The Paradox of Marty's Headless Brother [BTTF Week]

The Paradox of Marty’s Headless Brother [BTTF Week]

Back to the Future makes no sense… unless you imagine an alternate history where headless mutants run free.

[This post begins Back To The Future Week. Fasten your seat belt… where we’re going, we don’t need roads. —Ed.]

BTTF WeekBack to the Future was on last night, so of course I watched it.  It’s a genius movie.  Not only is the script super-tight, but every single scene is famous.  In that respect, it’s like Casablanca.  But with Christopher Lloyd.  Score one BTTF.

I know it’s probably ridiculous to nitpick Back to the Future – after all, this movie presupposes that time travel is possible and that Deloreans are cool – but this is Overthinking It ™, so I’m going to do it anyway.

The problem I’m having is with the famous photograph.  In case you don’t remember, the plot is that Marty McFly goes back in time to the 1950s but ends up screwing up his own life.  When his own mother (Lorraine) falls in lust with him, it means that she doesn’t end up with Marty’s father (George, aka “McFLYYY”).  That means that Marty and his brother and sister won’t be born unless Marty can get his mom and dad back together.  Marty’s photograph of him, his brother, and his sister in 1985 is his link to the future.  If his image disappears from the photo, it means he was unable to set up his parents and thus, in this new timeline, he was never born.

But the photograph makes no sense!  The first time Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown) realizes that Marty might have changed the timeline, he looks at the photograph and sees that Marty’s brother is disappearing from it.  The photo still has Marty and his sister, and it – weirdly – includes Marty’s brother’s torso, arms, and legs.  The only thing that’s lacking is Marty’s brother’s head.

The movie wants us to think that Marty’s siblings are slowly disappearing from the future, and audiences usually buy it.  But I don’t.  What the photograph actually means is that Marty changed the future so that his brother was indeed born—just without a head.

Marty's Headless Brother

Marty's headless brother.

This is a future in which it is not out of the ordinary for headless people to be photographed by their parents.  Marty and his sister look perfectly happy standing next to their mutant brother.  The mutant himself looks pretty happy, too, assuming I’m reading his body language properly.

But that’s kind of weird.  Why would one small change in the 1950s past (Lorraine and George don’t get together) make the 1980s future so bizarrely different?  Why would that one “butterfly flap,” as it were, create a future in which normal teenagers live without heads?

The only way I can make sense of the photograph is to assume that Marty’s telling Doc Brown that his time machine works had huge implications for the future of science.  Maybe that boost of confidence allowed Doc Brown to invent a medical procedure that allowed people to live normal lives without heads.  Maybe Doc Brown invented the time machine in 1960 instead of 1985 and was subsequently hired by the U.S. government to develop an army of headless mutants to fight the Ruskies.  Or maybe he used his time machine to go far into the future to bring back super-technology to build headless brother robots to replace those human brothers who died in Delorean accidents in the 1980s.

"Why does he have no head?!"

"Why does he have no head?!"

Sadly, we’ll never know what the alternate history in that photograph actually looked like and how it came to be.  Perhaps Steven Spielberg would like to write Back to the Future ½ to fill in the details?  If anyone else has a theory on how this photograph makes sense, I’d like to hear it.

(Next time on “Stupid Questions About Back to the Future” : If Lorraine really liked the name Marty, why did she wait until her third child to use the it?)

23 Comments on “The Paradox of Marty’s Headless Brother [BTTF Week]”

  1. Swirthe #

    I have an additional query for fans of nitpicking Back to the Future (which I would like to think is everyone in the world, but probably isn’t):

    Getting the Delorean-time machine to work involved them knowing the precise second that the lightning bolt would strike the clock tower, which they did by looking at a photograph of the broken clock tower from the future.

    But the clock tower had no second hand…

    How did they know they weren’t going to be 27 seconds (example) off when they drove the Delorean in to the wire?

    It could conceivably be argued that the car had stalled at the vital moment and Marty didn’t get it started again until at least a couple of seconds after the alarm went off, and simply hit the wire at the right time by coincidence – but this seems like a monumental stroke of luck.
    And if they had known the exact time of the lightning, down to the second, all along then surely by being too late to start the car he would have also been too late to hit the wire and go back to the future.

    And then he’d have just been miffed.


  2. opi #

    I can hardly wait for BTTF week related podcast. ^^;


  3. fft5305 #

    I don’t think the slowly disappearing images in the photo mean that the siblings are slowly disappearing. I think it is representative of the likelihood of that timeline taking place. The longer Marty is in the past, affecting events, the less likely he and his siblings will exist.

