WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
COMPANY: Cinemanaut Becca in and out.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Happy 50th anniversary, Doctor Who!
There’s more than one doc that travels through time with a much younger companion.
Yes, I’m of course referring to the Doctor of Doctor Who fame, the face-changing alien in the blue box who treats the entirety of time and space like his own personal playground. The very first serial of Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child,” debuted exactly fifty years prior to today’s date in 1963. What is it about this character that continues to appeal to audiences decades later? Comedian and television host Craig Ferguson famously sang a little ditty about the Doctor that praised his belief that intellect and romance always triumph over brute force and cynicism, and this idea has become particularly popular among Whovians for whom the show is akin to a philosophical way of life. But it got me thinking… is this the proper attitude for a time traveler to have? Well, seeing as it’s my duty to watch Back to the Future every week in the name of science, I put all four abstract nouns to the test within the film. Do Doc and Marty share these values, or does their universe… and ours… run on a different set of moral principles?
Well, this one is, perhaps paradoxically, a no-brainer. Doc’s entire modus operandi is applying the scientific method to any problem that comes his way. Indeed, his very motto is: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” Both he and the Doctor don’t rest on their laurels when someone is in trouble, even if it’s a total stranger that needs their help. They put on their thinking caps, be they mind-reading helmets or fezzes, and they get the job done.
Let’s be honest, George and Lorraine’s first kiss is enough romance for about ten movies, but even looking beyond the cartoon hearts variety, Back to the Future is loaded with another type of romance: a sense of adventure. My heart flutters just as much when the DeLorean rolls its way down the ramp, ready to take its occupants on a grand journey through the space-time continuum. Doc’s wide-eyed wonder as he demonstrates his machine’s ability to bring the past to life or reveal the unknown mysteries of the future rivals that of the Doctor each time he asks a companion which part of the universe they’d like to see first.
There’s no denying that Back to the Future demonstrates and supports the effectiveness of brute force. While intellect goes a long way, you’d be foolish to attempt reasoning with a rapist mid-assault. I’ve previously written about how screenwriters employ “morality math” to maximize the output of both action and ethical behavior from their characters, but the fact remains that brute force would be just as necessary in this situation in real life, something the Doctor may not want to admit. And George keeps up his behavior of physical confrontation when he shoves that other kid to the floor at the dance… and he learned it all from watching his son.
Doc is responsible for a string of failed inventions. Hill Valley turns into a complete dump in just thirty years. Marty’s family is depressingly unhappy. Doc has to build his time machine off the government’s radar and power it by deceiving a terrorist organization. Politicians keep making the same empty promises. Idiot rednecks almost kill someone because they instantly assume he’s an alien. (Bad news, Doctor.) These are just some of the unfortunate truths of life in Hill Valley, and they’re enough to make anyone a pessimist. And perhaps the most cynical idea of all in Back to the Future is at the root of almost any time travel story: you are not special. You only exist because of a ridiculously sensitive set of conditions that happened in just the right way. Your parents’ love wasn’t written in the stars; your reckless grandfather rammed his car into the socially stunted town pervert.
SO WHAT PHILOSOPHY DOES BACK TO THE FUTURE PREACH?
Having exhibited bits of all four viewpoints, it might seem that Back to the Future is a tad contradictory in its moral messages. Can it truly only support either intellect and romance or brute force and cynicism? Must it lean towards the brighter, more positive side like Doctor Who, or is there a middle ground that sums up the actions of Doc and Marty?
DETERMINATION AND DUMB LUCK
To me, while Doctor Who and Back to the Future are both uplifting, family-friendly time travel adventures, I think Back to the Future ultimately paints a more realistic portrait of how the world functions. The good must be taken with the bad, and while I adore Doctor Who, more often than not the Doctor can keep to his code of non-violence simply because the stories allow this philosophy to work out at every turn (or exploit morality math to bring him out on top). This isn’t to say that Who doesn’t have its dark moments (see: pretty much every episode featuring the robo-Nazis that are the Daleks), but more often than not, his intellect and romance are backed an awful lot by a powerful benevolent force known as screenwriting.
I submit that intellect, while important and the best course of action in the majority of situations, can’t really be the only method of problem-solving in an emergency; what matters is the determination to make things work, and the characters in Back to the Future never let up in that department. Just look at Doc struggling to pull off the clock tower experiment at the end of the film. Everything that can go wrong does, but he never gives up. Is this the only reason he succeeds? Hardly. While his success is certainly dependent on the writers, he doesn’t live in a romanticized world where everything simply works out for the best. The cynical aspects of life in Hill Valley prove that, at the end of the day, this temporally flexible universe runs on dumb luck. But, as the adage goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Back to the Future teaches that, in the face of random chance, the only thing you can do is keep trying.
It’s a very similar lesson to that of Doctor Who, but I find it more refreshingly honest than relying on an idealized romantic worldview to fix everything.
“Speaking of fixing everything, explain this shit.”