Another short update today!
On this page Marty asks Doc what his plans are, and Doc says he’s gonna wait till the cops are gone from the parking lot, go back to his van, pick up the plutonium pellets there and take a look at the future. How far?
Doc shrugged. ”I figure I’ll take it slow at first,” he replied. ”Maybe I’ll go about thirty years, just to get my feet wet. Then maybe I’ll take a look-see at the 22nd or 23rd centuries…”
“Well, good luck,” Marty said.
The 22nd and 23rd centuries part stands out as being weird, but whatever, maybe it’s cool that the temporal expanse of Back To The Future can get enlarged a bit! The time machine is good at travelling through all through time, we don’t need to limit ourselves to within a claustrophobic plus or minus 100 years of 1985!
Doc says “It’s funny, isn’t it? I had to wait thirty years to catch up with you. Now you’ve gotta wait thirty years to catch up with me. Ain’t life weird…” and then he winks and closes the door and drives off.
Then Marty presumably walks home and goes to bed and the next morning wakes up and thinks it’s was all a crazy dream! But then he pinches himself and it’s not! So he pulls out his record company submission form from the trash and puts it in a mailing envelope (“Why not? My music has been wowing them for three decades. I’m a cinch to win.”) and then goes downstairs his house and family is all different!1 Weird!
END OF UPDATE
1. So! Let’s talk about Marty. Specifically, let’s talk about this sequence of events:
- The Marty we’ve been reading about (Marty Prime) goes back in time at the Twin Pines Mall.
- Marty Prime has some adventures that change things (the name of the mall, the circumstances of his parents meeting, his family’s history)
- Marty Prime goes back to the present, goes to the Lone Pine Mall, and watches himself go back in time again.
See the problem? Whether or not you buy my meta-time explanation of Back To The Future’s time-travel mechanics (though you TOTALLY SHOULD because it TOTALLY WORKS), Marty has returned to a future where at least SOME things have changed: we know for sure the name of the mall has, and we know for sure that Doc’s spent the past 30 years trying to act natural while knowing he’s totally going to invent a time machine and meet Marty and wear a bullet-proof vest someday! And if you don’t buy my theory of changes to the timeline themselves take time, then you’re arguing that EVERYTHING in 1985 has already been altered, and we’re already fully in this Improved 1985 that Marty created for himself.
Either way, the world we’re in isn’t identical to the one that Marty left at the beginning of the story. And that’s a problem. It’s actually a huge problem, because it means the Marty going back in time NOW isn’t the same Marty that left at the beginning of the story, and time travel is basically the poster child for sensitivity to initial conditions.
This new Marty has had different experiences, from things as small as the name of the mall to as large as what his family does for a living and whether or not they hire their old high-school bully and sexual assaulter to wax their car (yes this happens, no I dunno why). Due to different life experience, this Marty is a different person than the one we met at the beginning of this story. Let’s call him Marty 2.
Marty 2, being that different person, is absolutely going to have different adventures in 1955 than Marty Prime did. There’s a few ways these adventures could turn out, especially considering how narrowly Marty Prime avoided disaster when he was running through them:
- Marty 2 doesn’t get his parents back together, and so he ceases to exist. RESULT: Marty 2 and Marty Prime were never born, which causes major damage to the space-time continuum.
- Marty 2 does get his parents back together, but slightly differently, as Marty 2 would interact with Doc differently, blabs about the future differently, steps on different bugs, etc). This results in a new, again altered 1985 where Marty 2 watches Marty 3 go back in time. RESULT: a loop, potentially infinite. The timeline may never stabilize into a solid reality ever again, and Marty 2212626 could watch Marty 2212627 go back in time. This is probably a bad thing.
- Marty 2 doesn’t mess with his parents meeting at all, and so has a different adventure in 1955! At the end of this, either he returns or he doesn’t.
