Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.

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The Franchise: Back to the Future: following the time-traveling adventures of teenager Marty McFly, eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown, and Brown’s creation, a 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 that has been modified into a time-machine. From 1985 to 1992, the franchise spanned three films and an animated television series.

previous installments
Back to the Future
Back to the Future II

Back to the Future III

The Installment: Back to the Future (TV Series) (1991)


The Story:

We join our characters sometime not that long after BTTF III ended. Doc Brown has settled with his family (Clara and their two boys, Jules and Verne) in Hill Valley. Marty is still dating Jennifer and continues to have no other friends other than Doc, so he hangs out over at the Brown residence a lot. The DeLorean has been rebuilt or simply de-destroyed by the magic of lenient storytelling. The time-train still exists too. Also, whereas before Doc was a real partypooper, all concerned with ripping the fabric of time apart, now he has completely dropped that whole “time travel is dangerous” attitude. Now he’s all, “Time travel is awesome and we should all do it as much as possible, especially my two little kids who should totally time travel to solve minor childhood problems!”

What Works:

An animated cartoon was really the logical resting place for the BTTF franchise, at least based on where the two Bobs took the sequels. Because it was surely children who responded most positively to that whole shtick of Marty bumping into McFly and Tannen ancestors/descendants wherever he went. Really all the gimmicks the sequels established were a bit “kiddie.” I really don’t think I could have tolerated Doc and Marty encountering a caveman named Grug Tannen and replicating the cafe scene inside a cave in a Back to the Future 5 or anything along those lines. Yet in a cartoon, that is the exact kind of stupid shit you want. Animated TV is the ideal forum to explore the surface-level joys of the franchise, unencumbered by the necessity for ‘significance’ that a motion picture calls out for (even if it doesn’t always get it). Were you upset that Marty only went to one time period in BTTF III? Well, don’t worry, he’ll go someplace brand new in each episode now!

Back to the Future the TV series is an interesting follow-up to the films, as it is both a sequel and a slight re-imagining. The DeLorean is back with no explanation, because who cares. What explanation do we even need? No sane kid was happy to see it get destroyed in the first place, and this is a show for kids. The already loose laws of time travel found in the films are also out the window. A key component to the films was the restriction that the DeLorean was free from time but fixed in space, arriving in the exact same place on Earth as it was when it punched a hole in time. That provided for conflict in the films — namely the missing train tracks in III. But now the DeLorean and train can basically do whatever the hell they want as required by the story. The DeLorean can now go from Hill Valley to Age of Exploration-era South America without having to make up the as-the-crow-flies spacial difference. Cause again, who cares. Children probably didn’t even notice this difference. This isn’t a great show (which is probably why it only lasted two seasons), but I think it shows the right balance of respect and indifference to the films — and without any sell-out shame required, like the Rambo cartoon. For the Bobs the BTTF films weren’t really about the story opportunities the DeLorean allowed. The cartoon is the arena they built to say, “Okay, here we can give the kids what they want.” And the show does deliver. Like I said, not brilliantly, but sufficiently. In particular the show takes the plausibility guards off of Doc’s inventions. Aside from inventing a time machine and automated breakfast-makers, we aren’t shown much of Doc the inventor in the body of any of the three films. He’s more of a mechanic really. The animated series can go nuts with this character trait, and does. Ridiculous inventions run amok here. The DeLorean even folds up into a Jetson‘s-esque briefcase now. Hell, even Einstein is anthropomorphized sometimes, utilizing a robotic hand Doc made for him.

