by Martin Odoni

Not in the mood for politics today, what with every change of Prime Minister making it look like the UK is trapped in a time-loop. But that reminds me of an idea for a review, of sorts, I have been toying with for a little while. In fact, a character study from one of the most popular movie series of all time.

Anyone else worried that those suits do not offer enough protection from the radiation?

The original Back To The Future film is in many ways the definitive 1980s adventure film. Essentially just a straightforward Grandfather Paradox* time travel story, it features a likeable young hero-figure, a white-haired mentor, a complicated love interest that comes unsettlingly close to incest, unashamed science fiction technobabble, a downright nasty villain, special effects nearing the threshold of the convincing, plenty of action, a smattering of clever satire, and a real feel-good mood. Almost a cross between Star Wars and Doctor Who, and yet very much a triumph in its own right.

The likeable young hero is 1985 teenager Marty McFly, of a small US town called Hill Valley. He has a mishap with a time machine – a heavily-modified Delorean sports car – invented by his friend, Emmett ‘Doc’ L. Brown, and is sent back to the year 1955. The machine needs plutonium to operate, and his time jump used up the only plutonium sample he had access to.

While in the past, Marty inadvertently disrupts the start of the relationship of his parents when they were about his age. He then has about a week to try and get them to fall in love, to make sure the future births of himself and his siblings still happen over the next fifteen years or so. At the same time, he enlists the aid of the ‘Doc’ Brown of the 1950s (not looking particularly younger) to help him secure the power of a lightning bolt that future history records will strike the clock tower at the crest of the Hill Valley courthouse a few days later, to act as a substitute for plutonium, and return Marty to 1985.

This is all achieved, but there are some interesting side-consequences to Marty blundering through the past. One is that, not only does Marty disrupt his parents’ relationship, but his mother, Lorraine Baines, rather disturbingly develops a massive crush on him. Another surrounds Marty’s father, George McFly. The George whom Marty knows has spent most of his life as a weedy, nerdy, easily-dominated wimp, one who has been bullied relentlessly by the town’s most notorious thug, Biff Tannen, since they were at school together. The Biff of 1955 is after Lorraine for himself, and, after a convoluted mix-up, he and George face off. George, to the shock of everyone present – not least himself – absolutely flattens Biff with a haymaker left hook. Lorraine falls in love with George at that point after all, but more problematically, George has learned an assertiveness that he never possessed before, and Biff no longer has control over him.

And yet in the 1985 Marty arrived from, Biff still did have control over him.

Dignity, Tannen. At all costs, dignity

As much by luck as by judgement, Marty successfully uses the lightning strike to power the time machine and get him back to his own time. When he gets there, things initially seem largely as he remembered. But when he gets up in the morning and surveys the inside of the McFly home, he realises things have changed. The house is much more nicely decorated and furnished. His brother and sister are much better-dressed, his junk-food-vendor brother suddenly has a well-paid, high-profile office job, and his previously unattached, mousy sister suddenly looks a bit of a knock-out, and apparently has loads of suitors. Moreover, Lorraine Baines-McFly has changed from an exhausted, disillusioned housewife with a slight weight problem into a happy, bubbly, fulfilled lady of leisure, content with decades of loving wedded bliss, while George is a charismatic, self-confident, energetic and successful author of science fiction novels. Marty even finds that he is the proud owner of a powerful four-wheel-drive that he had previously been coveting but feared he would have to wait years to own.

In short, the McFly household has transformed from a non-descript family of perpetually dissatisfied nobodies into members of the affluent Middle Class, because in this revised timeline, George has learned to take no nonsense, and to dare to reach for his ambitions. Biff, who was bullying him right up to the day before Marty travelled to the past, is now George’s sycophant.

Crispin Glover, the actor who played George McFly in the first movie, was famously very unhappy with this ending to the film, because he felt the message was that if you are the ‘good guy,’ you should be rewarded with money and wealth. It is a shamelessly materialistic outlook.

I believe Glover has a point, and what is more, when you stop and think about that, especially in tandem with much of Marty McFly’s behaviour across all three Back To The Future movies, one starts to feel that Marty, as much as even Biff, is possibly the real villain of the story.

The main issue I have with Marty is that, given what happens in Back To The Future: Part II in particular, he is the most appalling hypocrite imaginable.

In the second film, Marty, ‘Doc’ and Jennifer arrive in the Hill Valley of the then-future, 2015. Their aim is to prevent Marty and Jennifer’s son, Marty Junior, from taking part in a crime that would see him imprisoned and his life ruined. Their interference works, albeit not in quite the way intended, but while intervening, Marty hits on a particularly reprehensible idea. He goes to an antiques shop and purchases a book that was published at the end of the 20th Century listing all the popular sports results in North America between 1950 and 2000. He hopes to take this ‘Sports Almanac’ back to 1985 and use the information in it to place bets on sporting fixtures that have yet to happen.

