It would be difficult to over-state the cultural impact of “Back to the Future.”
Since the Oscar-winning original film in 1985, “Back to the Future” has grown to encompass a trilogy that’s grossed nearly a billion dollars and seen its saga continued across video games, comic books, theme park rides — even a Saturday morning cartoon show.
The charming sci-fi comedy adventure about California teen Marty McFly and his scientist pal Emmett “Doc” Brown has become so synonymous with time travel that even Earth’s mightiest heroes had to take time out of the 2019 box office titan “Avengers: Endgame” to explain how their strategy for hopping back in time differed from that utilized by Marty and Doc.
“That was great. I fell out of my chair when I saw that, I was laughing so hard,” said “Back to the Future” co-creator Bob Gale. “But the irony is, they say, ‘Oh, we’re not doing what they did in “Back to the Future,” ’ but then they do exactly what we did: They go back into the previous movies to solve their problems!”
But for all of the series’ cultural ubiquity, it has also left fans with questions about key aspects of its lore and mechanics for decades — questions that Gale is working to answer with his new book.
Gale, the Oscar-nominated co-creator, co-writer and co-producer of the “Back to the Future” series with director Robert Zemeckis, collaborated with Joe Walser on “Back to the Future: DeLorean Time Machine: Doc Brown’s Owners’ Workshop Manual.”
Releasing via Insight Editions on March 30, the book immerses readers in the inner-workings of the iconic 1980s car turned into a time machine by Doc Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd in the film.
The technical minutiae supplements excerpts from Doc’s journals, offering captivating insights into the series’ timeline.
“We wanted it to be real fan-friendly and answer all the questions fans have had over the past 35 years,” said Gale, “and it’s a step in that direction.”
Walser, Gale said, was “the only guy who could do this justice,” as the writer and illustrator had previously led Universal Studios’ restoration of the main DeLorean used in the films now on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
“He knows more about the time machine than anybody, having disassembled it, reassembled it,” Gale said of Walser. “So we spent a lot of time together, coming up with names for some of the parts. Now nobody has to say, ‘Those hockey puck things that are on the side.’ … Now, we know that they are the particle accelerator canisters. So we had a good time going through, saying, ‘What are we going to call this?’ and ‘What does it really do?’ ”
Gale explained that he and Walser developed concepts from foundations put in place by artist Ron Cobb, a consultant on the original film.
“(Cobb) came up with a lot of the stuff to say, ‘OK, if this is nuclear power there has to be a nuclear reactor. There has to be cooling vents. There has to be a system to get the plutonium to where it needs to go,’ ” Gale said. “So we built a lot on these concepts that Ron had originated and added a whole bunch of extra stuff. Now everybody knows.”
Gale and Walser’s book is more than a technical manual catering to sci-fi gearheads. It’s also an insightful character study digging deep into the life and times of Doc Brown.
While some of the material was previously explored in an IDW comic book series that launched in 2015, Gale enjoyed the opportunity to delve back in to the story in a new format.
“This (book) was just a perfect venue to re-tell this stuff for people that aren’t familiar with the comic books and to deal with some stuff that has never been dealt with before,” Gale said.
The book intrinsically links the development of the time machine to Doc Brown’s life story, bringing it in line with the overall aims of the “Back the Future” franchise.
While the series has consistently dealt with heady, heavy concepts of time travel and branching realities, Gale and Zemeckis always ensured that their focus was first and foremost on their characters.
“People always ask me, why has this movie thrived and gone beyond? Everybody knows it 35 years later, it’s exactly because of the humanity,” Gale said. “People love those characters. It’s not a science-fiction movie the way people think of what a science-fiction movie is. It’s a human story with a lot of science fiction and fantasy elements to it. … That has always been the approach.
“That’s why time travel movies are notoriously so hard to do well because too many people get involved in the nuts and bolts of time travel and the nuts and bolts of history and they lose the humanity.”
Gale said that some revelations about Doc’s life, including his involvement in the Manhattan Project during World War II, were always in the mini-biography he and Zemeckis had developed for the character when they were working on the film, as was the origin of the friendship between him and Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox.
Other elements of the journals found in the journal section of the “Workshop Manual,” such as how Doc set himself up as a blacksmith in 1885 prior to the events of 1990’s “Back to the Future Park III,” are new inventions for this book.
“We didn’t ever think about that in any really great detail,” Gale said. “So it was fun for me to kind of get my head back into there and think about, ‘OK, how would Doc have done that?’ ”
Time and again, Gale and Walser demonstrate and celebrate the resourcefulness, ingenuity and inventiveness of a character that’s been near and dear to fans’ hearts for more than 35 years, showing Doc Brown as someone who’s never deterred by whatever stumbling blocks are in his way.
What can folks going through their own trying times learn from Doc’s steadfast example?
“It boils down to the advice that Doc Brown is known for: If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything,” said Gale. “That kind of permeates through all three movies, and so here we are, in the book, seeing Doc practice exactly that.”
“Back to the Future: DeLorean Time Machine: Doc Brown’s Owners’ Workshop Manual” by Bob Gale and Joe Walser will be released by Insight Editions on March 30, insighteditions.com.
Alex Biese has been writing about art, entertainment, culture and news on a local and national level for more than 15 years.