This is one of my favorite movie trilogies. It was tailor-aimed at my generation. I was a couple of years older than the character of Marty McFly. A pop-culture trend of 1950s nostalgia that ran from the latter part of the 1970s through the early 1980s was just finishing.
It’s also one of the smartest time-travel movies ever made, though not nearly as smart as the modern incarnation of Doctor Who.
Furthermore, watching it today as a 47-year-old, I’m aware that the way the young actors portray their older selves is a caricature. Lea Thompson‘s 2015 Lorraine is particularly painful, as is most of the old-age makeup in Part II.
It’s forgivable when you realize that Zemeckis was shooting Part III in northern California during the day and flying to Los Angeles to edit Part II at night. It’s a wonder that Part II works at all. Fortunately, Part III entirely makes up for it.
I don’t generally enjoy Westerns, but Part III is one of the few exceptions. Its depiction of the American Old West is one of the few realistic attempts to do so. Having spent the first fifteen summers of my life on my grandparents’ cattle ranch in western South Dakota, I’m aware of what conditions were like. Most depictions of the Old West are highly-romanticized. They don’t show the buckshot in the rabbits or the muddy drinking water. The next time you think to yourself that the American Indians lived an idyllic life, recall the water that Marty drinks at the McFly Farm in Part III.
Furthermore, Part III is really quite astounding from a modern film-making perspective. There’s an extraordinary amount of stunt-work, much of it performed by Fox and Christopher Lloyd. Today, a filmmaker would shoot the entire train sequence on a green-screen and use over-the-top CGI. Part III has the real actors crawling around on a moving train. It must have been a nightmare to film — and again, Zemeckis was splitting his time between shooting this film and editing Part II. He must’ve been a complete wreck by the time the production wrapped.
These are classic movies that will be around long after I’m gone. This is sadly enabled by actor Michael J. Fox‘s Parkinson’s disease. While I would in no way suggest that the actor’s condition is a good thing, it’s responsible for ending the trilogy at its logical closure point. I have no doubt that if Fox were still healthy, Universal would have made more Back To the Future films. This would not have been a good thing.
In watching the trilogy again, I was reminded of an article from Starlog Magazine number 108 (July, 1986) entitled, “The Other Marty McFly,” by Bruce Gordon (see below). Gordon pointed out an oft-overlooked problem with the altered timeline:
In Part I, there are two Marty McFlys.
As Gordon pointed out, there’s the Marty that the movie follows. His father is a coward, his mother an alcoholic, his siblings are losers, and there’s a Twin Pines Mall. This Marty goes back in time, prevents his parents from meeting as they did in his history, does some creative match-making, and then goes back to the future.
All well and good, except that when he returns, history has changed. Marty’s entire family is successful and happy, he owns a Toyota four-by-four pickup, and Twin Pines Mall has become Lone Pine Mall.
This brings us to the other Marty. We see him for only a few seconds. He’s the Marty (call him Marty-B) that our Marty (Marty-A) sees leave for 1955 after Doc is shot.
Marty-B has a different history than Marty-A. Marty-B grew up in a family of success. His father wasn’t a wimp, his mother wasn’t an alcoholic, his siblings were successful, he owned a four-by-four, and he went to the Lone Pine Mall.
And at the end of the film, Marty-B goes back in time to 1955.
Keep in mind that Marty-A prevented his parents’ meeting by accidentally replacing his father when he was peeping on Lorraine. It is a key story point. Marty-A’s parents met when George was hit by Lorraine’s father.
In Marty-B’s timeline, this never occurred. In Marty-B’s timeline, his parents got together when George prevented Biff from raping Lorraine.
This is the timeline into which Marty-B returns, not the timeline in which his parents met via car accident.
This is a paradox. If Marty-B goes into the past, he should logically meet Marty-A. For Marty-B’s timeline to exist, Marty-A must play a key role. In Marty-B’s timeline, Marty-A was an integral part of the meeting of George and Lorraine.
