Speed and the Back to the Future trilogy: some reflections on recent meetings of the PUTSPACE reading group

By Adam Borch

In PUTSPACE, we have a reading group. It’s a biweekly thing where we meet online for an hour or so to discuss 2-4 scholarly publications that all focus on the same topic. This topic is something we agree upon together in a pretty colloquial fashion and although it’s not always directly related to the thematic scope of the project – public transport as public space – it is usually born out of discussions that touch upon that subject.

Since I joined the project in August 2020, we have discussed texts relating to e.g. ‘distance’, ‘proxemics’, ‘maps’, ‘Schievelbusch’ among others. The selection of texts tends to reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the PUTSPACE project, and we sometimes end up discussing an interestingly eclectic mix of perspectives. Take, for example, the reading list for our last two meetings of 2020 on the topic of ‘speed’:

The discussions are usually lively and engaging, and rarely fail to give me food for thought. This is not to say that they always lead me to very profound reflections, but they do set the mind running, sometimes in rather surprising directions, and I take this opportunity to illustrate what I mean by showing were my thoughts went after our most recent discussions.


It has actually been quite a while since I saw Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s sci-fi trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990) about Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Dr. Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) time-travelling adventures. But the topic ‘speed’ brought them back, most likely because it is pivotal to that story. Many know these films very well – if you don’t, stop here, watch them (they’re terrific!) and come back once you have – so I won’t spend too much time recounting the wonderfully convoluted plotline, but simply remind you that 88 mph makes or breaks in this universe: once the DeLorean hits that mark the flux capacitor can be activated and time travel is possible. (Provided, of course, that it is also supplied with 1.21 gigawatts of electric power).

The representation of speed in these films is generally intriguing, but my thoughts were first drawn to the third part of the trilogy. That’s the one mainly set in the Old West. After the DeLorean is struck by lightning at the end of the second film, the Doc is accidentally transported back to 1885 and when Marty learns he will be murdered by Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen (the cowboy-version and great-grandfather of their archenemy, Biff Tannen, played by Tom Wilson) “over a matter of eighty dollars”, he decides to get him back. As soon as he arrives, however, the plans are disrupted: he is charged by Native Americans and an arrow perforates the fuel system, effectually leaving them stranded in 1885 unless they can find an alternative way of making the DeLorean hit the 88 mph. This is the film’s pivot and the solution involves an intriguing blend of past, present and future modes of transport. Having first failed to drag the DeLorean – at this point itself something of a bric-á-brac of parts from the 1950s (wheels), the 1980s (the car itself) and the future (the garbage generator Mr. Fusion, not to mention the hoverboard inside) – beyond 24 mph with six horses, they eventually succeed to push it up to 88 with a steam locomotive powered by the Doc’s specially developed compressed wooden logs.

Both Ewers (2018: 132) and Kern (1983: 129) note that as technological developments allow us to travel faster, our perception of past modes of transport tend to change: they come to seem slower and we tend to think back on them with nostalgia. The Back to the Future trilogy is certainly marked by nostalgia – for 1950s suburban America as well as the Old West – but it rarely becomes sentimental. Furthermore, the third part seems to challenge our perception of the past as a slower, more pedestrian age. Time-travel does require technology from the 1980s and achieving the necessary speed is more easily done in the DeLorean than with an 1880s steam locomotive, but the film wants to tell us that the difference is not great. As the driver of the local train informs Marty and Doc, it is not impossible for a steam locomotive to reach 90 mph:

“Well, I supposed if you had a straight stretch of track with a level grade and you weren’t haulin’ no cars behind you, and if you could get the fire hot enough – and I’m talkin’ about hotter than the blazes of hell and damnation itself – Then, yes, it might be possible to get her up that fast.”

Although the film clearly distinguishes horse-driven transport (with a maximum speed far below 88 mph) from later modes, it presents a symbiotic rather than contrastive relationship between the steam locomotive and the late-twentieth-century time-travelling sportscar. In the climactic scene, leading up to Marty finally making it back to 1985, speeding up to 88 mph in a locomotive is presented as no less exciting and thrilling than when happens in the DeLorean. Moreover, in this instance, the jump in time seems almost metaphorical: the DeLorean can’t make it without being pushed forward by a steam locomotive as if contemporary technology can only do what it does because it is being pushed forward by past technology. And finally, of course, in that god-awful conclusion to an otherwise fabulous five-and-a-half hours of entertainment, at least that’s how I feel about it, the Doc returns from the past in a new time-machine that looks like an old-fashioned locomotive and, as he says, runs on entirely on steam.

