Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

The Sadness(es) of BACK TO THE FUTURE

with 9 comments

Longtime readers will know I have a very soft spot for Back to the Future, a series of films I have adored since I was a child and now internalized to a degree that is perhaps unwise. So it’s something of a mixed bag to have lived too long and made it to October 21, 2015, both in the obvious sense that we never got our hover cars and also in the more abstractly philosophically sense that this is the last day depicted in the series, and thus we are now definitely and irrefutably living in that weird space of sadness after the future itself.

We’re doing a small Back to the Future event tonight on campus where I plan (of course) to talk a little bit about the familiar problems posed when you start to overthink the nominally happy end of the movie: the very big problem of the briefly glimpsed Second Marty, who travels into 1955 totally unequipped to replicate the events we’d just witnessed, as well as the longer-term problem of our Marty, Marty 1, who is the last survivor of an obviated timeline and thus surrounded for the rest of his life by the uncanny duplicates of the people he once loved but with whom he now shares no memories or any genuine connection.

But I also want to talk about the original script a little bit, which I find a really fascinating document. Most people know that in the original script the time machine is a refrigerator — changed so that kids wouldn’t climb into them hoping to travel in time — and that the lightning strike is the blast from an atomic test (the two together forming an image that stuck with Spielberg long enough for him to use it to ruin Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). But there’s some other really amazing stuff in there too. The thing is shot through with fears about oil depletion and the end of progress: it’s the subject of a lecture at Marty’s high school in the beginning of the script and something he keeps trying to ask the people of the 1950s about later, to no effect. That sort of science fictional nostalgia for a future that no longer seems possible is really a major theme in the original script, which is reduced to jokes about UFOs and “all the fallout from the atomic wars” in the produced film — the sense that the zany Jetsons future of technological world-transformation we once collectively looked forward to has been lost and the only one left for us is a much more depressive vision of imminent deprivation and catastrophe. (In this sense any eventual 2000s-era “dark, gritty reboot” would actually just be a return to the themes of the original script.)

But something weird happens at the end. In the original script Marty is the co-creator of time travel when he accidentally spills some Coca-Cola on the time device; Coke’s unique chemical formula turns out to contain tremendous energy inside it, easily providing the 1.21 gigawatts necessary to power the Flux Capacitor. Marty’s trip to the past ultimately tips Doc off to Coke’s unknown energistic property, and so when Marty returns to the future at the end of the film he isn’t hopping into a very similar timeline where he just happens to have grown up rich instead of poor, but into an incredible retrofuturistic world of free energy and robot servants and flying cars — precisely the cartoonishly optimistic milieu that is relocated to 2015 for the gag at the end (and later, the sequel). (Doc’s pouring of the half-empty soda can into Mr. Fusion at the end of the film is, I think, the last remaining trace of this original idea.)

In this way “Back to the Future” was actually originally a pun: Marty goes not just back to his future but back to the future, the good future we were supposed to get, instead of the lousy one we actually did…

Written by gerrycanavan

October 21, 2015 at 11:07 am

9 Responses

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  1. And there’s a Second Marty problem in the original script too, which they handle in a truly bizarre, Lovecraftian way; that other Marty walks into a room and never walks out again:

    PROF. BROWN
    According to your girl friend, Suzy Parker, you and she were at the movies. You went to the restroom, and you never came out. Obviously, you stepped through an inter-dimensional time warp, created by the original operation of the time machine.

    MARTY
    Obviously.

    gerrycanavan

    October 21, 2015 at 11:08 am

  2. Why do you say the Second Marty is unequipped to replicate the events we’ve just witnessed? He’s the earlier version of our Marty, so there’s no reason for him not to replicate them.

    Ted

    October 21, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    • He isn’t — he’s the Marty who grew up in the new timeline, who grew up going to the Lone Pine Mall and who doesn’t know anything about birdwatching and who thinks his parents fell in love after his dad decked Biff at the dance. He’s not going to have any clue how to get them together once he gets back to the past, plus it’s never clear how he and Marty 1 could ever “re-sync,” if indeed they ever do.

      My friend Tim has a theory that Doc knows all this and programmed that DeLorean to go back in time to the Cambrian Period, just to get rid of the extra Marty…

      gerrycanavan

      October 21, 2015 at 12:44 pm

      • Ah, that’s right. Now I remember having a conversation about this question with a friend. One possibility is that the second Marty will indeed spawn an entirely new timeline, the beginning of an infinite regression leading to a multiverse. Another possibility is that the effects of Marty’s actions in the past take some (meta-)time to propagate, as illustrated by the slow changes in the photos that Marty carried, so it’s not until Marty returns home that the changes to his family history have fully manifested.

        I too am a big fan of the BttF series, but I think there are inevitable logical problems with any version of time travel that allows changes to the past. BttF doesn’t take itself too seriously, which I think is essential for a story using such a form of time travel.

        Ted

        October 21, 2015 at 1:16 pm

      • I think Doc becomes a superhero in the end of the third movie, and there are few limits on what he can do. Once he has become a time-travelling Jules Verne fantasy figure, he has the power to go to any point in time and intervene in any way he wants. The magical flying train at the end of the third movie and the presence of time-traveling children suggest that he has mastered the technology and made time travel safe for the traveller. Although he says he won’t meddle in time due to his moralistic respect for the integrity of history; he has proven himself unreliable in this regard.

        Wendy Fall

        October 21, 2015 at 1:16 pm

      • “Another possibility is that the effects of Marty’s actions in the past take some (meta-)time to propagate, as illustrated by the slow changes in the photos that Marty carried, so it’s not until Marty returns home that the changes to his family history have fully manifested.”

        We see in the third movie, alas, that changes are instantaneous from the perspective of time travelers; Marty arrives from 1885 and the ravine is already renamed “Eastwood Ravine.” Likewise, the mall has already been renamed. We just have to accept that Marty 2 has been murdered by Doc in the name of keeping the timeline clean.

        gerrycanavan

        October 21, 2015 at 2:15 pm

      • Probably the best thing ever written on the subject? http://www.mjyoung.net/time/back1.html

        gerrycanavan

        October 21, 2015 at 2:15 pm

  3. “Although he says he won’t meddle in time due to his moralistic respect for the integrity of history; he has proven himself unreliable in this regard.” –> #googleDocBrowntruth

    gerrycanavan

    October 21, 2015 at 2:26 pm

  4. There’s also a kind of historical helplessness in the films (particularly in the 1980s scenes) that seems important to me–when Marty tells VP Strickland at the beginning of the film “history’s gonna change,” he has no idea that the DeLorean exists. But it is only through time-travel that *anyone* in the film has any capacity to “change history”–and only in 1955, at that (I’m ignoring the third film, as all right-thinking people should).

    I have a chapter on BTTF in my new book about nostalgia & the reagan era (http://amzn.com/019935684X) for anyone interested in that sort of thing.

    michaelddwyer

    October 22, 2015 at 9:32 am


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