A Matter of Time: The Unauthorized Back To the Future Lexicon, Review

Den of Geek's Jarrett Kruse reviews the new guide to the BTTF universe and interviews Rich Handley and Stephen Clark.

GRADE: A 95/100

There are a lot of trilogies out there nowadays and they hold a special place in our collective geeky hearts. While most of us automatically think of the original Star Wars Trilogy or, more recently, the epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy at first thought, there is another triumvirate of films that happily stands tall in those enormous and overhyped sets of movies’ long shadows. I am of course talking about my beloved Back To the Future Trilogy. While still an enormously successful collection of films, the BTTF fan is a different kind of egg that stands out from the Jedis, Hobbits and Starfleet. Devoted to the 1980’s and its eternal brightness regarding what the future held, BTTF reminded us how important a terrific story is to make a truly memorable series. The names Marty McFly and Doc Brown have rushed to the forefront of our memories and the rare site of a DeLorean makes you do a double take saying “Is that…?” There is no doubt that every geek who has ever driven 88 MPH experiences a momentarily thrill thinking that going back in time could happen if you hit that magical number.  With the 30th Anniversary of the series just over two years away BTTF’s fans have never been more rabid and dedicated. Ask them to choose the keys between the Millennium Falcon or the BTTF DeLorean and they will pick the latter every time.

Spot on and unbelievably detailed, A Matter of Time: The Unauthorized back to the Future Lexicon is the book that time travelling fans have been waiting for. If ever there was a Holy Grail for both the new and old BTTF fan and Sci-Fi junkie, this is perhaps the perfect gift for this holiday season. Every BTTF fan, from those like me who wore out their VHS tapes in high school and college to the current era of pause-happy High-Definition Blu-ray will revel in the attention to detail that Rich Handley has put into this massive and truly epic book. When he waded into what turned out to be a far more massive project than he had anticipated, several sources told author Rich Handley (of Hasslein Books) that Stephen Clark of BTTF.com was the guy to contact about the BTTF franchise. His site has been the foremost Internet presence for BTTF and continues to be supported by Universal Studios and the extended family of the film series.

I waded through the close to 400 page book with geeky delight as I cued up the trilogy on Blu-Ray to use it as a reference (I recommend that any BTTF fan do the same). In its nontraditional format, the book tackles the extraordinarily difficult job of addressing every piece of BTTF history with painstaking detail and it is the obsessive fan’s dream. We are finally given a proper and almost scholarly breakdown of everything in the BTTF canon with easy access. Having the book by my side turned watching the trilogy again into an all-day event. The book acts as the DVD bonus feature that we have always wished for but thought could never happen. With its amazing abbreviation key, the reader takes a journey to all of the answers, inside jokes and backstories behind the popular franchise. Arguments will finally be settled within the fanboy set as you get the chance to see things in the series that you never noticed before. Having the book on-hand while I viewed the trilogies was like having Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale in my den to answer questions that have been gestating in my mind for over two decades. From the brilliant black and white artwork that lights up the pages by Pat Carbajal to art director Paul C. Giachetti’s amazing design and layout, this book is a must-have for the Back To the Future fan no matter what time period you saw the movie in. Whether you were there in the theaters back in 1985 the way these guys were or you are showing your kids the films for the first time on DVD or Blu-Ray, A Matter of Time is the unmatched indispensable guide and the coffee table book that will be worn out by this time next year. In other words, the future has never looked as good as it does with Rich and Stephen as its caretakers.

DENOFGEEK.COM’S JARRETT KRUSE (DOG/JK): Both Stephen’s foreword and Rich’s introduction in the book are well-deserved love letters to the BTTF series. Did you ever think that a book like A Matter of Time would be written and that both of you guys would become such an integral part of it? Stephen as the custodian of the best and officially endorsed website for fans at BTTF.com and Rich as a seasoned sci-fi writer at your company Hasslein Books?

RICH HANDLEY (RH): Actually, I’m surprised no one ever wrote a book like this before. Given Back To the Future’s popularity, I’m just lucky that when I did so I had such useful resources to draw upon. I used the forums every now and then. The truth is that I found a lot of tidbits in the BTTF.com message forums that I was not aware of. Between Stephen Clark’s BTTF.com and Steven Greenwood’s Futurepedia.com, I had two excellent sources for cataloged material and historical information about the series. The sites proved invaluable and any time I needed to look up a fact, they were extremely useful. Both Steves were very helpful.

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STEPHEN CLARK (SC): I’ve wanted to be involved in a book about Back to the Future for a very long time.  I don’t have the time nor journalistic experience to write an entire book myself, so when Rich (Handley) contacted BTTF.com for some research assistance, one thing led to another and he asked if I would be interested in writing the foreword for the book.  It was quite fun to contribute a few pages of my thoughts and experiences and in the long history of our website’s integration with the franchise, this was just another natural progression in the journey which has lasted two decades now.