- If he DOESN’T return, then no Marty returned to 1985, INCLUDING THE MARTY PRIME WHICH CREATED HIM. RESULT: Paradox, Marty 2 ceases to exist (and maybe the entire universe does too? I dunno)
- If he DOES return, then he still altered 1955 as he must interact with Doc to get the machine to work, and we’re left with the again-altered 1985 where Marty 2 watches Marty 3 go back and all the potential for infinite loops that presents.
So either Marty is never born, Marty’s successful trip back to 1985 gets erased (undoing all the work Doc and Marty have put into it and maybe destroying the universe in a paradox), or the timeline starts looping, never reaching a stable new reality. Those are really the only options we’ve got, and none of them are great! They all kinda suck, actually!
“But Ryan!” you’re saying, “The movie doesn’t show any of these catastrophes happening! So there’s got to be a different way.”
And this is true. When we reach a conclusion from a set of facts that doesn’t match up with reality, our only option is to look at our reasoning and find the flaw in it. And I totally slipped in an unfounded assumption earlier on you guys when I was talking about the sequence of events. It’s this part:
3. Marty Prime goes back to the present, goes to the Lone Pine Mall, and watches himself go back in time again.
Here’s the thing: we only saw Marty 2 travel through time. We never were told his destination. And I submit to you this hypothesis, this wham-bang anagnorisis that changes everything now and forever:
Marty 2 didn’t go back in time.
At least, not like Marty Prime did.
Doc’s a smart guy, and he’s had thirty years to work out the consequences of what happened during that week in 1955. He would’ve gone through this reasoning and made all the same conclusions we did here. So what’s the third way? How do we solve this? There’s two solutions:
- Option 1
- Step 1: Kill Marty McFly.
- Option 2
- Step 1: use these thirty years to design a different time machine, one which rather than travelling within one timeline, allows you to also travel sideways to a different timeLINE.
- Step 2: (Optional) Kill Marty McFly.
Option 1 is the cleanest, but it’s pretty clear why Doc didn’t chose it. If he had, all he had to do was send Marty 5 billion years into the future, when the sun’s a red giant. Poof: Marty McFly killed instantly in a causality-free way, he never goes back in time, and we avoid the undesirable outcomes of “Marty never born/universe destroyed” or “Timeline constantly in flux”. Instead, Marty dies, Doc never got warned about the terrorists so Doc dies too, and the timeline stabilizes at the cost of both Doc and Marty’s life.
Option 2 is trickier, but it’s the only thing that gets us to what we were shown happening in the movie and book, so it must’ve been what happened. Here’s how it goes down.
Doc uses the thirty years head start he has to design a new DeLorean, one that looks the same but operates slightly differently. Rather than go back in time along one timeline, it takes a step sideways and sends you back in time in a parallel timeline. That means that Marty 2 goes to Hill Valley X, and Doc doesn’t have to worry about Marty anymore. Our Doc’s timeline has finally stabilized, with Marty disappearing and, a few months later, presumed dead by his family who misses him terribly.
But he’s not dead! Marty 2 is in 1955 in Hill Valley X, where he can mess up all he wants and it’ll only affect the future of Marty X, who is causally unrelated to him. This is the critical part. Marty 2 no longer can mess up his own birth, only Marty X’s birth. Let’s say he ends up keeping Marty X alive and then makes it back to 1985. When Marty 2 arrives in 1985 in Hill Valley X2, he’ll watch Marty X2 (as both the town and Marty X himself were altered by Marty 2’s actions) travel through time.
The problem is this: if Doc X lets Marty X2 go into ANOTHER new parallel timeline, this whole mess repeats, only instead of a constantly-shifting timeline we now have a messy and potentially-infinite explosion of parallel timelines. That’s probably not wise. So instead Doc X (perhaps informed by a note Bulletproof Vest Doc hid in the machine) punches in a different demonstration date of 5 billion years in the future, and Marty X2 quickly burns to death in the heart of our dying sun.
