Tag Archives: Robert Zemeckis

The All New Branded in the 80s podcast, Episode 6 – The Marty McFly Theorem

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Welcome back to episode 6 of the new Branded in the 80s podcast.  In this episode I dive into one of my favorite movies, Back to the Future, to discuss an aspect of the story that most folks don’t talk about, the other Marty McFly.  You know, the one that is at the end of the flick repeating the events of the opening, but this Marty is different.  He grew up with successful parents and siblings and he even owns that sweet black 4×4 truck.  I discuss the differences between Marty Alpha…

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…and the lesser discussed Marty Beta.

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You can find the episode on iTunes, Stitcher, the Branded Facebook page, or you can also stream it directly from the handy player below, or download it directly by right-clicking and saving here.

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Back to the Future: The Other Marty McFly Theorem

November 10th, 1990, a red-letter date in my personal fandom of the Back to the Future franchise. Yes!  Of course!  November 10th, 1990!  That was the day I discovered my first time travel loophole in the Back to the Future movie trilogy continuity.  I remember it vividly.  I was sitting on the edge of my toilet reading a copy of Starlog, there was an entry in the letters column complaining about BTTF 3, I freaked out as my dad came into the bathroom, yelled at him to knock first, and when I went back to flipping through the magazine I had a revelation!  A vision!  A picture in my head!  A picture of two DeLoreans existing in 1885 simultaneously!  This is what makes time travel movies implausible: loopholes!  In all seriousness, the events described previously actually happened, I was in the bathroom reading the letters column in an issue of Starlog when I had a moment of clarity and realized that there are actually two DeLoreans in BTTF 3 at a point in the story when they desperately need another time machine.  Stop me if you’ve heard this.  So at the end of BTTF 2 Doc and the time machine get struck y lightning and sent back to 1885.  Doc hides the DeLorean in a cave for Marty to find while he’s stuck in 1955 (he gets that nifty telegram delivered moments after Doc is whisked away to alert him of this.)  So Marty find the 1950’s Doc, they uncover the DeLorean and fix it up (because of the years worth of dry rot to the tires, etc.)  Marty then takes this one back to 1885.  So here’s the thing.  The one that doc hid in the cave?  It’s obviously still there (it would have to be for Marty to find it in 1955.)  Thus two DeLoreans and no need to make some time traveling train.  My 13 year-old mind was blown.

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Over the years I’ve realized that this isn’t a huge revelation, if only because I’ve become more jaded as I age and would be the first person to point out that with all the twists and turns of the 2nd and third BTTF films there were bound to be plot-holes.  Time Travel is a fickle story element that is nearly impossible to “get right”.  Hell, just consider the two DeLoreans.  Just using the basic logic of time travel, though the two can co-exist in the same time, there are special rules for say using parts of one to fix the other.  If you took a part off the one Doc hid in the cave to fix the one Marty brought back, it wouldn’t work.  As soon as you removed the part, it wouldn’t be there in 1955 for Marty to find intact right?  But, the opposite isn’t true.  Take a part off of the version Marty brought back to fix the one Doc hid and you don’t get into this displacement effect.  Maybe this is why it’s not brought up in the film, maybe Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale realized this and decided to sidestep trying to explain it (the franchise was pretty confusing at it was at this point.)

All of this aside, I’ve always considered the first film in the franchise to be pretty tight and free of these pesky time travel loopholes.  In fact, after a hundred nerdy conversations with friends and family I was pretty certain that there was nothing new to ever discover in that first film.  Well, that was until I poked my nose in another issue of Starlog a few weeks ago and found an article discussing the two variations of Marty McFly in the first movie.  Though this revelation wasn’t reached on my own, thus sidestepping that Doc Brown toilet bonk Eureka moment, it still blew my mind none-the-less.  The article was titled “The Other Marty McFly”, was written by Bruce Gordon, and appeared in issue 108 from July of 1986…

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Marty Alpha

The gist of the article is that there are two Marty McFlys (which they label as one and two, but I’d rather call them Marty Alpha and Marty Beta), the main one that the movie follows back to 1955 and beyond (Alpha), and a slightly more mysterious second one that is seen towards the end of the film repeating the events from the beginning as Marty Alpha returns to 1985 a few minutes early in the hopes of saving Doc Brown from the Libyans (Beta.)  But aren’t these just the same Marty at two places?  Well yes.  And no.  Consider the ultimate end of the film after Marty finds out that Doc did indeed read the warning letter he gave him back in 1955.  Doc survives thanks to a handy bullet proof vest and Marty goes home.  But is it the same home?  Obviously not!  The McFly family that Marty Alpha grew up with are for all intents and purposes kinda losers…

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His mom has a drinking problem, his dad is a beaten down pushover, his brother is a foul-mouthed slacker who works at Burger King, and his sister, well his sister hates taking messages for Marty.  But in the 1985 that Marty Alpha returns to his family is completely different…

Beta Family

His dad is a wealthy published writer, his mom is fit as a fiddle, his brother always wears a suit to the office and his sister, well, his sister has slightly better hair, less frumpy clothes, and doesn’t seem to mind taking messages quite as much.  Not only is his family more well off, but Marty is too.  His room might be identical, but this Marty has that sweet black 4×4 he always dreamed about!

