One Tiny Part of ‘Back to the Future’ that Baffles Me

There’s a certain exchange in the film ‘Back to Future’ that baffles me a bit. I watched the film again last weekend and there it is; that strange little dialogue interlude. Why is it there? What does it mean?

We’ll get to all of that shortly.

I saw ‘Back to the Future’ on the first night it came out in the Empire Leicester Square. My memory was that I was little underwhelmed with it. At that time, it seemed to spend the first third setting up the middle third in a terribly obvious fashion. Although the fun and pace picked up as it went, I didn’t quite forgive it that. Plus, something happened after the showing that made me sad and that may have also coloured my fading memory of the outing.

Over the years, I’ve seen it on telly time and time again (pun intended), usually around Christmas time. A couple of things have happened along the way. Firstly, it’s become a bit of an old friend. I mostly find it when it’s half-way through, so I’ve seen the second half way more than I’ve seen the first half and that second half is pacy and fun. Secondly, I’ve come to appreciate some of the more subtle touches that are everywhere in the writing and in the design. Somebody put a lot of thought into the little things on that movie. Which is why this one thing bugs me and makes me wonder…

But we’ll get to all that shortly.

Before I go on, I should say that I don’t rate Back to the Future Part II at all. Trish and I saw it in a cinema in Harvard Square in Boston on the first night it came out and it was a terrific disappointment in every respect. Back to the Future III, we saw in an Adelaide cinema one morning while waiting for our bus to Alice Springs. I think of it as an okay made-for-TV effort but nothing more.

But the first Back to the Future, while nowhere near my all-time favourite list, still has a place in my heart. I think, mostly, this is because of how it is always weaving stuff in. It weaves and there always seems to be something new to see in it. Some little trick or treat. For instance, Marty goes to Twin Pines Mall to meet Doc and start his time travelling adventure. On his getaway from the shotgun wielding farmer, he drives over one of the farmers beloved two pine trees. When he returns to the mall near the end of the movie, it is now Lone Pines Mall. There’s lots of that kind of stuff in there.

The second half of the movie cranks up the hazard and the challenges facing the protagonists and there’s an absolute shedload of stuff to get through before the day is finally saved. There literally isn’t a moment to lose.

Which brings us (at last) to that bit that baffles me.

It comes at the height of the crisis. Marty has just arrived from the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, having successfully paired off his father and his mother so that he can have a viable future. Doc is behind schedule, and everything must be in place before the lightning strikes the clock tower. There’s no time for idle chit chat.

Except that’s exactly what happens. Some apparently idle chit chat. Marty shows Doc the photograph with the three siblings now fully restored.

“The Old Man really came through. It worked! He laid out Biff in one punch. I didn’t know he had it in him. He’s never stood up to Biff in his life.”


“No. Why? What’s the matter?”

Doc thinks about this and then literally waves the whole exchange away with his hands and the movie rolls on to its conclusion.

(I’ve embedded the scene in here so you can have a look, if you want.)

But why is it in there? What purpose does it serve?

The script here is too rigid, the editing too tight for this seemingly gratuitous little exchange to be left in there by some kind of accident.

So, it means something in the context of the film. But what?

At first, I thought it was about parentage. Before I get into that, there is a slightly sanitised TV version of the film which is the one that we see mostly in the afternoons around Christmas time. The differences are not colossal but the level of swearing and the general edginess is cranked-up a bit in the uncut version and that is important in the context of the parentage question. You see, Biff has a salacious interest in Marty’s Mum, Lorraine. When he forces himself into the car with her, outside of the dance, his intentions are clearly sinister in a way not normally seen in a kid’s movie. And this isn’t really a kid’s movie anyway. Biff’s interest does not seem in any way born of the alterations that Marty has been making to the timeline. In fact, Biff''s threat seems fully-formed without any of Marty's interventions. 

So, if George McFly has never stood up to Biff’s horrible advances in the original timeline, what exactly happened on the night of the original Enchantment Under the Sea dance? It’s not a nice thought to explore too deeply but, when Doc looks at the restored photo and hears how George had never stood up to Biff, is he thinking about exactly who Marty’s parents really are?

This doesn’t stand up for all kinds of reasons. I’ll leave you to work that out if you care to (I realise you probably don’t). But, in the opening scenes of the film, adult Biff still seems salaciously interested in Marty’s Mum. What exactly kept him away from her over the years? We do not know, and we may, not without reason, fear the worst.

It’s not a happy train of thought to take from a light-hearted entertainment. Thankfully, my current theory is much less sinister and perhaps that’s why I have adopted it as my final answer as to why this scene is there at all.

Here goes…

Doc already knows that he is in big trouble in 1985. Marty catches him, in an earlier scene, watching the video over and over again. The one where the terrorists arrive to kill him. At the time of our scene, he hasn’t yet received the letter from Marty which warns him about his impending death, but he has clearly been wrestling with the ‘Timey-Wimey’ issues of changing the future. So much so that, when he gets the letter from Marty, he tears it up and, importantly, puts the pieces in his pocket. He hedges his bets. Why?

This, for me, having thought about it far too much, is the reason why our little scene is there. Doc looks at the future in that restored Polaroid photo and sees that all is well. Even though Marty has wreaked considerable havoc on the past, in order to try to save the future, all is still well. If George never stood up to Biff… until he suddenly did, and the Time/Space continuum held firm, then perhaps Doc could also take a small risk with the future and save himself?

In the film, when Marty finally realises that Doc has chosen to do just that, he asks him, “What about all that talk about screwing up future events?” Doc replies, “I figured, ‘what the hell?’”

It’s a funny line and it works well in the movie. But I now like to think that our strange little scene, right in the middle of the melee, gives Doc a lot more justification for doing what he did. It wasn’t a ‘what the hell’ moment, it was a calculated risk. All based on that one restored photo and the fact that George had never-ever stood up to Biff before Marty arrived.

There! Done.

Why should I bother writing this? Two reasons – well, three. The third one is that it was bouncing around in my brain this week and I figured that writing it might exorcise it out.

The first reason is that there is a lot of stuff to be found down the Internet rabbit hole about Back to the Future, including a lovely interlude about the terrorist’s van and the Mandela Effect. But there’s not all that much there about this scene. So, I thought I’d try to add to the canon a little.

And what about the second reason, Ken? About why you would waste your valuable time on this when clearly nobody cares that you do.

Well, because that’s as good a definition as any of what writers actually do. And, at the end of the day, like it or not Ken, you are a writer.

Aren't you?


Marc Paterson said...

One of my favourite details comes -- I'm sorry -- in Back to the Future 2. The shirt that Doc wears in the future has horses and trains on it. A little premonition to what happens at the end of part 3.

Ken Armstrong said...

I like that Marc. Please don't be sorry. W Gallagher is over on Facebook as we speak, sticking up for Part II. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Oddly I’ve never been one for debating the minutiae of films and television shows. I know there’re hundreds of people in apoplexy over the latest season of Doctor Who but not me. I suspend disbelief as the titles roll and never look back. I do pick up on some of the Easter eggs and am pleased with myself when I do but I have no desperate need to rewatch and study a show or film, at least not since Blade Runner which is probably my most watched anything of all time.

What, of course, jumped out at me from your post was your parting shot. It never ceases to amaze me what piques my interest as a writer. I don't know how you work but I expect we’re not too dissimilar. I have a filter in my head that everything passes though that only catches interesting-to-me-and-me-alone-shaped things. Bright and sparky things just slip through the holes. Never understood it.