A Doc for all time
Second essay on Back to the Future
Of all the characters in the Back to the Future series, Doc is the most problematic. This is not because he is remarkably complex, but rather because he presents the most inconsistencies in the time line continuum.
In some ways – Back to the Future can be seen as a modern retelling of the King Arthur legend, and to fully understand Doc’s role, we must look at him as Merlin, whose life is being lived backwards, so that he can foresee the future, but has almost no memory of the past.
Oddly enough, McFly, Marty’s father would take on the role of King Arthur if we are to use the legend as model, with McFly’s wife, Marty’s mother, serving at times as Guinevere, as well as Mordre, Morgan Le Fay, and other villainous women.
Marty is thrust into a combined role as Lancelot and Gawain, who threatens to steal Arthur’s love, and other parallels that would require an essay (or book) of its own to fully present.
Although Merlin’s role varies through the ages, in modern times – with the exception of Mark Twain who made him into a villain – Merlin was aid to Arthur and builder of Camelot – just as Doc does for Marty.
Doc very much resembles the modern conception of Merlin – which is someone generally a little off from the ordinary, yet brilliant.
Doc is the most consistent of all characters in the three movies, more or less, the same person we meet in early in the first movie. Although Doc of the last movie in the wild west suffers a similar fate to Merlin, in that he falls in love, and is altered. Fortunately, he avoids the fate Merlin suffered – although how he does this is the plot line for the third film.
But it is Doc’s lack of memory that creates one of the chief inconsistencies in the film, although not so obvious as some other inconsistencies.
This lack of memory is best explained by painting him as Merlin, although I’ll leave the Arthurian references for another essay, and try to work through Doc’s character as he is presented in the film.
Although presented as heroic, Doc has at least one serious vice that confronts us from the start when we discover him in possession of the nuclear materials he needs to power his Delorian time machine.
He duped Libyan terrorists into procuring the fuel by offering to build them a bomb. He assumed the terrorists would not find him after he gave them trash and kept the fuel for his own uses.
Early on, we meet him only over the telephone as he arranges for Marty to meet him later in the parking lot of the local mall, where he intends to demonstrate his new invention.
Doc, the son of a wealthy family, hit his head in 1955 and came up with the idea for the converter that made time travel possible. But in doing so, he had to expend his family’s fortune and thus went from living in a marvelous house we see more of in later films to living in a garage.
We get clues to the immediate future when Marty visits the garage early in the film and fails to notice that container marked radioactive under one of the tarps.
Doc, of course, needs Marty to bear witness to his accomplishment, and the scene in the parking lot is somewhat reminiscent to the 1950s movie based on a H.G. Wells book called The Time Machine, where the inventor calls his friends in to witness his sending a time machine into the future. Back of the Future appears to have other references to the earlier work, such as the fiery trail that resembles the marks left by the Wells Time Machine in the snow, and the style of house in which Doc lives that is similar in many respects to the one the inventor of The Time Machine lived in. A closer examination might well find many more references, again which will be addressed in a future essay.
Doc’s new obsession with time is reflected in a comic naming of his pets, from Copernicus in the 1950s when he is still trying to develop a machine that can read thoughts to Einstein in contemporary 1985 the present day setting for all three films.
Doc has Marty video tape the experiment, and provides the Doc of 1955 with a recorded memory of the future so that he can later help Marty get back there.
Here, we are confronted with one of the inconsistencies in the film – in only a minor one. One measure of the altered future used in all three films is a photograph (also a match book) in which the faces of Marty and his family (Doc and his name on a grave stone) fade. So why didn’t the video?
This is a small point, but since the video served as a tool for saving our heroes, the question matters – part of the pattern of inconsistencies over which the film makers marched in order to create the three films. This is a similar contradiction to having Biff travel to 1955 in the second movie to give the sports magazine (the holy grail) to his younger self, thus changing history so that Marty and Doc could not return to the 1985 they knew or even travel to the future they just came from, yet the elder Biff could return to the main line 2015 to return the time machine.
Yet even this goes beyond the point of this essay, and we move on.
Unlike any of the other characters we encounter, Doc never seems to change – a point make mockingly when he removes the face lift mask in the second movie and looks exactly the way he always has. The caveat to all this, of course, is the fact that we have only to deal with three versions of Doc: 1985 contemporary Doc, 1955 Doc and the 1885 Doc, all of whom (with exception of the cowboy hat) are indistinguishable from each other.
This said, we must point out that the 1885 Doc (who is really the 1985 Doc sent back in time) falls in love, which transforms him. Yet we do find subtle other differences between the three docs that are not as blatant as with Biff but exist none the less.
