WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME (Isla Nublar)
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Suffering from severe unexpected back pain. I bent over to put on my socks and my muscles decided they hated me. I shuffled through various position changes in an attempt to dull the agony. While eating stir fry.
WARNING: If your favorite thing about Back to the Future is not nit-picking over time travel rules, try again next week. I’ve got ten more months of these things to go. Might be a Huey Lewis article. Or a follow-up on Lorraine’s shoulders. Fun!
You can’t talk about time travel rules in Back to the Future without first establishing what sort of timeline it operates on. Are you familiar with the three kinds of timelines in science fiction? You can click the Wikipedia entry there and get lost in a vortex of links, but lemme give you the basics (according to one pop culture junkie with no formal scientific education but, you know, a couple Kip Thorne books lying around):
- Immutable timelines: This means you cannot change the past. Anything you did back in time always happened. Ten years ago, some jerk punched you in the face and left a scar. Now, you build your time machine, go back in time ten years, punch your younger self in the face for some reason, and upon your return, you touch the scar on your face and realize, “Holy shit, I was the jerk that punched me in the face!”
- Mutable timelines: This means you can change the past. Anything you do back in time affects the future. Ten years ago, you lived a happy life, free of assault. Now, you build your time machine, go back in time ten years, punch your younger self in the face for some reason, and upon your return, you suddenly have a scar on your previously pristine face and you now work at McDonald’s because the face punching prevented you from getting to a job interview. If your job used to be at a science institute and that’s how you acquired the materials to build your time machine, congratulations! You are now involved in a paradox, which can be portrayed however the writer feels like portraying it (ripples, explosions, time-dragons).
- Alternate timelines: This means… ahhh, son of a bitch, the second half of this one can get crazy depending on who’s writing the story, but basically, you are jumping from alternate timeline to alternate timeline. Okay, so anything you change affects the future of the timeline you changed, but not yourself. Ten years ago, you lived a happy life, free of assault. Now, you build your time machine, go back in time ten years, punch your younger self so hard in the face that he dies, and upon your return… it depends. Hold on. You definitely still exist, and there’s no punch-scar on your face. This much is true. Your physical self and your time machine are products of an alternate timeline that is “safe.” What you “return” to, though… that’s in the hands of the writer. You’re jumping from universe to universe, but which one are you jumping back to? If your vehicle is some sort of slingshotty quantum flinger with elastic space-time nanofarts, you could return to your original timeline where you never died and all you have to deal with is the guilt of being a terrible murderous human being. Or you could end up in the future of the deathpunch timeline, where everybody is mourning your death and then they’re all “holy hell, how are you alive?” It’s kinda like loading up a historical holodeck program where anything goes, but the writer chooses where you are when you get out. And the half-Betazoid counselor you strangled to death with a necktie is very, very real.
Is everybody with me? Did we lose any Junior Movie Science Cadets along the way? Would examples help? Don’t bother getting too engrossed in the Wikipedia page I linked; at the time of this writing, they listed Prisoner of Azkaban as an alternate timeline, and we all know that shit is immutable.
“Fuck Timecop.” – J.K. Rowling
What’s important about these three flavors of timeline is that you may pick only one. And Back to the Future, beyond a shadow of a doubt, has chosen mutable. Now, Doc hasn’t had a chance to do any experiments to find out what sort of timeline his machine operates in (being shot to death and all), and Marty knows more about Van Halen than he does about space-time, so nobody within the movie really has any idea which brand of timeline they’re inside of. If you’re watching the film for the very first time, the absolute earliest indication that we are in a mutable timeline occurs at approximately 50:08, when Marty’s brother begins fading out of his photograph from the future.
Unless you’re the kind of dick who’d argue that maybe Dave’s skull cap is detachable.
