I had this idea of writing down my own, personal 8ack5tory. It seemed like a great idea, and then I started to write and it all came out like a big mush of vague, soft, meandering memories. And then I had this second idea that I would like to write something about old movies, games, music, and tid-bits of pop-culture from my youth… and those two ideas crashed together into a chocolate-meets-peanut-butter kind of mess that seemed too good to ignore. And thus… well… read on.
In 1985 the cult-classic, time-travel, teen-angst epic “Back to the Future” starring Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd was released. I was nine… give or take.
While being nine was only one of the factors that restricted my ability to go to new release movies (in actual theatres) there were other complicating factors that interfered: (a) we lived in a small town with a single (yes, literally one) theatre hosting a single screen, (b) I had two younger siblings, and (c) we simply, matter-of-factly, just didn’t go out to movies in 1985. However, even against these odds, I eventually did partake in the life-altering viewing of this particular film, probably a few years later and probably via a VHS on a twenty-something-inch, wood-cased television screen. Life changing, you ask? This delay in viewing, whatever the cause, probably meant I finally did watch the film at — retrospectively asserted following many, many years of evidence supporting such a claim — an impressionably perfect age, an age that resulted such an unmistakable fork in my personality and character, and such a perfect moment in the setting-and-forgetting of my personality that I shudder to consider the differences in my life having not seen this movie. In some alternate reality out there, an alternate fork of me missed this moment and has probably had a unique and utterly different existence.
In some alternate reality out there, an alternate fork of me missed this moment…
This might seem sad to you, but alas it is a truth humbly admitted herein, and in light of such a statement let’s start by considering the evidence, presented as your’s truly’s past, present and very likely future obsessions with…
Films like “Back to the Future” are like science fiction gateway drugs: teen angst movie sub-plot candy-coatings wrapped around a soft, chewy centre of speculative adventure and non-existent-technology-driven complexities.
I will not assume that present or future readers share my obsession with “Back to the Future” so to recap, the plot starts something like this: Marty McFly, disgruntled 80s teen, struggling with family, school, and life-in-general, is in media res unlikely friends with the eccentric inventor Doctor “Doc” Emmett Brown. Doc has constructed a time travelling Delorean car — a gull winged novelty vehicle now iconically synonymous with this particular movie — powered by stolen plutonium which, thanks to circumstances involving midnight travel plans, a shopping mall parking lot, and angry terrorists, ends up primed for time travel and driven by Marty — inadvertently — right into the thirty-years-past date of November 1955. This year just happens to be the year when Marty’s parents (who are exactly the same age as he is in 1985… obviously) leads to some 50s-teen-angst clashing with the sensibilities and future know-how of 80s-teen-angst.
I found myself mentally shooting-up on the brain-busting plots of increasingly trank-inducing science fiction.
Following so far? Now throw in a funky pop-rock soundtrack, a classic Davie-and-Goliath sub-plot, the prospect of imminent demise of the protagonist at the literal manifestation of fate and temporal physics, and you have a movie that not only is an action packed speculative soft-ball, but a philosophical mind-blower for anyone who’d never before quite got around to pondering the possible non-linear nature of time and space (due to either age or experience or some combination thereof.) I, like many of my generation, was hooked. And like any gateway drug — I assume — the philosophical high granted by the antics of a time-travelling teenager soon faded into the purest crust of nostalgia and I found myself mentally shooting-up on the brain-busting plots of far more complex narratives, deeper imaginative multi-verses, and increasingly trank-inducing stories of science fiction that, to this day, are the bread-and-butter staple of my media-consumption diet. I became a science fiction junkie.