    I have less of a problem with the photo than I do with the issue that Swirthe raises. The whole plan to restore the timeline rests on getting the car to hit the wire at the exact moment lightning strikes, but they have an entire one minute gap (assuming the clock tower kept accurate time) in which the lightning could strike. I’ve always had difficulty reconciling that flaw.

    I do have one other issue with the photo, however. Once George slugs Biff, thereby restoring the children in the photo, the new timeline is created with successful George, thin Larraine, etc. But the sibs are still wearing the same clothes in the picture. Even if you allow that they still went on the same trip and posed for the same picture, the now cool siblings wouldn’t be wearing the same goofy cutoffs and frumpy leg warmers and sweatshirt. Maybe it’s just me…


  4. fenzel #


    The scene where Marty’s hand slowly disappears while he is playing guitar at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance would seem to argue against the idea that the disappearance in the photo is metaphorical, probabilistic or symbolic.

    Also, when his hand starts disappearing, it stops working painfully and slowly, so if Marty’s brother’s head disappears, he probably suffered a painful death by stroke and brain hemmorage before he was entirely wiped from existence.


  5. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Fenzel: Man, why did Marty’s brother’s disappearance start with his head while Marty’s started with his hand? Seems mighty unfair! I can only guess that Marty’s brother did something terrible in his last life to deserve that horrible fate.


  6. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Swirthe – Is there any logical reason why being hit by lightning would break the clock? It’s not an ELECTRIC clock, is it? Maybe the lightning could have melted some stuff together?


  7. Wade #

    If the oldest sibling starts to disappear first, doesn’t this preclude the others from existing at all? This is, of course, assuming that the photo represents the likelihood of Marty’s timeline remaining intact. If the oldest goes first, wouldn’t that mean the others would go along with him? I always wondered why Marty’s sister (she is the youngest, yes?) didn’t disappear first.


  8. Gab #

    Wade- maybe the earlier a person is born in one timeline, the earlier they have to be affected as the other one becomes closer and closer to replacing it?


  9. Swirthe #

    @Belinkie – There could be a lot of truth in that that may have just ruined the entire film from the very beginning. After some semi-extensive research after consulting the wisest being in the universe (google) about this, there appears to be no evidence that lightning would indeed break the clock tower.
    I therefore propose a series of experiments, possibly (hopefully) involving models much like those used by Doc Brown himself in the film (except probably to scale).
    So if anyone needs me I’ll be in my shed playing with car batteries and doll houses in the name of scientific accuracy!


  10. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Swirthe – See, what would be cool is if the thing that broke the clocktower was not the lightning, but rather Doc Brown messing around up there. But everyone just ASSUMES it’s the lightning. Of course, this is not how time travel works in BTTF. Time traveling doesn’t make the events of the present possible – it actually CHANGES them. (A post later in the week will explore this in more detail.)


  11. Gab #

    Submit it to _Mythbusters_! Their movie-busting stuff is great. I bet they’d relish the opportunity to shoot electricity at something.


  12. bttfconfused #

    The other thing which I didn’t get was when Doc Brown built a small-square replica of the town square to illustrate the plan to send Marty back to the future, complete with model car and clock tower. At one point, they set the model car to hit the electric line, which, in the small model, is powered by an electric plug, so as to illustrate the plan to have the actual Delorean hit the electric cable attached to the clock at the moment the lightning hit. When they set the model car on its path, and it hits the electic wire as planned, they both looked shocked when it bursts into flames. What did they think would happen? That it would be sent through time?


  13. Lynsey #

    Maybe at that point the only thing not decided about his brother was his face – would her first child be with Biff after he took advantage but she chose George after she needed a father for her kid and he had expressed an interest?


  14. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Lynsey: See, that’s good Overthinking(tm)! Doesn’t really explain Marty’s missing hand, though…



  15. Jonathan Nolan #

    I have enjoyed the BTTF overthinking stuff, since I do a lot of this stuff myself. I read it gloriously out of order too, which helped.

    I am puzzled as to why there are so many tacit assumptions about the nature of time travel though- BTTF is clearly shooting for some kind of many histories model, and within each history Chuck Berry, McFly, a combination or something entirely different might engender something we presume we recognise.

    Likewise the headless brother photo.