Indeed, logically, the situation is much worse than this. Marty-A’s arrival in the past has created an “Infinite Loop Paradox.”
There’s Marty-A, the first Marty. There’s Marty-B, from the first altered timeline. The existence of two Martys in 1955 would then produce a third timeline of which the next Marty would be a product. This Marty would then go back in time, creating a 1955 in which there are three Martys present. This would result in a timeline producing another Marty, who would go back in time to produce a four-Marty timeine.
In computing, we call this an infinite loop. It results when a programming error causes a program to repeat the same instructions forever. The only solution is to kill the offending program.
In time-travel, an “Infinite Loop Paradox” would occur when an infinite number of iterations of the same individual appear at the same time. This is what should have happened in Back To the Future. It would have been ended only by some version of Doc Brown becoming horrified by the number of Martys wandering around in 1955 and choosing to never build the DeLorean in the first place.
In computing, killing an infinitely-looping program resolves the issue, returning system resources to the computer. In time-travel, one would still be stuck with a large number of Martys in 1955.
In his article, Bruce Gordon attempts to explain this away by pointing out that for a brief instant (just as Doc throws away his gun before being shot by the Libyans), there seems to be someone in the background. Indeed, for a few frames, there’s someone there. Gordon suggests that this is Marty-B.
Mr. Gordon’s theory relies on parallel universes, which unfortunately isn’t consistent with the sequels. We see two Marty-A’s in Part II after all: when Doc and Marty return to 1955, the earlier Marty-A is right where he should be. Indeed, in Part II, we should have two Marty-A’s and a Marty-B who would have arrived from the end of Part I.
The timeline gets more convoluted still. In Part III, Marty-A is stranded in 1955 and needs 1955 Doc Brown to fix the DeLorean, which has been hidden in a mine since 1885.
Yet the Doc Brown of 1885 obviously has no memory of helping Marty do this. In fact, there are now four different Doc Browns:
The first Doc Brown is Doc-A, from Marty-A’s timeline. He didn’t meet Marty in 1955, built the DeLorean, and was killed by Libyans.
The second Doc Brown, Doc-B, is Marty-B’s Doc. He met and helped Marty-A in Part I. He read Marty’s letter, wore a bullet-proof vest, and wasn’t killed by Libyans. He and Marty-A went to 2015, then 1955, then Doc-B went to 1885 alone. Doc-B was killed by Buford Tannen in 1885.
This brings us to Doc-C. This Doc met Marty-A in Part I, then again at the end of Part II. Doc-C knew a lot about the future. He knew the DeLorean would get a hover conversion, be powered by Mr. Fusion, and that a future version of himself would wind up in the Old West.
Finally we have Doc-D. This was Doc-B until Marty returned to rescue him. This Doc isn’t killed by Buford Tannen, thereby creating the biggest paradox of the timeline. If Doc-B’s tombstone was erased from existence, then so was Marty-A’s reason for going back in time to save him.
We now have a Marty-C. This is a Marty who went with Doc-B to 2015 and 1955, received a letter from Doc-D, didn’t need to go back in time to save him, and consequently went home to 1985 as Doc-B instructed in his letter.
There are also multiple Clara Claytons:
Clara-A is from Marty-A’s timeline, in which Doc Brown was killed at the Twin Pines Mall. Doc never met Clara-A at the train station and thus she was killed in Clayton (nee Shonash) Revene. Clara-B was Doc-B’s Clara: Doc-B met her at the station, they fell in love at first sight, and she erected Doc-B’s tombstone. Clara-C is the version we see in Part III.
Confused yet? I’ve thought about it a lot, and even I can’t keep the tangle straight.
Bottom line: this is a very twisted series of timelines. Fortunately the movies are just so good that your brain suspends its disbelief.
In reality, time-travel would only work if the Many Worlds Theory is correct. If we live in a multiverse which is constantly splitting into new ones, then time-travel becomes simple:
A time-traveler creates a new parallel universe the moment they arrive in the past.
