Thinking Fourth Dimensionally – The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Time Travel via Back To The Future
“Wait a minute… waitaminute Doc… You’re telling me you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?”
Time travel has been a fascination of mine for most of my life. One of my favorite movies (or series of movies) growing up was Back To The Future – not just because of the great characters, comedic moments, or even the time-traveling DeLorean itself. The reason I loved the movies (and still do) is in the way they demonstrate the nature of time itself. Not necessarily time travel specifically – but the analysis of the difference in cultures through time, an overview on the nature of cause and effect, and the problems associated with time travel itself (both within the narrative and with the writing itself). They are subjects I still like to think about today, and part of the foundation for Iravelon’s opening “Prologue” (or perhaps “Revologue” or “Annihilogue” or “Eprologue” might better describe it) and the events that shape the series as a whole.
“Save the Clock Tower!”
Back to the Future (and its sequels) focus on a fictional area of California called Hill Valley, at multiple different time periods. The films are “based” (that is, starting out and finishing in) the year of 1985 – the year of the first film’s debut. The culture of the 1980s is presented front and center – not just as the temporal bookend of the story of the films, but also as the lens through which all other events are viewed. Marty McFly, a teenager in 1985, is the perspective we most often follow – and thus our perspective is shaped, at least to a degree, by his reactions. We see the often idealized 1950’s through all three films, with some Hollywood veneer not buffing out the problems of the era. Indeed the dates around the week of November 5th to the 12th of 1955 get more screen time than any other time period in the whole trilogy. We see the distant future year of 2015 – a representation that at most points is wildly inaccurate, but for all its retro-futuristic style actually seems almost prescient at times. And of course we round out things 100 years in the past in 1885, in a Hill Valley more representative of the Old West.
“Alternate To You… Me… and Einstein… but Reality for Everyone Else.”
But wait… there is another setting for the films that I’m leaving out, isn’t there? What about alternate 1985 (“1985A” as Doc describes it), where Biff’s older self gave went back and gave his younger self the Gray’s Sports Almanac and reshaped the timeline for the worse? Well sure, that’s one alternate 1985 timeline. It’s more like 1985B by the time we see it though. Through the films we really see at least four iterations of the 1985 era. First at the beginning, where Marty’s story begins (Twin Pines 1985). Next at the end of the first film and the beginning of the second, where Marty’s family is more successful and his father more confident (Lone Pine 1985). Obviously we have the alternate 1985 where Biff is corrupt and powerful (“Hell” Valley 1985). Then right at the end, we have the version Marty comes back to from the old west (Eastwood Ravine 1985). Though Lone Pine 1985 seems to be the “good” 1985 we end up on, it’s important to remember what the movies display, even if in a simplified fashion- cause and effect, and what happens when the cause is changed or a new cause is introduced.
“You’re just not thinking fourth dimensionally!”
We see the nature of cause and effect played out through all of the Back To The Future movies- typically through the change caused in the causes which we see the effect of with an altered timeline. Marty interrupts the first meeting of his parents, putting his siblings and his own existence at risk. Marty introduces a scenario for his younger father to overcome a situation with confidence, leading to a future where George McFly is a confident man and accomplished science fiction writer. Old Biff gives his younger self a sports almanac, giving him insight and a betting edge to make a fortune. Some changes we don’t see much impact of aside for a newspaper changing – such as Biff’s grandson Griff being arrested in 2015. Or the events of Back to the Future Part III, culminating in the train crash and Marty’s disappearance in 1885 leading to a ravine in Hill Valley changing from being called Clayton Ravine to Eastwood Ravine. It is the changes in the setting and characters that gives us context for the changing timeline. Even if we are not used to, as Doc says, “thinking fourth dimensionally,” we have clear examples of the nature of changing events and what the results are. It’s this fact that functions as the (somewhat overshadowed) main plot device of Back to the Future, the hinge-point and moral quandary of Back to the Future Part II, and the regret and eventual triumph of Back to the Future Part III – time travel inherently has (and causes) problems.
“A paradox!? You mean one of those things that can destroy the Universe?”