If I saw my younger self wearing a hiking jacket that colour, I guess I would be pretty appalled too.

Due to a problem with a complicated near-meeting with Marty and Jennifer’s 2015 selves, the time machine is left unguarded at a crucial moment. The elderly Biff Tannen of 2015 steals both the Almanac and the Delorean, somehow figures out instantly how to make it operate, and then uses it to head back to 1955 (again!). He passes the book to his earlier self, then returns to 2015 and leaves the time machine where Marty, ‘Doc’ and Jennifer can find it. (There are some serious logic blunders in this part of the plot – especially bizarre is how the elderly Biff returned the time machine to an unaltered 2015 and yet the 1985 that Marty, ‘Doc’ and Jennifer go back to is almost unrecognisable – but they are not the focus of this discussion.)

When ‘Doc’ and Marty get back to 1985, they find Hill Valley has become a dystopian nightmare. The Biff who was desperately trying to ingratiate himself with George at the end of the first film is now an ultra-rich tycoon and the main powerbroker in all of Hill Valley, with the power and fame that he has become accustomed to inflating his already-substantial ego to hot air balloon levels. He is a kind of cross between JR Ewing and Donald Trump. A real bad guy some way beyond the bullying blowhard we have so far seen.

There are wrecked cars all over the landscape. Murder is a day-to-day occurrence. Hill Valley is a land of gang wars and corrupt policing. Various public buildings stand in ruins. The courthouse has been converted into a vulgar 20-storey casino-hotel.

In this reality, George was murdered in 1973. (It eventually emerges, unsurprisingly, that Biff himself was the murderer, but the police are too corrupt to arrest him.) Lorraine, probably out of desperation to protect her kids from the urban misery of this incarnation of Hill Valley, married Biff a few months after that. Biff blackmails her into staying with him, while violently beating her whenever she tries to push back against him.

The time machine was never completed in this reality because ‘Doc’ was committed to a lunatic asylum while he was still working on it.

Plain man’s guide to temporal physics

‘Doc’ famously explains what has happened to change 1985 into such a horror show, by drawing lines on a chalkboard. He explains how something rogue has entered the time-stream at some point prior to 1985, and revised history from that point up to the present day, resulting in a complete transformation of Hill Valley.

To illustrate, ‘Doc’ draws two parallel lines on the board to represent history, with a diagonal line connecting them. Above the top line, at the left end he scrawls the word “PAST”, above the middle he scrawls “1985”, and above the end of the line he scrawls a letter “F” to signify “FUTURE.” The point of connection between the two lines is between “PAST” and “1985.” He says that an event introduced into the past from someone travelling from the future caused history to skew into the tangent bottom line of the diagram – an alternative history where Biff became immensely rich and incredibly powerful.

When the Biff from 2015 stole the time machine, he left clues that he had done so, and that he used the Almanac to enrich his younger self. Marty is outraged initially, because he feels robbed i.e. Biff has simply stolen Marty’s idea.

Note however that Marty is not outraged morally. It is as though, had Biff thought of the idea himself – which he was quite incapable of doing as he only found out about the time machine at the same time as Marty admitted to ‘Doc’ what his plan was – that would have been less awful. He still would not have liked the outcome, but as we shall shortly see, that is not really a big matter to Marty. His chief annoyance is that his idea was hijacked by someone else, and someone he has always disliked.

Shortly afterwards, and yes, this is sort of to Marty’s credit, he feels guilt when he realises that this change-of-history is at root his own fault. Marty was going to take the Almanac back to 1985 and to abuse its information, and was only stopped when ‘Doc’ stumbled on the book and rightly forbade the whole idea. If Marty had never bought the book, the idea would almost certainly never have registered with Biff.

There is no rearview mirror. And yet there is a rearview mirror. Is time being changed again?

But this is not necessarily a moral reaction. Marty’s guilt could just as easily be horror at the particular individual who benefited from his greedy plan, and dejection over the consequences it has for himself. Objectively, it would be no better morally if the plan had instead been passed to, just for instance, Marty’s mother in 2015, and if she had gone back in time to enrich members of her family. It would still be cheating, it would still be stealing in a wide sense, and it would still almost certainly have corrupting effects, both on the beneficiaries, and on the future. But would Marty be just as disapproving?

This guilt-for-reasons-of-animosity and not ethics is made all the more likely by something that ‘Doc’ says next, and Marty’s almost complete lack of reaction to it. ‘Doc’ says that he and Marty will have to travel into the past, to just before the moment history skewed into the alternative tangent, and stop the book being passed to Biff’s younger self, “in order to put the universe back the way we remember it, and get back to our reality!”

If Marty’s concerns were moral and not selfish, this would be the ideal opening for him to speak up about something that, in fairness, he has not really had any chance to mention yet, but you suspect he probably also does not wish to mention. Because what ‘Doc’ is saying is incorrect. When he talks about getting back to “our reality,” he is of course talking about the 1985 he, Marty and Jennifer left to travel to 2015.

