Sunday, May 26, 2019

Back to the Future and George McFly: When Did He Know?

On Friday, when asked what movie he wanted to watch that night, my boy suggested Back to the Future. Easy sell for me. BTTF is one of my all-time Top 10 movies. It is wonderfully self-contained and perfect. The music. The acting. The actors: Christopher Lloyd's facial expression! Lea Thompson's Loraine as a teenager. Her falling in love with George after he belted Biff. Even Biff's transformation in the new 1985 was spot on.

But I got to thinking about the time travel aspect as well as the characters themselves. Despite what Avengers: Endgame posited, let's keep BTTF's time travel idea in mind: Marty travels back to 1955, meets his parents, and, as a result of the differences, returns to 1985 with a new life. In this new life, his siblings are successful and his parents are happy and in love. We already know George loved science fiction. We know that George as a teenager was visited by an alien named Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan. Which brings us to a simple question:

When did George McFly know his own son Marty was the same Marty from 1955?

The Star Trek Coincidence

I think most of us over the past 34 (!) years have wondered about a couple of things, both of which have to do with his parents. Let's zero in on George McFly in particular. As a teenager in 1955, he meets Marty who basically appears out of nowhere and helps George learn how to stand up for himself. A part of that is Marty, dressed up in his radiation suit, visiting George's room. He refers to himself as "Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan."

Now, what do you suppose George thought when, as a science fiction fan (and future writer), he watches the 1966 debut of the new TV show Star Trek. "Hey, that's funny. That weird guy I met eleven years ago mentioned he was from the planet Vulcan, just like this Spock character. What are the odds of that?"

The Rug Fire

Cut to, say, the summer of 1976. His youngest child, Marty, is named after that strange kid he knew for a week back in 1955. Sure, he and Loraine named their second son after their friend Marty, but you have to assume George rarely if ever thinks about his high school days. Then, the young Marty accidentally sets fire to the living room rug. A memory ticks at him. Marty, back in 1955, mentions that if George and Loraine had a kid who did what their youngest child just did, to go easy on the boy. Maybe the Vulcan thing is a coincidence, but this? No, this is something more. George's mind turns it over and over. How in the world could Marty the Teenager accurately predict Marty the Eight Year Old would set fire to the living room rug?

How indeed?

Star Wars and the Darth Vader Coincidence

Cut to 1977 when George, now a dad of three kids, takes the family to see the new SF movie, Star Wars. In that film, he learns there is a character called Darth Vader. Maybe's he's shrugged off the Vulcan thing or it rarely enters his mind, but you have to know the memory of that night in his bedroom back in 1955 with that strange alien who called himself Darth Vader.

Now we have two pop cultural references and a very specific moment in young Marty's life that George has experienced. One can assume, considering George's first book was science fiction, that he continued to read and watch science fiction books and movies and TV shows. One can also assume that he would be aware of the concept of time travel over the 60s and 70s and into the 80s. It was in the Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, and, of course, H.G. Wells's book and movie.

Time travel was always in the back of his might, right?

His Son Learns the Guitar

Sometime in his high school years, Marty McFly gets the music bug. He picks up a guitar and learns how to make it talk. He's got Van Halen as his modern inspiration, but he also loves the classics. And what better classic riff is there that Chuck Berry's 1958 song "Johnny B. Goode"? Naturally, young Marty sits in his room, guitar in hand, and learns all the chords to that song. You can imagine George, who is now empowered, listening to his youngest son up in his room work out the notes until he has the song down pat. One might even assume a proud Marty invite his parents and siblings up to his room for a mini concert. "I've been working on this for a bit, but I finally got it," Marty might say before breaking out the opening riff.

George's mind would naturally return to that night in 1955 at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance when he and Loraine fell in love.

And that friend of his, Marty: 1955, played this same song. What are the odds of that?

Seeing His Son Look Just Like Marty: 1955

We parents see our children grow older gradually, day by day. But there is always that one moment when you look at your child and it hits you: the child is no longer a kid. He's a youth. He's a teenager. He's all grown up.

Marty McFly and I are the same age. That means the summer of 1985 was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school. If you want, we can make Marty a grade older, say, the summer between his junior and senior year of high school.

Seeing his son age daily, perhaps George might not have "seen" Marty: 1985 as Marty: 1955. But he or Loraine snapped that photograph we see all during the movie. Let's say it was Loraine. She gets the film developed and shows George that night. "Look at how old our kids are, George," she might say.

George would look at the photograph and see not just how old Marty His Son had become but he would also see Marty: 1955.

And it would click.

George Would Know

By the summer of 1985, George has already written his novel, inspired by his real-life events from thirty years before. Chances are good George might've changed what "Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan" said in 1955 because there's already a Vader and a planet Vulcan in pop culture. But he would have realized that the alien who visited him had to have been a time traveler.

