NOTE: The symbols in this article are broken and replaced with question marks. I’m trying to fix it…bear with us, and apologies.
When I was in high school, a friend of mine took it upon himself to chart out the entire timeline of the Back to the Future films in a spiral notebook. He was a little OCD and worked on this for days.
The goal was not to prove the time travel logic of the film realistically sound–that would have been impossible. Instead, my friend wanted to attempt to prove that the logic constructed within the movie was sound–that is, that the rules set up in the movie never contradicted themselves.
He ran into some pitfalls and pratfalls, but the proof was fairly compelling. And even though the logic of photographs from the future slowly changing based on the probability theory is wildly unsound (in reality), it seemed the movie managed to treat these incidents with the same made-up rules throughout all three films.
Good job, Bob Gale!
The entirety of my friend’s arguments is too dense and complicated to effectively explore in this article. Today, though, I wanted to bring up a question that came to me last night while watching the third Back to the Future movie. It’s a simple question, but one whose answer is surprisingly complicated.
How many Doc Browns exist in the Back to the Future universe?
Now, we could do this for just about any character, even Marty. While we only follow one version of our main character, every time the past is changed in any way, a new version of Marty must, in theory, split off. For example: in Part 2, our main character Marty drops a sandbag on a group of thugs’ heads to keep them from mugging the past version of himself (this is while he is onstage at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance in 1955–an event originated in the first movie). As Marty Prime (the past version of our Main Character Marty) walks off the stage, he sees the thugs onstage and sidesteps them.
This experience is new, so the Marty leaving the stage ceases to be our Main Character Marty in the past and becomes a totally new Marty. We can assume that the events of his life will play out almost identical to the Marty that we follow throughout all three movies, but there is at least ONE memory that is different–something that never happened to our main character. Therefore, by definition, there must be at LEAST two Marties in the world of Back to the Future.
Now let’s move on to our original question. The only way to do this, I think, is to walk through the entire trilogy of amazing films one at a time.
It all starts out simply enough. Marty McFly is asked to partake in an experiment by an old and wizened scientist, Doc Brown. We will call this “Doc Brown α.” This Doc, unfortunately, is gunned down by Libyans just as he sends Marty back in time to 1955.
In order to get Back…to the FUTURE! Marty must enlist the help of the past version of Doc Brown ?. According to the logic of the films, though, the second Marty shows up at 1955 Doc Brown ?’s home, the good Doc is altered immediately and ceases to be Doc Brown ?. This new character, with a new set of memories triggered by Marty’s presence, will be known as Doc Brown ß.
Now, for all intents and purposes Doc Brown ? ceases to exist as the future in which he lived and worked is erased. Marty has, in effect, erased an entire person.
When Doc Brown ß manages to send Marty Back…to the FUTURE!, Marty runs to rescue his friend from the Libyans. Luckily, this is no longer Doc Brown ? but is Doc Brown ß, and this new Doc has taken measures to protect himself.
I know what you’re thinking…how do we know that it wasn’t Doc Brown ß the whole time, and he simply kept mum about meeting Marty in the past so as to ensure that a paradox didn’t occur? This argument would bring the rules of the series more in-line with conventional time-travel theory, but, alas, is not a reality supported by the film. This is proven by the fact that Marty has significantly changed the future, altering Biff’s personality and ensuring his father’s success as a science-fiction author. So the “one-reality, one Doc Brown” theory holds no water.
So far we have two distinct Doc Browns, and our main Doc Brown going into Part 2 is Doc Brown ß.
Doc Brown ß goes into the future and discovers that Marty’s kids are in trouble. Then he enlists Marty’s help to go into the future and rescue them. Throughout most of Part 2 we are dealing with only Doc Brown ß. In the future scenes there is no question about the creation of a second Doc Brown because there is no Doc Brown in this time period (we can assume he’s dead, having been killed by Mad Dog Tannen in Part 3…more on that later).
When Biff steals the time machine, he changes everything completely, and Doc Brown ß and Marty return to an alternate 1985. This is where things get messy. Somehow there is no alternate Doc Brown within this time period. You would think that if it were an alternate reality, a separate version of the Doc would exist with the memories of this wildly different world. Alas, he does not, and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe my friend can explain it to me…
But for the purposes of this article, let’s accept the fact that when Marty and Doc Brown ß travel back to 1955 (for the second time), there is only one Doc Brown that still exists.
