Somewhere along the line, Back to the Future became a lot less nuclear. The Back to the Future that we know and love begins with clocks—lots and lots of clocks—followed by Doc Brown’s Rube Goldberg-esque Einstein-feeding machine, and of course, Marty going electric and blowing the bejeezus out of Doc’s giant speaker with his first strum.
But that wasn’t the opening that Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale envisioned. I have a copy of the first draft of the Back to the Future script, as well as a later draft written in 1984, because of course I do. Both of these versions are much (much!) more nuclear than the resulting film.
This is how the opening scene in the 1984 script read:
INT. HIGH SCHOOL CLASSROOM – DAY
A WEIRD FLICKERING WHITE LIGHT strobes the screen, accompanied by PROJECTOR NOISE and an OFFSCREEN CONTROL VOICE.
5… 4… 3… 2… 1… detonate!
MARTY MCFLY, 17, a good looking kid wearing Porsche mirrored sunglasses. The mirrored lenses reflect the MUSHROOM CLOUD of an ATOMIC EXPLOSION.
Marty Starts hopping along to the rock and roll he’s plugged into a WALKMAN STEREO.
THE RED HOT OPENING MUSIC KICKS IN; MAIN TITLES BEGIN.
Marty starts bopping along to the rock and roll: he’s plugged into a WALKMAN STEREO.
We are in a contemporary HIGH SCHOOL CLASSROOM where 30-odd STUDENTS are watching a 16mm film about nuclear tests of the 1950’s.
SERIES OF SHOTS – MAIN TITLE SEQUENCE
BORED STUDENTS watch the black and white movie. Only MARTY is enjoying himself as he listens to his stereo. MARTY’S FOOT taps in time to the music.
The teacher, MRS. WOODS, 45, looks around the classroom, making sure the students are paying attention. She has her “Classroom Planner” in hand.
The DOCUMENTARY depicts preparations for another atomic test noting that as many as 20 were done per year in the 1950’s. Footage shows tract houses were constructed and peopled with mannequins to measure the effects of radiation.
MARTY continues bopping along.
Okay. That’s pretty cool. Even aside from the references to “WALKMAN STEREO”.
In this version of the opening scene, Marty’s in a classroom watching 16 mm classroom films, showcasing atomic tests, probably at the Nevada Test Site. This is cool in my book at any time, but when you consider the fact that Back to the Future’s timeline (the initial/real one) takes place in 1985, this is a pretty bold scene. 1985 is the height of the Cold War.1 The Soviet Union was collapsing on itself. Both the US and USSR had tens of thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at each other thanks to the strategy of brinkmanship. We were three minutes to midnight. Three.
So opening a poppy-teenager-aimed sci-fi comedy with something this grim was just… unsettling. And maybe why they ultimately went with something of a lighter nature.
Although the opening scene that made it into the movie is decidedly lighter, it’s still nuclear. While Marty is connecting his sound equipment and turning dials, we see a case of plutonium stashed under a bench. This scene also includes a pretty cute nod to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The device that Marty plugs into is labeled CRM-114, which is the name of the message decoder in Strangelove and the serial number for the explorer in 2001.
The early scenes of the first draft of the script are nuclear in a different sort of way. Doc Brown and Marty are in his lab, the clocks are still there, but there’s also a locked room. We don’t find out until Marty rushes off to school (where I assume the Huey Lewis music would have gone), that the locked door hides—dun, dun dun—Doc’s secret household nuclear reactor! I mean, shouldn’t Doc really have a nuclear reactor in every iteration of the film? And I guess he does have one years before Fermi and Chicago Pile I, when he powers his time travelling locomotive with one in Back to the Future III. But that actually made it to film.
Nuclear goodness is sprinkled through the movie—the real one, the one we’ve all actually seen over and over. The scene at Twin Pines Mall is particularly nuclear. If you’ll remember, Twin Pines Mall is where Doc asks Marty to meet him at 1:15 AM, in the opening scene. Marty arrives via skateboard and finds Doc dressed in a decontamination suit with a truck and a DeLorean that’s (SPOILER ALERT!) a time machine! This is where Marty utters the line: “Are you telling me this sucker is NUCLEAR?” And so it begins.
Doc’s purpose for this mall parking lot fun is to test out the DeLorean’s time travelling capabilities. Because you know, nuclear means time travel. The test run starring Einstein the dog goes splendidly and Doc and Marty are basking in their time travelling glory when the Libyan terrorists from whom Doc has purchased the plutonium fuelling the time machine arrive guns a blazin’. Marty jumps in the DeLorean and speeds off, accidentally on purpose getting up to 88 miles per hour, which somehow triggers a nuclear reaction within the flux capacitor and sends Marty and the DeLorean back to 1955. Phew.
Once in 1955 Marty makes his way through a handful of science fiction/incestuous shenanigans before making his way to Doc’s house. He finally convinces Doc that he is from the future and knows Future Doc, by explaining the flux capacitor, time travel, blah, blah. Lucky for Marty, Doc has just fallen in the bathroom and hit his head, visualizing the flux capacitor for the first time. Perfect.