And that’s it! Both timelines are now stable AND we’ve eliminated the chance of them being altered by killing off an alternate Marty as he makes his first trip in time. Things are stable, the timeline avoided both catastrophic destruction AND an infinite series of Marties, and all it cost us was the life of one Marty X2 McFly.
I’d say that’s worth it, and it seems like both Doc and Doc X agreed with me.
(It’s worth noting that the book and the movie both gloss over this point and skip right to the scene of Marty 2 arriving in 1985 Hill Valley X2, which I can only assume was for time concerns.1)
END OF FOOTNOTES
1. “But Ryan,” you’re saying, “if that’s true, why does Marty 2 react to Marty X’s family with such surprise?” and the solution is obvious: as we skipped over Marty 2’s household (recall we only get to see Marty X2’s family), we can conclude that his family life was different from the X2 universe too, hence his surprise.
END OF FOOTNOTE FOOTNOTES
OH SNAP I JUST REALIZED YOU COULD TOTALLY ARGUE THAT THIS IS WHAT THAT STUPID “DOC FLIPS A MYSTERIOUS SWITCH” SCENE ON THE LAST PAGE WAS ABOUT!! Doc’s putting the time machine back to “travel within one timeline” mode in preparation for his trip to the future, because he wants to be able to return to the very same timeline he departed from. It all fits! HOT DAMN, GIPE! YOU WERE ONE STEP AHEAD OF US ALL THIS ENTIRE TIME!!
MY BALLS ARE BEING SO TRIPPED!!
Books can be better than the movie, but MAN the movie is so much better than this book (in general, obvs, but in this scene in particular)! This whole action bit which lasts for minutes in the movie gets disposed of in a couple of paragraphs. DISAPPOINTING.
So we’re back with Marty and the stalled DeLorean, which won’t start, and then he tries it again and then it starts, so - that was easy? This “it didn’t start but then it did” solution sidesteps the “Marty slamming his head on the steering wheel and then it starts” gag in the movie which was nice and baffling and cute.
Marty drives towards the wire but doesn’t notice Doc messing with it (Gipe again pretends he’s from medieval times when he writes this as “So intent was he that he failed to see the figure of Doc Brown as he raced towards the lamp post”) which means we don’t get Marty anxiously whispering “Doc…” as he speeds towards him: another nice character moment.
And here’s the craziest part: in the movie, just as the lightning strikes, Doc reaches the wire and connects it and gets blasted backwards by the shock (that is how electricity works in movies, did you know that?)
Clearly they had that in the scene description for the script! And CLEARLY GIPE DIDN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT HE WAS READING AT ALL:
Less than a second before the spectacular bolt of lightning struck, Doc plugged the cable in, spin around, and fell backwards. Glancing at his speedometer, Marty saw that the car was moving at eighty-eight miles per hour.
Then there was a terrific crash of simultaneous lightning and thunder.
Yep. In Gipe’s version - which presumably he thought made perfect sense - Doc plugs the cable in and then JUST SPINS AROUND AND FALLS OVER FOR LITERALLY NO REASON AT ALL.
Inside the DeLorean Marty thinks “My God, I’ve been nuked” which makes exactly this much sense: none, and then “the DeLorean kicked forward as if it had been thrust into orbit, and blackness descended.”
We’re left with Doc who just saw the car disappear, “seemingly enveloped by a yellow mist” (guess they hadn’t quite nailed down the time travel effect yet) the sight of which “made him leap to his feet and let out an Indian war whoop.” He shouts “We did it! It was impossible but we did it!” and Gipe confirms that for us by saying “It was true. As if swallowed up by the earth or a giant hand from above, the DeLorean was gone.” and yes every time the narrator confirms what a character we have no reason to doubt just said, an angel gets its wings.
“Good luck,” Doc Brown breathed. ”I’ll see you soon enough… I hope.”
And that’s it for the chapter!