The Doc we first meet is a classic mad scientist, who has apparently won the disrespect of the general community for blowing his family fortune on what many consider air-brained schemes. Yet he manages to create a time machine that he only later realizes has vast implications even his genius could not foresee. While his cheating the terrorist may seem a petty flaw considering they are bad guys, the 1985 Doc has this tendency towards dishonesty. We will see displayed again at the end of the first movie and the beginning of the second movie when he tells Marty that Marty’s future self turns out all right when circumstances show this is not the case. We see this again in the third movie when dealing with Biff’s out law ancestor – although all three situations may be excusable. We see it most vividly in Doc’s insistence on not knowing anything about the future, and re-taping the letter later that he tears up in front of Marty just before sending Marty back to the future near the end of the firs movie.
The letter raises one of the more curious inconsistencies in the trilogy of movies – or if not an inconsistency then a paradox.
Doc reads the letter at some point after sending Marty back to the future at the end of the first movie, and learns about the terrorists shooting his future self near the beginning of the first movie. This alerts him to wear a bullet proof vest. Yet midway through the second movie, Marty makes a grand reentrance at the point he left in the first movie, so that the 1955 Doc knows that Marty went and came back, and that his future self is alive – but does not know that his future self actually came back to 1955 with Marty.
So does the 1955 Doc of the second movie actually read the letter that saves his life back in the future of the first movie?
The 1985 and the 1955 Docs are so similar that seeing them together briefly near the end of the second movie is a delight.
Yet the Doc we see at the end of the first movie returning with the flying time machine and the one at the beginning of the second movie is a little more hip – down to the fancy sun glasses -- and somewhat inconsistent from other versions. Even though the other versions rail against using the time machine to fiddle with time, the Doc who goes to and comes back from 2015 (He has no apparent 2015 version) wants Marty to help him fiddle with time in order to save Marty’s son from doom. In fact, even as he scolds Marty for purchasing the sports magazine that changes history, this Doc’s actions have caused problems. He mistakenly brought Marty’s girlfriend into the future, had to knock her out in order to keep her quiet while he and Marty fiddle with time, then as a result of knocking her out, fails to have juice enough to knock Marty’s son out long enough for Marty to take his place and alter the future so that the girlfriend gets carted back to her 2015 home where she and Marty live as a married couple.
While Doc’s genus helps resolve the problems in all three films, in most cases, the problems were of his creation. Marty would never have gone back in time in the first movie had the Doc not cheated the terrorists. Marty and Doc would never have needed to rescue the girl or in fact go back to 1955 again had Doc chosen to leave the future well enough alone. And this leads to the third movie in which the 1985 Doc goes into the old west.
Doc is wrong as much as he is right in his calculations. He couldn’t read minds. He inadvertently saves a woman with whom he later falls in love. He miscalculates the knockout dose, the impact of future self meeting a past self, etc.
Without Doc, we have no problem and need no solutions. He is the core of all three films, generating the plots that allow them to take place – although in most cases the more inept Doc of 1985 tends to be the one who resolves the problems of created by the 1985 Doc, even doing his bit to send Marty back to 1885 to rescue the 1985 Doc from death. This fits in with the Merlin theory that in some ways, the earlier Doc tends to be more powerful as he travels backwards in time.
We begin to see a change in Doc in the second movie when he and Marty find themselves in the alternative 1985 where Biff controls the world and Doc begins to resolve his own problems. This transformation will be completed in the old west.
The Doc in 1885 is the most macho of all the Docs, threatening to kill Biff’s ancestor while refusing to give into the bully’s claim that Doc owed him money for a thrown shoe. This is similar logic to what we hear early in the first film when the first 1985 Biff blames McFly for having a car with a blind spot.
Again, like Merlin, the Doc of 1885 seems to most content – just as the later Merlin was – and like the later Merlin – is struck by love, causing all of the tumblers of time to fall into place that unlock the prediction of his doom.
But in some ways, love binds Doc’s various selves together, and allows this same Doc to undo his own folly, and to send Marty back to the future one last time. Like Merlin, the 1885 Doc is at the height of his powers, something that is proven when he reemerges with a reengineered train in 1985 while Marty and his girlfriend stand near the tracks mourning him.
At this point, we see Doc as Merlin, a powerful force to which the world will have to answer, someone destined to explore all time, and someone who will pass on his discoveries and his talents to his kids, who may find new King Arthurs to assist and other shinning knights like Marty.