This parallel universe is identical to the time-traveler’s orginal — up to the moment the time-traveler appears in it. The act of arriving creates it, and the time traveler can no longer return to the original universe. It still exists, but it’s forever lost to the time-traveler.
If the time-traveler sequesters him- or herself and never interacts with anyone or anything, any changes are likely to be minor. The new alternate universe will be virtually identical to the old. It will still be an alternate universe, however.
Major changes are possible, but they do not produce paradoxes. If a time-traveller kills Adolf Hilter as an infant, it has absolutely no impact on the original timeline. Killing Hitler would occur in an alternate universe and the original will remain unaffected. The time-traveler will simply live in an alternate universe in which Hitler was killed as an infant.
L. Neil Smith used this to great effect in his novel The Gallatin Divergence. However, the best time-travel novel of all time, David Gerrold‘s The Man Who Folded Himself, takes it to its logical conclusion. I won’t even attempt to describe The Man Who Folded Himself: it would take the novel itself to explain it. If you’re a fan of time-travel, I highly recommend both novels.
Bruce Gordon’s article, “The Other Marty McFly,” originally appeared in Starlog Magazine. As Starlog ceased publication in 2009, finding a copy is difficult. It exists on the Web, however the URL is so old that there’s some possibility it could disappear.
For historical purposes, I’m including it below, minus figures and diagrams, as I don’t have access to them.
While reading, keep in mind that the article was written well before any of the sequels were produced. Mr. Gordon no doubt came to different conclusions when the trilogy was complete.
No copyright infringement is intended.
Bruce Gordon passed away in 2007, at the age of 56.
The Other Marty McFly
by Bruce Gordon
Starlog Magazine number 108 (July, 1986)
Our mysterious voyager, the tale begins, appears in Back to the Future for just a fleeting second, on screen for only a handful of frames. Cast your thoughts back to the film … back to the parking lot at Twin Pines Mall. The terrorists have arrived, and they’re aiming their machine guns right at Doc’s heart. Their van is parked at the screen’s left-hand side, and Doc is standing to the right, holding a pistol in his hand. He raises his arms into the air, and then, just behind Doc — between him and the truck — we can see a spot of light from one of the nearby stores. Watch that light.
At the very instant that Doc tosses his pistol to the ground (and all eyes in the audience are following its path across the pavement), a silhouetted figure steps into that light. Less than a second later, the figure is gone, Doc has been shot and the chase is on.
Who was that figure? Where did he come from? Why was he there?
The answer to the first question is easy: The figure was Marty McFly, of course. Where did he come from? He had just returned from 1955. And why was he there? Let’s find out!
Send your thoughts into the past again, this time towards the film’s end. Marty runs to the mall, and arrives just in time to see Doc shot again, and to see another Marty hop into the DeLorean and drive off through time. So, there are two Martys during that climax — one arriving from Town Square, and one departing for 1955.
Logically, then, if there were two Martys in the mall at the film’s end, then there should have been two Martys in the mall at the beginning … one arriving, one departing. The silhouetted figure in the light must be the ‘arriving’ Marty.
Let’s see if we’re right. Taking a look at the accompanying chart, we find two pathways. The pathways represent two parallel worlds — each existing simultaneously in different dimensions of time. Each step in a path is a specific event that’s shown, told, or implied somewhere in the film. The white steps represent the actions of our Marty McFly, and they trace the exact story of the film. The grey steps follow the journey of the other Marty, the mysterious figure we saw — or probably didn’t see — silhouetted by the light. (From here on, let’s call this mysterious figure ‘Marty II’.)
Naturally enough, we begin at “Start,” which is where the movie opens. We’ll call this path “Our Dimension.” The first item we find reads, “The Ledge is Not Broken.” In the scene where Marty and his girl friend Jennifer are sitting on the bench in town square, planning their big weekend, the concrete ledge on the clock tower is intact. Doc’s foot hasn’t broken it off because Doc hasn’t climbed up to fix his cable. Not yet — and in this dimension, not ever.
