by Stephen Daniel Lewis
What Back to the Future says about sex and the probability of love.
Years ago, my friend Anne showed me a video called “Imagining the Tenth Dimension.” I’ve watched it a few times per year since. I always go away thinking I understand all ten dimensions until I try explaining it to someone, only to find myself rambling about businessmen and graphing calculators and clouds, all connected with the phrases “but space,” “but time,” “you know?”
Which is the long way to say I don’t and won’t understand this.
It would be too easy to compare this to a male adolescent’s understanding of sex; (in stereotypical fashion) the overconfidence until he’s in the situation of putting his “knowledge” to use–a situation in which he doesn’t have the experience or exposure to know anything and no one should expect him to, yet he feels anxious because he assumes every friend/person he’s met at school is a sex demigod, but at this point he can’t backtrack and ask for explanation without risking ridicule.
A better comparison might be the first time I watched Back to the Future III. If you don’t remember the details of this film or have it confused with a high school rendition of Oklahoma or, I don’t know, a cowboy hat, I don’t blame you. It ditches the intriguing familial aspect that made the first two BTTF films interesting. It also presents the viewer with the same tired problems: Biff as the antagonist trying to beat/kill Marty and Doc, a broken time machine, and weird costume design. It does deviate from the first two films though, in that it finally sexualizes Doc. Not only is he given a love interest but he also shows up at the end with two children in tow meaning he moved from love-at-first sight, to “I guess I can stay in 1885 with this hoverboard,” to sex; he did it all in a matter of days.
I was young enough when I first watched Part III that I cared more about playing with plastic holsters and cap guns than paying attention to the plot. But I was struck at the time by the relationship between Doc and Clara. I realized that the love story wasn’t a love story, but couldn’t fathom why. But the love story portion of the plot makes a little more sense in hindsight. Marty tells Doc he’s going to be killed. Doc saves Clara and suddenly is obsessed with her (because nothing turns Doc on like a fellow Jules Verne fan, but oh yeah, also she’s super pretty). Things move fast and this isn’t a love story; it’s a movie about facing mortality and it seems that Doc, like many people I suppose, would want to have sex one more time before he dies. Happily for him, he doesn’t die, marries Clara, and travels with his family on his time-train like some portmanteau consisting of The Magic School Bus and We’re the Millers. And realizing this isn’t a love story–or the movie isn’t a container for a love story–means that this was the first movie I remember deviating into some other territory. Realizing this movie was about sex presented me with a split I hadn’t considered before: sex as an extension of love versus sex as something else–more immediate, selfish, less tied to the body but more tied to your body, void of intimacy outside of the act itself.
On the surface Clara and Doc offer the least interesting sexual dynamic in the trilogy. The first movie put a near-naked Marty in front of his future mother–a brazen high school student, so different from the 1985 mother that you almost want to see the future get screwed up so that she will avoid ending up with Marty’s pushover, smiling-through-my-wincing-disappointment-in-myself dad. The audience knows Marty and his mom can’t do anything to alter the future that will negate his birth, but the film still creates a ton of tension by putting Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson in a parked car scene. We forget that inevitably nothing will happen. A near replica of that situation has either happened to us or someone we know; Marty’s awkwardness could easily be our own. The gut feeling overwhelms the incestual aspect, allowing us to really empathize with the characters.
A more interesting but unpronounced dynamic arises between Doc and Marty. Nothing crosses your mind when Marty wakes up at Doc’s place in the opening of the Part I, and nothing crosses your mind when Doc brings Marty clothes to wear in Part II. But when Doc dresses Marty for Part III’s Old West in this, you suddenly realize: an eccentric old man has spent his life building a time machine in order to dress up a high schooler to take on trips in his Delorean. That’s a disturbing tagline. The possibility of Doc as a father figure might explain his relationship with Marty, but the constant incestuous undertones throughout the first two movies only make the relationship that much stranger.
Part III is so bad it’s difficult to imagine all this sexual layering was done on purpose. So when the last movie ends with the most Vanilla of the three love plots it’s easy to assume the writers checked-out early. But Part III goes off the rails in a way the first two films refused to do; it decides to say fuck the space time continuum because that’s The Power of Love.
This seems to prove that the dynamics between Marty/his teenage mother and Marty/Doc exemplify the type of social confrontation the writers weren’t conditioned to handle the third time around. But really, the Vanilla love story of Doc and Clara reinforces those confrontations. Doc and Clara just prove that love is sad.
