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: Just got home from work.
The trope of the absent-minded professor has a long history in film. For some reason, we like our scientists intensely focused on their experiments while simultaneously forgetting to wear pants. Why is that? Does it make us feel better about ourselves, knowing that we might not be able to harness the powers of the universe, but at least we’re aware of societal norms in regards to keeping our junk a secret? Why are the intelligent also frequently portrayed as clueless?
Caractacus Potts, realizing he left his children at the junkyard.
Doctor Emmett L. Brown is no exception. I’ve previously compiled a list of everything Doc Brown does in Back to the Future that suggests a severe lack of focus, but do Doc’s actions go beyond a touch of ADHD? Is he, in fact, a shitty scientist?
Doc Brown, realizing he ignored the most basic aspects of his field of study.
During today’s viewing, I came up with three possible weak spots in Doc’s ability to explore and understand time travel. For a guy who runs around criticizing teenagers for failing to think fourth-dimensionally, explain why…
1) Doc Brown never tests sending the DeLorean into the past.
If your shower has been on the fritz for a few days, do you only try out the knob marked “COLD” and then dive the hell on in? No, you do not. And yet, Doc Brown, who faces consequences far more severe than a little boiling water on the nads, decides that the only knob that matters in his nuclear insanity car is “Future.”
“Radiation poisoning? Marty, my dog has remained alive for several seconds. On with the show!”
Post-test analysis aside, Doc’s only safety check involves strapping his dog Einstein into the time machine and sending him one minute into the future. It works, Doc’s impressed, research complete. Without even an inkling of curiosity about trying it in the other direction, he’s all ready to grab his luggage and see what the year 2010 has to offer.
One of the many horrors that await Doc in the year 2010.
“Bill, I highly doubt that this was Doc’s only time travel test,” John Q. Strawman is angrily typing before deciding on “fuck-turd” or “cum hamper” for the big finisher. Well, fine, let’s say that Doc specifically identifying the parking lot vroom-vrooms as “Temporal Experiment Number One” somehow doesn’t mean that this is his first rodeo with a capacitor of flux. You might point to the scene earlier in the film where all of his clocks are 25 minutes slow. Is this from a previous time travel experiment?
One that requires taking all of these clocks down and putting them back again?
Well, even if I grant you that scenario (and I don’t, Johnny Strawman), all of the clocks are 25 minutes slow. That would mean he sent them 25 minutes into the future. And he sent his dog into the future. Before attempting to embark on a vacation in the future.
Doc’s not really a “past” guy, is where I’m going with this.
If he’d kept his boner for the next millennium in check, he might have stopped long enough to think about figuring out the straight dope on paradoxes. As a temporal scientist, you can’t tell me it never crossed his mind. Hell, as a Jules Verne fan, he must have come across paradoxical science fiction at some point. Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder” was published back in 1952, before Doc even invented the flux capacitor. And the grandfather paradox comes from a 1943 book by René Barjavel, who, like Mr. Verne, is also a French science fiction author. I know not everybody is as obsessed with time travel stories as I am, but come on, this is all in Doc’s wheelhouse.
“Are you done talking, Bill? Can we future now?”
Look, Imaginary Doc Brown That I Have Conversations With On A Regular Basis, if I were you, here’s what I would have done before stepping into my potentially deadly science machine. First, send Einstein one minute into the future. Then run all the tests you possibly can on him, especially anything involving a Geiger counter. Time permitting (har har), maybe wait a week and run those same tests again. Once you’re convinced future travel is safe, send Einstein one minute into the past. When he arrives from the future, shoot the past version of Einstein in his little furry face.
Oh. Hmm. I feel like I lost some readers on that one. Big anti-dog-murder crowd?
Actually, yeah, get the dog out of the equation. Why are you experimenting on animals that you’ve grown attached to, anyway? What I meant to say was “send a cantaloupe one minute into the past.” When that cantaloupe blasts its way to you from the future, cut the cantaloupe that’s in your hand in half, then watch what happens to Future Fruit. Oh, no, I’ve named it now. I wuv you, Future Fruit! Who’s a widdles? You are!
This simple test would allow you to see if your time machine operates on mutable, immutable, or alternate timeline rules, which is information you want to have before you go around defiling history. If you successfully cut the cantaloupe in half and Future Fruit is now magically halved, it’s mutable and you should destroy the machine because that’s the messiest kind of time travel, and I’m not talking about the cantaloupe guts all over your leather seats. If you slice it and nothing happens, it’s alternate, which means you can’t unborn yourself, but you can unborn the other version of yourself that would have been born here AAAGH next one. If you go for the chop and a pigeon steals the knife from you, you live in both an immutable and poorly written universe.
As I’ve explained before… at great length… Marty and Doc live in a mutable universe.
By the way, I had a very hard time trying to picture just exactly how a one-minute trip into the past would look to an outside observer, and I must admit, it broke my brain. Or at the very least, the rules of how memories work in Part II, but oh my damn, we have two more sections to get through, so let’s save this hypothetical cantaloupe slaying for later and scratch our heads over why…
2) Doc Brown doesn’t dive into the DeLorean at the first sign of a threat.
