WHERE: In the front lobby of the building I work in
FORMAT: iTunes digital copy on an iPhone 4S, wearing Sony MDR-J10 clip-on headphones
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Just walked to work after performing stand-up, listened to Matt Besser’s Woo Pig Sooie: Comedy for Atheists album on the way there, feeling weirdly pensive about my own viewpoints and how I represent them.
Alright, friends, I’m gonna start in with a warning. I’m loving writing articles on all kinds of silly bullshit in the Back to the Future universe. It might be my favorite writing project I’ve ever taken on. And if you also happen to be obsessed with these films, I hope you enjoy reading and discussing my articles as much as I enjoy devoting far too much time to tossing them around in my brain.
Still, at the end of the day, this is not a Back to the Future “fan site.” It’s a science experiment. We’re here to find out how repeated exposure to a movie can affect your behavior. And on this particular day, I was caught in a perfect storm of reflecting on just how much Back to the Future affected my development into the science-loving magic-rejecting absurdist I am today. So as much as I like scribbling out the math on Marty’s temporal displacement or analyzing the two sides of the Hill Valley clock tower debate, this particular article is going to focus less on the film and more on myself.
In short, it’s going to be heavy.
Not now, Doc.
I first started thinking about Back to the Future‘s influence on my worldview after Cinemanaut John posted a results entry on how constant exposure to Jurassic Park is reminding him to look at things scientifically. I urge you to read the whole thing because I enjoy John’s writing very much, but I also would like you to keep reading about me because I am very awesome, so you can skip to the section of his article entitled “Shift to Science” and he’ll be none the wiser.
But will you be able to look him in the eye?
What I found so interesting was that I was always that shitty ever-questioning kid that parents hate, while John admits to having a very dogmatic worldview from a young age. Since the both of us are watching science fiction films repeatedly this year (albeit films packed with nutty magic bullshit science), I find it fascinating that the basic ideas behind the process of science are getting extracted on a weekly basis. The only difference is that I’ve always been a science kid.
Okay, quick story, and I swear it relates to Back to the Future: I was raised by a Christian mother. Hardcore. You might remember her from the time I watched Top Gun with her last year. Anyway, she was a big fan of parables. It pretty much comes with the territory of being religious. When I was very young (I’m going to guess six or seven), she dropped this wisdom nugget on me: “Just because we can’t see God doesn’t mean He isn’t there. You can’t see the wind, but you know it’s real.” Now, either I didn’t have a head for parables or I was exactly the sort of person you should hire to find plot holes in your God stories, but the wind part immediately bothered me. You can feel the wind, and not the emotional “feel,” the air-smacking-against-your-face “feel.” You have senses other than sight that can easily prove that wind exists. And even if you didn’t, you could build a machine for detecting wind. But again, it was just the wind half that angered me. My brain needed a couple more years to consider that maybe scientists should be trying to prove that God exists. And I know just the movie that gave me the idea. The exact frame, actually.
A revelation. A vision. A picture in my head.
The fact that there’s no such thing as the year 0000 is a topic for another time, but what’s important is that Doc Brown typed in the date that Jesus Christ was supposedly born. That’s all it took to fire up my imagination. You see, my mother was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t celebrate Christmas, because they don’t see any evidence in the Bible for Jesus being born on December 25th. I’ll tell you right now, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a weird branch of Jesus fans. I have no idea what was going on in the other sects, but the J-Dubs were always going back to the Bible and claiming that whatever John Q. Christian next door believed didn’t quite have any basis in the text. And then they would knock on that door.
“Good afternoon, were you aware that you’re wrong? Oh, you’re also a Christian? Still wrong.”
So, since Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to simultaneously require evidence and believe in Sky Daddy “just because,” I instantly asked my mom about using a time machine to see when Jesus was born. Of course, I was approaching the idea like a Witness. I was out to prove, not disprove. “Come on, everybody into the DeLorean, let’s go see the exact date that Jesus was born! Then everyone will know the truth and we’ll all be Jehovah’s Witnesses!” Stupid Little Me didn’t even realize that that was how science worked, not religion. To me, science was memorizing facts. Doc was a scientist because he knew the most facts about building a time machine, not because he conducted tests in order to derive a design for his time machine. To be completely honest, my Jesus-fed brain didn’t even truly understand what the scientific method was until college, which is ridiculously sad. Like, it makes me sick to my stomach. I, of course, knew all the steps (because science is memorizing things!), but the idea that knowledge comes from testing beliefs hadn’t yet registered. The doubt was there since childhood, but the beautiful process of science hadn’t clicked yet.
Hypothesis: giant unexpected explosions cause sudden bowel release in teenagers.
In my heart of hearts, though, I just wanted the world to get along, and I thought time travel could fix it. If we could flux capacitor our way to Adam and Eve, the explosion of the sun, or pretty much any rung on the evolutionary ladder, we wouldn’t have to fight over this shit. It’s that easy, right? Mom?
There’s no point in speculating on what my mother said then or what she would say now. I’ve honestly driven all the silly apologist responses out of my mind, but the initial ideas are stuck there, and I have Back to the Future to thank for making them grow. And Star Trek. And The Day the Earth Stood Still. And heavy-handed episodes of Red Dwarf. Am I saying science fiction will make an atheist out of your child? Hahaha, not at all, there are plenty of religious folks who can’t get enough of the lasers and the green women, but if your little heathen has already felt the touch of Satan, anything science-flavored is only going to fire up his or her curiosity.
Especially when science looks this cool.
The other major life lesson I got from Back to the Future was not to put too much stock in fate. You know, the whole cosmic crap shoot? Marty’s hellish struggle to get himself born again taught me just how insane cause-and-effect chains can really be. There was no God reaching out of the clouds to give Marty a reassuring fist-pound that he’d still exist. Some say that Back to the Future is too sappy, but to me, it’s nihilistic as fuck. George and Lorraine weren’t fated to be together; it was all just a roll of the dice, one that Marty had to work his ass off re-rolling once he screwed it up. It made me reflect on the infinite number of ways my life could have turned out, and how there was no point in wasting time wondering if I’d made the right decision, because a thousand other moments of my personal history could have been altered by just one different choice.
What if George had ordered strawberry milk? Gasp!
Of course, everything I’ve just said is nothing new to me. I’ve known how integral Back to the Future was to the way I see the world for a long time now. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind during this viewing. I thank the filmmakers for guiding me down the path to logic and critical thinking, whether that was their intent or not. I’m not sure if a scientific viewpoint attracts one to scientific films or vice versa, but… somebody ought to do an experiment on it.