The first Back to the Future is one of the most influential 1980s movies, but it’s much more of a plot driven rather than a character driven film. It’s essentially a quest movie; Marty McFly and Doc Emmett Brown run around collecting the pieces that they need to ensure that Marty’s parents get together and that Marty can return to 1985 from 1955 in the super powered Delorean time machine. It’s extremely fun and engaging but there’s not too much emphasis on Marty or Doc growing as people and it doesn’t need it. The film is perfect on its own.
I rewatched Back to the Future III recently, the one where Doc is stuck in the Old West of 1885 and Marty goes back to prevent him dying. I do remember seeing this one in the theater as a child and I was struck by the love story in the film at the time. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that the love story is still pretty remarkable.
We do see some love story bits in the first two films: Marty’s parents get together and Marty has his own very lovely and very 80s-styled girlfriend, but BttF III is different. In those films, the people getting together are beautiful teens, just in the style of a lot of teen movies at the time. III is remarkable because here it’s Doc Brown falling in love.
Doc Brown essentially the mad scientist of the film series. He’s at least 60 (frankly, he could easily be much older than that since he’s an adult in 1955), with flyaway white hair, and goggly brown eyes. He has apparently spent his entire family fortune on his inventions and lives more or less in isolation in a crazy house furnished with Rube Goldberg machines.He loves his pet dogs, but on screen never really interacts with humans besides Marty. He treats Marty with the warmth of a friend or colleague and presumably knows Marty’s parents as well, although that’s presumption rather than anything we see in the films. He’s the archetypical nerd living alone in his nerd-castle. His happy isolation is made even clearer because Doc is happy to flit alone into different timelines. Normally, and indeed in Back to the Future, he’d be the weird secondary character who causes the plot to happen for our everyman hero.
But in Back to the Future III, they decide that Doc Brown is worthy of love.
Cue my big cartoon heart eyes.
This is kind of a revelation. Doc Brown, town weirdo, super science nerd, unkempt 60 year old gets love and it’s not even in one of those weird just-before-the-credits-we-introduce-a-female-clone-who-smiles-suggestively kind of ways. His love story is central to the plot and it SMOKES.
Back to the Future’s other romances are kind of lackluster. Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer get together before the movies start and he’s generally more concerned with making sure that he exists in his timeline than getting back to her, which is reasonable. She’s more or less the kind of blank slate girlfriend present in a lot of 80s teen comedies: very pretty, eager to help the hero do whatever he needs to do, and making Laura Ashley printed jeans look their best. George and Lorraine McFly have two separate timelines: in the original timeline, they pretty much sound like “leftovers” as my grandmother would say, who got together out of convenience or, in the second timeline, got together as a result of a sweeping gesture consisting of George protecting Lorraine from Biff’s creepy advances and then a kiss at the dance that presumably informs Lorraine that George is secretly a sexual dynamo hiding behind a pocket protector and sweater vest. We want George and Lorraine to get together not because we feel they’re a perfect match, indeed, their marriage doesn’t seem especially happy in the future, but because we want Marty to continue to exist. Those love stories are not compelling and they don’t have to be because the point of the movie isn’t romance, it’s time travel adventure!
That makes it even more notable that, somewhere along the way, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale decided that Doc Brown, despite everything we’ve seen of him is not only a sexual being, but a romantic one. That on some level, he wants a partner and a family despite his protestations that he’s happy alone. That alone would be shocking, but they created him a love interest in Clara, who is a well rounded and drawn character. We want them to get together not because it saves the future, but because we want their happiness.
The impending love match is made even more enticing to the audience, because Doc is determined to avoid it. When he learns his tombstone is raised by “his beloved Clara,” he decides to do his utmost to never meet her and thus, hopefully, not die. Hilariously, the film even acknowledges how nothing we know about Doc suggests that he even harbors the desire for love. He himself claims
“Marty, it’s impossible! The idea that I could fall in love at first sight is romantic nonsense… If I never meet the woman, there’s no possibility of a romantic infatuation, right?”
Oh, Doc, you just wait…
Doc meets Clara in a scene so sweepingly romantic that out-gestures George saving Lorraine from Biff by 1000 to 1. She’s about to careen off a cliff in a horse drawn wagon until Doc rides alongside and pulls her onto his saddle. This establishes Doc as heroic and physically able, which might seem out of character except that the exchange between them is so adorably awkward as Clara’s hat tips repeatedly over her face and she struggles to remember her own name. Their eyes meet and… destiny!