Since Doc doesn’t seem to have any reservations about using his time machine, you’d think a really good moment to jump back an hour would be, oh, I don’t know, maybe when you spot the van of a terrorist who you thought you’d given the slip?
Also, Doc’s eyesight must be amazing if he can tell those are Libyans.
I’d say that van is plenty far away to give Doc enough time to grab Marty, hop in the DeLorean, and use that pre-loaded plutonium pellet to warp back a day or two and hatch a plan for taking these guys out. But how, you ask? Well, J. Straw, full psychopath is an option (especially with all the Huey Lewis). Jump out of one of those bushes and toss a grenade in the van, if you’re not afraid to kill, or just bloodlessly PG them into submission with your [I dunno, I'm not a screenwriter].
If you’re worried about creating paradoxes because seeing them roll up is what initially inspired you to jump in the DeLorean, no problem. Just hide out and nab ‘em after Past You takes off. You don’t need to talk to your other self or make spaghetti out of the space-time continuum; all you need is a solid head start to drop your plan of attack on these suckas.
A time-release crate of scorpions in the van? Doc, you sick bastard, I love it.
Oh, another good reason to hop in the DeLorean is because it’s a car. Cars go fast. Away from people. Time circuits or not.
Now, I completely understand that it’s tough to think rationally when a maniac is waving an AK-47 at you, but hey, maybe if Doc had spent more time considering the possibilities of traveling to the past, the idea would have sprung to mind a little faster. Unfortunately, Doc isn’t just bad with split-second decisions. Matter of fact, thirty years isn’t even enough lead time for this guy, because…
3) Doc Brown allows Marty’s original 1985 “accident” to happen all over again.
This is partially also a gripe on the time travel rules of Back to the Future, but while I’m confused about them from the safety of my own couch, Doc Brown has to live within them.
I’m feeling a bit Bastian-y. But I’m shouting, “Be scientific!”
After 1955 Doc successfully returns Marty to 1985, what then? Does he have to live the next thirty years exactly as he did the first time? First of all, that’s impossible according to the butterfly effect, but nevertheless, Doc decides that he must get shot at by terrorists all over again and a terrified Marty must go to 1955 again. Which, by the way, wearing a bulletproof vest? Sort of changing the timeline there, Doc. You figured that three decades of your life had to unfold in the exact same manner, but you can fudge this one little detail on the last day?
Let’s hope they don’t aim for his knowingly grinning face.
The basic question that we never see answered in the trilogy is this: what happens if you prevent a time travel trip from occurring? Every other event seems able to be rippled, so I don’t see why temporal displacements themselves are sacred occurrences set in stone. Wouldn’t it be safer to just never send Marty back in time in the first place? I feel like that plan checks out. I’ve discussed before that memories are inexplicably unaffected by time travel, so if Doc stops Marty from going back in time, none of the birth prevention mishaps with his parents will happen, but post-1955 Doc still scores all of that future knowledge for free while his past changes around him. Oh man, did I just uncover one sweet exploitable loophole? The possibilities for personal gain are endless, but job one is getting Marty out of the mix.
“Hey, Marty, why don’t you leave town for a week?” Mission. Accomplished.
I’ll fully admit that maybe I’ve misunderstood this film’s shaky-at-best ripple effects and the time travel rules wouldn’t operate like that at all, but you know what would be a great way to find out? Doing some more tests. Like a scientist.
GREAT SCOTT, WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
If you’re not one of those TL;DR types who runs away screaming at the first sign of any possible error in your favorite movie, thank you for sticking around, because while it might seem like I’m super-angry about a shoddy plotline, I’m not. In this case, logic is trumped by another important aspect of any film: character.
Aww, look at this guy.
Doc Brown is a brilliant scatter-brain. The ideas are in his head, but they don’t always come out at the right time. He’d be a completely different character if he calmly and methodically sketched out plans for his flux capacitor, but no, the screenwriters have him bash his head off of the bathroom sink and frantically scribble down a diagram. Knowing Doc, if he hadn’t bothered to sketch his little vision, he probably would have forgotten it and moved on to invisibility juice or something.
“What if you could shrink rain? Marty! Get me a pen!”
It’s been argued that intense bursts of focus on one subject while being completely unaware of everything else may be a common trait of the best real-world scientists, but I think there’s more to Doc than just mimicking reality. The screenwriters knew that they could utilize the classic trope of the absent-minded professor to cover up gaps in story logic. While this might feel like a cheap trick to some, why does it consistently work so well? What makes the absent-minded professor such an appealing character?
As I was writing this article, I took a short break to talk with Cinemanaut Becca about her day. Suddenly, I cut her off mid-sentence. I realized that the DeLorean makes a perfectly fine getaway vehicle regardless of its time travel capabilities. Wow, I’m a doofus; how did I miss something so obvious? I immediately ran out of the room to write it down so I wouldn’t forget about it later.
And that’s why we like our professors absent-minded. They remind us of ourselves.
The next time you put your phone in the fridge, think of your pal Emmett.