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Film Theory: Does Marty McFly Actually DIE In Back To The Future?

Great Scott!!

There’s a pretty good chance you just read that title and came here to find out about the missing Back To The Future movie you didn’t know about. The darker, far more grim one that ends on a depressing note with the young hero dead, Biff Tannen victorious and Doc Brown probably carted away to an asylum or arrested for gross negligence of a minor (and several dogs).

But you’d be on a fool’s errand: because the Back To The Future films in which Marty McFly dies are in fact the same ones that have long been considered the most beloved films of the 1980s. You just might not have noticed the fact, because he certainly didn’t. But hell, that’s what time travel in movies is for, isn’t it? Cheating, that is.

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Don’t like how your life turned out? Go back in time, give yourself a Sports Almanac and get rich instead. Don’t like how your friend’s kids turn out in the future? Go back in time and tell him that they need to be sorted out for their own good. Basically, if you don’t like something, just use time travel to cheat and change it to something you DO like.

And what if that’s exactly what Doc Brown does - more than once - in both Back To The Future sequels? What if he robs the Grim Reaper of McFly’s soul by using the DeLorean to jump back in time and avoid the things that were supposed to kill him. to give him another go? It might sound far-fetched for someone so apparently committed to not messing with the timeline, but there’s evidence in there. And the only real question here is how many times it actually happens.

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To accept this theory, you have to accept that Doc absolutely doesn’t care as much about the sanctity of the timeline as he claims. And that his claim that interacting with past versions of yourself is potentially catastrophic, since more time travelling would mean even more Docs in one place while he meddled with the timeline. But there’s nothing to his claims about meeting a past or future version of yourself: sure, it makes Jennifer faint, but literally nothing happens when Doc meets himself in 1955 and even hands him tools.

Fundamentally, time is NOT as fragile as Doc thinks, he just needs to control the rules so that he can control the outcomes for Marty and himself.

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Doc says he won’t meddle and that doing so would have potentially grave consequences. So how come he reads the letter and saves his own life? How come he helps Marty stop his son going to prison in the future? How come he saves Clara from her intended death in the ravine? He might pretend that he’s not a meddler, but his actions say otherwise.

And he’d probably have done even more meddling, if he was able to.

Universal

In the first movie, the 1955 Doc has no time machine, so he can’t be on hand to help Marty. As a result, the teenager almost gets himself wiped out - he’s a kid entrusted with getting his parents to bang, what more can you really expect of him? There’s absolutely no way Doc would have allowed that to happen if it was in his control.

In the same movie, Marty is also REALLY bad at not messing with the timeline, because Doc can’t do anything to guide him from a position of knowledge. In other words, he has no guardian angel who has seen it happen before and can make sure he avoids calamitous things like almost vanishing from existence on stage. You know, things that could really ruin your day or jeopardise the entire fabric of the universe or something.

But the first sequel is an entirely different matter, because Doc has his DeLorean and it’s absolutely no accident that he turns up twice at incredibly convenient times to save Marty right at the last minute. It’s almost like he knew exactly when to be there to ensure that Marty wasn’t killed, like he had access to a magical sports almanac detailing all of the major events in Marty’s life to the precise second.

Which he sort of does, since he’s there to witness them before using his time machine to go back and ensure that they go the way he needs them to. Think about how precisely he maps the future - he knows when the rain is going to stop to the very second, not just because the weather service is more efficient, but because he’s been there before (to find out what happens to the McFly kids).

So, about those times when Marty “dies” and Doc has to go back and change the timeline.

Firstly, after working out how Biff got rich, Marty goes to confront him in Trump Tower (SORRY in Biff Tannen’s Pleasure Paradise) to find out when he got the Sports Almanac. Naturally, Biff tries to kill him to shut him up, but Marty escapes to the roof where he seems to be trapped with no hope of escape. This is not part of his plan - hence his frustration (SHOW CLIP OF MARTY PUNCHING THE WALL IN ANGER), so there’s no way he could have pre-planned an escape route involving casually leaping off the roof.

And yet, Marty jumps off the roof on to the DeLorean, which has handily appeared just below him. “Amazing coincidence?” in Doc’s words, or is something else at work?

Then back in 1955, when Marty eventually gets his hands on the Almanac after Biff almost kills him in a dangerous car chase scene, there’s another incredible coincidence. Marty steals the Almanac, jumps safely away from Biff’s car and seems to be home free, only for Tannen to swing his car around and try to mow Marty down.

But just as it looks like he’s toast at the end of the tunnel, Doc miraculously appears with a rope of bunting to pull Marty to safety literally seconds before he goes under Biff’s wheels. Even accounting for Doc watching what’s happening, there is absolutely no way he’d know to appear at that precise moment without having experienced it once before.