Following down the chart, we see the terrorists arrive at the mall, followed a moment later by the mysterious Marty II, silhouetted in the light. Then, Doc is shot and our Marty escapes back to 1955. Notice that our Marty not only goes back in time, but it looks as if he switches over into the opposite dimension! Actually, what happens I is this: Our Marty’s leap to 1955 and his interference in history causes the split that creates these parallel dimensions!
Our Marty arrives at Twin Pines Ranch, crashes into the barn, and while escaping in a hail of shotgun fire, runs down one of Peabody’s twin pine trees (more about that later). Marty prevents his parents from meeting, but manages to get them back together just before his rendezvous with Doc at the clock tower.
Marty also gives Doc the all-important note that warns him about the eventual terrorist attack. Doc finds the note and starts tearing it up when a tree branch falls and pulls apart Doc’s cable. Doc sticks the note in his pocket (you weren’t distracted by all the other action, were you?) and climbs up the tower to fix the cable. He slips and breaks the concrete with his foot.
Now, here’s where the plot gets tricky. This is where we leave the movie’s story for a moment, and take a look at the 30 years between 1955 and 1985. Marty and the DeLorean make contact with the lightning and leap over those decades in an instant, but everyone else — including Doc, George, and Lorraine — have to live them out one day at a time.
During those 30 years, George and Lorraine become a popular and successful couple, thanks to our Mary’s involvement. In a few years, they get married, and before long, they have a son. And who is their son? Why, he’s Marty II, of course — the other Marty! After all, our Marty is already 17 years old and leaping through time in the DeLorean.
Over the years, Marty II grows up. He and Doc become friends. But remember — Doc spent a week with our Marty 30 years ago, so Doc already knows everything that’s going to happen. He knows about the DeLorean, time travel, and Marty’s escape back into time. And somewhere along the way, he tapes Marty’s note back together, and finds out about the terrorists.
So that brings us back to October 26, 1985 as our Marty arrives in Town Square and crashed into the theater. He has returned to 1985, all right, but he’s still in the opposite dimension! As the helicopter hovers overhead, we see that the ledge on the clock tower is broken. When our Marty sees the terrorists drive by in their van, remember that we’re in the other dimension, and Marty II is already down at the mall with Doc, testing the DeLorean. Our Marty runs to the mall and grabs onto the big sign … which now reads “Lone Pine Mall.” (Remember how Marty ran down that pine tree in 1955? That was the end of the Twin Pines breeding experiment!)
Our Marty watches in horror as Doc is shot and Marty II drives off in the DeLorean. But Doc is OK — he has taped Marty’s note back together, learned about the terrorists, and put on a bullet-proof vest.
Doc and Marty rescue the stalled DeLorean from Town Square, and Doc drives Marty home. But what does Marty find? He finds new parents, a new brother and sister, and a new 4X4 Toyota truck parked in the garage. How is this possible? This is Marty II’s family! In this opposite dimension, Marty I has traded places and stepped into the life that was being led by Marty II. It’s Marty II’s father, mother, brother and sister — and that’s Marty II’s truck parked in the garage!
Where, then, has Marty II gone? He has time-warped out of the shopping mall and gone back to 1955! Let’s chase after him now, starting at the top of the chart and following the grey steps. Notice that Marty II has also wound up in the opposite dimension — the dimension where Marty I used to be.
Marty II arrives at Peabody’s Twin Pines Ranch, only this time he doesn’t run down one of the pine trees. (Remember, the off-road Toyota 4X4 parked in the garage belonged to this Marty … maybe he drives better than our skateboarding Marty. So, the pine trees survive, Peabody’s Twin Pines breeding experiment continues, and 30 years later, the big sign at the mall reads “Twin Pines Mall” — just like it did at the movie’s beginning.
Marty races out of the Peabody field and stops on the road in front of his home-to-be. He gets out of the DeLorean, reloads the plutonium, and returns to 1985.