Sad as in, Doc never has anyone more significant than Marty until he meets Clara. As in, yes, Doc found Clara, but had to improbably travel to 1885 to do so, which is insane considering that all time–future present and past–give Doc infinite possibilities, meaning the probability is ZERO that he finds Clara. So maybe you grew up watching movies or reading stories about true love and believe that it exists somewhere in three-dimensional space for you. But believing that means you are ignoring all the dimensions beyond your immediate perception, and you are just sadly failing to realize that even with a time machine your chances are zero, and since you don’t have a time machine, your chances are less than zero, and this realization was probably reinforced by your parents’ divorce. And oddly, according to census data, divorce rates dropped slightly over the decade this trilogy was made. Combine this with the fact that Robert Zemeckis couldn’t get Back to the Future made in the early 80s, yet it became wildly popular once released in ‘85, and there’s a very interesting logical fallacy. We could speculate that BTTF subtly and softly represents the the death of traditional love as part of the American Dream over that decade. That Americans stay married because they realize marriage isn’t about love, but family. That this fact is sad, so some of the sexual tension in the first two films serve as viable, real-life alternatives to the zero-probability Doc and Clara relationship.
Which leaves us not any better off than the adolescent school kid. No matter how confident someone seems to be, sex can often be full of wrong turns and what matters to you likely doesn’t matter that much to your lover. In a relationship power matters except when it doesn’t, and selfishness is bad except not always. When you are young you don’t have to think about growing old. Maybe you thought Marty should’ve drank his mom’s peach schnapps and had sex with her because the future is intangible. But when you grow older you might have to become a time traveler to find someone compatible with you. When you grow older you might have to become a time traveler to fix your mistakes. Maybe Doc wasn’t a great scientist, just a guy who slipped off his toilet and got mild brain damage. Maybe you aren’t willing to go to similar ends to avoid being alone. Maybe you don’t have to worry about regrets; you can hate everything you did wrong as well as everything you missed out on; you can’t change any of it. The idea of settling is the worst feeling unless you call it contentment, then it’s only painful, the sort of aching that develops from moving your body less and less until you grow tired of it and want to flail, because what’s worse than settling and calling it contentment is feeling that everyone else has it and you cannot, for the life of you, understand why you don’t.
Which is expected really. I studied writing and literature so the closest my education came to what is described in the video is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. And I don’t think anyone expects me to have authority in the subject of science because if academia taught me anything, it is that there will inevitably be someone more knowledgeable than me, especially as I start to move out of my field of study. Though a lack of understanding never really stops writers from writing about a subject with an off-putting and false sense of authority, I’m sure a large portion of them come off sounding about as knowledgeable as I do trying to explain the tenth dimension.
Considering that Marty wore a bright orange down vest in the first movie (and didn’t need of a lifejacket until the second one), this movie had to put in extra work to take the “What-the-Fuck-is-Marty-Wearing” crown. And it does; nothing tops the shirt he wears for his trip to 1885 in Part III, which is so ridiculous, bright, and nonfunctional that even other characters in the movie make fun of him.
Yeah, she’s a good actress who maximizes her character here, but she isn’t referenced in the other two films and mainly serves to create some sexual tension since we know Marty (who still has to marry Jennifer in the future and so spends this movie avoiding near-hook ups with anyone’s mother) won’t have any tension at all. She’s a one-dimensional character while Marty and Doc exist in the fourth.
To be fair, he had to make up for the lack of a sexual Doc in the first two films, because the whole trilogy is about making up for lost time right?
Did you watch the last two episodes of Togetherness? I’m not sure she has aged. Also, have you watched Togetherness?
Assuming he had sex previously.
Not that this movie is special. It could have been any other movie, this just happened to be the one that stuck with me. The memory is tied to real-life context during the time period, meaning that the movie isn’t really important but the memories surrounding it seem to be. I could go on explaining psychology and neural pathways to you all, but first let me finishing explaining the tenth abstract dimension and whatever.
Funny that this realization closely coincides with the time period I should have statistically begun having sex. My family had switched from what the linked paper describes as “intact” to “non-intact” and I was nearing the age where the likelihood of engaging in intercourse between those two categories is differentiated by more than 50% before evening out as the subjects near the age of 20.
A heavy dose of nostalgia helps pull us in too.
Parts II and III were shot in immediate succession, so it’s plausible they just ran out of juice.
Though it was obviously not impossible.
And in the process show that sex might have its caveats, but at least it’s interesting.
Which I’ll use for speculation despite it being a fallacy.
I only speculate because I wasn’t alive in 1985. I don’t know what the American Dream at the time looked like. I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve time travel.