The obvious oft-lamented issues with time travel are highlighted at multiple times by Doc, particularly through parts 2 and 3. Changes in the past, no matter how seemingly small, have repercussions that can potentially skew the future into wildly divergent or destructive futures. Be it accidentally stopping your own parents from meeting, accidentally saving someone’s life who originally died, or allowing (however unwillingly) someone to manipulate time to intentionally distort the timeline. The problem with the Back to the Future series in this aspect is – how exactly is anyone even aware of the changes, even by the film’s own rules? How does time travel even work? These are questions that aren’t easily answered without some fairly hand-wavy “logic” and an inconsistency in how time itself is handled by the films.
“That’s a very interesting story Future Boy!”
In general, “time”, as in the nature of how events progress through time, can be considered in three different ways, with different repercussions for each.
1.) Time is immutable.
If time travel occurs, any changes in the timeline already occurred. So if you went back in time to kill Hitler or whatever, either somehow it would be prevented or you would have killed the wrong person, or something. Basically all events have transpired and nothing can be changed. Read Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” (or see the excellent film adaptation Predestination) for an example of this, more or less. Back to the Future obviously doesn’t use this theory of time.
2.) Time is a straight line, but can be changed. Changes risk paradoxes.
This should sound more familiar – after all, Doc often brings up the risks of paradoxes, particularly in Back to the Future Part II. Meeting a version of yourself can apparently risk a paradox that could “destroy the entire universe”. It isn’t clear exactly how Doc thinks a paradox might occur if Jennifer meets herself earlier in the movie. Later on, he mentions a possible paradox if Marty’s actions in 1955 might interfere with his earlier self (from the events of the first film), it could cause a paradox by preventing his earlier self from getting back to 1985. This is an accurate description of a paradox in this theory of time, so his logic is correct… in this particular case.
Doc: “Granted that’s a worst-case-scenario… the destruction might in fact be localized to our own galaxy.”
3.) Time is a branching of multiple, possibly infinite parallel timelines. No chance of paradoxes.
This might also sound familiar, especially if you remember Doc’s chalkboard description of the alternate 1985 (written as “1985A” in his description). By this logic, a change to the past would simply create a new timeline in which events play out differently because of the change. This is played out by Old Biff from 2015 going back and giving his younger self the Gray’s Sports Almanac – this creates a new timeline.
Doc: “Obviously… the Time Continuum has been disrupted creating this new temporal event sequence resulting in this alternate reality…” Marty: “English, Doc!”
And shortly thereafter…
Doc: “Prior to this point in time , somewhere in the past the timeline skewed into this tangent creating an alternate 1985…”
At this point, of course, Marty suggests they go back to the future to stop Old Biff from taking the DeLorean in the first place.
Marty: “Right so we go back to the future… and we stop Biff from stealing the Time Machine -“ Doc: “We can’t – because – if we travel into the future from this point in time it will be the future of this reality!”
So, to sum up – making a change alters the timeline, going forward from that change will be the future of the timeline now shaped by the change. Now, you might already see an issue with that in regards to Back to the Future Part II, just a short while before the conversation quoted above – we’ll get to that, don’t worry.
“Well, it’s all in the past.” “You mean the future.” “Whatever!”
First, we have your basic goofy movie logic. For instance, Marty travels to the past and ends up preventing his own parents from meeting. This presents two issues, one building off of the other –
- In Back to the Future, if Marty prevented his own birth, shouldn’t he instantly disappear?
- The filmmakers mention a “Ripple Effect” of time travel that sounds like some atemporal effect that somehow allows events to transpire without the repercussions immediately affecting the main characters of the movies. One could argue this is because changes in the timeline don’t affect you if you are temporally displaced, and only catch up with you when you return to your original time. I mean, I guess I can buy it for the movie, though there isn’t anything to really support it.
- If we’re really dealing with single-timeline logic, wouldn’t this now create a paradox? Since Marty should no longer exist, he wouldn’t have been able to travel to the past previously, meaning he couldn’t stop himself from existing, meaning he could travel back to the past… thus the paradox.
- This also feeds into the “Ripple Effect”, but also another idea from the filmmakers that I’ll address later.
- In Back to the Future Part II, how can Marty, Doc, and Jennifer go into the future and see themselves? If they left the timeline in 1985 to travel to the future, wouldn’t that mean they would have been missing for 30 years by the time 2015 rolls around?
- Something about how “oh, that just means they’re going to get back to their original time safely” or something like that. Even though when they go back in time again to 1985, they get to 1985A, which Doc explicitly states they can’t go back to the future from or it will be 2015A.
