Why Are Marty McFly and Doc Brown Friends in 'Back to the Future'?

One of the most overlooked plot holes in movie history deserves an explanation. We discuss.


Today we celebrate Back to the Future Day — October 21, 2015 is the day in the future Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled to in Back to the Future Part II, and so far we’ve been celebrating the film and its universe. But, there’s one part of the franchise’s premise that still rings hollow after all these years.

Corban Goble: The question I have about Back to the Future — a question that has rendered me unable to enjoy the movies, no matter how celebrated they’ve become — has been asked before. But I’m asking it again, because the answers that have been offered up over the years strike me as bullshit. Sean, how and why are Marty McFly, an offbeat but otherwise popular teenager, and Doc, a 60-something failed scientist with a sketchy reputation around town, friends?

Sean Hutchinson: Would it be a cop-out to defer to Bob Gale’s comments to Mental Floss? It’s straight from one of the guys who created these characters, so I have to believe what he says. Despite the inherent weirdness of a 60-year-old disgraced scientist and a high schooler becoming best buds, I buy the fact that those two could have become friends.

Ignore Gale’s “red-blooded American teenage boy” bit, which just adds to the weirdness.

CG: I won’t, but proceed.

SH: He says Marty was curious about this guy that everyone in Hill Valley says is a weirdo and decided to find out for himself — it makes sense for Marty’s character. It even makes sense if you put yourself in that situation. It seems every small town in America has a town weirdo or a supposedly haunted house that becomes legendary. Headstrong kids would just naturally seek these things out to find out for themselves.

CG: I hear you. But Marty went … alone to Doc’s lab? I don’t see how that lines up. When you’re breaking into some old vacant house or something, you bring some buddies. Like, the Stand By Me kids rolled four deep, Sean, and they knew they were going to find a dead body.

I won’t let the “red-blooded” piece go; that has this unbelievably weird sexual connotation that I don’t think is just a slip of the mind. Reading the Wikipedia page for Back to the Future page to reacquaint myself with the plot, it seems that one of the original concepts for the movie that Gale came up with involved a “highly promiscuous” female lead. What the fuck? My theory is that Marty was prowling for some action, and the rest of the movie is something else. I’ll get into my theory here in a moment, I just wanted to give you a chance to breathe.

SH: The thing is, I don’t mind the questionable sexual connotations either. This is a movie that plays with the Oedipus complex in a really loose way. Don’t forget, Marty is surprised to find himself sexually attracted to his mom and eventually — however reluctant he was — kisses his mom in the front seat of a car before the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.

So, yeah, weird sex stuff. The example of Marty and his mom is very direct, while the subtext of Marty and Doc’s sexuality is suppressed. Still, Doc being a father figure to Marty brings a whole new level of psycho-sexual complexity to the situation. This is what senior theses are made for.

But if we’re staying PG, as Gale says, both characters were familial black sheep. Doc used to be part of a vast fortune with a huge mansion, all of which he eventually wasted on his crackpot inventions. Marty was just a kid looking for some parental guidance since his home life was unstable and embarrassing at best. When he realized Doc was just a misunderstood guy with awesome inventions for him to use, Doc became not only an ally but a paternal friend.

Marty probably should have broken into Doc’s lab with a crew, but if he had friends it would betray the character. This gets to something that’s kind of always bothered me. Marty McFly is simultaneously the coolest kid ever but he’s also a misunderstood loner. He’s got a band, a cute girlfriend, but no friends? What do you make of that?

CG: Yeah he’s kind of like a curious and wide-eyed Ferris Bueller but without the Sloane and Cameron triangle, but Ferris didn’t actually exist either.

Which brings me to my theory, a theory that New York Magazine senior film editor Kevin Lincoln has called “intriguing.” So, Marty, age 13, 14, whatever, is out prowling to get laid one night in town. It’s late and Doc, who is desperate for attention and validation, kidnaps Marty, who he understands to be popular and thus an impressionable youth that is worth winning over. Whether this traumatic event stretches out over one day, or over a number of months, I don’t know and may have to revisit important context clues, but all the time travel adventures are just fantasies played out in a psych ward or in purgatory. (This is not unlike the true plot of Harry Potter).

Take the events of Back to the Future II, whose arbitrary fictional date selection we are celememe-ing today. It all plays out like some kind of fever dream; so Doc brings along Marty’s girlfriend … doesn’t that seem like some kind of dreamy detail? “Oh, you were there, and you were there too! Jaws 19 was out! I beat up my dad’s bully’s kid!”

Anyway, Doc knocks her out and they both leave her in the ostentatiously, outrageously out-of-date automobile — she’s just passed out in this relic and gets picked up while Marty, without a second thought, peaces to … hoverboard around?

One could argue that “Doc Brown” isn’t even the physicist that brought about the trauma, but his attending psychiatrist in the psych ward. But that’s just one branch of this healthy theory. What do you think?

SH: Doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s very interesting. I generally think fan theories are absolutely ridiculous and an extension of fanboy tendencies to want more of something they absolutely love. But in a story like Back to the Future, with totally outrageous claims and plot points that contradict the laws of physics, then anything is possible. Marty’s dead, that’s it. Case closed. Look for Robert Zemeckis to sue M. Night Shyamalan sometime in the near future.

That said, I like your Ferris Bueller comparison. The ‘80s were filled with this type of lovable, charismatic teenage scamp who’s A) bulletproof-cool, yet B) vulnerable and susceptible to personal strife. It’s why the questionable relationship between Doc and Marty is permissible. He’s a character that can be everything at once, and you don’t really have to question it.

The fact that the weirdness of the friendship between Doc and Marty is never addressed and just sort of accepted by the audience is also a testament to the performances by Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox. If their rapport didn’t work on-screen, the absurdity of the situation would have probably been a major criticism against the movie. And yet, it works somehow too. Why do you think people just accepted the fact that Doc and Marty are best friends?

CG: Because they had to! Zemeckis bullied his audience in this way. I’ve talked about Bob Gale some, but now I’m going to talk about Zemeckis and his endless, but unconsidered, deceit.

Give me a Zemeckis film that isn’t just some kind of fever dream featuring a protagonist dealing with some kind of trauma. Forrest Gump. Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Flight. Fucking Cast Away. And that’s not even accounting for his latest film, which prominently involves the World Trade Center. VERY INTERESTING.

This is all propelling me to the point I wanted to end on. Libyan plutonium doesn’t melt steel beams, Sean.

SH: I had no idea you were a Robert Zemeckis 9/11 truther, Corban. Also, what trauma is the kid dealing with in The Polar Express?

CG: I mean …

SH: Anyway, I’m sticking with the bits of Bob Gale’s explanation that make sense. Doc and Marty are two misunderstood weirdos that find friendship with each other, nearly destroy the space time continuum, and wrap it up in dramatic fashion in one of the best big popcorn movie trilogies in history.

Still, I’m not going to suddenly become friends with a 60-year-old nutjob. But that’s just me.