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The point here is that the Marty that grew up in this environment, with more successful siblings and parents, with a totally different world view, is in fact a different Marty that we get to know throughout the film.  Thus, Marty Beta.

Marty Beta

(for the sake of ease I thought it would be fun to have Marty Beta represented by the Eric Stoltz version of the character…)

The two are similar, but not the same.  They had vastly different experiences growing up and thus, who knows what happens when Marty Beta gets that DeLorean up to 88mph and blacks back to the past.  Similarly, the Doc Brown that Marty Alpha encounters in 1955 and then eventually goes on to become the slightly different Doc Brown in 1985, the one that is prepared for the Libyans with a bullet-proof vest and got a chance to “know” Marty before he was even born, would he have informed Marty Beta about the adventure he was going to go on that fateful night?  This is getting a little convoluted, but it’s just the beginning!

Bruce Gordon goes on to point out something about the opening of the BTTF film that I had never noticed before.  Though we plainly get a chance to see that there are two Martys at the end of the film, what if I said for a split second there are also two at the beginning?!  That’s right, there’s a hidden Marty during the original sequence at Twin Pines mall that can be seen in silhouette for a split second of screen time.  That’s right, go grab your DVDs or cue up this clip on youtube. Now, pause the footage right as the Libyans corner Doc, right before Doc throws his gun away.

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You see that lit storefront between Doc and his big white van?  Pay attention to that little lit area and Marty Beta runs across that area…

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Now in the interest of complete transparency I will be the first to admit that what we’re seeing is way more likely a mistake, a crew member scuttling across set in front of shooting by accident perhaps.  But just for a second, imagine that that IS another Marty.  Think about that placement for a second.  You see how the Libyan’s VW Microbus is on the left and Doc is on the right?  Now consider that when Marty Alpha comes back to 1985 at the end of the film and he runs up to the (now) Lone Pine Mall and he stops at the sign, spatially, where is he in reference to the Libyans and Doc?  That’s right!  In that same area!

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But why would Marty Beta be skulking around in the background at the beginning of the film?  Well, it gets back to the differences between the two of them, and the differences in the two Doc Browns.  In Marty Beta’s world, the Doc that he hung out with knew he was going to eventually build a time machine, knew it would be made out of a Delorean, knew that he was going to get shot and that Marty was going to travel back in time, etc., etc.  That Doc knew that when Marty came back he altered the timeline by changing the outcome of his parents meeting and falling in love.  That Doc knew things he possibly didn’t want to know.  So maybe that Doc decided to read the letter that Marty left him, and then was extra prepared for that fateful night.

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What if that Doc had a plan to set the timeline straight by tweaking the events just a bit, by say pre-loading the DeLorean with the extra plutonium he had on hand, knowing Marty would take it back to 1955.  Maybe he even gave Marty instructions to come right back without messing with the time line at all (as Bruce Gordon suggests in the Starlog article.)  That way everything would right itself to the true (Alpha) timeline.  If you remember, during the original mall sequence he has a realization to grab the extra plutonium right before the Libyans show up.  It was all in a yellow containment suitcase right beside the truck…

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Well guess what is no longer on the ground beside the truck during the end sequence of the film?  That’s right!  The plutonium isn’t there!

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Now I know what you’re potentially thinking, it just wasn’t in the shot by accident (the set dresser forgot to put it out, it was moved, etc.)  Again, you’re probably right.  But consider the fact that there are a lot of subtle details strewn throughout the film that illustrate that there are two different versions of Hill Valley in 1985.  There’s the obvious differences in Biff and Marty’s family, but there’s also some changes to the backgrounds in the sets!  The most glaring is the differences in the Twin Pines Mall (which becomes the Lone Pone Mall), but also the change in the clock tower.  At the beginning of the film when Marty is with Jennifer and the woman comes up declaring that they have to save the clock tower you can clearly see that the only thing wrong with the clock tower is the fact that it stopped working because of the bolt of lightning that struck it in 1955…

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But during the events of the night when 1955-era Doc Brown is trying to get Marty back home he totally destroys a chunk of the ledge underneath the clock while attempting to connect the wires needed to harness the lightning…

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Right as Marty returns to 1985 the first thing we see is that same clock tower, only now a chunk of the ledge is missing (there’s a modern helicopter in the below screen shot so you know it’s ’85)…

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If Zemeckis and crew went so far as to include details like this, is it possible that he also intentionally removed the plutonium at the end, and possibly had a Marty Beta running across the background of the opening mall scene to illustrate the dual Marty time loops that are in the story?  Who knows for sure, but damn if it isn’t fun to think about!  If nothing else, Bruce Gordon’s article in issue 108 of Starlog afforded me the rare opportunity to find a new experience in a film that I thought held no more surprises for me, and that is pretty freaking awesome. I never considered Marty Beta and what his life was like, how different it most likely was…

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