So what makes the movie version better? Besides the action being better realized and more exciting (so exciting that the movie cheats and has Marty flooring it in the DeLorean… twice) and the lack of the crappy lines (after the DeLorean disappears, Doc doesn’t say anything, he just cheers and runs quietly down the street), it’s a terrificly put-together scene. The music builds and builds until the lightning reaches the car, and then the car’s gone and the music’s gone and all we hear is burst of the time-travel sound effects and the ambient noise of the wind (suddenly much more still) and the Doc’s footsteps as he runs down the road. It’s a terrific, quiet ending and the contrast works really well with the thunder and lightning and temporal explosions we just had.
And then that last shot! The music comes up again, quietly, and Doc smiles and looks up to the clock tower with his crazy happy grin, and we get a POV shot of the clock tower seen from where he’s standing! We assume we’re seeing what Doc’s seeing, but then a second later a helicopter flies into the frame, over the tower, and out again, and we realize we’re back in 1985. It’s a terrific cut that takes us out of 1955 and into 1985 so smoothly you barely even notice it.
Great work, movie peeps!
Pull up your socks, book peeps!!
Short update today!
This scene happens basically like in the movie: George and Lorraine are dancing to Earth Angel as Marty plays, someone (Dixon! HE’S BACK) cuts in, Marty’s fading away1 and can see through his own hand, George cuts back in and shoves Dixon “ten feet” away and Marty’s BACK, baby! It’s notable in the book because it has Marty saying “I… don’t feel so good…” as he fades out (adorbs) and, after he fades back in, doing this:
”Thank God!” [Marty] smiled.
Whipping the family photograph from his pocket, he laughed, did a little pirouette on the bandstand, and grabbed the guitar again. Linda, Dave, and himself were all back in the picture, completely intact, and the feeling in his hand told him his musical powers had been restored.
It’s also notable because here in the book Lorraine has her dress torn up from Biff’s attack on her and yet she’s totally down to go back into the school and dance up a storm??
END OF UPDATE
1. SO! As I’ve mentioned before I spent many an hour as a kid trying to figure out back to the future, and right now we are going to figure out this fading away thing. This is a whole childhood of thinking about time travel in this movie paying off here. Here we go:
To buy into Back To The Future, you need to accept not only that time travel exists, but that there exists a META-TIME, because changes to the timeline THEMSELVES take time: Marty stops his parents from meeting and rather than disappearing right away, he has a week in 1955 to sort this out before the consequences of that become critical. In other words, whatever change you make to the timeline ripples through it like a wave in a bedsheet, altering things as it goes, and you’ve got until when that wave catches up with you to fix things if you’ve done something dumb like prevent yourself from being born.
Proof for this is that Marty’s siblings faded away in order from oldest to youngest - the change caught up with them first! We’re going to assume you start to fade when your birth gets interfered with. The fading isn’t consistent (Brother Dave fades from top to bottom while Marty just gets less and less opaque), but we’re estimating! Here we could assume instead that you start fading when the date of your conception gets messed with rather than date of your birth, but we’re not, because that’s a rabbit hole of tracing events back to causes that puts us back in 1955 again.
So! Since we know the day Marty arrived in 1955 and stopped his parents from meeting (Saturday, November 5th), the day he started actually fading away (a week later on Saturday, November 12th, 1955), the year Marty was born (1968) AND we even can guess at the day (most stuff puts his birthday at either June 12th or June 9th (same as Michael J!)) we can calculate pretty reliably how fast this meta-time lets changes move in this story, which is how fast changes to the timeline propagate.
A change made to the timeline on November 5th, 1955 takes 7 days of real time to ripple through time and reach June 9th, 1968. That’s 4,604 future days to ripple through (inclusive, so we’re assuming that Marty was born near the end of the day, but it doesn’t make THAT much of a difference), therefore meta-time travels at about 657.71 times faster than regular time here.
One problem, cats and kittens: with this number Dave actually fades out too soon (he’s not born till 1963 but he shows effects of fading early in the morning of November 6th, 1955, and with our meta-time speed the changes should only 3.6 years out by then, back in good old 1959). So we adjust our theory to say that these changes here travel at a speed that AVERAGES out to that 657.71 times faster number, but it can go faster and slower in places.