And that time traveler was his own son.

George isn't dumb. He would have easily deduced Doc Brown the Inventor was the man responsible for building a time machine. Doc Brown and Marty: 1985 spend lots of time together. It is the only answer.

George McFly, lifelong lover of science fiction and writer of a brand-new science fiction novel, now would know time travel is real and his son has done it.

Which means there is the obvious question: when would George ask Marty:1985 and Doc Brown about it. Because if you're George McFly, you absolutely want to travel through time, right? But George would have to know the exact date Marty left 1985 and traveled back to 1955. For that, he might hit a brick wall. How does he find out?

A Conversation Between George McFly and Doc Brown

If he asks his son about time travel before Marty leaves, George knows he could risk disrupting the space-time continuum. C'mon. He's seen lots of movies and TV shows. He's seen the original Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever" and knows all about not disrupting the timeline.

So he does what any normal parent would do: ask Marty's friend, who just happens to be the inventor of the time machine. Ostensibly, George could show up at Doc's doorstep and just talk, man to man, about the relationship between Marty and Doc. A concerned parent would want to know, right?

But George would have to assume Doc's already working on or have already invented the time machine. George wouldn't know what form it takes, but it has to be in the window from the time Marty met Doc and they started hanging out together (not sure when. Maybe a year or two? So, the freshman year of high school.) and that very day.

George, being a smart man, might indirectly ask Doc about time travel or this and that. Doc would, naturally, be cautious. Why is the dad of my teenaged friend asking me questions about time travel?

But this is the More Enlightened Doc Brown. He read the note Marty: 1985 left in 1955. He knows about the night of the first test of the time machine. He's made preparations and already bought the bulletproof vest.

And Doc's just now realized George McFly, standing in his laboratory, knows about not only the time machine but that Marty is the time traveler.  There's that moment between them. Likely no words are spoken. It's just eyes of a father staring at the eyes of the man who invented time travel.

Doc would be the one to speak first, addressing the one answer any father would want to hear. "I get him back safely."

George would nod. "Thanks. When I finally figured it out, that explains why the Marty in 1955 just vanishes." He pauses, wanting to ask more questions, trying not to jump the most obvious one. "How does it work?"

And Doc would tell George McFly about the flux capacitor and show him the Deloren. He would explain the science and tell his side of things from 1955. He might also remind George about those few times over the past decades where Doc Brown would show up, say, at town picnic or a parade, to see and make sure George and Loraine are still together. Maybe Doc even shows George a newspaper clipping announcing their engagement and marriage.

Doc would then ask George when and how he knew. George would explain. At the end of the afternoon, the two men would have had a nice conversation, stimulating and mind-bending in its repercussions.

George would then, finally, ask his question. "Can I go?"

Doc would smile knowingly. He already knew the question was coming. He just waited for the younger man to ask it. He would already have his answer ready.

"Not until after Saturday, October 26. That's when Marty leaves and to which he returns. After he gets back, I'm going to want to have a go at it." He would smile. "I want to see what 2015 looks like."

George's eyes would get bigger. "The future," he would say in a whispered tone. "I want to see the future, too."

Doc would clap George McFly on the shoulder. "I'll look you up when I get there." He would squeeze George's shoulder and bring him face to face. "But you can't say anything to Marty until after October 26th. You can't even let on that you know. You can't even tell your wife." He pauses, looking at George. "Does she know?"

George knows Loraine is a smart woman, but admits he's not brought it up to her.

"Make sure she doesn't say anything to Marty. We can't risk upsetting the timeline." If he hasn't already, Doc would explain how the photograph of the three McFly children changed and reverted back again.

"It's fixed now?" George asks.

"Yes. But if you let on to Marty you know about him, it'll all be erased from existence."

George would nod. "Got it."

He would inhale and look at the time machine. Maybe he notices the calendar hanging from the wall and notes how far away October 26 is from that day.

Then, maybe a thought strikes George. He frowns.

"What is it?" Doc asks.

"When Marty returns to this time, will he remember the original timeline?"

Doc's eyes narrow in thought. "Maybe. Here, come over to this chalkboard, and let's talk through the possibilities."


This is really a thought experiment. It's all just occurred to me since I re-watched BTTF on Friday night. Maybe there are websites that go into detail about this--I'm sure there are--but I don't know them.

What do you think? Do you think George McFly knew about Marty? What would you do in George's place? And where would you go in time?

1 comment:

Sean said...

Wow, I'm surprised no one replied to this! An interesting idea. I think George would not know. I'm 44, and would not remember clearly the face of a kid I met for a few days. But if he did, it would be interesting to think that George (middle aged) had a whole trilogy of adventures with Doc that Marty knows nothing about!)