The problem is, of course, that that 1985 may be ‘Doc’s,’ Jennifer’s and Einstein (‘Doc’s’ pet dog’s) reality, but it is not Marty’s reality. The 1985 Marty remembers is the one he inadvertently left over a week earlier on his own personal timescale, to travel to 1955. The 1985 Marty remembers was a Hill Valley in which his family were quite poor, his father was an easily-bullied loser doing Biff’s job for him, his mother was in a permanent state of depression, and his siblings were both unemployable and unappealing near-clones of their parents. That Marty has not explained this to Jennifer is fair enough because from what she knows of the time machine, she would scarcely understand any of it, but ‘Doc’ really should be told. As the inventor of the time machine, ‘Doc’ needs to know the enormity of the changes he and Marty caused in 1955, even if, as seems likely, there is no safe way of trying to amend the timeline any further, to push the history of the intervening thirty years closer to what they were in the untampered timeline.

Biff Tannen, ruler of Hill Valley, confronted by a “complete butt-head.”

Why does Marty not mention even now that the 1985 he ‘returned’ to was not the one he left? Probably because it means that what he tried to do with the Sports Almanac was effectively the second time, not the first, that he used time travel to enrich himself and his family. The first time may have been unintended, but he has still benefited from it by having a revised upbringing in a more privileged and contented family. That means Marty has done it twice, before now deliberately going back in time and disrupting the space/time continuum even further due to his inability to tolerate Biff doing it once. What a hypocrite.

Why should we see it as “okay” that Marty just shrugs his shoulders and accepts his newly-established personal wealth at the end of Part 1? Why should we see Biff’s time-travel-created fortune as unacceptable if Marty’s is okay? Because Marty’s acquisition is clearly far smaller than Biff’s? Do numbers really change the principle? As for the second, fully-conscious attempt, Marty did not abandon the plan, he was caught and stopped by ‘Doc’. Failure is not a defence.

The argument that the McFly enrichment is far smaller-scale and does not affect other people in remotely the way Biff’s does is untested. Indeed, we do not really know how any family in Hill Valley was affected, bar the McFly family. In particular, outside of Biff’s revised-timeline subservience to George, we do not even know exactly how the Tannen family were affected.

What we know of Biff – and his relatives Buford and Griff – is that he is almost casually violent. He is not just a school bully who picks on the class nerd all the time. He is particularly and disturbingly violent towards women, especially women he finds attractive. Before the confrontation with George, he sexually assaults Lorraine, and comes frighteningly close to actually raping her (a scene that, in a depressing sign of the times in which the film was made, was not handled with the degree of seriousness or sensitivity it required, and arguably did not really belong in a light-hearted time-travel story). In the dystopian 1985, when Lorraine demeans his manhood in comparison with George’s, Biff hurls her into the floor. In 1955, the young Biff repeatedly gropes Lorraine over her objections both in the school canteen in the first film, and then in the street after Lorraine buys her prom dress in the second. During the confrontation with George, Biff laughs sadistically as he comes close to dislocating his perennial victim’s arm.

Above all, Biff always wants to inflict pain when he has been thwarted or humiliated. In both portrayals of the Enchantment Under The Sea dance in each of the first two films, he is on the look-out for ‘Calvin Klein’ (Marty’s unintended pseudonym in 1955) to beat him up for tricking him into crashing his car into a manure truck.

Now consider, going back to the very first scene in the movie to feature George and Biff, shortly after Biff crashed George’s car. 1985 Biff is bullying, irresponsible, unlikeable, leeching and needlessly physical. But he is also complacent in his knowledge that he can simply intimidate George into accepting the blame for the car crash. He is also complacent in knowing that George will not refuse to do Biff’s reports for him. Biff knows little frustration, because he has spent over thirty years getting George to do both his homework for him, and then his work for him after they got jobs at the same company.

We also know that, for whatever reason, someone must have married Biff at some time in his non-dystopian-timeline life, probably before 1985, because in 2015, Marty encounters Griff Tannen, Biff’s grandson. That means Biff definitely has a family.

Ever notice how, in Back To The Future, when George decks him, Biff falls partly under the car, but when the same moment is revisited in Part II, there is suddenly enough room between Biff and the car for Marty to step in and practice “CPR”? Continuity, eh?

In the revised 1985, neither George nor Biff appears to be working at the company that employed them in the untampered timeline. George has become a successful author, and without him to ‘carry’ Biff and hide his laziness from the management, it seems likely that Biff was eventually fired. Instead, he now runs a small ‘auto-detailing’ (car mechanics) shop, in which he seems to have to do most of the work himself (judging by the fact that he personally does the washing and waxing on the cars of the McFly household, instead of sending an employee). That in itself is humiliating. What must be even more humiliating is the way he now finds he has to kowtow to George McFly every time they do any business – George McFly, the man Biff bullied in school, but who then smashed him into the ground with a single punch while the whole school was watching.