That’s it, folks! It’s all over! A clear change to an object from the future has occurred due to the actions of a time traveler in the present. That is mutable confirmation, through and through. There’s no point in making a case for the other two, even if it helps your argument in a Cracked video that is hilarious but unfortunately wrong about Chuck Berry and Goldie Wilson, which I highly recommend that you watch. (We’ll come back to it later, in its own subsection. Jesus, this article is several hours of not sex.) The evidence for mutability piles on the further we go into the film and its sequels, but that one image is all the proof we need. Marty is not jumping from universe to universe, and his meddling in 1955 has not always been a part of history. In summary…
During this viewing, however, I tried to look for evidence of all three timelines, because even though we’re definitely mutable, there are some jokes and plot points that, while entertaining, try to bend the rules. And a temporal police officer like myself (note to self: script idea, but what to call it?) has to pull over the DeLorean once in a while.
First of all, let’s reduce the sentence for good behavior. Here are some details from the movie that are accurate to the mutable timeline it’s established.
- Lorraine’s story of how she met George at the beginning of the movie does not involve anyone named Calvin Klein being hit by a car. If this were immutable, it would.
- The sign at the mall reads “Twin Pines Mall” before Marty’s trip and changes to “Lone Pine Mall” after he runs over Old Man Peabody’s pine tree. If this were immutable, it would always say “Lone Pine Mall.”
Aww, I’m glad the Hill Valley Town Planning Board commemorated such an important historical event.
- Marty’s photograph of his family continues to fade out the longer his parents go without making bedroom eyes at each other. If this were immutable, the picture would stay the same because he already succeeded at getting them together. (It would actually be a picture of his more successful family from the end of the movie, but they would also have been as wealthy at the beginning.)
- When it seems like George won’t kiss Lorraine at the dance, Marty becomes weak and a rushed last-minute special effect begins to form on his hand. If this were immutable, the filmmakers would not be able to regret this unfortunate hand hole on the commentary.
“Time is more like a wibbly wobbly… timey wimey… three-hole paper puncher.” – The Doctor
- When Marty returns to 1985, his home and his family have changed. If this were immutable, they would either have also been wealthy at the beginning as previously mentioned, or they would still be a depressingly accurate depiction of the disintegration of the American nuclear family in the 1980s. Ha, nuclear! Sad.
Despite the ever-changing landscape of the space-time continuum in Hill Valley, I attempted to look for scenes in the movie that suggest the entire story might be a self-contained immutable trip. This mainly concerns all events that occur prior to Marty’s trip that would have been direct results of his and/or Doc’s actions in 1955 and beyond. Some are intentional on the part of the filmmakers and will be punished. Some are me loving this movie way too much and will be stupid.
- When Marty blows out the amplifier, I noticed he flies into a puffy chair directly behind him. In an immutable timeline, that could have been placed there by Doc, assuming Marty told him about this accident in 1955. Verdict: Unintentional.
- Cinemanaut John has previously pointed out that the crazy flyer lady from the Hill Valley Preservation Society could have been paid by Doc to approach Marty and give him the flyer, providing the crucial information they would need on the exact time of the lightning strike. If this were immutable, that is. Burrrn. Verdict: Unintentional.
Is that passionate grin the look of someone who’s in it for the cash?
- One of the more puzzling scenes involves Doc and Marty standing directly in the path of the DeLorean as it races toward them. There’s one kooky theory going around the nerdsphere that Doc is suicidal from a string of failed inventions, but in an immutable world, there may be another reason he would attempt something so risky: he already knows it’s going to work. Of course, this is one of the problems of an immutable universe; characters revealing they knew the chain of events this whole time and simply had to go along with it because they knew it happened this way, which is… fairly ridiculous. Though, honestly, Doc probably did watch that tape over and over again so there weren’t even more paradoxical timeline changes, but that’ll be a whole different article. Wow. Phew. Moving on. Verdict: Unintentional… and seriously, just a bad idea. Don’t stand there.
- This is mostly an expository dialogue gripe, but I’ve always thought that Doc’s delivery when he randomly tells the story of November 5th, 1955 is really forced… or is he just nervous because he knows he has to enter that date on the temporal display? Of course not. Mutable! Verdict: Unintentional.
- Hey, when Doc gets shot all to hell in the beginning of the movie, where’s the blood? I’m not saying we needed a full-on Dead Alive spraying out of his chest, but there isn’t a single drop. Were they just keepin’ it PG, or was Doc always wearing the bulletproof vest because of Marty’s letter? Verdict: Possibly intentional. Doc could have been wearing the vest simply out of fear of the Libyans, but if it’s as a result of the letter, slap on the wrist, filmmakers.
