Back to the Future is a pretty fun movie, and because of that the time travel stuff has never really bothered me. Does it make a lot of sense? Can we change the past? How awesome is it that Doc has these pretty specific rules about time travel that he breaks? None of that matters, really, because it’s just a goofy movie where they say things like “Ronald Reagan? The actor??”.
But there is one part that has always deeply disturbed me about Back to the Future, and it’s a part that is (probably wisely) never truly explored. Returning to the “present” at the end of the first Back to the Future Marty McFly finds his family in a very different situation than he left them in. They are much wealthier and happier. Their lives have improved greatly. Biff is no longer a constant terror. And it’s all because of Marty. At first glance, this is great! Hell, at second glance it’s great. But it also raises some heady logical questions, and some pretty important moral questions too.
The first question is how long Marty McFly can live his new life. Let’s call the original timeline, the one we start the movie in, Timeline A and that George: George A, that Lorraine: Lorraine A, that Marty: Marty A, etc. Now, imagine George A, Lorraine A, and Marty A growing up together. They’re poor, they’re scared of Biff, they have this whole host of memories together. When Marty goes back in time he changes things for them, creating Timeline B. In Timeline B the McFlys are rich and happy and healthy. One would assume they have a different set of memories, and that their home life is markedly different. Now Marty A appears in Timeline B. What happens at family dinner when Lorraine B reflects on the time she pushed him on a swingset and the swing broke. Maybe that never happened in Timeline A. Maybe it’s a defining moment for Marty B and Lorraine B’s relationship, but Marty A will have no clue what she’s talking about. This is just one example of many. If we allow that circumstance shapes who we are… which, I don’t think is a real debate… then these people will know nearly nothing about each other, having shared exactly zero experience over the last however many years. How long can Marty possibly live a life of what is essentially an imposter?
And more importantly, as I discussed in another article about weird personality displacement, what happens to Marty B? His body is probably still the same, so… is Marty B just eradicated? There must have been someone experiencing those moments with George B and Lorraine B all those years, someone with a shared memory. What happens to that person? Is it murder? Marty A leaps into his body and ousts him to… where? It’s an issue in X-Men: Days of Future Past as well. When Logan A arrives in Timeline B, Professor X B (wow, what a mouth full) is psyched to see him… but Logan A is just some dude Professor X B met like decades ago for ONE DAY. The fact that Logan A wakes up in Professor X’s academy means that Logan B must have already been there (because the body is). Even assuming Professor X B just met Logan B like a year ago (it was probably longer) he is really excited Logan A is here. Think about how messed up that is. He’s known Logan B for a year and recently, and Logan A like forty years ago, and for a day. But he’s still excited that Logan A has ousted Logan B. What was his relationship with Logan B even like. Every morning when he saw Logan B was he like “one day my pal from forty years ago is going to repossess your body hope we don’t get too close or that’ll pretty sad for me because, again, it’ll be pretty much wiping you off the map aka murdering you”.
That’s it, that’s all I’ve got. I don’t have any answers for either of these points – I guess it’s just something time travel movies have to make their peace with if they’re going to allow branching timelines. But it still makes me sad to think of the disappeared persons, and the isolation the timelines create. Even Marty A and Logan A, though they are in objectively better futures, have lost everything they’ve ever known. Logan A might not be able to approach Rogue B and talk to her about their adventures from the past, because Logan B probably never lived those adventures. Marty A may have some memories with George A and Lorraine A, maybe not the best memories but still memories with his parents, his original parents, people he will never be able to see again (and by his hand, no less). Why these characters, all of them on either side of the timeline divide, aren’t profoundly affected and disturbed is beyond me.
I guess it’s because Doc Brown shows up real quick and says they have to go back to the future. Which, you know, also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because they haven’t been to the future yet, but…