“Now, wait just a minute,” everybody moans. “Where did Marty II get the extra plutonium?” That’s easy — Doc loaded it into the DeLorean. Remember that Doc had met our Marty 30 years ago, so he already knew Marty II was going to go back in time, and he knew that Marty II would get stranded without any plutonium for the return trip. Now, Doc may not be willing to alter history by trying to stop Marty II from going back in time, but he is willing to gamble on a little insurance. So, the first thing he does when he takes the DeLorean down to the mall is to load that spare plutonium.
“Well, OK,” someone says. “But why does Marty II turn around right away and return to 1985?”
Remember the speech that Doc gave our Marty when they first met at Doc’s house back in 1955? “You must not see anybody, you must not talk to anybody,” Brown warns. “To do so would have serious repercussions on future events!” Our Marty had already broken that rule, so it was too late for the warning to do any good — but it wasn’t too late to warn Marty II. So, it’s logical that when Doc was showing the time machine to Marty II, he would explain how important it was not to interact with anyone in the past, and to get back to the present as quickly as possible. We know that Marty trusts and respects Doc, and so we can assume he follows the instructions to the letter, reloads the plutonium, and jumps back to 1985 — without meeting anyone.
We’ll also assume that Marty II set the DeLorean controls to return minutes early in an effort to save Doc. Unfortunately, he’s not going to be any more successful than our Marty was.
Now, it’s Marty II who’s jumping over the 30 years between 1955 and 1985, just as our Marty did. And just as before, George, Lorraine, and Doc live those 30 years one day at a time — only this time, it’s without the “benefit” of our Marty’s involvement. Let’s keep following the grey path and see just what happened during the 30 years that Marty II skips over. This part is easy, because the whole story is recited by Lorraine over dinner at the film’s beginning. It goes like this: George gets hit by the car, he and Lorraine fall in love at the dance, get married and have a son named Marty. Our Marty. Marty I.
Over the years, our Marty grows up and becomes friends with Doc. Only in this dimension, Doc never met Marty back in 1955. Doc doesn’t know about the DeLorean, or about time travel. He doesn’t have a note to read, so he doesn’t know to protect himself from the terrorists. When Doc goes to the mall on October 26, 1985, he’s not wearing a bullet-proof vest, just his open shirt and his cotton underwear. And finally, back in Town Square, the clock tower ledge isn’t broken, because no one was ever up there.
You’ll notice by our chart that we’re back to the start of Back to the Future but we’re looking at it from a whole different perspective! When Marty II appears as a silhouette in the light, we know who he is this time, and where he’s coming from.
And while our Marty came running up to the sign because he was coming from Town Square, where the Delorean was stalled in the street, Marty II didn’t reappear in Town Square, because he never went there. He stayed on the highway near his home-to-be. So, when Marty II reappeared in 1985, he was coming from another direction. That’s why he ran in front of the light, instead of over by the sign.
Our next step along the grey path says that Marty II runs to Doc and finds him killed. Doc never had the warning from Marty in 1955. He wasn’t wearing the bullet-proof vest. Doc is dead.
From here on out, believe it or not, things get worse. Marty II heads home alone, and finds he has a brand new family. Just like our Marty, he’s traded places — only now he’s stepped into the life that was being led by our Marty. Now, his father is a failure, his mother is an alcoholic and his brother and sister are nerds. And the Toyota 4X4 that he left parked in the garage the night before has turned into a skateboard, and even that got left in the parking lot back at the mall! (It’s a sad ending. No wonder they filmed the other version!)
Now we’ve finally reached the end of our chart. But wait, our story’s not over. Marty II still has the DeLorean and extra plutonium — maybe he can go back in time again, and try once more to save Doc’s life. What a sequel that would make!
Bruce Gordon, an Imagineer at WED Enterprises, is involved in the future development of Disneyland. He co-authored “Tomorrowland 1986” in Starlog #98-99. Assistance on this essay was provided by Chris Tietz and David Munford, who made substantial contributions to solving and explaining the mystery of Marty II.