This raises the question: what does this propagation speed depend on? Well, there’s actually evidence in the movie that lets us conclude that the speed of changes to the timeline is dependent how much it’s being changed from its original shape. AND I CAN PROVE IT WITH MATHS AND LOGICS:
So remember that Marty starts to fade, and then Lorraine and George kiss and BAM, everyone in Marty’s photograph fades back in right away, one after the other. This is obviously way faster than our number from before, but we incorporate this by assuming that the timeline is flexible, but like a spring, it has a preferred shape. Changes that restore it to its original form propagate much faster (30 years of timeline gets restored in about 4 seconds here, which is a meta-time transmission speed of a zany 236,676,945 times faster than regular time), while those that deform it into unusual shapes travel at our (much) slower speed.
HOWEVER: it gets more a teensy bit more complicated when you do something that changes the timeline back to its original form in one way, but changes it in another way (like oh I don’t know coming up with and then executing a plan to get your parents back together in such a way that one of them experiences an epiphany and moment of personal growth while the other gets assaulted??). In this case you have TWO ripples going out: the restorative one that puts things back as they were originally with children being born and what not, and the altering one that applies the changes from that baseline.
That’s RIGHT: two ripples, baby, and they’re travelling at different speeds, with the restorative one several orders of magnitude faster! This is critical because soon when Marty returns back to 1985 he’ll witness himself going back in time again as he remembers it happening, go to bed, and wake up in a future he barely recognizes. The restorative ripple goes through time, restoring his family, in about four seconds. We see that happen with the photograph.
What we don’t see (because Marty travels through time pretty quickly after this dance and never looks at the photograph again) is the alterations to the baseline timeline that are happening in the meantime, at a slower speed. These are the ones changing his family history to the “improved” edition. When Marty arrives in 1985 he actually gets their BEFORE the alteration ripple gets there (he’s travelled through time and in doing so jumped over the ripple travelling through metatime), so he can watch himself, then he goes to bed. As he sleeps the altering ripple catches up and changes things around him, causing him to wake up in a 1985 he doesn’t recognize. This ripple goes faster than the original one did, travelling 30 years in only about 8 hours of real time instead of a week, but here the changes are proportionally much smaller! All that’s changing is jobs and lifestyles for a few characters, we’re not dealing with an entire family never existing.
I hope that this post convinces you that changes to the timeline in the Back to the Future (Part 1) universe take time to travel through time, and that the speed at which this metatime allows changes is proportional to the size of the change being made!
INTERESTING ASIDE: One cool thing we get from this theory is that a more minor change Marty made in 1955 could’ve affected him while he was hanging out there, and it’s a shame he didn’t put any money in a bank account when he was there because midway through his week in the past he could suddenly discover that he’s rich!!
INTERESTING ASIDE 2: some of you are probably saying “Wait when Marty watches himself it’s the Lone Pine Mall instead of the Twin Pines Mall he remembers, this ruins the theory!” but ACTUALLY, it only strengthens it. One of the first things Marty does when he arrives in 1955 is kill a pine tree, and that minor ripple had a full week of real time to arrive in 1955. When I said earlier there are TWO ripples, I was simplifying: each change actually gets its own ripple, which propagates at a speed dependent on the magnitude of the change. This makes sense as soon as you realize that changes are obviously a spectrum, and not just “major” or “minor”. When Marty arrives in 1985 again it’s already changed from what he’s remembered in minor ways, in the process of changing in more major ways, and will change more over the next few hours as everything stabilizes into the new normal.
INTERESTING ASIDE THE THIRD: the fact that Marty isn’t altered as the timeline catches up with him is something we’ll deal with down the road, because it raises some timey-wimey issues too!
INTERESTING ASIDE FOREVER AFTER: Whoah I meant to write about a crappy novelization and got sucked up in really rigorous time travel theories, WHAT HAPPENED
END OF FOOTNOTES