October 21, 2015. Today’s date, the same day Doc and Marty travel to in Back to the Future II. Many have taken today as an opportunity to celebrate one of the greatest movie franchises of all time, and rightly so. I have seen the films countless times, and after a while, you begin to notice things. Over time I have developed a hypothesis surrounding the central characters in the first film. While this theory is not nearly as “out there” as suggesting Ferris is a figment of Cameron’s imagination, I think it provides an interesting lens to view the original film through.
Posit #1: Doc and Marty’s friendship is a paradox.
Posit #2: The existence of the time machine itself is a paradox.
Just to make sure we are all on the same page before I begin, when I speak of a paradox, I am referring to how it is often understood in time travel science fiction. Read up on the grandfather paradox if you are unfamiliar with this trope. In short, a paradox is something that does not have a clear beginning or end. The proverbial snake eating its own tail.
When viewing Back to the Future, for the first time or the 50th, the friendship between Doc Brown and Marty McFly is never questioned by the viewer. This is a testament to the excellent writing and acting; their relationship feels natural and comfortable. If you stand back for a moment, it really is strange though, isn’t it? I’m not suggesting anything nefarious, but cool-ass teenaged boys usually don’t make friends with “crazy, wild-eyed scientists.” Perhaps you could argue a more professional relationship, a trading of goods and services. Doc gets access to Marty’s camcorder (who also acts as cameraman), and Marty can use Doc’s sick guitar amp whenever he wants. As flimsy as this explanation is (they are clearly friends and not just work associates), it raises another question: how did Doc and Marty even meet? How does a friendship like that even begin? The answer, of course, is the first paradox: Doc and Marty’s friendship “begins” in 1955. They go on an adventure together, learning things about themselves and each other along the way. They solve problems, they overcome obstacles. They save each other’s lives. What better foundation for a friendship?
Which brings me to a second paradox: the existence of the time machine itself. When Marty travels back to 1955, he finds Doc in a sad state. A failed inventor. Certainly not someone on the cusp of inventing a machine for traversing the space-time continuum. True, at this point he had already slipped on the toilet, hit his head, and drawn up the rough sketch for the flux capacitor, but that’s a long way from having a working time machine. My contention is that Doc needed to see the functioning time machine in order to have the confidence to go forth and actually build it. Doc’s words: “It works! It works! I finally invented something that works!” Paradox number two.
Now, whether these paradoxes were intentional, or simply my fun interpretation of the film, well, I suppose only Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis hold the key to that riddle. (Update: It turns out Bob Gale did give an explanation for the origin of Doc and Marty's friendship in 2011). They obviously didn’t shy away from paradoxes elsewhere in the film, as evidenced by the Marvin Berry joke, or when George and Lorraine hint they will name their future son “Marty.” In fact, the working title for the sequels was simply Paradox.
What do you think? Am I off my rocker, or is there something to this? Any more paradoxes that I didn’t find? Let me know on Twitter.