Somehow, Doc reverse-engineers the video camera Marty has with him, to display the recorded film (film!) on Doc’s bunny-eared dial-turning TV. We get to watch Marty and 1955 Doc view the scene in the Twin Pines Mall parking lot. Doc offers up some of the best nuclear-fueled dialog of the whole movie in this scene:
DOC: What on Earth is that thing I’m wearing?
MARTY: Ah, this, this is a radiation suit.
DOC: Radiation Suit? Of course. ‘Cause of all the fallout from the atomic wars.”
I. LOVE. THIS. SCENE.
Doc embodies the Jeckyll/Hyde-ness of the Atomic Age. He firmly believes in the power and advancement possible in a nuclear future, yet he also understands the inherent danger and simply assumes that “atomic wars” have happened. The Atomic Age—and remember, we’re in 1955 here, which is smack in the middle of the age—was all about contradiction. While Jimmy spent his schooldays learning the proper way to “duck and cover” under a desk to supposedly protect himself during an atomic bomb blast, he spent his after-school time learning the virtues of clean and safe nuclear energy in hopes of earning his Boy Scouts Merit Badge in Atomic Energy.
We were also incredibly good at putting the cart before the horse in the Atomic Age. Nuclear powered cars and airplanes, and basically everything else under the sun, were almost a certainty the second the idea popped into a futurist’s brain. The flux capacitor (although this did come to fruition, in the world of Back to the Future, anyway) is a great example of the nuclear powered future we thought awaited us, but never came. And we’ve only got two years until Back to the Future’s Future (2015) is here. That’ll make you feel old.
The time travelling shenanigans continue through the movie, with some awesome sci-fi and pop culture shout-outs along the way (Darth Vader from Planet Vulcan is probably the best. Van Halen as alien garbage noise is pretty sweet too) until we reach an ending that finds Marty safely back in 1985, but it’s a better, more affluent 1985. Until Doc comes screeching up in the DeLorean, this time with the addition of Mr. Fusion!
Mr. Fusion is a device based on Mr. Coffee that supposedly converts organic waste into energy via fusion. Now, I’m no scientist, and I know this is probably not the place I should start getting picky with things, but fusion doesn’t work like that. Well, I guess it can, I mean, you can have fusion from ordinary tap water, if you electrolyze it with a car battery and charge it, but I just don’t see this all happening in the cute little package that is Mr. Fusion. I mean the sun uses fusion and this is just so much less grand. I know—weird thing for me of all people to get hung-up on.
But the first draft makes the world of Back to the Future all oh so much better, easily erasing my Mr. Fusion issues.
The original (1981) draft of Back to the Future is much more science fictiony, and there’s some nonsense where Coca-Cola is an important part of the time machine. But overall, it is SO MUCH COOLER than the film that splashed across our movie screens way back in summer of 1985. And the cool points come almost exclusively from the fantastic way in which Marty travels back to 1985 (except it’s 1982 in this draft, but whatev).
In the world of Back to the Future, 1.21 jigowatts of energy are necessary to power the DeLorean and flux capacitor. The only things capable of producing this amount of energy are a nuclear reaction or a lightning bolt. While the version of the movie that we all know and love goes the route of the lightning bolt, the first draft went the way of a nuclear reaction. And of course we’re not going to use Doc’s reactor for this nuclear reaction, we’re going to use one at the motherfucking Nevada Test Site. The first draft’s resolution plays out like this:
Marty and Doc head to the Nevada Test Site knowing that a test is about to take place. They’re allowed entry by showing the guard “orders” Doc has forged, and explain that they need to deliver the refrigerator (time machine) in the back of the truck, ditch the truck (big-wigs at General Motors want to see how the truck will fair in the blast) and get the hell out of Dodge in the motorcycle and sidecar also in the bed of the truck. Once inside, Doc and Marty head for the testing grounds, which have been setup to look like a suburban neighborhood, picket fences and all.
Are you ready? This is where it all gets super awesome.
They park the truck in one of the garages. Doc take a mannequin (!!!) from the house, I shit you not, dresses it in Marty’s jacket, plops him in the sidecar, and heads offsite (you see, the guard will think they’re both leaving with the addition of Mannequin Marty). Marty still has fifteen minutes or so before he needs to get in position, 800 feet from the tower holding the bomb, so he explores the house. The house is fully furnished, complete with creepy, Betty Draperesque mannequins, food in the pantry and actual refrigerator, and a powered television that I’ve spent oodles of words on in other columns. Marty grabs a Coke from the refrigerator and kicks back and watches Howdy Doody with his new mannequin friends in the mid-century modern perfect living room. It’s about to be JC Penney Atomic Blast Super Fun Time, friends.
At go time, Marty heads out to the garage and after a series of mishaps heads toward the tower. The soldiers see him, begin to shoot at him, but they’re also worried about detonating the bomb on time, and through a very intense few lines, we eventually get Marty in place, safely in the refrigerator (time machine), just before the atomic bomb is detonated. And bibidy bobidy boo, he winds up in the better, more affluent 1985 of the movie, bruised and battered, but safe all the same.
Can you fucking believe that Back to the Future once—and maybe in some alternate now—ended at the Nevada Test Site?! It’s so goddamned perfect I want to scream.
1 Settle down, Team Cuban Missile Crisis. We were a whole seven minutes to midnight then.