Source: YouTube

The films (most markedly the final one) links and mixes past, present and future modes of transport, and, in doing so, it does to some extent challenge the way we perceive technological developments. This can also be detected when considered from another angle. Quoting John Tomlinson’s The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy (2007), Zunino Singh points out that “‘acceleration rather than deceleration has been the constant leitmotiv of cultural modernity … speed is therefore a good, not merely in and of itself, but as a prime mark of social progress’” (2015: 75). It seems to me that the Back to the Future trilogy plays on this motif by taking it to the hilt: to reach 88 mph in the DeLorean is not just to go fast, it means going so fast that it is possible to diverge from the normal course of time. The films toy with the idea of a kind of ultimate speed, and by consequence, ultimate progress. But its conclusions are ambiguous.

The entire trilogy seems to lead up to the point where, in the second film, Marty and the Doc rescue Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) from encountering her future self in 2015 and the Doc announces his decision to destroy the time machine:

THE DOC: “She’ll [Jennifer] be fine. Let’s get her back to 1985, and then I’m gonna destroy the time machine.”

MARTY: “Destroy it? What about all that stuff about humanity, where we’re going and why?”

THE DOC: “The risks are just too great, as this incident proves. And I was behaving responsibly. You can imagine the danger if the time machine were to fall into the wrong hands. […] But time travelling is just too dangerous.”

Of course, old Biff has just come out of the DeLorean after having travelled back to 1955 to give his younger self the sports almanac thus confirming the Doc’s worst premonitions and seemingly advancing a more generally held scepticism towards any idea that ever-increasing speed will always equate to social progress. However, that horrendous final scene of the trilogy makes this otherwise well-executed and intriguingly developed argument implode upon itself.

When Marty surprisingly exclaims “Doc, I thought I’d never see you again!”, the Doc answers buoyantly “You can’t keep a good scientist down.” I can’t help thinking that this statement contradicts all the trilogy has been driving towards (metaphorically speaking) and that it suddenly turns the Doc into something of an anti-hero. From the very first scene of the first film, it’s obvious that he is a mad genius, but it is him rather than the rash and less intelligent Marty who makes sure everything gets straightened out. In addition, it is the Doc who guides our sense of what is right and wrong in this universe by keeping the consequences of time travel for humanity at large before our eyes. This is not to say that he doesn’t learn as the story unfolds. His determination to destroy the time machine is a consequence of his experiences, and subsequent events only confirm him in the soundness of that decision. As him and Marty load the DeLorean onto the train tracks in the third part, he contemplates staying behind because of his love for Clara (Mary Steenburgen), but is persuaded by Marty it is best to return:

THE DOC: “You reminded me, Marty. I’m a scientist, so I must be scientific about this. I cautioned you about disrupting the continuum for your own personal benefit. Therefore, I must do no less. We shall proceed as planned, and as soon as we return to 1985, we’ll destroy this infernal machine. Travelling through time has become much too painful.”

However, the final scene seems to completely turn the Doc’s character up-side-down. When he says that “You can’t keep a good scientist down”, it comes across as a joyful, defiant stance against everything that puts the breaks on scientific and social progress, making his own former scepticism sound like just so much talk.

True, the Doc’s principles aren’t always rock solid. At the end of part one, he survives being shot by the Libyan terrorists by going against his own better judgment, reading Marty’s warning letter and wearing a bulletproof vest. When Marty asks him “What about all that talk about screwing up future events? The space-time continuum?”, the Doc’s reply is rather flippant – “Well, I figured, what the hell?” – but it feels excusable. He has listened to his best friend’s plea with little to no consequence for anyone but himself and Marty, and he has only experienced some of the dangers of time travel. By contrast, his final return seems dangerously frivolous and self-indulgent. At the end of the trilogy, Marty has learned an important lesson: not to let himself be provoked into stupid displays of misunderstood masculinity. The Doc, for his part, seems to have learned nothing. The construction of the new time machine goes against all he has experienced and all the conclusions he has logically drawn, and as he bids Marty and Jennifer goodbye and the door of his new time-travelling steam locomotive closes, I can’t help thinking that that man should not be allowed to roam free in the space-time continuum.


As I said at the beginning, our reading group meetings in PUTSPACE often give me food for thought, sometimes of a profound nature, sometimes not. What those that grew out of our discussions of ‘speed’ amount to, I will leave for the reader to decide. Whatever the verdict may be, the reading group is one of my favourite things about the project. The meetings are intellectually stimulating and is good way of getting acquainted with unfamiliar scholarship. They also create a communal feeling within the project, serving as an excellent way to integrate newcomers, and I look forward to many more in the coming months.

Happy Holidays and all the best for 2021!