BACK TO THE DELOREAN DILEMMA

Time Traveling Events in the Back to the Future Movies

By Scott Warner

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Trying to unscramble the loony, loopy timelines of the Back to the Future movies can be as difficult as unscrambling the eggs in Doc Brown's food processor. Disregarding the paradoxes inherent in the very idea of time travel itself, the real difficulty lies in the fact that the three films often violate their own internal precepts about temporal displacement. If the true import of time travel in the BttF movies is to be fully comprehended, then several complex issues must be addressed. According to no less an authority than Emmett L. Brown, a new space/time continuum is created whenever historical events are altered. Although there is a correlation between time traveling events and the generation of new continuums, there is a distinct qualitative difference between the two. It is the modification of past history which gives birth to a new timestream, not the act of chronological errantry itself.

The very "first" instance of continuum generation in Back to the Future occurs in 1955. After George McFly peeks into Lorraine's bedroom window, Marty pushes him out of the path of a car driven by Lorraine's father. This seemingly inconsequential act has the devastating effect of erasing Marty's future existence. Thus a brand new 1955 continuum is directly generated from its predecessor and the story then seems to advance quite naturally to its next subplot. However, upon deeper reflection, this process poses five unanswered questions.

When a new continuum is born, how do the characters make the transition to the parallel universe? When Marty shoves his father out of the way, the transition to the new worldline occurs instantaneously without any of the flash or fanfare of Delorean time warps. All of the characters simply and suddenly inhabit a new and slightly different timeline. In addition, only those characters that have made a Delorean time jump are aware of any changes. Furthermore, the effects of the transition are not solely confined to the major characters. Since the lives of Goldie Wilson and Chuck Berry are significantly altered by Marty's deed, it can be assumed that the ripple effect will impact the lives of many people and will persist into the continuum's future including their own descendents. It can also be postulated that all of the subsequent troubles in all of the films are directly attributable to "Calvin Klein" saving his father from a minor concussion!

This raises the second question: when a new continuum is created, what happens to the previous one? Does it blithely continue on with copies of everyone living out their lives or does the original continuum simply end, pinched out of existence by the ascendancy of the next? Unfortunately, the films provide very little evidence on this subject. The simplistic chalkboard diagram drawn by Doctor Brown suggests that the original does persist. However, at no point in the movies does a character manage to revisit an old continuum after the generation of a new one (refer to diagram). On the surface, it might seem that the characters have returned to the original continuum, yet there are always significant differences. So it seems that even if the old universe survives, it is permanently sealed off and therefore the question is moot. In a related issue, Emmitt further explains that if they were to travel from 1985 Mark V into the future, it would naturally have to 2015 V. But what if they traveled into the past? On Doc Brown's diagram, no past is displayed but agin, it would have to 1955 V or 1885 V. Does this past already exist or would they be creating it from primeval space/time fabric by the act of chrono-errantry? In either case, it would still be the V worldline. Stephen Hawking must be giggling!

The third issue involves attempts to repair an already altered timeline. There are four examples of this phenomenon in the films: Marty insuring the marriage of his parents in 1955 Mark II (BttF 1); foiling Griff's criminal plans in 2015 III (BttF 2); Biff giving the almanac to his younger self in 1955 IV (BttF 2); and Marty stealing the almanac back in 1955 V (BttF 2). As noted above, the original timeline can not be restored. So the surviving continuum is merely altered again to produce a more acceptable result. Though the events at the "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance turn out essentially the way they were meant to be, their long-term effect is quite drastic and much more amenable for the entire McFly family. In the first and fourth of these "restoration" cases, the continuum is re-altered without even resorting to the Delorean. It could be argued that BttF 3 is one long re-alteration to bring final resolution to all the loose ends.

