The darker Back to the Future

Nine times out of ten, “Back to the Future Day” is about the last occasion I would choose to comment on the eponymous film cycle. I’m as fond of them as the average person I guess—which is apparently quite fond—but the presence of identical fluff “news” stories essentially advertising a commercial property on site after site after site just makes me wince.

As Doctor Emmett Brown said, though, “well… what the hell.”

I have one or two thoughts, stirred up by the long approach to October 21, 2015, which might also be a little different from the standard fare even if they aren’t absolutely unique. First, I’ve been holding this in for several months now, and I’m just going to say it: the treatment of Jennifer in Back to the Future 2 is just creepy and wrong.

I’ll acknowledge here that I haven’t seen any of the movies for at least a decade. I own the second movie on DVD, but haven’t taken it out of the case yet. Partly because I don’t want to watch it by itself, and I haven’t found part one or three on sale yet. But partly, also, because… excuse me, adolescent girl, could you just look at this for a second, thank you, splendid you’re so much more agreeable as an unconscious object whom we can stash somewhere at our leisure rather than being asked all of those questions great scott it was like she was never going to stop…

Just a lot creepy, hm? Just to make absolutely sure I’m not falsely remembering the scene, someone please inform me if Dr. Brown does not flash a “sleep-inducing alpha rhythm generator” in Jennifer’s face, explicitly because “she was asking too many questions,” after which he and Marty dump her body and forget about it while they proceed with their adventure unencumbered. Otherwise, though… I’m claiming this as just pretty much appalling.

I mean really, where exactly was Doc shopping that he happened upon what seems inescapably to be a purpose-designed handheld ultimate rape aid? Sorry, but I feel obliged to bring up the question!

Obviously there are things we can say by way of explanation for this scene. For one thing, Doc was probably born before it was even legal for women to vote, so his negligible regard for Jennifer might therefore be less shocking even if still horrible. For another, the filmmakers were obviously just trying to pare things back down to the Doc-and-Marty chemistry which made all of the films so memorable (and which still charms, 30 years later). For anyone who doesn’t know, the final scene of Back to the Future was written as a throwaway joke, without any thought of a sequel. Therefore, the endlessly discussed “predictions” of flying cars and cold fusion powered by household garbage were not by any stretch serious predictions; the filmmakers were just stuck with them when the box-office receipts informed them that they would be picking the story back up. Just as they were “stuck” with Jennifer in the DeLorean, in 2015, as part two began.

I understand the resultant haste to maneuver Jennifer right back out of the way, therefore. It’s still rather narrow-minded and lazy, I think, in addition to misogynistic in a way that the chosen plot device just amplifies enormously. I do like to think, also, that someone might think twice before writing that scene today, and that if unfortunately they might do it anyway, it would at least draw loud and appropriate censure. We may not have hoverboards or Mr. Fusion, but I think we do have significantly broader awareness of equality and inclusiveness than seen in the “Timeline 1” 2015.

I could stop here, meanwhile, and might have done so until a few days ago, when I began thinking about another, seemingly less worrisome scene with Doc. The upcoming mayoral election seems likely to have a transforming effect, for good or bad, on not only my community’s present big controversy but on the whole future of Lakewood. I have been increasingly anxious, therefore, each time I consider the prospect of an opposition victory. Back to the Future being much in the news, meanwhile, my thoughts quite naturally drifted back to the conclusion of Doc and Marty’s strategy session prior to departing the distorted “Hell Valley” 1985 in part two.

“Doc,” Marty asks, “…what if we don’t succeed?”

“We must succeed,” is Doc’s terse reply.

After a day or so, though, I began for the first time to think about what they were about to do. Basically, Emmett Brown and Martin McFly were about to travel through time and rewrite history to overturn political outcomes that they found objectionable. Again, we can quibble about details but I don’t see how this description is by itself really in any way inaccurate. This, to all appearances, was the only thing substantially “wrong” or even different in alternate 1985. The apes had not taken over; a plague had not wiped out civilization. One more rich man was simply applying a corrupting influence on various political offices. I vaguely recall that tycoon Biff Tannen had held one or more elected offices himself, and that Richard Nixon avoided the Watergate scandal and possibly won a third term somehow… in any event, even without Biff’s remarkable foreshadowing of Donald Trump’s current popularity, I feel very safe in saying that however corrupt Biff Tannen was there were probably plenty of people who eagerly supported each and every candidacy and event that his enrichment made possible. These people would probably view Doc and Marty’s preemption of those outcomes as a political coup on a cosmic scale. In all fairness, as obviously despicable as Biff was, it’s hard to deny that they would have a point.