The series mooches off the films in an clever way: every episode begins and concludes with a live-action segment starring Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown, greeting us from inside his workshop/laboratory. These bumpers serve a savvy dual purpose. 1) Legitimizing the series with Lloyd’s familiar face (which helps, because Dan Castellaneta’s impression of Lloyd in the cartoon sounds more Reverend Jim than Doc Brown), and 2) padding out each episode with cheap but interesting content to cut down on the animation budget. For reasons I am not entirely clear on, I did not watch the BTTF animated series when it was on, despite being the appropriate age and loving the films. So it was a pleasant surprise watching it now and discovering that Doc’s assistant in the live-action bumpers is, appropriately enough, Bill Nye the Science Guy (presumably hired to cut down on the number of days they needed to pay Lloyd). As Doc narrates, we see the always silent Nye performing various scientific demonstrations and experiments. It has nothing to do with anything, but it is fun and is in keeping with the greater theme of science and experimentation that the show has. And is far, far better (though less hilarious) than the kind of moral-message-bullshit epilogues that cartoons usually used to have. I’d much rather see how gravity works than learn how the episode I just watched should have taught me to respect the authority of adults or the dangers of not looking both ways before crossing the street.

I’ve always liked adventure cartoons in which the characters explore the far reaches of the globe, often leaving behind dollops of knowledge for the viewer. And with a multigenerational cast of characters, BTTF fits into the same cartoon subgenre as Johnny Quest or Ducktales. Our characters here aren’t quite as compelling as those two examples I just gave, but the general spirit still works. There is an element of “learning” here, which I like, as the various time periods and places need some light contextualizing for the stories to work. And the show is creating its own mythology, adding on more and more Tannens and often returning to the same characters in other episodes.


What Doesn’t Work:

I had some “who cares” in the previous section. And rightly so. Who does care? Batman fans would have had good reason to complain if the ball had been dropped with Batman The Animated Series, but I’m not sure I can sympathize with your reasoning if you had been anxiously awaiting a BTTF cartoon to expand upon the BTTF universe. But the downside to all that ‘who cares,’ obviously, is that if you’re not a little kid then BTTF the TV series has fairly little to offer. That doesn’t discredit the show, but if we’re talking about the evolution of a franchise, this installment is just a tangent. And only a serviceable one at that. It is a cute show that earns its fun, but it is a worse cartoon than the films where films. If you get me. Part of what makes the show only “serviceable” is that we’re missing Michael J. Fox. As has already been said a million times here, Marty McFly isn’t a great character on paper. He was just some teen, and then later he was just some teen with one ridiculous personality trait. With Fox, Marty was one of the all-time great teen heroes. Without Fox, he’s just some blah character we’re told to root for. He’s also superfluous. If the films were Marty’s franchise, then this is Doc Brown’s franchise. Jules and Verne are major players, and eat up a lot of the screen time that Marty would normally have. If this weren’t based on a popular film series, I’m fairly positive the one big note everyone would have had before the show got the greenlight was “Lose Marty.” Jules should have been aged up if they wanted a teen. Of course, they can’t get rid of Marty without the show feeling like a spin-off. But maybe that wouldn’t have been a bad thing. The show is already going for its own thing; it could have gone further.


Best Biffism: I didn’t really catch any Biffisms. But, for some reason, many of the episodes end (post credits) with Biff telling a joke. Here’s one: “Which has more lives, a cat or a frog? Give up? It’s a frog! A cat has nine lives, but a frog croaks every night!”

Best Contribution to History: In the episode “Brothers,” Verne seems to inspire the first usage of “butthead,” when he suggests the word to General Tannen during the Civil War.

Marty’s Best Use of Future Superiority: In the episode “Dickens of a Christmas,” Marty and the gang use their knowledge of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to teach Ebiffnezer Tannen a lesson.

Time Travel Murkiness: I don’t think this show is even trying to avoid murkiness.

Most Rosy View of the Past: Well, this is a show for kids. I guess it is okay to imply that the sight of two brothers hugging could inspire Union and Confederate soldiers to just call off a battle and go home.

How the Characters Could Have Better Used Time Travel: They maximize the hell out of their time machines this time around. If anything, they should probably not use time travel to solve each and every problem they ever have.

Should There Be a Sequel: A BTTF film reboot sounds like a poor idea, but I could see them taking another stab at a cartoon that tries to stay a little more in line with what made the films great, while still having as much fun with the DeLorean as possible.


Up Next: Back to the Future: The Game

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