“Ha, it tickles!” But seriously, his guts are pudding.
- Goldie Wilson and Chuck Berry are cutesy hints at an immutable timeline, but we’ll get to them later. For now, the verdict: Intentional and punishable. Two knuckle raps with a yardstick. Because I’m a cop that used to be a nun, I guess.
At last, we come to the freebie category. “Do whatever you want,” they say. “No fading out here,” they say. “You should probably read some Feynman,” they say. Yeah, okay, I’ll get around to it, but let’s focus. Back to the Future absolutely does not operate on alternate timelines… except for a couple instances where that would make the most sense. More punishments!
- First off, if the DeLorean were hopping from universe to universe, Marty could do whatever he wants. Shoot Biff in the face, give Goldie Wilson a million dollars in campaign funds, and, fully endorsed by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku in “The Physics of Back to the Future” on the 25th Anniversary Trilogy box set, give it to his hot young mom in each and every hole. Repeatedly. The ethical ramifications are another matter, but in regards to fading out of existence, Marty can ramify Lorraine all damn day.
“Honored guests, I’ve gathered you here today to discuss a bold new fan edit.”
- Here’s something that a few time travel movies attempt to justify, and others just plain get away with: memories. This is one area where Back to the Future legitimately screwed up. See, when Marty’s timeline is changed, on these wacky mutable rules, his memories should be altered to fit his new history. A lot of movies and TV shows usually have some goofy “quantum flux” or “temporal wake” that allows the displaced characters to observe differences in history without being affected by them. (By pure coincidence, I watched the first half of “Past Tense” from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine earlier this evening, and “polarized chronitons” created a “subspace bubble.”) Marty can’t pull some “stainless steel cranial barrier” technobabble, though, because we absolutely see his body affected by changes to the past, and last time I checked, the brain is a body part. Whenever you see a newspaper or a photo change in the trilogy, Doc and Marty’s memories should be changing as well; you can’t have one without the other. So for all your fine upstanding mutable checkpoints, filmmakers, you tried to go alternate here. Keeping the memories makes it fun, but it’s still a plot hole. Verdict: Ten points from Gryffindor.
- Operating on mutable rules, Marty was one goddamned lucky baby. The right egg, the right sperm, on the right day, with his parents in the right frame of mind to name him Martin… a list of coincidences this long makes a lot more sense in an alternate timeline. And an immutable timeline in which you were always a part of the story of your conception guarantees your continued existence as well, but this section needed one more bullet point. Mutable is really the one form of timeline where you are insanely fortunate to still be here. Verdict: A visit from Temporal Child Protective Services.
A view of just one possible George McFly batch.
It seems like we’ve made it. We’ve gone through all the layers. If you’ve come this far, I know I can trust you. You know Back to the Future. You get Back to the Future. You are Back to the Future.
And that’s why I can tell you our mission today.
We’re not just having a bit of fun. We had to go deeper. We had to look at inconsistencies within already paradoxical timelines to get to this place. In other words, a paradox within a paradox. And now I can tell you.
We are here to rescue Chuck Berry and Goldie Wilson.
We couldn’t just do it on the surface. We had to go inside the movie, inside its ideas… and now we’re taking one out. And we’re going to leave a new one. See, before we go back up through each layer–
Did you hear that?
Quick! Open Mr. Fusion! Take this piece of paper!
Can you hear that? Is it just me?
Okay, put it in Mr. Fusion. No, you have to. Because Cracked was wrong! Cracked was all wrong. What do you mean you didn’t watch the video? I linked to it! Well, there’s no time to link to it now! Fine, I’ll explain… in the video, they take offense that Marty’s two major changes in the timeline are to help the careers of black characters, right? So essentially, the civil rights movement was furthered because of Marty, a white man. Why they didn’t talk about the far more offensive Quantum Leap episode “The Color of Truth” is beyond me.
Pictured: Scott Bakula.
