WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME (Isla Nublar)
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Just finished watching two episodes of The Honeymooners. Oh yeah, get ready for this one.
In Back to the Future, ’80s teen Marty McFly finds himself stranded in the past on November 5th, 1955. While dining at the home of his mother-to-be, he sees on their television “The Man From Space,” an episode of the sitcom The Honeymooners. When he deems the episode a classic, his little uncle Milton calls shenanigans on him, since “The Man From Space” has never aired before. Marty, not wanting to reveal that he’s a time traveler, stammers and claims he saw it on a rerun, prompting the precociously suspicious Milton to ask, “What’s a rerun?”
First of all, reruns already existed, but since the Baines family just got their television, it makes sense for Milton not to know about them. What doesn’t make any sense is how the Baines family television is miraculously picking up an episode of The Honeymooners that doesn’t air for another fifty-six days. Just how much time travel is going on in this movie?
Why don’t you start explaining preruns, you little smart-ass?
Yes, “The Man From Space” originally aired on December 31st, 1955. The episode that aired on November 5th, 1955 is titled “The Sleepwalker.” Now, the screenwriters deliberately chose “The Man From Space” as an integral part of the film’s plot; it’s what inspires Marty to pretend to be an alien so he can convince his dad to bang him into existence. Still, I wondered: how different would the film be if they’d favored historical accuracy instead? Are there themes in “The Sleepwalker” that are also relevant to the plot of Back to the Future? To investigate, I watched “The Man From Space” and “The Sleepwalker” immediately before today’s viewing.
First, some brief plot summaries.
THE GIST OF “THE MAN FROM SPACE”:
Ed Norton is working down in the sewer when Ralph Kramden stops by with an ingenious scheme: he’s going to enter the Raccoon Lodge’s costume contest by renting a professional costume, which will cost him $10, but the prize is $50. Ed tells him he had the exact same idea and has already rented a costume. Later that evening, Alice Kramden refuses to give Ralph $10 for a Henry VIII costume, suggesting he use his own brain instead. Ed pops in dressed as Pierre Francois de la Brioski, designer of the sewers of Paris. Against all logic, Ralph insists that Ed stole his idea, leading to a fight that ends with Ralph declaring that he will beat Ed by making his own costume. He rounds up various items from around the apartment and shows Alice the finished product, but she has no idea that he’s supposed to be a man from space, which infuriates Ralph. Meanwhile, Ed has just discovered that Pierre Francois de la Brioski is actually the man who condemned the sewers of Paris, and on top of that, he has to miss the contest to attend to a sewer issue. At the lodge, Ralph is declared a finalist in the contest, but the judges mistakenly think he’s wearing a pinball machine costume. Just as they’re about to announce the winner, Ed shows up in his creepy-looking sewer gear, at which point the judges award him the prize for his incredible man from space costume.
You’ve gotta admit, that’s a passable homemade Darth Vader.
THE GIST OF “THE SLEEPWALKER”:
Trixie Norton wakes up Ralph and Alice in the middle of the night to ask for help with Ed’s recently recurring sleepwalking problems. Ed is currently on the roof of the building, so Ralph reluctantly goes after him and gets him back in bed. Various solutions are suggested to help Ed, such as changing his diet, covering the floor in thumbtacks, or tying a bell around his wrist. The next night, Ralph decides to stay up, figuring Ed is just going to wake him up again anyway. Alice suggests helping to pay for Ed to see a doctor, but Ralph says it’s not in the budget. Trixie comes in to announce that Ed is sound asleep, and Ralph asks what he can do to help Ed. Alice’s solution is for Ralph to sleep with Ed tomorrow night, which he does. Despite several precautions (nailing windows shut, hiding the key to the door, etc.), Ed manages to escape the apartment in his sleep, so Ralph finally calls in a doctor. The doctor theorizes that Ed has some kind of “mental block” he needs to get over, so he gives Ed some Pentothal and talks to him while he sleeps. Ed reveals that he lost his dog at Coney Island as a child, so perhaps his sleepwalking is an unconscious desire to find him again. The doctor suggests Ed be kept under observation for two or three months, but Ralph comes up with a cheaper cure: he buys Ed a dog. The following night, Ralph congratulates himself on outsmarting the doctor, only to be interrupted by a sleepwalking Ed with the dog under his arm.
The End! No, really, this never gets resolved.
SHARED THEMES BETWEEN “THE MAN FROM SPACE” AND BACK TO THE FUTURE:
The biggest comparison between the two is obviously that Marty is mistaken for a man from space by the Peabody family, then is inspired by this Honeymooners episode to pretend to be that very thing. However, even though Ed Norton’s sewer gear is never seen in the film, both he and Marty have their protective outfits mistaken for spacesuits.
Also connecting Ed and Marty: both of them were hoping to win a competition, became caught up in an unrelated problem, and still achieved their ultimate goals.
Ed gets fifty bucks, Marty traumatizes a high school.
Ralph Kramden improvises a costume using items from around the house. Doc Brown displays this same spirit of ingenuity in regards to making models, not to mention the rough-around-the-edges design aesthetic of the DeLorean time machine.