So much of this is the chemistry between Christopher Lloyd and Mary Steenburgen. She was exceedingly well cast for this role. She’s not too young or too glamorous and she delivers her lines with a kind of honesty and humor that makes Clara feel like a real character. There’s an important physicality to their relationship as well. They play their characters as if there’s a powerful sexual attraction between them. Based on the characterization of Doc Brown’s character, this should feel odd, but instead it’s delightful, in part because it’s shared equally between them. Lloyd gapes wide-eyed at her and it genuinely feels like Steenburgen welcomes it. In fact, she stares right back. In a wonderful scene a few minutes later, Clara shows Doc her telescope and, in a gender reversal, moves behind and around him to position it and appears to be sniffing him. Her eyes drop and rise to meet his in sexual interest. Lloyd also softens his character when she’s involved. His intensity is still there, but he no longer makes the huge gestures and abrupt interjections. He can make gentler movements and every line is filled with sincerity. Their courtship isn’t necessarily smooth, though, nearly every scene between them has an element of slight embarrassment to it, as though the characters are navigating a path that is as unfamiliar as it is pleasurable. For example, when Doc and Clara meet at the dance, he fumbles and pauses too long before asking her to dance and she responds far too quickly and loudly. We see parts of Doc’s character that we would never have expected to see in the previous installments, but they’re so expertly acted that it never feels unnatural.
Even the way their first kiss is framed is completely different from the previous Back to the Future romances. When George and Lorraine kiss as the dance, Marty is their audience, and our sense is one of relief that he’ll continue to exist. When Doc and Clara kiss (which was apparently Christopher Lloyd’s first on screen kiss), it doesn’t advance the plot, it’s purely a romantic scene where we feel their relationship grow. In fact, since Doc’s not present when Marty wakes up and then comes ambling in later wearing the clothes he had on the previous evening, it is strongly suggested that Doc spent the night. That’s right, in the entirety of the Back to the Future trilogy, Doc is the only one confirmed for sex.
Other than the sexual element, we root for Doc and Clara to get together based on shared interests. Frequently in movies of this era, the girlfriend character is fairly neutral. Her job is to be pretty, act as a motivation for the hero, and occasionally progress the plot by needing to be saved. Clara doesn’t function this way. When she learns Doc is a scientist, she immediately wants to share her interest in astronomy. This is significant because astronomy is not of particular interest to Doc, but he’s willing to learn because she’s the one teaching him. He wants to share in her interests and is absolutely delighted to learn of a shared love of Jules Verne. For her, he’s even willing to break his long standing rule of not changing the past in a way that influences the set future, telling her accurate information about space travel. She’s already his accomplice in this since before he went back in time, she died after falling off that cliff.
He’s not untroubled by this, though, and when he tells Marty that he intends to stay in 1885 to be with her, Marty briefly convinces him that, intellectually speaking, he needs to leave Clara behind and return to the future. He reveals the truth about himself to her, which she believes is a lie, and realizes he’s condemning them both to unhappiness. He maintains this softness of character until Marty reminds him that they need to go “back to the future” and then the old Doc Brown, full of brash loudness, returns. Except now, it feels insincere as if his character has changed so completely he can never be that man again. Fortunately for Doc, Clara isn’t just a passive damsel. When she hears of his grief from people on the train, she heads off to his shop, correctly interprets his time machine model, and goes after him on the train. It’s another nice gender reversal that she goes after him, when typically in film, the man chases down the retreating woman. When he finally sees her, it’s with a smile of pure delight. It shows her worthiness and the worthiness of their relationship. They are a couple who are capable of saving each other- a true partnership. When Doc and Clara sail off on the hoverboard, even Marty knows that they have no regrets.
This makes the final scene of the film series one of pure transcendent happiness. The Delorean is destroyed and Marty assumes that he’ll never see Doc again. Then we hear the traffic guards go off and the coolest possible steampunk train engine appears. Doc opens the doors and introduces Marty and Jennifer to his family: Clara and their sons, Jules and Verne. He admits he came back to pick up Einstein the dog and to assure Marty he was okay. The moment when he introduces his sons is especially emotional since he was a kind and interested parental figure for Marty and now he can continue to be a great dad to his own children. We can instantly imagine the sort of wonderful life the Brown family might have, tooling around the past and future in their steam engine. It feels very unlikely Doc and Marty will see eachother again. Truly, why would he want to revisit 1985? Surely there are aerobic studios and suspenders in other times as well and Doc may look back on his years alone with some degree of sadness. This ending is only possible because of the tremendous arc Doc’s character goes through in the course of the film. Imagining Doc Brown with a satisfying love story after the first film seems ludacris. We have no reason to believe he’s even interested, but the story and particularly the acting is crafted so well that we utterly believe in his change of heart and circumstances. We’re even left with an uplifting message which directly contradicts the obsessed scientist of those years, we can write our own future. We can write one full of love and happiness if we want to.