It’s important to be thankful for small mercies. In the context of beloved 1980s film franchises, only one has escaped desecration by the Hollywood Death Cult … for now.
That as-yet unsullied franchise began with 1985’s Back to the Future, a time travel adventure flick written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale and directed by Zemeckis. Featuring the temporal escapades of 80s kid-next-door Marty McFly – forever identified with Michael J. Fox – this movie stands out from the era’s other pulp-inspired sci fi series with a rather sophisticated plot and more personal themes. Yet it still manages to come off as life-affirming and wholesome.
It almost wasn’t, though. Tinseltown lore has it that the original draft of the script had a much darker tone. Originally, 1985 would have been a polluted, crime-is-legal hellhole more like the sequel’s 1985. And instead of a plutonium-powered DeLorean, the time machine was a refrigerator which Doc would’ve had to place at a nuclear bomb test to send Marty home.
And while I don’t have certain proof that this fridge nuking inspired one of the first 80s franchise profanations, I will point out that Steven Spielberg produced both movies and read Bob Gale’s original Back to the Future script.
Which goes to show that when it comes to writing, no idea is ever wasted, but some ideas should be.
Happily, the studio rejected the original script, and the final version brought us the beloved story we still have today.
This movie is pushing 40, so I won’t avoid spoilers in the synopsis.
Here goes …
Marty McFly is a rambunctious teen growing up in the town of Hill Valley, California. Despite his rock star ambitions, he seems to be living under a curse. That curse is his family, who’ve never amounted to anything in the town’s history.
Marty’s elders never miss a chance to remind him of that fact, and his parents never fail to bear out their low expectations. His father George is a nerdy doormat pitied by his alcoholic hypocrite wife and bullied by his sadistic boss Biff Tannen. It’s in this weird triangular relationship that the movie’s time and causality themes are subtly introduced. George, Lorraine, and Biff are stuck in the 50s, replaying their roles from high school over and over again. Their own choices and failings, not a time machine, have them caught in a vicious loop.
But a time machine just might get them out.
In the wee hours of the morning after losing a band audition and having his weekend ruined by Biff’s boorishness and his father’s cowardice, Marty gets a call from Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (originally Von Braun). As established in the movie’s opening scene, the Doc is Marty’s best friend. And in many ways, he’s the father figure Marty lacks at home.
He’s also a card-carrying mad scientist.
We’re soon acquainted with that fact when Marty answers Doc’s call to meet him in the local JC Penney’s parking lot. There we learn that Doc has built a time machine out of a DeLorean. And ripped off a Libyan terror cell. But hey, how else are you gonna get your hands on weapons-grade plutonium?
What Doc intended as a documentary shoot for his time machine’s test drive goes sideways when the Libyans show up looking for their plutonium and revenge. Marty sees the Doc gunned down and escapes the same fate by the skin of his teeth – via an unplanned trip back to 1955.
Marty wastes no time throwing wrenches in the gears of his hometown’s idyllic past. He gains teen Biff’s enmity and manages to get hit by his grandfather’s car instead of his dad, drawing his mother’s affections to himself instead.
You can see how making his mom infatuated with him causes problems for Marty. Besides the weird reverse Elektra complex, he risks being retroactively erased from existence. In deep over his head, Marty seeks out the one man who can help him – Doc Brown, 1950s edition.
There’s just one wrinkle. 50s Doc hasn’t met Marty yet. It takes some convincing, but after sharing future knowledge no one else could’ve had, Marty wins Doc’s trust. The genius inventor agrees to help save a weird kid who, from his viewpoint, he just met.
The universe then proceeds to throw every obstacle it can in Marty and Doc’s way. They forgot to load the plutonium in 1985, so the time machine is out of juice. But thanks to a charity drive flyer, Marty knows the exact time when the town hall clock tower will be struck by lightning – a suitable alternate power source. While Doc makes the necessary mods to the DeLorean, Marty must play matchmaker to his own parents. Which proves quite the challenge since his repeated one-upping of Biff leaves his mom even more head-over-heels in love with her future son.
Marty decides to work on his dad. After several failed attempts to help George find his spine, the two hatch a foolproof plan for him to win Lorraine’s heart. She’s already going to the school dance with Marty, who will pretend to get handsy while parked with her outside the dance. All George has to do is swoop in, give Marty what for, and rescue Lorraine, who’ll be forever grateful to him.
Of course, when George marches up and throws the car door open, it’s Biff, not Marty, getting fresh with Lorraine.
Here it’s worth noting the subtle traces of the transcendent glimpsed at certain points in the movie. Lorraine wasn’t making out with Marty because on a deep level she sensed their real relationship. 1955 Doc doesn’t know Marty from Adam yet goes to enormous effort to help him at great personal risk.
And when George McFly sees Biff Tannen roughing up Lorraine, her pleas for help awaken something inside him. For the first time in his life, George summons the courage to stand up to Biff. And punch his lights out.
This is where a theme that runs throughout the series and ties it together comes to the forefront: love. George fails in his fatherly duties, but when given a second chance by his future son, his love for the family he doesn’t yet know he’ll have conquers his crippling fear.
But the main example of that theme is the time-spanning friendship between Marty and the Doc. Due to Marty’s alienation from his loser family, his relationship with Doc Brown resembles a favorite uncle-nephew bond more than friendship. Besides Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer, who’s an ancillary character, Doc is the only one who sees Marty’s potential, believes in him, and gives him chances to prove himself.
Ask yourself, would you trust a multimillion-dollar, nuclear time machine to a sixteen-year-old kid? Especially when said time machine’s misuse could destroy the galaxy?
Speaking of that last point, Doc’s high moral character deserves a few words here. Though eccentric and sometimes reckless, Doc Brown is always portrayed as having pure motives. He is a model scientist, not in the Big Men With Screwdrivers vein of Wells, but in the gentleman adventurer mold of Jules Verne – which the series makes explicit later. Doc has dedicated his life and his considerable talents to the advancement of human knowledge. And he’s consistent in stating that’s why he built the time machine, refusing every temptation to use it for personal gain.
Oh, and one piece of historical knowledge the Doc shows keen interest in is witnessing the birth of Christ.
Which he asserts to have occurred on December 25. Based.
And Doc’s principles aren’t just for show. His dedication to preserving the space-time continuum runs so deep as to tear up a letter that he’s told will save his life, just because it contains information about the future.
In the end, Doc succeeds in sending Marty home. The McFly family is made whole – and even elevated above their initial situation. And everyone lives happily ever after.
In the mood for another twisty time travel tale, with a healthy dose of horror?
Originally published here.