Back to the Future Day, Time Travel and Perceptions of the Past

In honour of Back to the Future Day, a few thoughts on time travel.

Why are we so drawn to stories of moving in time?

The idea that time is mutable isn’t a new one.Time-travel stories feel like a new, science-fiction phenomenon, but they’ve been around for thousands of years. But I think it’s interesting to read them in terms of a more modern understanding of culture, of the individual, and of the power of choice.

We all carry history with us. We’re surrounded by things that were built long before we were born, and will endure once we’re dead. And as we live our lives, we tell stories about how things happened and wonder “What if something else happened instead?”.

Those idle daydreams where we pick over the decisions and moments of the past and re-play them to our own satisfaction (or worry) offer us glimpses of what we could describe as “alternative realities”. We often wish we could go back and give our past selves advice, or even that someone viewing all the paths of our lives could categorically say, in the moment of an agonising decision, “This is the right choice for you to make”. (Some of us do this with future worries, too.)

“What if?” is at the heart of all storytelling. And time-travel brings to life the “What if?” that changes all the world around you.

Character background

We all inherit a history. A lot of Western storytelling focuses on the power of an individual person, and the choices that they make. Many hero-figures are partly independent of the world they exist in – because they’re orphans, or on a journey, or somehow not fully settled into the world that’s real for them. But their choices will often have massive consequences for the world, and a hero’s agonising choices between right and wrong resound through a lot of our stories.

We aren’t all in the position of the hero, though. The reality of life is that, for all our belief in our own free will, we are also subject to the situation in which we are born, which dictates the advantages with which we grow up, and in which we learn about the world.

I’m not saying that everything is determined at the moment of our birth, and I am not trying to deny that human beings have free will. If anything, I’m a committed existentialist, believing that we are all fundamentally empowered to make our own choices. I also believe in the power of education to empower people to overcome the situations of their birth. But the greatest flaw in Sartre’s existentialist ideology is that it assumes that all references to one’s nature and one’s inheritance are in bad faith, where in fact, in some ways, it isn’t possible to escape a little predestination.

From our parents’ genetic weaknesses, to their social standing, money and education, who we are and what we’re capable of is sometimes shaped in a way that’s beyond the power of choice.

Stories of time travel let us escape all of that, and let us imagine what we might be if stripped of the real consequences of who we are, where we come from, and what we’ve inherited from others.

Looking backward

Of course, the first Back to the Future film takes us back to the Fifties. A lot of time-travel stories involve interacting with our own pasts (A Christmas Carol, anyone?), and Marty interferes heavily with his own timeline, almost causing himself to stop existing and then significantly changing his own future.

The paradoxes of time travel almost always contain a moral. In most time-travel stories, they are about interfering at your peril. One of the surprising things about Back to the Future is that it allows Marty to keep the better future that his interventions created. Often, instead, time-travel tales come equipped with warnings about the responsibilities of not screwing up your own timeline, or even messing around with history as everyone else experiences it (see Back to the Future II).

But we forgive Back to the Future because if there’s one thing we love, it’s cleverness in stories. We love foxing the paradox, or understanding how you become part of a bigger story. Or an awesome story. 

Frankly, I think we just love Doc.

But a lot of what Back to the Future does is look backwards to move forwards.

I’d say “Looking backwards is something Doctor Who touches on regularly”, but what I really mean is “It’s something that Doctor Who regularly sticks its fingers in and electrocutes itself with”. Doctor Who is a show that loves pitting its protagonists against the weight of history. It adopts the somewhat arbitrary and hindsight-massaging perspective that there are ‘fixed points in time’ that have to stay the way they are… or else. Also, ontological paradoxes abound. But that is something for another day.

I mean, sure, we all know that you can’t go messing around with history. Except… it happens. A lot. Frankly it’s astonishing that the Doctor lands back in the same reality every time.

Man. I just imagined Doc Brown and Eleven gurning at each other while Marty and Rory commiserate about not knowing what the hell is going on. It was beautiful.

Anyway.

Another example of looking backwards and seeing a way forwards: Harry Potter realising that he didn’t see his father, he saw himself, at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban. He can get involved because he’s already part of events. Of course, this then makes the re-read more exciting when you realise that all Harry’s fake predictions to Trelawney come true. That’s another example of how a hero makes a choice that changes the world around them.

The moral here is that you can decide your own destiny, even when events seem hopeless. By taking action, and not letting yourself be subject to history (sorry, Doctor), you can improve things for the people you care about.

Seeing time

“As soon as the TARDIS lands, we become part of events.” It’s used as an excuse to not interfere with history, but in reality, we’re always part of the events. Our perception of time, and what is ‘real’, is still there. Just as we can, with ease, follow all the permutations of Marty and Doc through their interactions with their past and future selves, we have an instinctive grasp of Marty’s perception of time.

That’s because, for us watching the films, it happens in the same order that it does for Marty. Dancing around the edges of his younger and older selves’ realities, Marty follows his own linear perception of time from the beginning of the first film. 

We are still able to follow a non-linear perspective of time when it’s a bit wibbly-wobbly, and they have to go further into the past to fix the future. In both Back to the Future and Back to the Future II, Marty has to go into the past to change what he inherits. He teaches his father to stand up for himself, he changes George McFly’s relationship with Biff, and each time the future Narty inherits – the facts of his own present – are different.

For Marty, you have to change what you inherit in order to change the way the world works. But that’s because he’s a character in a time-travel story, and also the hero, so we see the world from his subjective viewpoint. 

For the rest of us, we don’t necessarily need to look to the past to change the future. That’s what I mean about the power of education and choice. What happened to you then might be unchangeable, but the way that you think about it, and the way that you react to it now, isn’t.

You can’t change the past, but you can change yourself and change the way you deal with what you inherit. And if you do that, you can change the future. And the future is what I’ll talk about tomorrow.

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