If Marty and Doc were a comedy duo, Marty — clearly the protagonist of “Back to the Future” — would be the straight man. Doc Brown characterized the archetypal mad scientist: Einstein-esque wild hair, houses cluttered with unexplained gadgets, over-sized collections of eclectic objects, dogs named after famous natural philosophers, and the uncanny ability to construct large scale models of abstract scenarios in limited time and to comedic effect. Mad scientists have a bad rap as villainous evil-doers in many movies, but the evil-plotting-scientician is only one dull, dark side of a brighter and shinier coin than we are usually shown. On the other side of that coin is that oft-forgotten science-ish renegade, an inventor-cowboy, a maker-punk who defies the classic (yet finger-waggingly proper) institutions of high academia and research and tinkers in his lab to astounding success.
Now there are webs of cool people doing awesome-geeky-mad-science and engineering.
I — with my bachelor’s degree in science, my multiple years as a summer student grunt-working in a physiology lab, my early career as a cipher of complex research papers into plain English, and my recent interest and writing in science advocacy — can tell you with absolute assurance that this is not reality. Real science takes heaps of capital investment, teams of highly trained resources, networks of peer support and interaction, and so much time and patience that often what is accomplished in the timeline and confines of a movie plot would not be possible even if that timeline spanned remakes of the same movie across multiple generations of actors. Sure, we have maker communities and thanks to the internetz, webs of cool people (like adafruit) doing awesome-geeky-mad-science and engineering. But at the end of the day mad scientists as portrayed by films like “Back to the Future” are (disappointingly) little more than remnants of a quasi-Victorian renaissance ideal, the notion (like so many other convoluted notions we think we hold in this modern age) of a romantic time when one person tinkering in their basement could accomplish impossible things.
And, thanks to the likes of Doc Brown I lap that stuff up like the rest of you. Always have. Probably always will.
…free will & information flow:
Of course, there was this little thing called a plot that manifested in abundant, if abruptly corn-ball form, in “Back to the Future” and its sequels. And the layering of this plot, deliberate or not, is arguably a key factor in its cultural staying power: one could enjoy the slapstick antics of a skateboarding teenager chicken-running his dad’s bully right into a manure truck while at the same time pondering the manifestations of pre-deterministic and fatalistic paradoxes via the arbitrary nature of the universe.
Call it geeky, but when I can so-clearly recall having in-depth, occasionally heated and passionate, discussions with my fellow middle-school (let’s say grade eight-ish) friends on a school bus about fate, causality and temporal paradox, there is something to be said about the educational value of even the goofiest of movies.
…when you go back in time you can frak things up so much that you can literally erase yourself from existence.
See, it’s not really a question of what would happen, but rather a question of could-it-happen? “Back to the Future” didn’t ask the question so much as it slammed a very clearly, not-at-all-fence-sitting answer to an age old philosophical question into a key plot point of the movie: when you go back in time you can frak things up so much that you can literally erase yourself from existence. The basic question any science-fiction obsessed grade eight student is going to ask himself then is this: doesn’t paradox beget paradox? That is to say, how do you just not create an infinite loop of messed-up confusion by fraking up so badly that you delete yourself from existence, so that you no longer exist to frak up said existence, which in turn means you’re no longer there to frak up your existence, which means you still exist to… lather, rinse, repeat, and so on…
Yes, I really was debating the meandering but deliberate flow of information through space and time when I was barely a teenager. I’d barely crossed the threshold of puberty, yet somehow I was (though I won’t argue I was doing it rationally or intelligently) discussing free will and the flow of cause, effect, and information states through the universe as a result of time travel or whatever with my peers. And somehow I still find myself doing that, still unable to resolve some of those — now, thanks to that aforementioned age and experience a little more complex — questions. That geek-chic has not only failed to fade, but been groomed into the philosophical hack you know and love today.
As I said before, in some alternate reality out there, an alternate fork of me missed out on watching “Back to the Future” and has probably had a unique and utterly different existence. Poor bugger.
Old movies, aged music, 8-bit-games, and retro-culture might not be historical touch-points for you, but they have — with over thirty-years of evidence and observation to support that claim — pushed, shaped, and altered who I think I am: and that’s a bit of my retro-backstory. What’s yours?