The fourth issue involves chronological excursions which produce no observable changes. This problem is rooted in the inherent paradoxes of time travel itself. There are only two instances of this type in the movies: Einstein's brief trip at the start of the first film and Emmett's eight months of existence in 1885 before the arrival of Marty. In the case of Einstein, does the existence of a character who is only sixty seconds younger than he should be constitute enough of a difference to give birth to a new continuum? It might not seem so until you consider Brown's case. 1885 appears to be perfectly normal, yet it contains a fifty year old man who has not yet been born. This man has also already invented temporal mechanics but this act won't occur for another 70 years. This man has even already visited the 21st century which won't start for 115 years. Most important of all, he can even make iced tea! These certainly seem to be a significant anomalies even though no historical events have been altered yet, such as saving Clara Clayton's life. As noted previously, if Doc Brown changed the course of 1885 between January 1st and September 2nd, the "altered" version of Marty in 1955 would either not be aware of it or else his existence might have been terminated.

If the fourth supposition is correct, then the fifth issue arises and it's the trickiest of all. It may be that continuum alteration is an automatic and inescapable reflex function of the very first Delorean time traveling event, that all subsequent events depend from this one act. Indeed, it can be postulated that the beginning was Doc Brown's original brainstorm about the flux capacitor in 1955! In other words, the past, present and future fates of all the BttF characters were completely predetermined by this triumph of genius. Hello, hello butthead! Anybody home? This hypothesis is in direct opposition to the films' stated philosophy that each person's density... excuse me, destiny... is a fluid ongoing process like metamorphic headlines, disappearing photographs and multi-cadaver tombstones. Nevertheless, the characters may have been reduced to nothing more than "Chicken!" eggs in a Rube Goldberg food processor, just waiting to be scrambled. So sit back, order some chocolate milk but hold on, warm up the hoverboard but close your eyes and just enjoy the ride.

 To Be Continued...


SEQUENTIAL ORDER OF DEPARTURES (all times are assumed to be Pacific Standard Time)
D = Doctor Emmitt BrownE = Einstein
M = Marty McFlyC = Clara Clayton
J = Jennifer ParkerX = Jules Brown
B = Biff TannenY = Verne Brown
(* not shown during movies......# not shown on continuum diagram)

#CharactersDeparture DateContinuumTimeDirectionArrival DateContinuumTime
1#ESat Oct 261985 - I1:20 amfutureSat Oct 261985 - I (?)1:21 am
2MSat Oct 261985 - I1:35 ampastSat Nov 51955 - I6:00 am
3MSat Nov 121955 - III10:04 pmfutureSat Oct 261985 - III1:24 am
4DESat Oct 261985 - IIIUnknownfutureUnknown2015 - IIIUnknown*
5*#DUnknown2015 - IIIUnknown?Unknown2015 - IIIUnknown*#
6DUnknown2015 - IIIUnknownpastSat Oct 261985 - III10:32 am
7DMJSat Oct 261985 - III10:34 amfutureWed Oct 212015 - III4:29 pm
8BWed Oct 212015 - IV7:23 pmpastSat Nov 121955 - IVUnknown*
9*BSat Nov 122015 - V7:28 pmfutureWed Oct 212015 - V7:27 pm
10DMJEWed Oct 212015 - V7:28 pmpastSat Oct 261985 - V9:00 pm
11DMSun Oct 271985 - V2:42 ampastSat Nov 121955 - V6:00 am
12DSat Nov 121955 - VI9:50 pmpastThu Jan 11885 VI12:00 am
13MWed Nov 161955 - VIUnknownpastWed Sep 21885 - VIUnknown pm
14MMon Sep 71885 - VI8:14 amfutureSun Oct 271985 - VIII11:00 am
15*DC(XY)Unknown1885 - VIIIUnknownfutureUnknown2015 - VIIIUnknown*
16*DCXY(E)Unknown2015 - VIIIUnknownpastSun Oct 271985 - VIIIUnknown
17DCXYESun Oct 271985 - VIIIUnknownpastUnknownUnknownUnknown

Chronological Order of Departure: 14 - 15 - 9 - 12 - 3 - 13 - 1 - 2 - 4 - 7 - 11 - 17 - 5? - 6 - 16
Chronological Order of Arrivals: 12 - 13 - 17? - 2 + 11 - 8 - 1 - 3 - 6 - 10 - 14 - 16 - 7 - 9 - 4? - 5? - 15?