“The appropriate question is: ‘When the Hell are they!?'”
I went back and thought about the issue above a bit later (after I’d written it out and finished writing most of this post), and I remembered a specific part of the first movie in the series. It’s when Marty meets up with Doc and the Time Machine is first revealed. Doc initiates “Temporal Experiment #1”, where his dog Einstein is put into the DeLorean and Doc uses a remote control to drive the car up to 88 mph, for the first actual test of the time circuits and the Flux Capacitor. As he describes it, when the car vanishes and then reappears one minute later, the car (and Einstein) skip over the intervening minute to instantly arrive one minute later in time. As far as Einstein is concerned “the trip was instananeous,” we see when Marty suddenly arrives at the Peabody farm a few minutes later (and 30 years earlier). It’s actually a great explanation of time travel in general. However, there is an important detail here that never really comes up again: Einstein and the car were gone for an entire minute. Yes, the trip was instantaneous for Einstein. Yes, it was only a minute. But for that minute of intervening time, Einstein and the DeLorean NO LONGER EXIST. They instantly reappear one minute after they disappear, but did were essentially NOWHERE within that minute. This is the only time (aside from maybe some of the time we see Doc in 1955 after Back to the Future) where we see the characters going at normal time while someone else travels to the future. So – if Einstein was gone for that minute, what if it was 10 minutes? Obviously he would disappear and be gone for 10 minutes, right? What about a day? Well, 24 hours later he would reappear, having been absent for a whole day. A month? Well, hopefully Doc would have switched out the dog food by then because even if it was instantaneous for Einstein, it would have been 30 days for Doc, Marty, and that pile of dog chow we see at the opening of the film. So what about 30 years? That would sure be a long time for Doc to live without his trusty companion, but 30 years later he would reappear just as lively as Doc remembered him all the way back in 1985, and after three decades they would be reunited. So by that logic – Back to the Future Part II is COMPLETELY WRONG! When Doc brings Marty and Jennifer to 2015, he should encounter a completely different vision of the future from what he saw before – a future where 30 years prior, two families were struck by a sudden tragedy – the disappearance of their children, Marty McFly and Jennifer Parker. People might think they eloped or ran off, but no one would know anything for sure because on October 27, 1985, the two seemingly vanished. Crazed reports from one supposed witness told tales of a flying car in the area, although no one took such crackpot stories seriously as flying cars weren’t invented for around another 20-25 years. So maybe that’s why we don’t actually see much future-travel in the films. It’s fun, sure, but it isn’t really reliable one way or another.
- Why didn’t 2015 change around Marty and Doc when Old Biff stole the time machine and traveled back to 1955 to alter the timeline?
- Maybe it did, but we didn’t really get to see it? Possible. However-
- How did Old Biff get the DeLorean back to his normal 2015? Shouldn’t he have gone to an alternate 2015 based on Doc’s later comments?
- Technically, 30 years after Old Biff gives 1955 Biff the Sports Almanac, we have 1985A. Traveling forward from there should get you to a 2015A, as Doc says when explaining the changes to the timeline. So really, we have two separate problems –
- If we’re dealing with one continuous timeline –
- Biff changes his younger self’s fortunes, so either he should be changed or no longer exist because his younger self had the Almanac.
- Biff being now changed, wouldn’t get to the point where he would ever take the DeLorean back and give himself the Almanac – PARADOX.
- Biff changing the timeline should lead to events preventing Marty and Doc from ever using the Time Machine (if it would have even been built).
- No Time Machine, no time travel, no Almanac to younger Biff, no changes to the timeline – PARADOX.
- If we’re dealing with multiple timelines/realities (as Doc describes it later) –
- Old Biff should have gone to the future of 2015A if he went back to the future after giving his younger self the Sports Almanac.
- Marty and Doc would thus be stuck in the future, with no Time Machine, since the one they had is now in a different timeline.
- You’re going to tell me the DeLorean can figure out which timeline it went from and somehow skip through realities to get back to Doc and Marty? Well then why couldn’t they just go back to 2015 after seeing 1985A and stop Biff from stealing the time machine?
- Back to the Future Part III actually doesn’t present anything huge in itself that the other films don’t also ignore.