But that’s all about to change. With the end of Part 2, Marty and Doc Brown ß again rewrite history in order to delete the alternate and hellish 1985 from existence. Mainly, they have to steal the sports almanac from 1955 Biff.
In the process of doing this, Doc Brown ends up running into and having a conversation with his 1955 self. With these new memories, 1955 Doc Brown ß becomes Doc Brown ? .
When Doc Brown ß gets sent into the past, it’s Doc Brown ? who helps Marty travel into the old west to rescue his friend from being shot in the back by Mad Dog Tannen.
When Marty introduces himself in the old west, though, he changes the timeline of Doc Brown ß, and so Doc Brown ß (who was to die from a gunshot wound) is changed into Doc Brown ?. What we would think of as Doc Brown ß ceases to exist in his pure form.
At this point, too, we can assume that Doc Brown ? is wiped from existence because we are altering the events that MUST occur in order for him to exist. He can no longer find his own gravestone (which no longer exists) and send Marty back to save himself. So I’m not really sure how this works in the grand scheme, or how, if he is erased from the future, he could have sent Marty to the past.
Again, issues my friend will have to explain someday. Let’s move on.
At this point we are dealing only with Doc Brown ?, and I believe that this Doc is the doc that finishes out the rest of Part 3.
So the Doc Brown we end up with is actually three people removed with the Doc Brown who starts the series. All the other three Doc Browns have been erased from existence.
And when you look at it like that, isn’t it a little sad? We all proclaim to love this character (I know I do), and Marty goes out of his way to save the guy, but, on an existential level, he’s actually destroying the man he proclaims to love and replacing him with a similar version.
I guess that’s why Doc Brown decided that he never should have invented the infernal time machine to start with.
Then again, he goes right out and invents another steam-powered one just so he can show up at the end of Part 3 and give Marty a friggin picture frame…an event that probably erased three or more persons from the face of the space-time continuum.
But it was a nice keepsake, so I guess that’s fine. In the end, the audience isn’t thinking about the erased persons and the created versions. They aren’t thinking about how many life choices and possibilities are deleted by gunning the DeLorean to eighty-eight. Instead, they’re just happy that Marty and Doc made it through everything safely.
The truth, though, is that they didn’t. They were replaced with pod-people who have a different set of memories and behaviors. These people believe themselves to be the “real” Doc Brown and Marty McFly, but they aren’t. They’re living with assumed identities.
So let’s acknowledge the tragedy of the Back to the Future trilogy. While we celebrate the life and times of Doc Brown ?, let us not forget the sacrifices of Doc Browns ?, ?, and ?, who gave up their existence (against their wills) to ensure that Doc Brown ? can jet around the STC with his beloved Clara.
As Marty would say, this is heavy.
UPDATE: There has been some serious discussion in the comments below about whether or not I have forgotten a Doc Brown–that is, the Doc who was committed to a mental institution in the hellish alternate Biff-run 1985 in Part 2.
The reason for NOT including it was this. In the original, Marty drastically changes the course of history including the events of his own life. When he returns to 1985, he finds himself with a different car and a very different life. Despite all these changes, there is NO alternate Marty.
How, then, can I assume that there would be an alternate Doc Brown when he returns to another drastically altered 1985 in Part 2?
In the original, Marty is unaware of all the changes to his life events, but there is no other Marty. This begs the question…who was living that alternate life?
The same question can be asked of Doc Brown in 1985 hell. We know he was committed to a mental institution, but is there actually a Doc Brown in the institution at the time that Doc returns to this alternate 1985? The rules of the series say no.
I believe the filmmakers put Marty in boarding school and Doc Brown in a mental institution specifically to avoid this question–an unanswerable paradox they had set up with the first movie. In the end, this can make no sense. I agree that the intentions of the filmmakers were to imply that there was a doppleganger, mentally deranged Doc Brown in the alternate 1985, but this does not fit in with the rules of logic set up in the first movie.
It’s an impossible paradox, but as the Huey would say, “That’s the Power of Love.”