CONTINUUMS (x = existing continuum; o = continuum extinction)
 1885 1955 1985 2015
I


  x
x
o

<---------2---------M


x


  
II


  x
x
o

    
III


  x


M---------3--------->


x
x
x

DE--------4-------->
<---------6---------D
DMJ-------7------->
x
x
o

IV


  x
x
o

<---------8-----------


<---


<---------8---------B


x


V


  x
x
o

B----------9--------->

<--------11-------DM
--->
x
x

---------9---------->
<------10------DMJE

x
x

VI


x
x
o

<---------12--------D
<-------13---------M

x
x

 :
JE
:
  
VII


x
x
o

   :
:
:

  
VIII


x
x
x

M--------14--------->
DC(XY)-----15----->
?<---------17---------
--->
--->
<---
---------14---------->
-----------15-------->
<-----17-----DCXYE
x
--->
x

---------15---------->
<-----16------DCXY

x
x

Notes on time traveling events
BTTF 1
1. Oct 26, 1985-I: (future) An English sheepdog named Einstein is the "first" time traveler in history. Whether this event automatically generates a new continuum or not is indeterminate. (This sequence is not displayed in the continuum diagram.)
2. Oct 26, 1985-I: (past) The "first" human time traveling event is an accident. Marty's exact time of departure is never displayed and cannot be calculated from Einstein's trip due to jump cuts in the film. However, at the end of the movie when Marty runs up to the mall just as Doc Brown is shot, the bank's clock reads 1:33 am. Using this as a reference point, the Delorean is chased by the Libyans at the start of the movie for exactly two minutes before departure. During Marty's week-long sojourn in 1955, he manages to instantaneously create the new parallel universe of 1955-II by saving his father from a traffic accident and perhaps extinguishing the original continuum. However, 1955-II is also pinched out of existence when Marty accidentally misses his fake tryst with his own mother. Great Scott! This second example of pinch-out creates the next worldline, 1955-III.
3. Nov 12, 1955-III: (future) Marty returns to 1985-III "ten minutes" earlier then Doc Brown's murder. The chronometer is set for 1:24 am (incorrect timing - see above). After his arrival, Marty crashes into the Assembly of Christ Church (formerly the Town Theater) and then drives back up the street. Thirty-three seconds have elapsed but the bank's clock just then clicks over to 1:24 am (second incorrect timing). After Doc Brown is shot, the Libyans chase the Delorean for only sixty seconds before departure. Robert Zemeckis has economically snipped out sixty seconds of the chase scene. (The timing of the "original" departure is used in the table.)
4. Oct 26, 1985-III: (future) Doc and Einstein travel into the future. Though there is no hard evidence, Doc's stated destination is 2015-III. The time of departure isn't displayed but is approximately 2:00 am. The time of arrival is also unknown.
6. Unknown date, 2015-III: (left) Doc returns to 1985-III just before the end of the first movie, an event which is recapitulated at the start of Bttf 2. (This event is not shown in the table.) The role of Jennifer is played by Wendy Jo Sperber.
BTTF 2
5. Unknown date, 2015-III: ( ? ) Doc travels through time to investigate Marty Jr's crime (perhaps more than once since he knows about the daughter's jailbreak scheme). The number of trips, the directions in time and the times of departure and arrival are unknown. Please note that Event #5 occurs between BttF 1 and
BttF 2. This event(s) is never shown during the movie but is orally related to Marty in BttF 2. (This sequence is not shown in the diagram.)
6. Unknown date, 2015-III: (past) Doc returns to 1985-III to pick up Marty and Jennifer (played by Elizabeth Shue). His departure time is not displayed but his arrival time can be calculated from Marty's bedroom clock.
7. Oct 26, 1985-III: (future) Doc, Marty and Jennifer travel to 2015-III and create the new continuum of 2015-IV by thwarting Griff's criminal plans, thereby committing the third "pinch-out."