They’re also both fans of metal hats with lights on them.
Oh, and I didn’t mention it in the synopsis, but Alice’s costume is a twelve-year-old girl. Ralph throws a fit because, I kid you not, her knees are showing, and as her husband, he doesn’t want everybody looking at them. In addition to the fifties culture shock, I couldn’t help but hear 1985 Lorraine criticizing girls who show their knees. Keep that sex appeal on a leash, ladies.
I hope the fetishes in this image don’t get me on a watch list.
All in all, it’s a pretty good fit with the movie, especially since you really only see the man from space costume. But what if they’d gone with the correct episode? Is there a scene from “The Sleepwalker” that could have just as easily been easily linked with the narrative? Or would it have inspired Marty in different ways and changed his entire journey?
SHARED THEMES BETWEEN “THE SLEEPWALKER” AND BACK TO THE FUTURE:
From a plot standpoint, if anything in this episode could give Marty ideas for convincing his father to ask Lorraine to the dance, it would probably be the scene where the doctor gives Ed a healthy dose of Pentothal.
Whoa, his head wound is in the same spot as Doc’s.
Good thing Marty never drugged his pop– wait, what’s this?
Yep, the way the scene was originally written, Marty gives his dad a little ether before disappearing into the night (hence why he oversleeps and misses school the next day). While he never resorted to full-on injections, Marty’s capable of some purdy dark shit. But hey, deleted scenes don’t count, so consider this timeline erased.
Another aspect of the episode might have impacted the relationship between Marty and Doc: Ralph Kramden’s distrust of the doctor who comes to help Ed. First of all, he’s portrayed as your stereotypical weirdo shrink, with glasses and goofy hair and a Freud-like accent. His advice is sound, but Ralph thinks he’s an out-of-touch intellectual type who’s just in it for the dough, though, in fairness, Ralph’s probably merely trying to rationalize not spending the money. In the final scene of the episode, Kramden has this to say about the psychiatrist: “The truth was right in front of his nose. Right in front of his nose! And he couldn’t tell it.”
“Go back to your fancy science place with your book things, ya quack.”
If Marty saw this scene a couple times over the course of a day, who knows? Maybe he would come to distrust Doc. I mean, Doc’s invention has already gotten him in all sorts of trouble, but Marty has to put his faith in him because he’s the only one that can help. This could have caused Marty to walk away from his friend after returning to 1985, if not permanently, then at the very least changing the dynamic of their relationship.
Speaking of their relationship, some speculate on whether or not Doc and Marty are lovers. I’ve come up empty looking for approaches from a literary analysis standpoint; it’s usually just for some chuckles, and holy hell, I’m not opening the slashfic portal until the end of the year. Hey, here’s an image of another famous male pop culture duo who are totally just friends… in bed together.
Aww, it looks so right.
If that scene were on the Baines family television in the film, it might appear to be foreshadowing of a growing intimate relationship between Marty and Doc, especially when paired with Marty’s avoidance of Lorraine’s affections, mother or not. At the very least, it would be mentioned in queer theory essays on Back to the Future. (And if you’re writing a paper on Ralph/Ed, aimless English majors out there, don’t miss this episode.)
Another interesting connection between “The Sleepwalker” and Back to the Future: sleep getting interrupted. It’s a theme I didn’t even pick up on in the film until today, but there are five scenes of characters being woken up from a sound slumber, only the last one occurring by the conventional method of an alarm clock. This is such a strange frequency that I have to wonder its overall significance to the film, but that’s for another article.
The only other link between the Honeymooners episode and Back to the Future that I could determine was a focus on the lasting effects of past events. A character in each describes a painful childhood memory: Ed Norton is still broken up over his lost dog, and Marty McFly is still affected by his parents giving him hell after setting fire to the living room rug. Also, time travel, I guess? Does that really focus on the past? Cause and effect? Something? Whatever.
RIGHT IN THE KISSER:
In terms of just one old TV episode altering the plot of the film, you have to keep this in mind: if Marty’s going to be inspired to action by The Honeymooners, the episode that’s probably going to influence him the most is all of them. Marty, perhaps slightly out-of-character for a 1980s teen-aged Van Halen fan, describes “The Man From Space” as “a classic,” suggesting more than just a casual familiarity with the show. Judging by the enthusiasm his father and brother have for the rerun we see during dinner, it’s a safe bet that it’s usually on whenever they eat, so Marty has probably seen both of these episodes and many, many more.
Whenever Dave moves his friggin’ head, that is.
While “The Man From Space” is a great pick for inclusion in the movie, the choice of The Honeymooners as the preferred show of the Baines and McFly families is probably more important than any one episode. No matter how the older generation might try to spin it, Ralph and Alice don’t have a healthy relationship. Sure, it’s just a show, but with episode after episode looming in the corner during each dinner in the Baines household, it’s easy to see how Original Timeline Lorraine could grow up to think her loveless marriage isn’t really all that bad. At least George never threatened to hit her, right?
Maybe click it over to I Love Lucy once in a while, George.