If you’re unfamiliar with the world in which Alan Moore’s Watchmen takes place, then you won’t know that it’s set in an alternate version of the year 1985, where crime and corruption rule the streets.
You won’t know that, because a radioactive superhuman named Dr. Manhattan helped America achieve a rousing success in Vietnam, President Richard M. Nixon is now serving his fourth consecutive term in the White House. You won’t know that the Cold War has reached its horrifying peak and total nuclear devastation is closer than ever. And you certainly won’t know that it’s all because of Biff Tannen.
As we all know (unless you don’t know…SPOILERS ahoy), at the end of Watchmen, Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias) successfully brought cataclysmic ruin to several major cities across the planet, subsequently uniting all countries, bringing world peace as the planet trembled in fear of a common enemy. Depending on which version of the story you subscribe to—the original graphic novel or the film version from earlier this year—then that common enemy might be one of two different entities: a giant alien squid-monster or Dr. Manhattan.
However in both interpretations, that enemy is merely an illusion. So who, you might ask, is the real enemy. Well, the easy answer is obviously Adrian Veidt. It was Veidt, after all, who thought up and organized the entire scheme. His ultimate intentions might have been noble, but his methods themselves were…kind of fucked. Or “catastrophically poetic,” one might call it.
Veidt was an intelligent and powerful man, this is most certainly true. But I’m searching a bit higher for the real man to blame. It’s not simply a question of who could have allowed for this to happen, but a quandary even larger than that: who could have molded a world in which this type of an event could have been imaginable? No, I’m not speaking of Alan Moore.
I’m speaking, of course, of Biff Tannen, the key antagonist (other than Libyan terrorists and the space-time continuum itself) from the popular science fiction franchise, Back to the Future. According to a frighteningly familiar alternate 1985 from Back to the Future Part II, his trip to the racetrack on his 21st birthday made him a millionaire overnight. He was overcome by the excitement of a fabulous winning streak that nicknamed him “The Luckiest Man on Earth.”
He then parlayed that lucky winning streak into the vast empire called Biffco, and in 1979, he successfully lobbied to legalize gambling and turned Hill Valley’s dilapidated courthouse into a beautiful casino-hotel. To quote Tannen, “I just wanna say one thing: God bless America.”
His search for true love led him to his happiest moment, as in 1973 he realized his life-long romantic dream by marrying his high school sweetheart, Lorraine Baynes-McFly. Third time’s a charm.
But was that the whole truth? Was he really “The Luckiest Man on Earth” or was there something more sinister at play?
Of course there was. There always is. The real story behind the powerful multi-millionaire and face of Biffco is a far more deviant and perplexing tale that sent the history of the world as we know it into a skewed existence of fear, crime, and corruption.
As Doc Brown explains to Marty McFly, when—in the distant future of the year 2015—an old sports almanac inadvertently wound up in the hands of an elderly, bitter, and wholly unremarkable Biff Tannen, he stole the Doc’s time machine, enabling him to return to the year 1955 and set his future—and the future of the world—on an entirely different course.
Old Biff gave the almanac his younger self, instructing him to bet on games just as the almanac told him, and he would never lose. No catch—just keep it a secret.
With the money he made, he started Biffco Industries and quickly became a multi-millionaire and a Mr. Potter-like presence in the city of Hill Valley, crushing the good and noble, and letting the slums overtake the town as he looked on from high atop his towering hotel casino.
Biff Tannen single-handedly reset the trajectory of the world, until we were found stuck in a 1985 that was quite unlike the one we had known before. A 1985 where greed and corruption reigned supreme, where crime swept the streets, where Doc Brown had been committed to an asylum, and—according to the newspaper which bore the previous headline—Richard Nixon was seeking his fifth term in the White House.
Have you noticed this detail? Watch it again. In the scene in which the Doc explains to Marty how this nightmarish rendition of the (then-)present came to be, pay close attention to the newspaper that he holds up, with the headlining article showing him being locked up in a straight-jacket. Just to the right of that article is the headline—and undisputable proof that the alternate 1985 of Back to the Future Part II is one and the same as the alternate 1985 of Watchmen—“Nixon to seek fifth term.”
Is your mind not blown? If you though Quaid’s musings on the four Doc Browns (which then turned out to be five) were enough to flux your capacitor, then this ought to speed you right up to 88 and send you back in time.
“Oh, it’s just a clever homage,” you might say. I say to hell with that! Embrace your inner conspiracy theorist! Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis were knowingly expanding on the compelling world that Alan Moore created a few years prior.
Yes, friends, it was Biff Tannen who set the world on a crash-course towards mass destruction, Biff Tannen who created a world fit to be mutilated. Had his older self not traveled back to 1955, then the lives of millions and millions and millions would have been spared on that fateful day.
For all we know, the lab where Dr. Jon Osterman encountered the accident which changed him into Dr. Manhattan was owned by Biffco! After all, the original 1985 had a history with no such event having taken place. Dr. Manhattan never came to be, never intervened in Vietnam, never won the war and national trust of Richard Nixon, and set us on the course that inevitably led us to destruction. It’s only logical to assume that the responsibility for these events rests solely on the shoulders of Biff Tannen.
And yet there’s a silver lining. The devastation at the end of Watchmen united the entire world in a peace that had never been experienced before. The Cold War tensions that had mounted until nearly minutes before Doomsday rocked the world literally ceased in an instant. Brotherly love swept the earth in a way that—even in the era of the unmanipulated 1985—we would surely have otherwise never seen.
And so, Biff Tannen, beacon of total destruction, can now be seen in a different light. Were his own plans of a higher calling? Was he following a destiny that was to ultimately prove beneficial for all the citizens of the world? Or was it merely chance?
Biff Tannen: Hero? Anti-hero? Or the most dangerous villain this world has ever seen?
The world will look up and shout “Save us!” And Biff Tannen will whisper “Hello?! Anybody home? Think, McFly. Think.”