It’s Back to the Future Day! October 21st. I know, thrilling; and truly amazing that a series with Future in its name now entirely takes place in the past.
Of all the franchises being revived, I’m honestly surprised we haven’t heard much from Back to the Future; especially given their expanded canon. Whenever Back to the Future 4 shows up in discussion, it’s quickly fired down with shrugs and maybes.
There is even a full Screenrant article detailing just why and how this franchise will never return as a sequel.
That does mean that a reboot is tragically more likely – something I’m especially opposed to with anything pertaining to Time Travel. Sure, IP is IP but there are so many cool directions you can go in when tackling Time Travel – especially with BTTF Future logic. They’ve already detailed parallel realities, so there’s always an explanation for why our 2015 never had hoverboards or Ronald Regan selling Pepsi Perfect.
The closest thing we’ve seen to a recent big screen appearance is Doc Brown’s DeLorean being the car of choice for the kid in last year’s Ready Player One.
But alas, we’ve heard nothing on reboots or sequels; which is odd for something as iconic as Back to the Future.
The question remains, what has BTTF been up to all this time?
FORWARD TO THE WILDERNESS
There was an excellent article on Polygon about Why Star Wars and Doctor Who had to Go into the Wilderness to Survive. It details how even iconic brands such as these had to disappear from their main medium and branch out to explore creative and weird ideas; some of which later returned to the main canon.
This exploration of other mediums is called: The Wilderness and can be a haven for Sci-Fi and Fantasy IP. Naturally Back to the Future is no exception. Although it’s amazingly more coherent than some.
As great as the Star Wars expanded universe got following Return of the Jedi; the Thrawn Trilogy especially has a place in fans hearts. But there are points of contradiction within the texts. The Doctor had a ninth regeneration before his actual ninth regeneration in 2005, and Star Wars has now had vast swathes of history erased as a result of the Disney-owned trilogy – now referred to as “legends.”
Yet BTTF is weirdly consistent as a transmedia franchise. Even going back to the 90s fixation with animated spinoffs, there was a clear direction for the franchise. Sure, it catered to a younger demographic, but it was clear the focus would be on Doc Brown’s adventures with his family and more time-travel-train shenanigans (even if it was cartoony).
But since then, as with Star Wars and Doctor Who before it, BTTF has not only explored new ideas in its time off the big screen but thrived. There is a coherent universe created out of the comics, video games, and theme park rides.
So for this “Back to the Future Day,” I thought it would be good to explore the expanded universe, and figure out just how this long-dormant IP could be revived.
BACK TO THE FUTURE: THE GAME
I remember this was a big deal back in 2010. The creative team at Telltale games was tasked with breathing new life into the BTTF franchise a mere 20 years after the films concluded in 1990.
Even during development, there was engagement with the fanbase. The developers went straight to the fans via survey and asked for their feedback on the story elements of the game.
But this was our first real look at how the franchise could expand with a more coherent storyline. To really keep the story “authentic”, they brought in trilogy-writer and developer Bob Gale as story consultant, and revitalised many of the concepts Robert Zemeckis wanted to explore in the films like Doc Brown’s time in 1930s America, and the “Citizen Brown” storyline – a story featured in much extended media.
This was where Doc Brown ended up in a relationship in the 1930s which influenced his rise to power. In an alternate timeline, he became ruler of Hill Valley and used his technology and surveillance to keep the citizens in line.
Although the games don’t quite mesh up with the continuity of the films, Gale has gone on record saying that they can exist within an alternate timeline – thankfully, they still used Huey Lewis’ Back in Time as an in-game song.
This is a great case study for revitalising an IP and taking the story in a new and innovative direction. Strangely, many of these concepts would be reworked in other media.
THE IDW COMICS
In the true transmedia spirit, the BTTF comics not only continue the story, but develop it.
Much like the game, we see the story continue. We get a beat-for-beat adaptation of the Citizen Brown story arc, as well as greater character histories and background.
Again, this has BTTF screenwriter and co-writer Bob Gale helming the direction of the franchise.
We learn more about Doc Brown’s involvement in the 1945 Manhattan Project, Tales from the Time Train detailing the adventures of the Brown family following the events of Back to the Future Part III.