The nervous way the Biff of the revised 1985 shifts between licking the boots of the McFly family and growling aggressively at anyone else, shows a man who is anything but complacent, anything but comfortable in his own skin. And as we have already established above, when he is humiliated or uncomfortable in any way, Biff always likes to have someone to lash out at. In a world where he is such a reduced figure, who is Biff left with to take his frustrations out on?

So Marty finds himself much richer when he returns to 1985, but at the cost of having a permanently humiliated, seething, resentful Biff Tannen, a man with his own family, on the periphery.

It is therefore almost impossible to imagine that in the revised timeline, Biff is anything other than a tyrannical family dictator who takes out his frustrations on his kids and, in particular, his wife. The dystopian Biff was never slow to throw his weight around at both Lorraine and Marty, fuelled by his ego. That same ego exists slightly differently in the revised 1985, but as the events in 1955 have demonstrated, it has always been triggered by humiliation or misfortune. Biff’s wife is therefore likely to be carrying a lot of literal bruises.

It is horrible to think about, but for the above reasons, the worry is that there is indeed a very serious downside to Marty’s sudden improved fortunes on returning from 1955. Of course, if the brutality of Biff towards his own family is happening, Marty will not be immediately aware of it. But he has clearly known Biff for as long as he has lived, (including from a time before Marty has lived) and at some point, it should therefore occur to him sooner rather than later that someone close to Biff may be suffering the temporally-adjusted price for Marty’s temporally-adjusted good fortune.

It never seems to matter what century it is, Hill Valley always appears to have an inexhaustible supply of fully-loaded manure trucks lurking around every corner. The town must stink to high heaven.

This is not to say that this is definitely happening in the revised 1985, although if I were to put money on it, I would say it was. It is simply to point out that Marty’s sudden elevation in the financial world is not necessarily ‘all right,’ and it is not necessarily without negative consequence elsewhere. Less extreme ones than those that dystopian Biff’s fortune brought about, but still potentially serious and unjust.

But as I say, when the ideal time comes to mention all this to ‘Doc’, Marty evidently keeps schtum. He just decides to leave alterations to the timeline unaddressed when they suit him. He lets these changes stand because he likes them, not because they are ‘right.’ He dislikes the changes Biff introduces, therefore he fights against them. He likes the changes that benefit himself, so he does nothing to repair the distortions in the timeline.

We only think of these changes as a ‘good’ development because the story is told from Marty’s own perspective, so if it is good for him, we are encouraged to assume it must be ‘good,’ full-stop. But it is not that simple, and it seems unlikely that it ever could be with time travel.

Indeed, the bad consequences even rebound on Marty McFly himself, in a metaphysical sense. When Marty returned from 1955, he deliberately set the Delorean to arrive about twelve minutes before the time he originally set off from 1985, so he could warn ‘Doc’ that he was about to shot by the (shamefully stereotypical) Libyan terrorists. This in itself is selfish, as Marty is putting his own feelings ahead of ‘Doc’s’ express wishes; he explicitly rejected the responsibility of knowing the future and thus risking a major change to the timelines, and although he changed his mind later, Marty was not aware of him doing so.

In the event, the Delorean’s engine packs in, and so Marty has to travel on foot. When he arrives at the car park of what he remembers as Twin Pines Mall, but is now called Lone Pine Mall (because of Marty smashing the Delorean through a tree while in the past), he sees the moment of ‘Doc’ being shot again, before seemingly watching his earlier self being chased around the parking lot in the Delorean, and it jumping away through time.

Real moral of the story? Beware of stealing nuclear material from Colonel Ghadaffi. No, nothing about not messing around in time. The series *rewards* Marty for doing that. And for behaving like a greedy materialist in general

(The Libyans in their van crash into a kiosk, and then rather mysteriously disappear entirely from the storyline, with no apparent investigation by the police into why there are two dead foreign nationals armed with a bazooka lying in a pile of wreckage outside the local supermarket.)

Except, Marty is not watching his earlier self as such. He is watching the nearest equivalent to his earlier self that existed in what, to Marty, is an alternative reality. The 1985 that Marty left a week earlier on his personal timescale no longer exists. Due to his bumbling around in 1955, the intervening thirty years have been re-written, and the duplicate he sees driving the Delorean is not him, but the person he would have been had he had the upbringing by the happier, more prosperous incarnations of his parents that exist in the revised timeline. That means the person he is observing is not quite the Marty McFly we have been following because his upbringing has been more privileged. What is more, as he was brought up in the revised timeline, the duplicate is the incarnation who actually belongs in it.

The Marty we know does not belong there. This is why he is so startled – if elated – by all the changes when he first observes them. But he is not a stranger to the people of this world. Everyone recognises him, because they know his duplicate, and that demonstrates that the duplicate had a full life here.