8. Oct 21, 2015-IV: (past) Biff steals the Delorean after the generation of the new continuum and travels back to 1955-IV. How Biff learns to operate the temporal circuits is not explained. The time of arrival is never displayed. Biff snuffs out continuum IV (pinch-out #4) and creates 1955-V by giving himself the sports almanac. It's stated in the 1985-V segment that Biff won a million dollar horse race in 1958. Apparently he started small and worked his way up to the big money.
9. Nov 12, 1955-V: (future) Biff returns to the new 2015-V. His departure isn't shown during the movie but the time settings can be read off the chronometer later. Upon his arrival, he injures himself with his cane. He appears to be much sicker than a simple poke in the ribs, so he may have erased his own existence in this continuum!
10. Oct 12, 2015-V: (past) Doc, Marty, Jennifer and Einstein return to Biff's bizarre version of 1985-V. In this continuum, Biff murdered George McFly on the ides of March, 1973-V.
11. Oct 27, 1985-V: (past) Doc and Marty journey back to 1955-V and "repair" the paradox by recovering the almanac, creating 1955-VI in the process (pinch-out #5). Though all of the versions of 1955 closely resemble each other, they all have a significant difference that guarantees they exist in different continuums. Doc Brown speculates that November 12th 1955 may be a major temporal nexus... or else it's just an incredible coincidence.
12. Nov 12, 1955-VI: (past) The Delorean is struck by lightning, catapulting Doc back to 1885-VI where he lives "uneventfully" for eight months before Marty's arrival.
BTTF 3
13. Nov 16, 1955-VI: (past) Marty follows Doc back to 1885-VI. The times of departure and arrival are shown briefly on the chronometer but are unreadable. However, the "pm" marker light for the time of arrival is lit. The new continuum of 1885-VII is generated when Doc averts Clara's accident (pinch-out #6). However, this worldline is also eliminated when Marty knocks out Buford with one punch and preserves his own existence. This is the seventh and final continuum extinction.
14. Sep 7, 1885-VIII: (future) Marty finally returns home to 1985-VIII via steam train (Doc never considers rocket power for the Delorean even though his scale model is loaded with Winchester cartridges). The time of departure may not be exact due to jump cuts in the film. Please note that the arrival date is Sunday, not Saturday. This version of 1985 closely resembles 1985-III except that the Delorean is destroyed and Marty declines the drag race. Jennifer successfully transmigrates from 1985-V to 1985-VIII, crossing three continuum boundaries in the process.
15. Unknown date, 1885-VIII: (future) Doc and Clara (and possibly their sons) travel into the future to procure a hover conversion for the train. How Doc manages to manufacture a flux capacitor in 1885 is not explained, especially since his 1885 letter claims that parts won't be available until 1947. Their probable destination is 2015-VIII though there is no hard evidence. Since this sequence is not shown during the movies, the times of departure and arrival are unknown. There is the possibility that Verne is born in 1885-VIII and Jules in 2015-VIII. This would both complicate and simplify birthday parties.
16. Unknown date, 2015-VIII: (past) Doc, Clara and the two children travel back to 1985-VIII to retrieve Einstein who has transmigrated in the same manner as Jennifer. The exact times of departure and arrival are unknown but the arrival time appears to be approximately thirty minutes after Marty's arrival. It's not stated how Einstein manages to already be aboard the train. This may entail additional time traveling events not shown during the movies.
17. Oct 27, 1985-VIII: (past) Doc, Clara, Jules, Verne and Einstein travel into the past, destination unknown. Though their exact time of departure is not displayed, it is exactly three minutes after their arrival.

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