The one I’d recommend most is Biff to the Future. As Back to the Future Part II reveals an alternate timeline where Biff takes control after receiving a Sports Almanac from his future self. But the events of that alternate timeline had never been fleshed out, until 2017’s Biff to the Future, which answered any and all questions you could have about the series.
It’s a great example of the films and comics creating a fully integrated story world.
These are worth checking out, but I don’t think many fans are aware of them. BTTF is in a weird limbo, and whilst it’s great fleshing out the story world, I fear that those only aware of the film series are missing out.
IT’S NOT A FILM, IT’S A THEME PARK RIDE
Sadly closed now, Back to the Future: The Ride was a way to continue keeping the brand alive for Universal; adopting a more experiential approach to storytelling.
The plot saw Doc founding the Institute of Future Technology where you’re volunteering at the institute. But Biff Tannen steals a brand-new DeLorean and runs amok all across time. It’s a solid enough story for what it is.
Recently, we’ve seen film makers like Martin Scorsese describe modern blockbusters like Marvel movies as just “theme park rides” but really, there’s something to unpack there. BTTF: The Ride certainly looked fun and existed within the parameters of the series continuity. But it’s far more indicative of a rise in immersive media.
As more and more producers look towards immersive technologies and interactivity, there’s certainly a place for these stories, and they can even flesh out the film’s universe (as debatable as the canonicity is). Disney and Universal are already doubling down on this, with a strong marketing push for their Avengers Campus and Wizarding World of Harry Potter respectively.
A theme park is simply another method for developing and experimenting with franchises in the transmedia wilderness; and it can be a great way to keep the IP alive.
The important thing is that there was a great amount of care and creative control. Spielberg was involved as a consultant for the park ride, and Gale has had a hand in shaping just about every facet of the BTTF Universe since the films concluded.
That said, if Disney remakes have taught me anything, there’s bound to be a Back to the Future 4 or reboot script lurking around somewhere in Hollywood. The question is, how best to proceed.
BACK TO THE BIG SCREEN
I’m reminded of Star Wars returning to cinema under Disney’s brand strategy; more as a cautionary tale than anything. Following the Last Jedi, fans are heavily divided on the direction of the story, claiming that the non-canon “legends” tell a superior story.
Before we go back to Back to the Future we need to understand what the wilderness is, and how best to exploit it for a return to the film-going audience.
There’s no doubt in my mind that your typical audience member wouldn’t be familiar with any of the comics, games, or even Citizen Brown’s extended media story. Instead, if I were a consultant or producer, I’d say that they’re most-likely familiar with the DeLorean aesthetic first, and perhaps the events of Parts II and III after.
No doubt people care more about the iconography of the time travelling DeLorean than the Time Train (or the fact that it was destroyed at the end of Part III). Hence the reason games, comics, and theme park rides will still find a way to bring it back through some parallel time-travel excuse.
The question is where we go from here? I believe that a sequel is perhaps the smartest way to go about developing the story, and bizarrely a way to make the franchise stand out even more.
Often the go-to solution for an 80s classic is a reboot. We saw it with Ghostbusters, Predator, and Child’s Play yet they’ve never landed as well as they could have. I believe that Jurassic World is closer to a sequel, but perhaps I just want a big “4” slapped on the logo somewhere.
Maybe it’s just because it keeps more in line with the franchise philosophy – after all, this series promised us Jaws 19 by 2015. It would feel strangely appropriate.
As for the direction, I’d look to giving Doc Brown introduce us to his institute, and what he’s been up to for the past decades. Maybe look to pass the science baton to an older brother duo of Jules and Verne as they take an aspiring science major across time; or even go meta by revisiting the 80s or 90s (if they really wanted to).
I guess it’s a bit Bill and Ted in concept, but it’s not a bad concept and draws on the extended media appropriately. Of course, anything I just happen to think of would pale in comparison to Bob Gale’s direction for the series.
I’m optimistic that we’ll see this series return to screen in some form or another – the IP is just too valuable for any studio to waste.
For now, play a bit of Huey Lewis, put your feet up on a hoverboard, and crack open a Pepsi Perfect.
Have a great Back to the Future Day.