And what is so wrong is that the Marty McFly from the timeline untampered by time travel – our Marty McFly if you like – has now in effect stolen the happier life of his duplicate. He certainly shows no thought for the guy he just saw jumping into the past at Lone Pine Mall. In all probability, he just assumed it literally was himself, and not an alternative. But when Jennifer shows up the following morning while Marty is drooling over his gas-guzzler, and she asks him for “a ride” (a bit suggestive for a family movie), she then asks him if everything is okay, and Marty just says, “Everything is great!” This indicates that he accepts the new 1985, and with some enthusiasm, and he has no wish to go back to his own 1985.

What happens to the Marty who belongs in this timeline? No idea, his part of this story ended when he made his own jump back to 1955. If he is lucky, he may replicate all the important actions of ‘our’ Marty in the past and so come forward to a 1985 more or less identical to this one.

But we do not know for sure that he will. With a different upbringing, the duplicate Marty may prove a little less headstrong. He may also be less ready to cope with certain realities that confront him about his parents when they were teenagers. For instance, maybe the duplicate Marty will be so shocked to learn what a weed his confident, successful father was when he was at school that he freezes up on meeting the young George McFly, may struggle to accept that he even is his father, and so may not intervene when George is hit by the Baines’ family car. That would restore the timeline to something strongly resembling the untampered one. Consider the consequences for the duplicate Marty; that was a timeline in which George never learned healthy assertiveness, and so when the duplicate Marty returns to 1985, he finds his family living an austere, unhappy life, with his mother in a constant state of disillusionment, and a father who puts too much styling oil in his hair and is incapable of standing up for himself.

No! I do not give a Hoover DAMN what any of you say about “lighting,” there was definitely no ladder above the stage in the first movie

But either way, the Marty McFly who belongs in the revised timeline has been dislodged by the one from the untampered timeline, and the imposter has clearly not given a thought to the miserable consequences his good fortune will have for the duplicate he saw fleeing the bullets of the Libyans. And what would be duplicate Marty’s response to moving into a strange, unhappier, unfamiliar world? We already know the likely answer to that from studying ‘our’ Marty’s response to the dystopian 1985. He would reject it. You can be sure that he would tell ‘Doc’ about everything changing, because these are changes he does not like, changes that make his life less comfortable, less safe. That would put the ‘Doc’ of that timeline in a horrible dilemma. Should he risk causing more disruption to history by taking the duplicate Marty back into the past, to see if they can teach young George to toughen up a bit? They would both assume (wrongly) that assertive and self-confident is the way George was ‘supposed’ to turn out, because they would be completely blind to how ‘assertive’ George was himself the result of a temporal re-write.

Oh, what a convoluted tangle of anomalies that could lead to! It would not exactly be what temporal physics calls ‘an infinity loop**,’ as the temporal laws the series tries to adhere to do not appear to allow for it, but it appears to be something very close to it, and all because Marty McFly is too greedy to think through the wider implications of changing history when it works in his favour.

Add to that the, previously unmentioned, macho tendency Marty suddenly develops in the second film and nearly dies for in the third, of being intolerant of being called “Chicken” or “Yellow,” and what you have really is a young man not far removed from Biff himself. More intelligent perhaps, but if anything, that makes Marty more of a danger.

I defy anyone to argue that visual metaphors in US movies and TV shows tend to lack subtlety

The parallels are striking; Biff turns violent when he is insulted or humiliated or in a panic, and we see that as reprehensible. But witness the callous way Marty knocks Biff out cold again while he lies helpless on the ground after George decked him, and you realise Marty can be like that too, and often for equally petty reasons. Call him “chicken” and he is triggered, even when the insult comes from an almost caricature ‘Dumb College football jock,’ like Biff, or worse, from Biff’s psychotically stupid great-grandfather Buford, after arriving in 1885. We treat that machismo, and the greed, only as Shakespearean ‘flaws’ in an otherwise estimable man, when we see them in Marty – if we notice them at all – whereas we almost view them as the whole character when we see them replicated in the Tannens. To reiterate, Biff’s misdeeds at various points are often the same reactions, only cruder, and often for much the same reasons.

Certainly this is no defence of Biff, Griff or Buford – or indeed any of the other Tannens who pop up in the later animated series and video games. With the possible exception of Beauregard Tannen, they are almost all thuggish, arrogant, block-headed, maladjusted and greedy. A little like the character lineups in the Blackadder TV series, each generation seems difficult to distinguish from the previous one, to a degree that is so implausible it occasionally makes it difficult to stay immersed. In many ways, the Tannens are all embodiments of toxic masculinity.

The lack of crudeness in Marty is the biggest difference. He tends to be reasonably polite and maintains a friendly bearing, whereas the Tannens, if challenged on their lack of manners or discretion, would probably dismiss such attributes as effeminate. But manners, as the old saying warns, maketh not the man.

Clever… but a bit dirty.

