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Partner in time

Universal Pictures
Marty and Doc Brown, in front of the famous "clock face" at 8:08.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s the concluding scene in Back to the Future Pt. III. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) has just returned to his own time – 1985 – after a Wild West adventure in the year 1885. The DeLorean time machine has been destroyed after being hit by a train. Still wearing his Clint Eastwood cowboy garb, Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer return to the scene of the wreckage, laying along the tracks. Suddenly, the sounds of a crossing signal are heard and an old fashioned locomotive appears. But it also has some futuristic components on it. And on the side are the letters “ELB,” for Emmett L. “Doc” Brown, as it turns out.

The two are stunned to see Doc and his wife Clara (Mary Steenburgen) emerge from the steam-powered time machine. And even more stunned to see their sons – Jules and Verne.

Doc hands Marty a gift. It’s a framed, black-and-white photograph of the two of them standing in front of the newly-christened clock that is being placed in the Hill Valley clock tower. The time? 8:08 (p.m., presumably, since it was taken at night).

Don’t drive 88? Or is it that the filming of the Back to the Future films was between 1985 and 1989? Or is this why Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly chose to set his groundbreaking, fantastic film in the year 1988? And now in 2015, we see Michael Dukakis’s name being bandied about – not entirely seriously, of course – as a potential presidential candidate? And to run against a Bush, as happened back in 1988?

Written at the bottom of the image, by Doc, is the inscription: “To Marty, Partners in time September 5, 1885.” Today, as I type this, it is September 5, 2015 – exactly 130 years after that photo was taken in the world of Back to the Future.

I thought about that, realizing last night that my companion and I both suggested to one another that we watch Back to the Future Pt. III, which neither of us had watched beginning to end in years. I had forgotten that the events in the final film of this trilogy take place the first week of September in 1885.

“Your future hasn’t been written yet,” Doc tells Marty and Jennifer before taking off in his flying steam locomotive time machine. “No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one, both of you.”

Earlier in the film, we see the villainous “Mad Dog” Tannen have a duel (which he loses) on Hill Valley’s main drag, the as-yet-uncompleted Hill Valley courthouse looming in the background.

This scene, with Thomas Wilson as "Mad Dog" Tannen, was filmed on October 11, 1989. (Universal Pictures) 

“Time’s up, runt!” Tannen tells Marty (a.k.a. “Clint Eastwood”). The day that scene was filmed (October 11, 1989) was when a voice told me to name my 1979 Buick Century station wagon “Runtmobile.” To this day I have no idea where this “runt” idea came from, or why. In fact, I scrawled “Runtmobile” on the back of an old Kansas license plate and put it on the front of the car. Today, my Ford Explorer has a duplicate California tag from Back to the FutureOUTATIME.

My friend Michael has more on the “runt’ angle here, with "The Crime of the Century." And check out my piece "Fiver."

And while Mad Dog Tannen said Marty/Clint’s time was up, it actually wasn’t. And neither was that of school teacher Clara Clayton, whom Doc and Marty save before she plummets into a canyon. The canyon – in 1985 – was known as Clayton Canyon, named after the school teacher who died. But history was suddenly altered due to Doc and Marty’s valiant efforts.

Because it was getting late (September 4th), we turned off BTTF III and proceeded to watch one of our new favorite canceled shows – HBO’s Bored to Death. It stars Jason Schwartzman as author/detective Jonathan Ames and his older, white-haired friend George Christopher, played by Ted Danson.

It hadn’t dawned on me all this time – we are nearly completed with the entire series, sadly, it’s great! – that Danson is married to Mary Steenburgen, who played Clara Clayton in BTTF III. They married in 1990, the same year Back to the Future Part III was released. She divorced English actor Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, Caligula) that same year.

Josephine (Mary Steenburgen) and George (Ted Danson) play lovers who are actually married in real life. (HBO)

But it did in this episode when George (Danson) falls in love with his singing coach, Josephine, played by Steenburgen – his wife in real life!

What really grabbed me was that the friendship between Jonathan (in his 30’s) and George (in his 60’s) is that it is identical to the Doc/Marty friendship. They are tight. Like father and son.

Bored to Death's Jonathan (Jason Schwartzman) and George (Ted Danson) spy on a restaurant rival with a telescope that looks much like the one Doc and Clara used in Back to the Future Part III. (HBO)

The damaged telescope owned by school teacher Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen) in Back to the Future Part III. (Universal Pictures)

I mentioned this to my companion as we are watching an episode where Jonathan, George, and their mutual friend Ray (Zach Galifianakis) are trying to catch a rival buying low-grade produce at a grocery store, rather than getting it from organic farms in the greater New York area.

George dresses up as a butcher in a white smock and a white hairnet cap – which almost looks like Doc Brown’s wild hair – and sun glasses. Sort of crazed and “blinded me with science” looking. And this all takes place on the island of Manhattan.

He blinded me with science! (HBO)

I was shocked that I went from watching much of Back to the Future Part III and then Bored to Death and suddenly saw all of these comparisons – quite synchromystically, of course. 

And now we see, in one month, Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis is taking us back in time to 1974 with The Walk. The film about French wire walker Phillipe Petit, who walked between the north and south towers of New York's World Trade Center in August of that year, just after the Twin Towers were completed. This syncs, of course, with the idea that Marty McFly goes with Doc into the future to the year 2015 - now. In fact, the official date is weeks away - October 21, 2015. 

The Twin Towers will re-enter the public consciousness this fall with The Walk. (Addressed in greater detail in my piece "Wires.") Zemeckis is literally bringing us from the past to the future. He noted the Twin Towers "falling" in Back to the Future Part II (1989) (as noted here, in an amazing documentary by Joe Alexander). And in 2015, no less.

Just three months or so after Petit's self-described "coup," there was a November 1974 episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, "Bad Medicine," where Kolchak is shown climbing 39 stories to find a Native American ghost that is terrorizing Chicago and stealing precious jewels. Figuring a "cliff dwelling" Native American would live in a tower, Kolchak goes to the 40-story Champion Towers and finds the demonic entity. The scenes of Kolchak climbing the stairwell are eerie, when one thinks of the firemen on 9/11 climbing the stairs of the World Trade Center - and not making it out alive. The north tower of the World Trade Center was home to the offices of Lehman Brothers, curiously enough. Kolchak, in a way, is climbing "Jacob's Ladder," as I note in my piece "Climbing to the top."

The Champion Towers were featured and photographed for a Chicago newspaper in a 1974 episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker called "Bad Medicine."

Champion, eh? That word is "Old French" for someone who has defeated all opponents in a competition. Looking at that image, of the side of "Champion Towers," brings to mind the image one sees in the trailer for The Walk, looking up the side of one of the Twin Towers, as I noted in my Dust Devil Dreams piece "Sleepwalk (Gnik nus)." Kolchak, in nearly every episode, is doing something illegal and dangerous in his pursuit of a monster and/or a story.

"This is extremely illegal, not to mention dangerous," someone tells Phillipe Petit before he does his high wire walk in The Walk. This walk is his coup. And one could say that what Marty and Doc was illegal and dangerous, but curiosity and a sense of adventure can make people do amazing and crazy things.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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