I am participating in a panel on the legacy of the Back to the Future films this week and it gave me an excuse to sit through the three films again. I enjoyed them growing up. I saw the first film in the theater and loved it for different reasons than I enjoy it now as a grown-up. It’s one of those movies that works on different levels.
It was the first movie that got me thinking about time travel as a concept in both storytelling and practical application. The ultimate “what if” genre is when we use a narrative device to interact with established history to see what would happen if we had the power to change things. It’s the ultimate power fantasy to go back and put right what once went wrong. Like HG Wells’ The Time Machine, it is also an opportunity to project forward and see where the world is going and be able to come back and change the present to avoid the catastrophes that await humanity. Like most speculative fiction, it presents topics in a context that avoid partisan bias or politicizing an argument.
Back to the Future was once considered a stand-alone film. It was a fresh, rare tentpole movie – not a sequel or adaptation of something else. It popularized the time travel concept with common themes of growing up, growing older, and the universal question of what we could have done with our lives (or helped our parents) knowing what we know now. The sequels were fun, but they not only pale in comparison to the first, but they contradicted the storytelling rules of time travel established in the original.
But let’s pretend it is 1986 and there are not sequels. Yet.
The Theory of “Marty-B” by Bruce Gordon
Before Part 2 appeared in 1989, there was an article in Starlog magazine (1986) by Bruce Gordon who proposed there were two Marty McFlys in the film based on the fact that Marty-A (our Marty) changed his personal past, thereby creating Marty-B who grew up in the world we saw at the end of the movie – the one with the Lone Pine Mall, a successful George, a happy Lorainne, a sweet 4×4 in the garage and … Elizabeth Shue instead of Claudia Wells as Jennifer for some reason.
Gordon proposed that Marty-B would have course-corrected the story by NOT doing the things Marty-A did and allowed events to transpire the way they did before Marty-A accidentally changed history. According to Gordon, when Marty-B returned to 1985, he would have found himself in Marty-A’s universe (or a new one indistinguishable from it), taking over for him while Marty-A took over Marty-B’s “better” life.
There are other elements that Gordon and others noted over the years that lend themselves to the existence of either the return of Marty-B to Marty-A’s universe (or perhaps yet another Marty) which include the sighting of someone in the background running across a lit sign just as Doc A/B was being attacked by the Libyans, and the sudden disappearance of the plutonium crate from beside Doc’s van. While these moments can be dismissed as technical errors, writer Shawn Robare makes a strong storytelling case for what I believe establishes an endless temporal loop that needs to be stopped.
Changes to the Space-Time Continuum of Storytelling
In Back to the Future Part 2, we see that time travel overlaps and builds ONTO the same universe, which means that Marty-A (from Marty-B’s timeline) meets Marty-A(2) (aka himself) in the past and messes with the timeline in order to preserve the changes he made that resulted in Marty-B’s universe.
(Then Biff messes with the timeline. Then Marty messes with it again, creating all sorts of weirdness that is hard to track. This hurts my head, so we’ll stick to the main storyline and the temporal mechanics applied to it.)
This change in the “rules” of time travel means that our Marty-B from the first film would have arrived at the same moment and in the same place as Marty-A. Such a collision would have been catastrophic and should have destroyed them both, negating or undoing Marty-B’s timeline and causing a massive universe-crushing paradox.
However, the impact of Zemekis/Gale’s new rule is that Marty-B did NOT appear at the Peabody Farm where Marty-A destroyed one of the twin pines, so Marty-B must have gone to another time entirely!
The Theory of Dark Doc Brown (aka “Doc-B”)
This tracks because Doc Brown-B knows what happened in 1955 and has engineered this moment over thirty years. He read the note Marty-A left him about the Libyans, wore a bulletproof vest, and set out to send Marty-B out of time to avoid running into Marty-A. To avoid a universe-imploding paradox or an eternal time loop, Doc did not program the flux capacitor to November 5, 1955 as he did before. Instead…and this is where it gets dark… he types in a code that will send Marty-B and the Delorean out of time entirely. Yes, Doc-B MURDERS Marty-B to protect the timeline, allowing Marty-A to take over that better life and live happily ever after.
Even if Marty-B landed in a different physical location, it would have over-written the events of Part 2 in the same way Marty-A’s interactions with himself attempted to preserve those original events. There would be at least three Martys in the same universe, each contacting Doc Brown. If this is a time loop where the end of each story sends another Marty (C?) back to 1955, an infinite number of Martys would have appeared in Hill Valley at once.
So Doc-B had no choice but to stop the cycle by killing Marty-B.
Of course, Robare’s notes about an unidentified Marty lurking in the background perhaps attempting to change reality further suggest that Marty “A” is not really the trigger of this loop, but is the first time that an alternate Doc realized the larger implications and took steps to end the cycle.
Another Perspective on Marty-B in an Alternate 1955
Let’s assume that Doc-B told Marty-B nothing about 1955 or Marty-A’s adventures and sent Marty-B back to 1955 for whatever reason and the theory of alternate realities was in play rather than overlapping worlds.
In the beginning, Doc-B had to engineer a different reason for the two of them to become friends because Marty-B grew up in a happier, more supportive world where his father never instilled any of those George A insecurities or problems. Who knows what the McFly family history would have sounded like in that household (though I wonder why a successful couple like the McFlys would still live in that same house) and what lessons Marty-B would have taken growing up with a more assertive parental role model like George B.
Clearly Marty-B would have different problems and issues than Marty-A. In 1955, he would be surprised at how much of a bully Biff was in the past but stood up to him in the diner. George-B and Lorainne-B are healthier and fitter (as are Marty’s siblings) so it wouldn’t take much to put Biff down during that first encounter ensuring that there was no conflict at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Maybe Marty-B was still hit by the car, but maybe not. Maybe the problem is that Marty-B is too confident and strong, thus casting George in a relatively negative light (as he often did in the original film) and causing G and L to never connect. Lorainne may be disappointed by “Calvin’s” rejection and an entirely new timeline emerged. Marty-B evaporates from the space-time continuum.
Plus, Chuck Berry never appropriates Rock and Roll from some white kid at a high school dance. Sad.