Back to the Future, Time Travel, and the Secret History of the 1980s

Each epoch dreams the one to follow. — Jules Michelet

Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow, but in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. — Walter Benjamin


Now that it’s 2015, we have (plus or minus a few months) caught up with the farthest future shown in the Back to the Future trilogy. You almost certainly know this already, because there have been dozens of stories about it. For the past few years, there have been hoaxes proclaiming that this day is the day seen in Back to the Future II, complete with photoshopped chronometers. (Now, there’s actually an online Back to the Future hoax generator for one-stop hoaxing.) The first stories comparing our present to the movie’s imagined future hit the web before 2014 was even finished. And this is after years of revisiting and anticipating what was to come.

This is history on fast forward. Like children, we’re impatient to catch up to the part of the movie that we’ve already seen. It seems like we can’t wait for the future to be over.

Comparing 2015 to the movie is also super boring.

Seriously? Can’t we do better than checking off lists of gadgets that we have and the movie doesn’t, or the movie has but we don’t? Are we keeping score? Do I win a prize because Bob Zemeckis was supposedly wrong about the persistence of the fax machine or self-tying sneakers, but I have a smartphone instead?

You’re gonna see some serious shit.
I’ll tell you a secret: the Back to the Future movies aren’t about the future. They’re obsessed with the past.

These movies also relentlessly and transparently project their own time’s concerns and assumptions into their portrayal of both the past and the future. Every historical or futurist movie does this to some extent, maybe especially those that feature time travellers, but it’s admirable just how naked this process is in Back to the Future.

Marty McFly carries an AIWA Walkman and a JVC camcorder. He wears Nike sneakers and Calvin Klein underwear. He drinks Tab, and rides a skateboard. These were movies that were determined to be rooted in the present, to remind you at every moment, this is the 1980s, this is all happening right now.

If we want to better understand 2015, we should look around. The best non-entertainment reason to rewatch Back to the Future is for what it can tell us about the 1980s.

I’ll tell you another secret: the technology of the 1980s is way more interesting than hoverboards. It’s also way more important to understanding these movies.

Finally, if we focus on the 1980s rather than the 2010s, we can talk more about the first movie in the trilogy rather than the sequels, which are frankly kind of meh. (Although I do think all three movies are pretty weird about race in a way we should talk about another time).

Okay? Okay! Let’s go.

1955 / 1985 / 2015

The early Back to the Future hoaxes were easy to detect if you remember the basic symmetry of the movies. Marty travels thirty years backwards from 1985 to 1955, the year Doc Brown first conceptualized time travel, and coincidentally, the year Marty’s parents met and fell in love. After returning to 1985, Marty, Doc, and Jennifer then travel thirty years into the future to 2015. Thirty years backwards, then thirty years forwards. (A console error then sends Doc Brown to 1885 rather than 1985.) In this time travel trilogy, time is actually quite orderly.

This means that we are now as far removed from 1985, the year the first film premiered, as that film was from 1955, the past it lovingly recreated and gently mocked.

As Mike Manning writes, if we were to remake Back to the Future today, a teenaged Marty McFly wouldn’t travel back to 1985 and blow his parents’ high school classmates away by playing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (retroactively stealing rock and roll’s creation back from black people.) 2015 Marty would be scratching and rapping “Straight Outta Compton,” to open mouths and side-eyed stares.

In 1985, Hill Valley’s downtown is partially dilapidated, while its shopping mall’s JC Penny sign is shiny and new. In our 2015, children are as unfamiliar with the concept of “a rerun” as Marty’s uncle is in 1955. And while Marty is able to hook up his camcorder to Doc Brown’s 1950s television set to play back video from 1985, if a time traveller from 2015 were to find herself thirty years in the past, she’d almost certainly have to play back video on her smartphone; her device wouldn’t plug into anything else but maybe the wall outlet.


“This is truly amazing… A portable television studio.”

The Back to the Future films are obsessed with media, thanks in part to their clever conceit that photographs and newspapers change to reflect alterations in the timeline. Sometimes these changes are gradual, as when Marty’s siblings disappear body part by body part from his family photo, and sometimes they’re instantaneous, as when a 1985 newspaper in Back to the Future II changes its cover story from “GEORGE McFLY MURDERED” to “GEORGE McFLY HONORED.” It’s hardly consistent, but it’s good storytelling. It also reflects a certain analog understanding of how media are made and unmade. The past and future are not either/or, and timelines don’t fork into parallel versions of one another; they fade or develop gradually, by degrees.

1985 really sits at the juncture of the analog and digital eras.

The time machine has a chunky digital display, as do Doc and Einstein’s synchronized digital watches. The DeLorean has both an analog and a digital speedometer.

I sometimes call this “the cassette era,” and sure enough, cassettes are everywhere. Marty has a Walkman, a camcorder, and an audition tape for his band; the Pinheads have recorded a demo even though they’ve never played in front of an audience.

Nothing says “the future” like a Darth Vader voice and a little Van Halen.

As a material support for a medium, the cassette has certain advantages and disadvantages. It’s more portable and sturdy than reels or records, and it requires less user interaction or expertise. It requires very fine interactions of miniaturized technology, both mechanical and electronic, in the form of transistors, reading heads, and so forth. Magnetic tape can actually record information as digital or analog, so it’s curiously agnostic in that respect.