    Metatextually it is obviously SCIENCE! that makes the head disappear and the hand disappear, but it is easy to imagine that as has been pointed out it was the identity of the brother not his existence that had altered… Or even that the photo had to be altered using airbrushing (bit early for Photoshop outside of movie and CIA circles in 1985) and somehow Marty ended up with a bodged version in that parallel world for some reason…

    As for his fading hand- he triggered a massive short circuit with the uberamp and uberspeakers, he injured it in the future, he stuck it out of car windows, inexpertly punched people with it and tried to be a gunslinger with it- played with steam with it, had skateboarding accidents with it- out of so many possible ways to lose a hand, in a high risk mission through time and so many parallel worlds… It’s a miracle he didn’t start the film with a stump… :)


  16. Jochen #

    “Back to the Future was on last night, so of course I watched it. It’s a genius movie. ”

    Huge ACK, man!
    BTTF (1) ist still the only movie I can imagine playing directly again after watching it. I often catch myself muttering the dialogues…depending on the playing version in english or in my native german (well, according to the german dubbed version).


  17. Steve #

    Well, they did state in the movie that the clock tower was struck by lightning at EXACTLY ……whatever the time was lol
    So they could figure that out by looking at the position of the gears in the clock tower. There are smaller gears always turning and one, if they had such knowledge about that particular clock and the gearing, would need but to look at the position of smaller gears to deduce the very second it stopped.Just a thought.


  18. LordyLord #

    Why wouldn’t the oldest disappear first? There’s always the possibility the parents can get together and have the younger children. The oldest would be the first to not be born.

    As for Marty’s hand disappearing, what would people have thought when Marty’s head just suddenly disappears and his lifeless corpse falls off stage, almost ensuring that nobody gets lucky that night. Then they are scarred for life and unable to have kids causing Hill Valley to become a ghost town where noone can live.

    Because Doc is responsible for the tragedy, he turns into a psycotic killer who dresses up like Marty when he stabs young teenagers who are ‘having a good time’


  19. Mark #

    mlawski’s scenario is possible if we assume some things about George and Lorraine.

    Lorraine exhibits what Doc describes as Florence Nightingale Syndrome. In the timeline that led to old 1985, she fell obsessively in love with George McFly aftur nursing him back from being hit by a car. George with Lorraine by his side is content with his life, even though he’s a loser, and so he continues in his dysfunctional relationship with Biff.

    When Mary interferes, George is eventually forced to stand up for himself and win Lorraine’s affections away from Marty, which leads to the new 1985 timeline in which George follows his dreams and becomes a sucessful SF author. This is actually the THIRD timeline.

    When Marty intervenes the first time (before contacting Doc in 1955), this puts the world on a course for a middle timeline. In this timeline, George does not kiss at the prom. Without Lorraine’s codependent love and support, George eventually snaps from the emptiness of his life under Biff’s heel, and goes not into SF, but the lucrative field of mad science. George’s intellect applied to creating monstrosities instead of best-selling novels, he makes groundbreaking strides in the field of headless engineering. With a Nobel prize under his belt, he woos Lorraine, has three kids, and starts running his demented experiments on them. This is the 1985 that mlawski describes.

    Seeing the outcome of the current timeline in the picture, Marty and Doc panic and intervene a second time, changing the timeline to the new 1985 that we see at the end of the movie.


  20. stokes OTI Staff #

    The *most* disturbing explanation would be that the headless kid in the photo is the genetic fallout of Marty getting stuck in 1955 and eventually – Philip J Fry style – giving in to Lorraine’s blandishments.

    Marty: “He’s my son.”
    [Doc slaps Marty]
    Doc Brown: “I said I want the truth!”
    Marty: “He’s my brother…”
    Marty: “He’s my son…”
    etc. etc.

    Traditionally, of course, we’d expect their kids to have TWO heads and play the banjo. But you’ve got to figure that zero heads is also a possibility.


  21. J #

    So in BTTF II Doc explains to Marty that they can’t simply take the Delorean back to the future and stop Bif from traveling back and handing himself the sports almanac because they would only be arriving at the alternate future with babes, booz, and gambling that Bif has now created (much like Pottersville from It’s a Wonderful Life). Hmmmmmmmm? Then shouldn’t Bif have experienced the same thing after altering the future like that? He arrives at the new future and they are stuck in the old one never to time travel again. Only he didn’t. He arrived back in good old 2015 allowing them to pop in the car and go back again. Something is wrong here.


    • Tim Wolfe #

      I think that as soon as Marty changed the timeline where george and lorraine dont get together the kids in the picture wouldnt fade slowly (slick movie idea/effect) they would all have disappeared entirely (blank photo) the only reason Marty is still in 1955 is because he stepped outside of the timeline. (The headless brother theory is not at all feaseable) . as soon as the timeline was restored the now blank photo would be restored as well. Actually because of Marty stepping outside of the space time continuum, he might never have vanished at all, only his image in the picture as it would never have been taken. Marty himself would become a paradox. All would be fixed when george and lorraines relationship was restored.


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