You’ve never seen it? Holy god, it’s crazy. You’d think Scott Bakula walking around giving speeches on equality inside a black man’s body would be bad enough, but it gets worse. So at the end of the episode before it, “Double Identity,” the editing implies that he was already sitting at a lunch counter in 1955 when Sam Beckett leaped into him, but at the beginning of this one, it’s changed from being an act of peaceful defiance to Sam unknowingly–
Here comes the kick! Put in the paper! We’re going back up through the timelines! Yes, just like Leonardo Di–
CHUCK BERRY AND GOLDIE WILSON IN AN ALTERNATE TIMELINE:
- We assume Chuck Berry is already a famed musician at the beginning. (We technically have no evidence for this within the film, but sweet hell, we’re escaping here!) If Back to the Future operated on alternate timelines, Marty could do whatever he wants in 1955. He could grab the phone, yell at Chuck, tell him to kill himself, tell him to take up the glockenspiel instead; if he slingshots back to his own original un-Calvin-Kleined 1985, Chuck is still famous without any interference from Marty. In the 1955 Marty messed around with, anything is possible by that universe’s 1985. However, we’ve seen that Chuck has the chops to get famous on his own, so it’s fairly unlikely that one phone call would prevent his career from taking off.
- We know for a fact that Goldie Wilson is the mayor in 1985, and on alternate rules, he accomplished this by himself. Just like with Chuck, Marty can do any manner of nice or awful things to Goldie, which will affect the course of his life, but only in that timeline. When Marty bounces back to his 1985 (if it works that way, writer may vary), Goldie Wilson is still the mayor. But…
- None of this matters because Back to the Future is a mutable timeline. Hold on!
CHUCK BERRY AND GOLDIE WILSON IN AN IMMUTABLE TIMELINE:
- The only possible timeline in which Marty could have legitimately affected Chuck’s career (assuming he didn’t just tell Marvin, “Hey, I can’t hear shit, what is all that noise?” and slam the phone down) and seen the results of his actions prior to his time trip is an immutable one. And if this were the case, we just paradoxed ourselves. Marty learned “Johnny B. Goode” from Chuck, who learned it from Marty, who learned it from Chuck, on and on and on… that can’t happen. That means the song wrote itself somehow. That’s what we call a bootstrap paradox, and you could read that link if we weren’t escaping right now!
- Giving Goldie Wilson the idea to become mayor because Marty knows he becomes mayor is also considered a bootstrap paradox, because ideas have to come from somewhere too. This takes us down a whole path of philosophical, nature vs. nurture, I-wish-I-was-baked sorts of discussions, but I’ve got a simpler idea: go tell ten of your friends that they’ll be mayor someday. The one that actually runs for mayor was probably going to do it anyway, right? But hey, maybe political aspirations really do come from just one incident. However…
- None of this matters because Back to the Future is a mutable timeline. Here we go!
CHUCK BERRY AND GOLDIE WILSON IN A MUTABLE TIMELINE:
- At the beginning of Back to the Future, assuming Chuck Berry is already a famed musician, he got that way without Marty’s help. In a mutable timeline, before the first trip, his tomfoolery in the past doesn’t exist, and that is when Chuck still honed his talents triumphantly. Plus, since changes are possible and we never see or hear anything about Chuck for the remainder of the trilogy, there’s a small chance that Marvin Berry’s phone call actually helped prevent Chucks’s shot at stardom. Or, you know, he still became Chuck Berry, Singer, Guitarist, Pee Pee Punchline. Either way, Marty had no hand in his initial rise to fame.
- The same goes for Goldie Wilson. He was mayor at the beginning of the movie and he never so much as smelled Marty to get there. In addition, we know that he still becomes mayor after talking to Marty because this fact is mentioned by his grandson on a giant talking billboard in Part II. So Goldie Wilson is a self-made success story, no matter what.
Seriously, does anyone move out of Hill Valley?
- This matters because Back to the Future is a mutable timeline. Marty never helped Chuck Berry or Goldie Wilson become successful.
Well, we did it. We’re back. Can’t wait to just phone in next week’s article. Wait, what? Are we still in the movie? Hahaha, no need to worry about that. See, I have this totem. It’s a license plate from Back to the Future. Once we leave the movie, we’ll know we’ve made it out as long as it eventually stops spinning…