As a logical scientist, he’d surely have gone to the other end of the tunnel? The only explanation that doesn’t rely on almighty coincidence is that Doc knew when to save Marty because he’d already witnessed him not being saved. In one timeline, Biff ran him over and killed him, only for Doc to cheat him again by jumping back in time and making sure he was there.

It’s grim, but it’s the only way to explain the perfect timing, and it fits with the fact that Marty did exactly the same thing for him in the first movie. Knowing he was going to be killed by the Libyans, Marty used the time machine to save Doc in a less direct way, seemingly foreshadowing Doc reciprocating in the sequels.

And it’s not just the first sequel in which it might have happened. Despite the fact that Doc Brown appears to be trapped in the past in Back To The Future III, there’s an argument to suggest that he actually used a secret time machine to once more save Marty from death.

Doc Brown Back To The Future
Universal Pictures

In Back To The Future III when Marty gets back to 1885, he is strung up almost immediately by Bufford Tannen, only for Doc to miraculously appear precisely as the rope is choking him.

Sure, it could have been a coincidence that he saw Marty from his workshop (even if he usually worked with his door closed on account of the weird futuristic inventions he was working on and his fundamental rule not to engage too much to preserve the timeline), but to be THAT precise, with his coincidentally available sniper rifle? He’s a peaceful man, why would he have such an impressive weapon if not for a very specific reason? It’s all very suspicious, frankly.

So where did the time machine come from at this point if the DeLorean wasn’t functioning? And if he had a working means to time travel, why not then just use the time machine at that point to simply take Marty back to his own time rather than going through the hassle of waiting for the train?

First, let’s deal with where the time machine came from. Think of it this way: once Marty was killed, Doc would have been singularly focused on time travelling to save him. It’s not like he didn’t have access to an (albeit broken) DeLorean nor frankly ludicrous inventiveness - after all, this was the same scientist who would SOMEHOW make a time travelling train that could fly in around 1895 with the technological limitations that supposedly trapped him in the past.

So in short, he simply did exactly what he would do after Marty got back to the future at the end of the third movie: he made another time machine using the parts of his original broken time machine. Then he went back in time to 1885 and saved Marty from Biff’s hangman’s rope.

And as for why he then didn’t just take himself and Marty back to the future at that point? Well, it’s important to think of Back To The Future as a sort of retelling of the It’s A Wonderful Life narrative, only instead of the morality tale being around George not existing, it’s about Marty McFly’s disastrous decision-making. Doc is essentially Marty’s Clarence, his guardian angel - guiding him not only to safety, but to a position where he will learn for himself how not to mess up his future.

Why else would Doc take him to the future to fix something that could be fixed in the present? He needed Marty to actively learn the lessons those events would teach him in 2015. He needed Marty to learn not to be provoked into self-destructive behaviour by people calling him chicken, he needed him to be more sensible so that when Needles offered him the race that would ultimately ruin his life, Marty would know what the right decision to make was.

Again, Doc using the 1885 experience to educate Marty and make him a better person was no more than him saving his life again. Sure, he wouldn’t have died in that race accident, but he would have been on the same track to a ruined life in 2015 if it had happened. It was just another example of the great timeline meddler meddling for Marty’s benefit.

That also explains why the Doc is so casual in leaving Jennifer to see what will happen to hers and Marty’s future if things don’t change. There’s no way he doesn’t allow her to be taken by the police in that alleyway - why else would a man so meticulous in his planning just leave her on some crates. He needs Marty’s future to work out well, so he allows her a glimpse of what could be to stop it from happening.

And what if Doc used the time machine to make sure Clara fell in love with him? What if he essentially Groundhog Dayed her? After all, isn’t it a bit of a coincidence that he made sure that the man sitting on the train directly behind Clara heard his story about being heartbroken? What are the odds of that happening? But that’s a question for another time.

But why is Doc Brown so willing to break his cardinal rule and mess with the timeline to save Marty multiple times? Well, quite apart from being Marty’s guardian angel, it’s because Doc needs Marty too. McFly is basically Doc’s personal messiah: every major event that happens in his life - his discovery of time travel, his life being saved not only from the Libyan terrorists but also Maddog Tannen in 1885, his meeting his wife Clara… All of it in some way involves Marty’s interference. He’s basically Doc’s totem, without him, Doc is nothing.

So, there you have it. What do you think? Did Doc use time travel at least three times to save Marty from death in the Back To The Future sequels? Share your own thoughts below in the comments thread and don’t forget to go and subscribe to ThatFilmTheory…

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