DOG/JK: BTTF has a tremendously loyal and passionate fan base. What was it about this series that appealed to you more than say Star Wars or Star Trek?

RH: I wouldn’t say I was as aware of the seriously dedicated fandom as I was about other series. Over the years I have visited the sites and knew they existed but did not know how deep it went. I became aware of it when I found the Facebook BTTF group since the people in that group are very strong fans. They know their stuff remarkably well. What I found fascinating about the BTTF series is that it is unlike say Star Wars, where there is so much extra material out there that it has caused plot holes in the Original Trilogy that you can drive a car through. With a time-travel series, you really have to get the timeline right in anything outside the main series and I think that BTTF did that perfectly with the video game acting as a fourth chapter in the series. Continuity is key when it comes to the BTTF series and there are surprisingly few mistakes. There are a few though.

SC: I cover a little of this in my foreword, but I’ve always gravitated towards time travel movies.  Back To the Future is just that rare jewel of filmmaking which majestically fires on all cylinders.  Hands-down, it contains something which appeals to every single member of the movie-going public. 

DOG/JK: Is the book only for the die-hard fans or will the new generation of BTTF fans just seeing the trilogy for the first time dig the lore, minutiae and wild time-travel theories of the series?

RH: When I started writing this book, I tried to make it something that would appeal to casual fans and die hards alike. Casual fans may not know about the cartoon, the McDonalds Happy Meals or the Harvey Comics and they might be excited to see/learn that there is indeed a pretty large expanded universe. Naturally the sheer volume of information in the encyclopedia is geared toward the die hards but the book is also designed to be approachable, to let readers examine new information and think, “wow, I didn’t know that existed.” Instead of being intimidated by it, they would want to track down all of the old material that wasn’t as well-known as the movies. For example, they might now know that Jennifer’s grandfather was a cop, according to the Telltale Games video game. I tried to make the book easy to access for everyone.

SC: I believe that it’ll cater to both groups, but largely to the former. This book is so massive and covers every continuation and spin-off beyond the three films — it’ll simply be mind-blowing to the casual fan.  But for brand new fans, just discovering the film for the first time, who desire to feed their brain with additional content, this will certainly do the trick.

Occasionally, friends of my children come by the house and openly admit that they’ve never seen Back To the Future. They are usually sent home with a free DVD and told (jokingly) to not come back until they’ve reviewed it.  A number of them usually have time travel theories and plot questions for me the next time we meet, so this new book will certainly come in handy around my house!

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DOG/JK: Rich, did you think that writing such a detailed tome about BTTF was even possible? Was it something that you used to walk around bookstores thinking “why isn’t there a big book out there about BTTF?”

RH: That’s so funny that you used the word tome because people keep saying that, as though I wrote it with a quill pen! To answer your question though, I thought there might not be enough material to fill a book as large as my previous two volumes about the Planet of the Apes films. Back To the Future was three films, a cartoon, a comic and a ride. But it turned out that the scripts were very different from the final movies—taking those into account, it was more.  It was great reading those original early drafts that Stephen sent me. Lorraine was a hippie and there were other odds and ends parts that never made it into the movies. Then seeing the cartoon series and reading the comics and watching the other source material with BTTF references—it was definitely more than I had expected. One thing I wondered before I started writing was, “why would anyone think that the BTTF trilogy is worthy of this kind of book?” But really, few other movies from that time period had any real staying power that resonated with so many people. It is still as brilliant now as it ever was. And the sequels? How often is it that a trilogy of movies are all amazing? The 80’s were a very weird dichotomy because on the one hand, there was the Brat Pack and then there were these awful bunches of comedy movies like the Police Academy series that just became laughable.   

DOG/JK: What is it about the 80’s as the backdrop of the films that made the series such a classic? Would it work if it was made today? Not as a reboot, as if it was made with the 2010/2000-TEENS as a backdrop?

RH: If the movie came out today it would probably star Adam Sandler as Doc and Zak Efron as Marty and I don’t know maybe Selena Gomez as Jennifer.  It just would not work. The proof is there in the 80’s. That decade’s mentality is just not there anymore. There was optimism in the 80’s that is missing nowadays. Now it’s all about the opening weekend grosses, getting the $60 million to star and produce and sign on for multiple movies. They pile everything they can into spectacle with no substance. They had to rely more on substance in the 80’s. The substance of a good story and unforgettable characters had to be there but today it is just CGI and explosions with a lousy script. BTTF relied on model work and old-school special effects that still hold up very nicely. Things have just gone in the wrong direction in my opinion.