Marty’s selfish need to lash out when he is insulted not only endangers himself, it also puts ‘Doc’ in serious jeopardy in Part III. Marty idiotically and completely needlessly agrees to a shoot-out with Buford Tannen that he knows he lacks the experience with guns to win. It risks causing more changes to history, and it drags ‘Doc,’ whom ‘Mad Dog’ also has a grudge against, into the same confrontation. Although Marty thinks up a sneaky plan to get through the gunfight by using some ironwork as (another) bullet-proof vest, it was as much a matter of enormous good fortune as it was ingenuity; how lucky that a piece of ironwork of suitable size to cover most of Marty’s torso and of suitable thickness to block bullets ‘just happened’ to fall off a stove that ‘just happened’ to be in the building he took cover in, and how lucky that the building also ‘just happened’ to have two strips of rope of the right length and narrowness to fasten the ironwork over Marty’s shoulders! And how lucky that Buford did not choose to aim at Marty’s head or limbs when opening fire!

Worse, in Part II, we saw dystopian Biff in the bath-tub celebrating the scene in A Fistful Of Dollars when Clint Eastwood (the real one) is fighting Gian Volonte and reveals that he has been wearing a bullet-proof vest.

On the one hand, this outcome with Buford was clearly intended by the writers as an amusing narrative irony. But at the same time, it again demonstrates that Marty’s tendencies, while cleverer, do seem to run on similar, not-entirely-fair, lines to Biff’s. Biff probably would not have thought to improvise that in the same situation, but he would not even hesitate to go for it in the event that he did.

This freeze frame could be used for one of the most disturbing caption competitions that 80s pop culture has ever inspired.

Of course, Buford shooting a man who has just disarmed means he probably deserves the low blow of being cheated and tricked into punching a cast-iron slab. But that does not stop it being a dirty trick on Marty’s part.

Buford is arguably the Tannen whose behaviour most closely resembles Marty’s. They are both stubborn, hot-headed, easily-riled and unashamed of using violence or dirty tricks to get their way. In particular, Buford’s extreme overreaction to being called “Mad Dog” very closely mirrors Marty’s hyper-sensitivity at being called a “chicken,” although it must be said Buford takes it further more quickly. Indeed, his tendency to go for his gun as a first response to such a slur is not only irrational, it is possibly self-defeating. Despite its uncomfortable connotations with rabies, the term “Mad Dog” being applied to an outlaw can be quite useful to his own interests. It implies a man-beast whom no one should want to get on the wrong side of, and therefore reinforces his reputation as a desperado to be feared, a criminal who should not be denied when he makes demands.

Further evidence of Marty’s selfishness follows his showdown with Buford. He and ‘Doc’, as per their plan, steal a railway engine and use it to get the damaged Delorean to move fast enough to trigger the time circuits. The stretch of track they are using ends at an unfinished bridge that is meant to cross a ravine that in the untampered timeline was called ‘Clayton Ravine.’ (This was because ‘Doc’s’ love interest, Clara Clayton, was supposed to fall into it in 1885, and be immortalised after her death by the ravine being named after her. In this timeline, ‘Doc’ rescued her.) While the Delorean successfully jumps forward to 1985, Marty is assumed by most people in 1885 Hill Valley to be aboard the railway engine that plummets over the end of the unfinished bridge to crash into the floor of the ravine hundreds of feet below. As he was using ‘Clint Eastwood’ as a pseudonym while in the Old West, when he arrives in the re-revised 1985, he finds that the ravine is now called ‘Eastwood Ravine’ in tribute to the brave fistfighter who brought the notorious outlaw ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen to justice and then stole a train and drove it to its, and his, doom, all on the same morning.

I said, “Dignity, Tannen!”

This is all very amusing, but what Marty does not consider here is what effect his apparent death may have on the people he leaves behind. Most particularly his great-grandparents, Seamus and Maggie McFly, whom he has met and befriended during his time in 1885. During the duel with Buford, when it appeared Marty had been shot dead, Seamus, subconsciously aware of being Marty’s direct ancestor, looked absolutely devastated. He then got the heartening relief of realising that it was all a somewhat cruel trick. But then, perhaps only a few hours later, he must have heard that this young man he had taken such a shine to had apparently been killed anyway in some harebrained buffoonery on the railroad. Seamus would surely spend the rest of his days believing that “Clint Eastwood” really had died; the only possible reason why not would be if ‘Doc,’ who stayed behind in 1885, let him in on the truth, and ‘Doc’ would hardly risk doing that without at least being asked to, given the impact it might have on the timeline.

In fairness, the situation with the train is pretty extreme, and leaves little room for sending reassuring messages. But again, what about later on? After arriving in 1985, Marty does not even appear to think about what his disappearance might have done to Seamus; when ‘Doc’ unexpectedly arrives with a new time machine made from a heavily-modified locomotive engine, Marty does not even mention his great-grandparents in the ensuing conversation, let alone ask ‘Doc’ to let them know he is all right the next time he travels to 1885, with some kind of cover story for why he left.