Sure, there were other motivations involved, all of which were probably foremost in Doc’s and Marty’s minds. Doc had been committed to an asylum in the revised timeline. Marty might, in some ways, have been better off; he was for all we knew the primary heir to one of the world’s biggest fortunes. Aside from the complication of a local-timeline doppelganger in some Swiss boarding school, though, it seems probable that the Timeline-1 Doc and Marty were going to fade from existence sooner or later, as probabilities collapsed and the rewritten past “caught up” to them. Plus, Marty’s father was already dead, murdered by the corrupt Biff who openly bragged that he would never face justice for the crime.

Preventing all of this, to say nothing of the other unwelcome alterations to the world they had known, is a perfectly valid reason to desire a “reformatting” of history. Except think of the risks they were taking. We’ll set aside, as impossible ever to resolve, the ethics of other lives that at least in some cases presumably were worse off or lost entirely in the history that Doc and Marty preferred. Attempting to restore that history, however, potentially risked erasing the lives of everyone, who ever lived! This, as I recall, was at least Doc’s own subsequently acknowledged evaluation. In tempting an insoluble paradox—as recrossing their own already tangled paths through time assuredly would—they were choosing to risk the unmaking of the entire universe. At best, the disruption of spacetime might have swallowed itself up at the boundaries of “only our own galaxy.”

Is saving a very finite number of lives, even if that number includes your own in a complicated metaphysical sense, really valid justification for risking an entire galaxy with at least one inhabited world and possibly all existence along with it?

My own attitudes toward politics can be deathly serious. But the re-evaluated significance of Back to the Future 2 still scares me. Marty, of course, was supposed to be a high school student so it isn’t really shocking that he would behave recklessly. Doc Brown, though, really begins to look just about as dangerously unhinged as Principal Strickland warned. I have never seen it, but I’ve read in recent years of the “Rick and Morty” series whose characters are zany caricatures of the Back to the Future leads. By most accounts “Rick” is an unabashedly mad scientist, operating well beyond the bounds of ethical or other precautionary restraint. Now, I’m left wondering how much of an exaggeration of Doc the character is after all.

By way of introducing a final note, I’ll acknowledge the potential rebuttal that tycoon Biff’s timeline was itself the product of tampering with history, and that Doc and Marty’s intervention merely restored history’s “natural” course. I don’t think that materially changes the preceding critique, but it’s also an inaccurate premise anyway. If there was any “natural” course of history it went out the window in part one. As I presume most readers will recall, Marty’s first misadventure in time travel endangers his future parents’ marriage, along with his own existence. Mostly by means of trial-and-error stumbling, Marty succeeds in restoring the McFly family mostly as he remembered it, except for a few minor improvements from his point of view. Reviewing these, in light of my other recent musings, they seem however to further my sense of a dark undercurrent to the movies.

Yes, Back to the Future is a comic adventure, but it isn’t a farce. Bad things happen in BttF with expectation that the audience feel dismay, compared with say Austin Powers in which even characters’ deaths are treated purely as jokes. Therefore, what are we to make of the depressingly zero-sum universe suggested by the variant histories of George McFly and Biff? In the original, unretouched timeline, George is a miserable, cringing drudge, bullied and yet apparently dependent on his abusive “pal” Biff in a rather disturbing manner.

In adjusted Timeline-1, the threat of seeing his teenage crush raped (once again, so much for cute family adventures) by Biff spurred George to an act of resistance and changed their entire lives. The new George is confident and comfortably successful, while Biff is his toadying hanger-on, if still smoldering with resentment 60 years later… which, given the opportunity, motivates him to flip history again and create a world where he is rich and powerful, and George is his victim again, at the cost of his life in this case.

Thinking about what this says, the obvious answer is that “Biff Tannen is a horrible person,” and yet without disagreeing I think it says a bit more than that. I don’t necessarily suggest conscious authorial intent, but it seems like these secondary characters in Back to the Future nonetheless express some rather dark psychological and social ideas. Even with the power to alter history as its basic premise, the world of BttF seems dismally bereft of any hope for redemption. The past itself is mutable yet abuser and abused are locked in a fixed relationship, able only to switch places. Sure, nice-guy George presumably doesn’t bully toadying Biff in any remotely abusive way, but he still gained his ascendancy over Biff by inflicting physical violence on him. If entirely reasonable, under the circumstances, it’s still a grim picture of humanity when set alongside the other permutations of their lives. For one man to win, it says, the other has to lose. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and nothing can change that, not even superscience that borders on magic. Eat, or be eaten.

Some day, I am going to watch these movies again. It may turn out to be a somewhat more interesting experience than the comfortable nostalgia ride that I have generally expected.

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