Those are specifics, more or less. But what about more general concepts? If each change to the timeline actually creates a new reality, then wouldn’t there be alternate Martys and Docs in those timelines? For example – Marty goes back in time in Back to the Future. He changes history 30 years before in 1955, creating a new timeline. He then goes back to 1985. This new timeline has completely different versions of his parents, siblings, and even Biff. (Somehow his girlfriend is largely unaffected, but we’ll get to that.) Why wouldn’t there be some alternate Marty that has also been changed by the new circumstances of his family? The Marty that we follow is an intruder on a new timeline, a doppleganger from an alternate reality! And this is all over the place! Each change, each trip through time should create changes in the timeline resulting in new realities. We observe, as I pointed out earlier, several different potential alternate versions of 1985. Each one of those should have its own version of Marty and Doc, though they conveniently seem to step in and fill in the gap. Not to mention that Marty now likely has a completely different memory of growing up with his family than the rest of his family does. Heck, he’s lucky they even lived in the same house.
“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”
So time travel is complicated. As fun as Back to the Future is, it isn’t really what you might call a perfect representation of temporal mechanics (not that such a thing really exists, but others have likely gotten closer). However, it is those flaws that give us a chance to question and explore the way time travel might actually work, and give us enough possible inconsistencies to explore to help us understand the issues associated with time travel itself. Sorry if this has all been a bit “heavy” on dissecting details of time travel, but it’s one of those subjects I enjoy discussing. Not sure if that’s obvious. On that subject – this is only Part 1! Now that we have the introduction and basics out of the way (that was all fairly basic, right?), we can get on to the complicated stuff! Part 2 – Causality and Time Loops!
Addendum – DoppLoreans
“The Doc’s alive! He’s in the Old West but he’s alive!”
Back to the Future Part II ends by leading into Part III with a letter from Doc, sent from September 1, 1885. Marty receives this letter mere minutes after seeing the DeLorean get struck by lightning out near the Hilldale development on November 12, 1955. In Part III, as you may know, Marty and Doc (the 1955 “counterpart”) go on to retrieve a DeLorean that Doc (the 1985 version who got zapped back to 1885) hid in a mine near Hill Valley. They go on to outfit this (now more than 70-year-old) DeLorean to allow Marty to go back to 1885 to retrieve Doc (again, the 1885-1985 version – who I guess is technically the 1955 version just aged by 30 years). So, if we look at this scenario in the “straight-line” version of time, then technically this DeLorean has been here the whole time. It didn’t just pop into existence the moment the lightning bolt struck in Part II. So at one point on November 12, 1955, there were three different versions of the same DeLorean in various parts of Hill Valley. More versions of the DeLorean than versions of Marty! The interesting question is – how many versions of Doc were there? Well, you could say that right before the end of Part II there were three versions (prior to Doc-1985 getting sent to 1885) – one of them is just a pile of bones in a nearly 70-year-old grave! Then again, since Marty goes back to the past to get Doc, this all changes so that Doc doesn’t end up dying. Well then whose grave did Marty and Doc-1955 see if Doc-1985 didn’t end up dying?! PARADOX or some kind of offscreen timeline repair? Of course, if we go with the “multiverse” or “split-timeline” theory of time, then Marty should have been stuck in 1955 (this would be Timeline A), never to reappear in 1985 (at least, if he did reappear he would be 30 years older). The moment the DeLorean gets sent back to 1885 should have created a new timeline (Timeline B) in which Doc spontaneously appeared back in 1885 and then died, as we know from the beginning of Back to the Future Part III. The fun thing is that THIS timeline might actually be fairly similar to the timeline we’re aware of, which could end up leading to the same scenario, but with the Doc from Timeline A leaving a letter to be found by the Marty from Timeline B, resulting in what we see at the beginning of Part III with Marty resolving to go back and save Doc. Then, of course, when Marty travels back to 1885 himself, this creates ANOTHER timeline (Timeline C) where Marty and Doc would both survive and leave the 1885 era, and Marty would reappear back in 1985. Thus Timeline C would end up looking like what we know from Part III, but Timeline B would essentially end up the same as Timeline A, except no Marty at all (not even one ending up in 1985 30 years older than he should be). This all assumes, of course, that the shenanigans that Doc and Marty get up to in 1885 don’t have some weird butterfly effect change that reshapes Hill Valley in some way that alters the story we know. Play Telltale’s Back to the Future: The Game to see something like that – it’s actually pretty good, though still about as indecisive as the movies as far as how time actually works.