(It should be noted that ‘Doc’ too is far from a paragon of consistency. He goes from refusing even to consider reading Marty’s letter of warning about the Libyan terrorists to, “I figured, what the hell,” to, “Marty, Jennifer, come with me, we’re going to change the course of future history by deliberately altering what happens so that your son never goes to prison,” with a comfortable ease that should be most uncomfortable for everybody watching. In that regard, ‘Doc’ is rather guilty of abusing the time machine in a manner similar to Marty; he may be doing it for a dear friend, but ultimately, ‘Doc’ did not invent the machine in order to change the course of history, even future history, and nor should he. He built the machine to make it easier to study history. That is manifestly not what he is doing when he leaps thirty years into the future and starts trying to modify the lives of Marty’s and Jennifer’s kids. Indeed, given ‘Doc’ is constantly warning Marty against the folly of learning too much about the future, it is somewhat baffling that he decided at the end of the first film to take a joy-ride to the year 2015 at all.)

Oh no! I’m 47 years old and I look plenty older than Michael J Fox does at 61!!

The possible 2015 we see in the second film is also telling about Marty. His middle age future self really does come across as a rather crabby, cranky old putz, sorry for himself over a self-inflicted injury in a car accident that ruined his ability to play guitar. He walks with a pronounced stoop, probably deliberate on Michael J Fox’s part, implying he is carrying some unhealthy extra weight, and he seems to have under-achieved in his alternative career. His family live in Hilldale, which is a run-down part of town, and many of the machines their household possesses, although fantastic luxuries to the eyes of someone from the 1980s, are clearly rather shoddy by the standards of their own time.

For instance, Marty Junior’s self-fitting tunic seems to have a ‘faulty’ sleeve that keeps sliding down over his hand, the fruit-serving decanter over the dinner table never seems to respond to voice commands at the first attempt, the electronic blind projecting scenery images has a distortion problem on its display, and the giant TV screen appears to be weighted incorrectly and keeps tilting to the right, and so has to be propped up on a piece of furniture. So Marty clearly cannot afford to keep the house well maintained, and he seems to treat his family with even less care. He mutters, “Damn kids!” when he gets home from work. From his conversation with Lorraine, it is quite clear that Marty treats Jennifer with complacent neglect after about twenty years of marriage, and both of his children seem less than enamoured of him, when they can be bothered paying attention to him at all.

But most particularly, let us consider Marty Junior. It is noticeable that in the 2015 we see, he is growing up to be less the successor to Marty McFly, and more the successor to George McFly, at least the one from prior to 1955. Marty Junior is, as 1985 Marty observes, a “complete wimp.” He is inassertive, is easily-bullied, always makes feeble excuses instead of just firmly saying no, and is forever at the mercy of the latest Tannen to terrorise Hill Valley.

How though? How can Marty McFly, of all people, bring up a son who turns out like that? Remember, Marty in a single-week visit to the 1950s managed to teach George McFly a healthy dose of no-nonsense assertiveness and self-confidence. He had to do that because his own existence was in danger if he failed.

But the Marty Senior of 2015 has apparently failed to teach his son the same lesson in about seventeen years of bringing him up! As the boy’s father, Marty has far more of a responsibility for teaching Marty Junior how to stand up for himself than he ever had to do the same for George.

Yes, Marty Junior really is a complete wimp.

Why did Marty fail with his son where he succeeded with his father?

Well, of course there is a difference. Attending to the needs of his children is not perceptibly something that Marty’s own life depends on in 2015, and so he shows little interest in doing so. Whereas when he was effectively coaching George to ask Lorraine to the school dance in 1955, he was doing so, less from love for his parents – although that did play a role – and more from the desperation to save himself from being erased from history if his parents’ relationship failed to begin.

None of this is to say that Marty does not have any positive impulses of course. He is devoted to Jennifer, he is clearly very loyal to ‘Doc,’ and to his parents in a somewhat exasperated fashion. But even in these cases they as often as not lead him into doing the wrong thing, even if it is for good reasons; writing the letter to ‘Doc’ to warn him about the Libyan terrorists, for example, was wrong and put ‘Doc’ in an unfair dilemma.

Marty’s manipulative qualities also add an even nastier edge to his character. His “Darth-Vader-extra-terrestrial-from-the-Planet-Vulcan” act may be funny to watch, but it was cruel on George and could have had completely the wrong effect on a shy, troubled and vulnerable young man. Equally, Marty’s pretense near the end of the third film that he was going to race ‘Needles’ had no practical purpose to it, beyond being able to make ‘Needles’ look foolish. Why bother when ‘Needles’ ‘ general stupidity already speaks so loudly for itself? The stunt was completely unnecessary, and frightened Jennifer for no worthwhile reason.

Marty’s attitude and motivations are therefore primarily selfishness. Often material selfishness. He is also manipulative and avaricious, sometimes to the point of corruptible, and he has an unpleasant tendency to decide that ends justify his means. These combinations mean Marty McFly is not just a ‘flawed hero’ but the root cause of most of the problems he faces throughout the series. He is also not consistent at all in wanting to correct alterations to the timeline, with the deciding factor clearly being which version of the future is his own personal preference.

