Back to the Future Part III finds its heart in the Old West

This is the most exciting time in the Back to the Future trilogy! More disturbing than Marty McFly discovering his father’s grave; more disorienting than Lorraine McFly’s (née Baines) actions toward her son; more disorienting than Biff Tannen getting his face into a truckload of feces. It’s even more shocking! Grown men cried, women screamed, and studio execs consulted their therapists. Now it’s your turn! Are you ready for the ultimate, jaw-dropping movie experience? Can your heart take it when you see this shocking truth…

Dr. Brown dancing with women?

(Cue lightning, thunder, banshee screaming…)

Well, I might be exaggerating things a bit. It was only while rewatching Back to the Future Part 3 (1990) that I was surprised to find myself witnessing Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) asking the new headmistress Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen) to dance with him. In 1885, she performed an elegant twirl on the small-town dance floor in Hill Valley. Doc had a look of innocence and joy on his face, which was a stark contrast to the rest of the series. The BTTF series is known for its science fiction and crude humor, but with this sweet, charming gesture, the Doctor and Clara are bringing the series into an area where they’ve been hesitant before: authentic human emotion.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, the previous chapter, Back to the Future Part II (1989), was more of a conceptual experiment than a straight narrative, setting a dark, alternative 1985 in the second act, and then pulling out a sort of “Trials and Tribble-ations” episode punctuated by Dr. Brown and Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in the finale of the original Back to the Future (1985). There’s a logic to the way the film is structured: it comes at a time when the film industry is sticking to the philosophy that George Lucas laid out for the original Star Wars. In a trilogy, the first sequel could serve as the second act of a three-act play. It could be darker and more unresolved, with the expectation that everything will be perfectly resolved in the third and final installment.

With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine writer/director Robert Zemeckis and his co-writer Bob Gale deciding to use Part II as their laboratory for researching the paradoxes of time and the nature of narrative filmmaking itself. Perhaps they intended to use up all the conceptual fantasies at once so that by the time they got to the third and final chapter – which was actually filmed back-to-back with part two – they could relax and tell a more traditional story.

That’s what they did. At the end of part two, a bolt of lightning struck the DeLorean time machine and vaporized it, with the Doctor on board. But all was not lost: Another conceptual bright spot was that, as soon as the machine disappeared, the Western Union courier (Joe Flaherty) arrived. It turned out that his office had kept a seventy-year-old letter, which instructed that the letter be delivered to the specific date, time, and place where Marty witnessed Doc’s disappearance. The letter came with reassuring news: the lightning that hit the car actually activated the flux capacitor, taking Doc back to the valley in the nineteenth century. There he lived happily for eight months and hid the time machine so it could be safely placed undetected for the next seventy years. Marty was in charge of getting Dr. Brown in 1955 to retrieve it and fix it.

There’s Only One Fly in Buttermilk: While picking up the DeLorean car, Doc and Marty stumbled across the Doc’s tombstone and discovered he was murdered by Biff Tannen’s ancestor, Buford (Tom Wilson), while at this time, it had been a week since the doctor commissioned the delivery of the long-delayed mail. Change of plans: Marty decided to travel back to 1885 Valley to rescue the Doctor and return the scientist and himself to the future. The future in 1985. Not the future in 1955, but the future from the perspective of 1885. But that’s not the future Marty wants to go back to… the future of 1985… he wants to go back to that future… sorry, I kind of got lost here…

Here, I must admit, this is not the only place where I got lost in the third part. You see, the whole idea behind Science Fiction’s Path to a Higher Consciousness was to see how filmmakers could use science fiction concepts to explore humanity and its place in the universe. But once Marty returns to the scrubby mining town in the valley, the sci-fi plot is pretty much over. Oh, and there are some funny, off-kilter jokes – Marty and Doc know things that people at thetime don’t, leading to some amusing situations – but the real focus here is on the characters and their relationships.

And that’s where the dancing scene comes in. It’s a moment of genuine human connection between Doc and Clara, two characters who have been through a lot of ups and downs over the course of the film. It’s a sweet, romantic moment that shows a different side of Doc than we’ve seen before. And it’s a reminder that, despite all the time-travel shenanigans and sci-fi craziness, at its core, Back to the Future is a story about people.

So, to sum up, while the third part of the Back to the Future trilogy may not be as focused on science fiction concepts as the first two, it still has its charms. The dancing scene between Doc and Clara is a standout moment that shows a different side of the characters, and reminds us that, at its heart, this series is all about the relationships between people.

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