SC: No, I really cannot see it working the same way if it were made today.  The 1980’s was simply a decade where entertainment was unmatched before that time and, in my opinion, hasn’t been matched since.  Visually and audibly, ‘80s entertainment was absolutely pure excitement at every turn and a spectacular experience to behold in every way imaginable.  Not only were films like Back To the Future, The Goonies, the Indiana Jones trilogy, The Terminator, sequels to Star Wars and Star Trek and countless others were released, but it was a decade of unforgettable television and music as well.  Catch me in my car and it’s very likely that you’ll find me tuned in to the ‘80S ON 8’ channel on XM radio.  Catch me at home and it’s very likely I’ll be watching a classic sitcom on the Reels Direct-TV channel.  I think that’s why the Café ‘80s in Back To the Future Part II embodies the true essence of this decade in just a few minutes.

DOG/JK: Would the movie have been such a monster smash with Eric Stoltz instead of Michael J. Fox?

RH: If Eric Stoltz had made it through the entire production and it was released with him as the star, I just do not think that it would have been such a big hit or such a classic. The chemistry was so perfect between Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. It may have been a moderately fun picture but would not have spawned sequels and would probably have just been maybe an OK sci-fi comedy from a packed decade of movies that tried and failed to do the same type of thing. Nothing against Stoltz because I think he is a great actor, but it would not have been the classic it is with Fox and Lloyd.

SC: With all due respect to Eric — who is without a doubt a really great actor, Back To the Future would have never been the box office smash it was in 1985 and the series would have never continued beyond that one film. It would have never become the behemoth it is today.  I’ve seen the majority of Eric’s performance and it’s just not a memorable one.  He was definitely miscast in the role of Marty McFly, which occasionally happens in Hollywood.

DOG/JK: Where would you like to see the franchise go as we approach the 30th Anniversary in just over 2 years?

RH: I think it’s inevitable that someone will eventually make a remake or a reboot. Hollywood is so psyched to remake crappy movies so what’s to stop them from remaking a classic? But I just don’t see it working. I would not be opposed to them doing another video game or animation but I just don’t think a movie about the next generation of Hill Valley is necessary. Who wants to see a movie about the kids of their favorite characters? We have had all these reboots and few of them are any good. Battlestar Galactica, Batman, James Bond and Star Trek are the exceptions to the rule but those are just a few in a whole sea of lousy remakes. If it was done right, of course, I would love to see it but I would be so nervous that I would be cringing like The Joker wondering if they would screw it up.

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SC: The franchise remains in very capable hands still today and there are a number of recent, upcoming and on-going efforts in regards to preservation and merchandising.

Five years ago, in 2007,  BTTF.com successfully spearheaded a year-long campaign to have the first film added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry so that it will be permanently preserved for audiences throughout the history of our country.  And as you may already know, a team of extremely talented and very enthusiastic fans have been working with Bob Gale this year to completely restore the original DeLorean time machine used in all three films.  That restoration process is nearing completion now, and the car will soon be permanently housed in an indoor pavilion at Universal Studios Hollywood along with other artifacts from the trilogy.

While I know that there are no plans to do any further film continuations (including sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots), I believe I can speak for the majority of fans  in saying that we’d love to see more authentic continuations made to the series in other mediums with the original cast/crew, such as the one Telltale Games did in 2010-2011 with their wildly successful five-episode series, Back To the Future: The Game

For the first two decades following its theatrical release, Back To the Future had only a minimal amount of merchandise made available for fans to collect.  That’s been changing over the past 5-7 years as manufacturers have finally begun recognizing the nostalgic appeal the series has to its legions of fans.  In 2011, we saw Nike release a limited number of authentic 2015 sneakers which were auctioned off for the Michael J. Fox Foundation

This no doubt paved the way for Mattel to release a replica of the pink hoverboard, which will finally debut before 2012 ends.

And others are on the way.  By the time 2015 gets here, I can guarantee that you can expect to see more and more of these types of collectibles to become commercially available.

DOG/JK: You have devoted a lot of time and effort to your love of the series and the book is an amazing companion piece to the website. While time travel movies have been around for quite a long time, what is it about this specific movie series that other movies in this genre have just not been able to pull off?

RH: When I think about great time travel movies, I most often think of Time After Time (1979) because that is such an incredible film. I also really enjoy The Terminator series. A lot of time travel films get caught in “logic loops” where they take themselves too seriously. I thought this year’s Looper was great because I actually believed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a young Bruce Willis. BTTF got it right in that they didn’t take it too seriously and realized that time travel stories should be fun. You should enjoy the fact the characters are in another time; it should be funny.

