Back to the Future is one of those films I like to hail, unprompted, as “basically perfect.” It’s funny, it’s full of heart, it’s structurally flawless, and it’s got a time travelling dog right there in the first act.
I will not be drawn into a discussion about this. It’s basically perfect.
But if you were to break into my home in the dead of night, duct tape me to a chair, put a gun to my head, and ask me to name one flaw, just one, in Back to the Future it would be this: how in the world does teenage slacker Marty McFly have this inter-generational friendship with Emmett “Doc” Brown, local nutcase? What possible combination of events and choices brought these two people together, other than geography?
But, no. I can’t even give you that. Just shoot me in the face right now because I’ve figured this one out and Back to the Future remains basically perfect.
How? you ask. How do you even begin to answer such a question?
Come take a ride with me, my friend. You’re gonna see some serious shit.
THE INFINITE MARTY HYPOTHESIS
At the start of Back to the Future, Emmett Brown tests his prototype time machine — built into a DeLorean DMC-12 — in the parking lot of Twin Pines Mall. It’s successful, but the Libyan terrorists Brown swindled for the power source show up and shoot him to death. His protegé slash camera operator Marty McFly hops in the car and drives away from the Libyans as fast as he can, accidentally engaging the time-travelling circuits and appearing suddenly in the same plot of land 30 years earlier, knocking down a pine tree.
At the end of the film, and really if you’re worried about spoilers I don’t know why you’re reading this, Marty McFly arrives back in 1985 just in time to see this play out in much the same way, including watching Marty McFly take the car and disappear into thin air. He watches this from the edge of the parking lot at Lone Pine Mall.
Back to the Future Part 2 continues from this point, following Marty McFly into the distant, alien future of 2015. A bunch of stuff happens and Biff Tannen gives his past self a copy of a Sporting Almanac from the future, allowing his younger self to bet on sporting games until he gets — literally — rich as hell. When Marty, Doc, and Jennifer get back home to 1985 it’s different again, but in a much larger way: Biff is now so rich he’s become Donald Trump.
We’re not really concerned with Part 2 here (although it’s a great film) but the important thing is that there’s a scene dedicated to explaining how this happened, best summed up thus:
Changing events in the past creates an alternate timeline that replaces the one you came from. The only way to return to the original timeline is to change them back.
A couple of throwaway lines in Back to the Future Part 2 place the Marty McFly of the Tannen Timeline at a Swiss boarding school, so you and I, respected Martyologists, can gather that while our Marty is hopping around in time, there’s another Marty for whom this isn’t an alternate timeline at all, but which is just “where he lives.” That Marty was still born, still lived a life, but it’s one where he never met Emmett Brown and his time machine. Our Marty is completely unaffected by these changes; our Marty follows his own personal meta-timeline, and only remembers the old 1985.
Anyway, at the end of the first Back to the Future film, Marty McFly returns home, kind of; while he succeeded in his quest to make sure his parents got together and had the McFly children, he changed a few things in 1955. Thanks to Calvin Klein’s influence, dad George McFly is suddenly a successful sci-fi writer; the family is rich and happy and successful; would-be rapist Biff Tannen is allowed within 20 miles of the McFly family for… reasons; and Marty drives a Toyota SR5, the truck he could only dream of before his adventure and you best believe there’ll be makeouts in it.
(I don’t know why this George McFly has never asked this Lorraine why his son looks exactly like that guy in high school and that discussion is far outside the scope of this one. Please hold your questions until the end.)
Stepping back a moment, though: Marty arrived back in 1985 just in time to watch himself drive away from Lone Pine Mall. What next for that version of Marty, the one with the nice truck and the loving, functional family?
Possibly, the other Marty — Marty II—also goes ahead and arranges events so his parents smooch at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance in 1955, ensuring his and his siblings’ existence. But who knows? That’s a totally different person than the Marty we know. Marty II is an unknown variable. He’s a wild card. He could be doing just about anything back there.
Chances are that he fucks it up in a whole new and interesting way. He doesn’t have to fuck it up, necessarily, but the McFlys and the Tannens of this world are really good at it. Some people were put on this earth to fuck up the space-time continuum.
In 1955, Emmett Brown receives a visitor from the future, who helps him repair a time machine he completed in the future, which then disappears — I am so sorry — back to the future. He’s lost the machine, but now he knows a little bit more how to build it thanks to the working flux capacitor, a device he could never work out how to build before Marty showed it to him.
Thirteen years later, his friend from the future is born to Hill Valley’s most famous sci-fi author, George McFly, and his wife Lorraine. At some point, Emmett Brown befriends Marty McFly knowing that he will build a time machine, and that Marty will be the one to make the trip into the past.
What I’m saying is: Emmett Brown knows that Marty has to be the person to deliver the flux capacitor to his past self, or there will be no time machine. His life’s work will never be complete. He needs a Marty McFly to complete the loop.
And maybe Marty II knocks down the other tree back in 1955. Maybe he makes sure his parents kiss at the Enchanment Under the Sea Dance so that he can exist to travel back in time and make sure his parents kiss in the first place. Maybe he returns triumphant to No Pines Mall in time to watch another Marty, Marty III, disappear in the DeLorean DMC-12.
Or maybe not! This is a whole different guy, remember? Maybe this one concentrates on his homework over his synth-pop band, or maybe Doc just forewarned him about the whole time travel thing. Maybe he doesn’t immediately go and fall out of a tree in front of the Baines residence. Maybe he goes straight to the Brown mansion and dutifully hands over the flux capacitor plans before strapping himself into a chair, because that’s exactly what Emmett Brown should be telling Marty II to do. “All right, don’t fuck it up this time,” he says, his bulletproof vest chafing into his armpits. “Just strap yourself into a chair and don’t touch a damn thing.”
Here’s the thing that bothers me even more than all of this: I’ve been assuming that this new guy is Marty II but there’s nothing in the Back to the Future trilogy to suggest that we’re even dealing with the original Marty McFly at the opening of the first film. In fact, the flux capacitor plans come to 1955 with Marty McFly, so how did our Emmett Brown build it in the first instance?
It could be Marty III or Marty VIII or Marty MMMCXII departing from Lone Pine Mall.
Maybe the first Marty McFly, dozens of cycles ago, travelled to the past from Thousand Pines Mall. Maybe George McFly VII changed his name and made Star Wars based on that one guy who came into his room in 1955. Maybe in that car on the night of the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, Lorraine Baines punched Biff Tannen so hard he died, she went to prison, George McFly married someone else and spacetime folded in on Hill Valley, trapping everyone in that universe within a never-ending time loop and that’s how Groundhog Day happened. Maybe Einstein, the very first time traveller, becomes the canine ruler over the world of Marty XXIV.
There is literally no way to know, and Robert Zemeckis won’t respond to my emails.