So rather than seeing Marty’s efforts to undo the damage he has done to history as ‘heroic’, no matter how daring and physically brave he can be in making such efforts, we should really see them as largely self-interested attempts to maintain and even to further his own interests.

Am I spoiling the film for everyone when I point out that there was no Year 0, or that 25th of December almost certainly was not the date of Jesus’ supposed birth, or that ‘Doc’ does not appear to have equipped the time circuits to adjust for the difference between the modern Gregorian Calendar, and the old Julian Calendar that was still in effect prior to the fifteenth century?


* ‘A Grandfather Paradox’ is the nickname given to a temporal paradox in which a time traveller visits the past long before he was born, and his actions while in the past lead to the death of an ancestor before the next generation ancestor is conceived, thus negating the time traveller’s own existence. This scenario is hypothesised to be a basic example of an infinity loop**.

That awkward moment when you could have sworn your girlfriend was the spitting image of Claudia Wells five minutes ago, and now she looks just like Elisabeth Shue

** ‘An infinity loop’ is a hypothetical temporal disaster resulting from time travel that creates a collection of two or more timelines – although it is usually two – that are connected but mutually exclusive. The events in the original timeline have not been tampered with by time travel, but a time traveller sets off from it and goes into the past. This cancels this timeline out and triggers a new one in which events are different, but those events ultimately cancel that timeline out too by removing the event of the time-traveller going back in time, either restoring the original timeline, or triggering the next revised timeline in the collection. Eventually, the last timeline cancels out the tampering caused by all time travel events that have occurred in the loop, but therefore restores the original, untampered timeline. This timeline still cancels itself itself out however, because the original journey of the time traveller has been restored to history, thus restoring the second timeline, and so the process keeps going round and round, with time never able to get past the loop.

I realise this sounds quite complicated to understand, but in fact it is not: –

As an example, imagine an orphan brother and sister. The brother goes on a journey overseas for his education to a little-developed country with limited communications. He will be away for over a year. While he is away, his sister falls ill with a rapidly-developing condition that can only be treated with a blood transfusion from a member of the same family, and her brother is the only living relative she knows of. The hospital treating her tries to contact the brother, but because of the poor communications in the other country, they cannot get hold of him. The sister soon dies. The brother returns home and is distraught when he learns of the death of his sister, and feels terrible guilt that he might have saved her.

For the next few years, driven by the grief and guilt, the brother decides he must change what happened. So he devotes his time to trying to develop a time machine. It takes many years, and he is middle-aged when he makes the critical breakthrough, but he finally perfects the machine. He uses it to travel back in time to a few months before his sister died. As he is so much older, he no longer looks the same as he did, and realising how difficult the truth would be to explain, he tells his sister and the hospital staff that he is a long-lost cousin, and offers to provide a transfusion. The transfusion is successfully carried out, and the sister survives, and makes a decent recovery, while the older incarnation of her brother sneaks off back to his own time.

And they all happily ever after?

No. The sister is now alive and reasonably healthy again when the brother returns from his trip overseas, and no one realises that it was the brother’s future self who provided the transfusion. Therefore the brother feels no particular grief or guilt over a death that never happened, and it will never occur to him that he would need to go back in time to save his sister’s life. He never builds the time machine, and so he never goes back to save his sister, and so the blood transfusion never gets carried out after all.

Therefore, the sister does die while the brother is overseas. The brother returns home and is distraught when he learns of the death of his sister, and feels terrible guilt that he might have saved her. And so for the next few years, driven by the grief and guilt, the brother devotes his time to trying to develop a time machine… and on and on and on. In one timeline, he goes back in time, changes the future, but also removes his own incentive to travel back in time in the first place, and so he does not, restoring the untampered timeline, which in turn restores his time-jump to history, so he goes back and changes history, and therefore removes his incentive to go back in time again, restoring the untampered timeline once more… and round and round it goes.

Two timelines in which the events contained therein are self-cancelling, and in which each set of events causes the other. And there would be no escaping from such a loop, because the person causing it i.e. the time traveller will not be aware of it happening and so would not be able to change his behaviour in either timeline in such a way as to remove the time-jump from both, or to make it happen in both.

The concept of infinity loops would apply to pretty much any deliberate decision to alter the past. The motivation to change history will always come from unwanted circumstances in the present, leading to a wish to amend what created those circumstances. But by definition, not letting those circumstances come into being takes away the motivation, and indeed the knowledge, to travel into the past to begin with. Deliberately changing the past, in short, would be futile even if it were possible, as any attempt would either fail or result in an infinity loop.

Hang on, Marvin, you were standing on the opposite side of the desk when you phoned Chuck in the first film. Also, notice the blue and white tinsel on the left side of the top photo. That means the same tinsel should be visible on the right side of the bottom photo and it, you know, sort of…. is… not.