SC: One of my favorites is a little-known one which aired on television in 1992, starring Jeff Daniels and Ariana Richards, called Disaster in Time  The Terminator films are of course high on my list as well. With all time travel movies, you obviously have to suspend disbelief.  But part of what Back to the Future does so well is that if time travel were actually possible, the events which take place in these films are extremely plausible.  For example, the Special Effects team behind the design of the DeLorean time machine worked under the concept that you would believe that Doc Brown actually built this car by himself.  You truly believe that he’s a scientist who invents time travel in his garage because the scientific dialogue written for his character by Zemeckis amnd Gale isn’t so far over the audience’s heads that it loses them during exposition.  Too many other films fall into the trap of getting far too technical, losing the audience along the way

DOG/JK: Do you think that the constant trilogy-making of today was based on Zemeckis and Gale’s ambitious scripts and their subsequent back-to-back filmmaking?

RH: That’s a cool question. When the second and third films were being released just six months apart, we were ecstatic. That was such an original concept when I was back in college. I can’t think of anybody else at the time who did that. It let the audience know that the payoff was less than a year away. In recent years, we’ve seen it happening with the Lord of the Rings and The Matrix trilogies and it has become a serious buzzword. There is this sentiment “it’s going to be great because it’s going to be a trilogy.” But what they don’t think about is whether or not the story truly warrants three movies. Is it required? The BTTF video game keeps the story going with a story worthy of the films. The parallels are all there and it is very funny. It’s like watching a fourth movie. It is a natural progression that worked. 

SC: I asked Bob Gale that very question before in an interview nearly a decade ago when it seemed to me that he and Bob Zemeckis had paved the way for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Matrix sequels, but he was quick to point out that the Salkinds did it first back in the ‘70s with their Three Muskateers/Four Muskateers films and the first two Superman movies, giving them full credit for the idea of filming back-to-back films.  Still, I think modern Hollywood credits Zemeckis and Gale for this style of filmmaking and I’m perfectly fine with that.

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DOG/JK: You talk about this in the foreword and introduction BUT did you know when you saw the original in theaters that this was something special? Sci-Fi Comedy is a very difficult genre to pull off successfully and the 80’s are probably the best decade that did it so well w/ Ghostbusters, Weird Science and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. What made BTTF specifically work so well in your opinion?

RH: It’s a classic fish out of water concept in which characters don’t know what the hell they’re doing out of their own time but the writers must still follow the tenets of classic storytelling while caring about the characters. Today’s filmmakers often get too caught up in plot without caring much about character development.

SC: When you take a television actor like Michael J. Fox who was on the second biggest show on television at the time and put him in an action/adventure comedy for a Steven Spielberg production on July 4th weekend, you’re immediately issued a license to print money.  There’s so much more to its success than that, but that’s about as condensed as I know how to say it.  Simply put, Back To the Future was just at the right place at the right time with all the right key elements for making a bona fide blockbuster hit. 

The 1.21 Jigowatt Lightning Round
DOG/JK: Claudia Wells or Elisabeth Shue? (Jennifer Parker, Marty McFly’s Girlfriend)

RH: Claudia Wells, hands down. Both are great actresses but few women in the ‘80s were as sexy as Claudia Wells and, by the way, she still is. It’s not Shue’s fault; any time they replace an established character, it’s difficult to accept the second actor. Claudia played the role first; she was Jennifer.

SC:I have nothing but the utmost respect for Elisabeth, but I must go with Claudia .She was the original “Jennifer,” she’s a very sweet and kind lady, and she’s a close personal friend. 

DOG/JK: Mattel Hoverboard or Griff’s Pit-Bull?

RH: Griff’s Pit-Bull is just cooler looking and if I were to ride something I would feel silly riding on a pink child’s toy!

SC: Being the huge fan of Tom Wilson (Biff) that I am, I’d have to go with the Pit-Bull.  Even the girl who owned the Mattel hoverboard in Back To the Future Part II knew that the Pit-Bull is where it’s at!

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DOG/JK: ’83 DeLorean, 2015 Hover-conversion DeLorean or Rail Ready DeLorean? (Doc’s mega-train from Part III can be available as an answer too!)

RH: Definitely the flying model from Part II.

SC: I’ve got to go with the hover-converted DeLorean from 2015.  I mean, who doesn’t want a flying car?!

DOG/JK: When is the ideal time to grow up—1885, 1985 or 2015 and why?

RH: 1985, because 2012 is a pretty scary and disturbing time, so I presume 2015 will be as well. In 1985 we were naïvely optimistic about what was coming. I had fun as a teen in the 80’s and there were a lot of great memories to hold onto. I don’t think I would have fun growing up today. That said, in the BTTF series, 2015 looks like the most fun to grow up in because the world looks really clean—a very colorful place with lots to do and everybody living healthy. I love watching what they got wrong in 2015 especially the use of pay phones and fax machines. But they pretty much nailed it as far as what television would be like with picture-in-picture and watching multiple channels at once.

SC: I was 20 back in 1985 and life was very good back then.  Life is still very good – it’s even better today.  God willing, I’ll make it to 2015. But I’d stick with what I know – 1985 was a good year to experience, and I’m very content with the way life has treated me ever since.