Cassettes can also be easily rewound or fast forwarded. It’s easy to synchronize and dub the contents of one cassette onto another. And users can easily erase or rerecord information over the same tape.

This has clear implications for how we think — and especially, how our predecessors thirty years ago thought—about time travel. It is no accident that many important time travel films, including the Terminator franchise, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and yes, the Back to the Future movies, appear at this time. In all three cases, time travel is accomplished with a technological mechanism that allows its users precise control of where they arrive in the timestream. (In earlier time travel stories, travellers slide down a river or awake from a dream, but in the 1980s, the H.G. Wells/Doctor Who conception of time travel through a technological device wins out.) And in all three cases, the goal of time travel is to save and/or rewrite events within a specific person’s lifetime, without which a future timeline will cease to exist.

Even if Doc could afford his own video camera, he’d still need Marty to operate it.

Apart from the time machine itself, the camcorder is probably the most important piece of technology in the first movie. It helps convince Doc that Marty is from the future; it conveys the essential information regarding the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity the time machine needs to function; and perhaps most importantly, it’s the reason Marty is there with Doc in the first place.

Marty hangs out with Doc because Doc has the best speakers and guitar amps.
Doc hangs out with Marty because Marty has a video camera.

For my part, I love the detail that it’s a JVC video camera. If you don’t know, JVC developed the VHS videocassette format in 1976, just after Sony developed the Betamax format. Marty has taken sides in the great videotape format war, and he’s picked the winner. VHS tapes were bigger and clunkier and had lower video resolution, but they were cheaper and let you record more onto a single tape.

Today, the name Betamax mostly remains relevant as a shorthand for Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., a 1984 Supreme Court decision holding that individuals could record television shows to watch later without violating copyright. Not only could individuals use video and audiocassettes to easily record and re-experience their own lives, but they could exercise much more control over their own mass culture and over their own time.

Time-shifting, as this process came to be called, is fair use. In technology and in law, video culture was officially unmoored from the real-time constraints of broadcast television. Year by year, we’ve been playing out the consequences ever since.

I don’t know whether it’s ironic or appropriate that the distributor of Back to the Future was Universal Studios, the respondent in the Betamax case. I’m also unsure precisely what to make of the fact that Universal was acquired first by electronics manufacturer Matsushita/Panasonic, then soda distributor Seagram, then water utility/media giant Vivendi, then General Electric/NBC, and now cable company Comcast.

It is clear that in this early clash between the media and technology industries, the technology companies won.

I have a special affection for this time. I was five years old when I saw Back to the Future, at a drive-in on Detroit’s west side that no longer exists. My mother took her four children and we unloaded cheap lawn chairs from the back of her station wagon, running and playing with each other whenever we weren’t caught up in rapt attention by the story and spectacle.

I had never seen a video camcorder or VCR before — the movie introduced me to the concept. It seemed as magical to me as a time-travelling DeLorean or a flying car, but they were real, they existed. When we got a VHS machine the following year, Back to the Future was one of the first movies we rented.

When I saw the “To Be Continued” logo at the end (added especially for the home video audience) advertising a sequel, I immediately began writing my own spec script on folded-over construction paper. I had very firm ideas about how I thought Doc, Marty, and Jennifer’s adventures in the 21st century should proceed, all of which I’ve now forgotten. But when I finally saw the long-promised sequel in 1989, I was nine years old, jaded, and disappointed.

My mother, who was four years old in November 1955, was swept away by something different that night at the drive-in: the material culture of her own childhood. She pulled me close as Marty watched a car pull up to a gas station in the center of Hill Valley and a team of uniformed attendants tumbled out to check the oil and tire pressure as well as fill up the tank. “That’s what it was really like,” she murmured.


Like The Breakfast Club or Say Anything, Back to the Future is an early instance of a Generation X movie, even though it was largely aimed at the nostalgia of their baby boomer predecessors. Marty, the skateboarding slacker, Bart Simpson avant la lettre, shows unexpected moral depth while also flouting authority. It’s a movie for the cassette generation—the crate diggers and remixers, the kids who took our tape recorders apart before we ever saw a computer—a generation raised to see the past as an infinite inventory available for reinvention. It’s a largely-whited-out hip hop movie, where the only way to remake the future is to mine and recombine the past.

If you want to be disappointed by anything in our real 2015 compared to what’s imagined in the Back to the Future movies, don’t be disappointed because we haven’t yet been given flying cars or hoverboards. Instead, be disappointed that the momentum of the cassette era has slowed, stopped, and even been rolled back; be disappointed that tech and media companies alike work with judges and law enforcement to take our machines and our culture back out of our own hands.

Nobody gave Doc Brown a time machine. He bolted a 2015 Mr. Fusion to a 1985 DeLorean tricked out with a capacitor he invented after conking his head in 1955. He jerry-rigged it just as much as he did the Rube Goldberg machine at his house that makes the coffee and serves the dog food right onto the floor. Let’s stop checklisting and complaining and start opening things up and bolting them together again.