Doc. Marty tries to escape in the Time Machine and activates it, allowing him to escape into the past of 1955 and thus the adventure begins. From there on out the film revolves around Marty, going under the alias of Calvin Klein, accidentally screwing up the timeline, and then trying to fix it. His interference makes it so that his parents never got together, which prevents his birth and the effect is visible thanks to a family picture with his elder siblings blurring out of existence. Weirdly enough, he still remembers them even as they are erased from history, something I’ll explain further in the pseudoscientific sister post to this one.
Marty is able to warn Doc about his death and how it should be prevented, something that would screw up the timeline because paradoxes. He ripped the note to shreds but fixed it later on, and on that night he wore a bulletproof vest, because not dealing with Libyans means no time machine, he is saved and our young hero returns to find that the world he left is now much better. Biff the tormentor is now almost a lackey to George McFly and everyone’s financial situation is now a lot better. Marty is about to go out to the lake with his girlfriend Jennifer but they are stopped by Doc Brown who requires their assistance towards solving a problem in the comparatively not so far future of 2015 regarding their eventual children. The film ends with the classic “To Be Continued…” tag as the DeLorean takes flight.
Part two is when it gets interesting. First the original actress playing Jennifer did not return for the sequel so a few things were refilmed accordingly. Because the sequel came out four years after the original, the change wasn’t too bad but if you were seeing a marathon of the trilogy you might rub your eyes a bit while trying to figure out why something feels odd. Also, George McFly (Marty’s dad) did not sign up again so some scenes needed to be carefully recycled. Doc is now an experienced and still the only time traveler out there from what we know. The future tech upgrades to his vehicle and to himself, that rejuvenation clinic does wonders as he looks exactly like he does in 1955, make Emett Brown potentially a very dangerous figure. Luckily, he knows not to interfere with the timeline, with himself being an exception thanks to Marty, so he decides to return the favor for his young friend’s lineage by identifying the moment when everything went downhill. He saves the future young McFly from being involved with Biff’s cyborg descendant. However, old man Biff decides to go borrow the DeLorean back to 1955 and change his own future with a sports almanac. The alteration makes Biff a legend while ensuring that the town of Hill Valley is now in the gutter. Our protagonists return from a job well done to realize that things had gone horribly wrong. Marty barely escapes a deadly encounter with his now stepfather Biff to learn that to make things right, they must go back to 1955. Recycled scenes from the first film intersect with new scenes as our time travelling duo does everything in their power not to interact with their past selves. In the end, they take back the almanac and burn it, ensuring a proper future. But then, the massive lightning storm responsible for sending Marty back to the future hits the DeLorean, sending Doc somewhere, sometime and leaving a state of confusion that is broken by a mysterious figure. In a torrential downpour, a man from Western Union arrives to send Marty a letter that’s been waiting 70 years to be delivered. Yep, Doc was sent back to 1885 and is alive and well and sends Marty some help for getting him back to his own time. He then runs to find 1955 Doc Brown and asks for his help, cue the ending this time saying “To Be Concluded” which illustrated that the next installment would be end of the story. This was further illustrated by the fact that they showed scenes from the upcoming movie, almost like a trailer to assure people that answers would be given and soon.
The third film is a masterpiece but only if you have part 2 fresh in your memory. They do a few things to show some earlier Chekov Guns so that they are not a complete surprise (like the hoverboard) but there a lot of things that come from left field if your serial memory isn’t up to par. First, 1955 needs to fix DeLorean, which has been severely damaged but repairable with proper materials (at least those form that era). The earlier future tech is gone, presumably completely damaged or Doc not wanting to risk the timeline anymore, but at least the Mr Fusion is still around. During their search, they find that Doc’s tombstone was in the nearby cemetery, so Marty decides to break protocol and go back to save his friend. Of course, the DeLorean breaks down again, this time it’s a punctured fuel line, which strands them yet again. Two obstacles are now in their way. One is Biff’s ancestor, “Mad Dog” Tannen (all of the Biffs are played by the same actor by the way, including super old one, so this guy is damn good) who will/was supposed to kill Doc but has now set his sights on Marty. The other is Clara Clayton, a love interest for Doc who was supposed to have died but Doc had inadvertently saved. The previous movies did not have much of a romantic element, besides getting Marty’s parents together, but this a May December romance that somehow worked and the courtship scenes were not as clichéd as I first assumed they would be. The only way to get the DeLorean to 88mph involves them strapping it to the front of a locomotive, supercharging said train, and hope it gets to the desired speed before crashing to the bottom of a ravine.
The knowledge of the previous films comes when Marty outsmarts Mad Dog by putting on a crude bullet proof vest during their duel. His skill with a gun had been foreshadowed through being really good at an arcade light gun Western game. Still, he can’t beat sharpshooting murderer, and even if he got lucky he might screw up the timeline even more by discontinuing his descendants entirely. Later on, Marty is barely able to make it to the DeLorean as their plan works but the appearance of Clara makes Doc rethink leaving, so they send out the hoverboard to save them both as the young man leaves back to the future alone. The time machine is destroyed immediately after returning to his present. Marty goes back to Jennifer as they try to get their lives back to normal. While driving, Marty is egged on by a local bully (not a Biff) to a race with taunts of being a chicken. This was Marty’s berserk button as his pride was his Achilles’ heel. However, this Marty had learned the true meaning of bravery and decides to only make it look like he was going to race. The decision to not do so prevents the car accident that ruined Marty’s hands and destroyed his potential music career, all events that Jennifer learned about from the future of the previous film. And the fax paper saying “You’re Fired” that she took back was now blank. The future had been changed again but we have no idea what the repercussions are. Marty and Jennifer drive by some train tracks where a time travelling Doc, Claire, and their children come back in a modified train. He states that destiny is what you make of it as he continues moving along, as he has already been back to the future. Oh and the train can fly. This time we get a concluding The End as the film’s theme starts again and the credits start rolling. Elements form every film echo through the different installments, even with direct scenes from the next episode moments. For this and many other reasons, I consider it one of my favorite examples of serialization. If you have not seen it, I have no idea why you read this as I have spoiled the whole story. If you saw them but don’t remember these moments, then try for a trilogy marathon viewing when you get the chance and be extra aware of these details.