Lords of Time #1: Doctor Who Vs Back to the Future

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Gustaff Behr begins a new series pitting Doctor Who against some of the biggest time travel fiction.


“Wait a minute. Doc! Are you telling me you built a time machine…out of a Delorean?” – Marty McFly
“The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” – Doc Brown

There is just something magical about the concept of time travel. It is a phenomenon that has baffled and bewildered scientists ever since measuring time was developed. The idea of visiting the future or undoing a past mistake is a novel one and the genre of time travel in fiction has steadily grown more popular over the years. Sure! There are an awful lot of other entertaining genres out there: Drama – action – sitcom! Those are just the main ones you think of, but time travel? It’s distinctive – otherworldly! It’s in a league all on its own. So to celebrate the genre that is Time Travel, we’ll be pitting the most successful time travel television show in current history against some of the most successful time travelling works of fiction to have ever graced our screens from all over the world and what better way to start things off than by looking at the most successful time travelling movie franchise in history!

About the Challenger!

Country of Origin: United States

1980s teenager Marty McFly is one of those people who doesn’t have the easiest of lives. His principal singles him out in school, his father is a coward, wimp and a dork who was (and still is) terrorized at the hands of middle-aged bully Biff (who also bullied him during high school. I do love consistency). The only cool thing in Marty’s life is his girlfriend Jennifer and his friendship with Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. The Doc, as it happens, has just finished building a time machine out of a 1981 DeLorean DMC-12.

The story revolves around Marty getting zapped back to 1955 where he unintentionally interferes with his parents’ first meeting (now teenagers). This causes him to start fading from history because… (Actually, you already have enough experience in time travel fiction to deduce why it happened). More problems arise when he discovers that the DeLorean’s fuel tank (it runs on plutonium) is empty and he’s now stranded in 1955. Marty enlists Doc Brown (the 1955 version) to help him set things straight and help him fix the time machine so that he can get back to the future (which is the past from our POV).

The Lure!

I know what you’re thinking: An eccentric doctor, a younger companion who serves as the viewer’s window into the story, a weird, unconvincing looking time machine…does this remind you of anything? If Emmett Brown had been a Time Lord, then this would’ve been Doctor Who-Americanized!

Most people (I know I’m stereotyping here, but I’m still mostly right) don’t like watching films (or anything) that was made too long ago. It’s rare, but generally you won’t find someone intentionally going back to watch a movie that was made thirty years before they were born (Doctor Who excluded). Main complaints are 1) sucky special effects and 2) that unusual, weird, old, almost flat acting you see in golden oldie movies. Back to the Future manages to dodge both bullets and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think the movie was made in the early 2000s. The special effects are something that has gained Back to the Future a lot of praise over the years and I testify that it’s true! It doesn’t remotely feel like a movie made in the eighties.

Dynamics and Differences!

It can be safely said that there are a lot of things Back to the Future has in common with Doctor Who. Storytelling and plot is not one of them though. At the time (1985 remember), Doctor Who’s current writing team were dumbing down the stories considerably, sharpening the guillotine that would chop off the beast’s head in a few years. Don’t worry. The head grew back. Then it was chopped off again. Then it grew back again! It seems Doctor Who’s got more lives than a bag of cats. It can also be safely said that if Doctor Who’s then-current stories were anything like Back to the Future, then we wouldn’t be at Doctor number 12, we’d be somewhere in the early 20s by now.

Back to the Future is a worthy opponent because in a lot of ways, it’s exactly the same as Doctor Who – just with an American cast, crew – budget! It is a fun, adventurous romp through time. I also selected it because Back to the Future managed to do something that Doctor Who didn’t do a lot of at the time – actually use time travel as part of the plot!

blink-key-artPrimarily, Doctor Who used time travel as a framing device. It was used to get from point A to B. That was it. It did utilize paradoxes and alternate timelines on occasion, but never to the extent Back to the Future did; especially in the span of three movies. The New Series of Doctor Who has corrected this error and has provided us with some wonderful timey-wimey stories such as Blink, The Girl Who Waited, The Impossible Astronaut and many others.

Another wonderful thing about Back to the Future is how complicated the story’s timeline is. If you watch all three movies (repeatedly), you’ll realize that it explores at least nine different timelines in total. However, most of the time, you won’t really take notice because the story is gripping. It is very attention-grabbing and the characters are interesting, if somewhat stereotyped. This can be forgiven though; it was the 80s after all. But I daresay this is intelligent time travel! Any other kind is just predictable and boring.

One of the most famous oddments that came from the 1985 trilogy is that it made famous the concept of writing back to the future, a plot device that involves a character writing a letter via the slow path to the future in order to communicate. This little snippet has become a huge part of the time travel genre. It has also been used occasionally in Doctor Who. Most notably in Blink, The Angels Take Manhattan and The Name of the Doctor.

the-three-doctors-hartnell-pertwee-troughtonDoctor Who has managed to beat Back to the Future in quite a few areas though. The Three Doctors already explored the idea that different iterations of the same person could meet one another. Forget 1990, for one thing, we had a western storyline back in 1966! Okay, The Gunfighters wasn’t the finest representation of the Wild West, but still; if we were to compare The Gunfighters to Back to the Future III, then it would be like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Did Back to the Future help develop Doctor Who? Yes. I believe it did. You can’t help but wonder what the BBC were thinking when Back to the Future hit the big screens. They must’ve been shamed when they turned back to see what Doctor Who had regenerated into at the same and I am not talking about Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy.

As discussed earlier, the new series borrows a bit from the movie franchise in the way it utilizes time travel. The new stories are no longer as slow-paced as the Classic Series, following a pace more along the lines of the movies. Its action packed, it’s clever (sometimes too clever), Doctor Who has really evolved in the last eight years. There’s a reason it’s been alive for fifty years. Unlike Back to the Future, Doctor Who is going into its twelfth sequel and unlike other franchises which occasionally suffer from Sequelitis; it doesn’t even remotely look like there’s any chance of stopping it any time soon.


Since this is the first article, let’s lay some rules down first. Time travel fiction is unique, so obviously it needs to be scored appropriately. What defines Doctor Who? What gives it it’s edge? Longevity? Heart? Timey-wimey? How about storyline? A man in a blue box that flies all over the universe in order to quench his first for knowledge and adventure. Given all that, let’s put it down to:

  • Plot – Behind every great character is an excellent and very imaginative narrative.
  • Characters – If there aren’t any interesting characters to form a connection with, what’s the point of the story? This one rates how interesting and diverse the characters are.
  • Character Development – We want to see how the characters evolve and grow into either better (or eviler) people.
  • Tearjerkers – Whether it’s a breakup or a funeral, we all want to shed a tear at some point, even if we don’t want to admit it. This one rates both the quantity and the quality of the tearjerkers involved in the show.
  • Plot Point – This is time travel after all. This one rates how important the element of time travel is to the overall storyline. Is it its guitarist, back-up singer or simply a groupie? Is it handwaved to the background or have you already missed something important in the opening credits?
  • Timey-Wimey ball –We expect intelligent writing. We want to be confused for a while before realizing just how awesome the script was we just watched. This one rates how big the ball is and how interesting it is, regardless if it manages to tie itself up in the end.

Now that the rules are out of the way, here is Back to the Future’s score out of a possible thirty:

  • Plot – 4/5
  • Characters – 4/5
  • Character Development – 3.5/5
  • Tearjerkers – 2.5/5
  • Plot Point – 5/5
  • Timey-Wimey ball – 5/5

Based on these criteria, Back to the Future sets the bar at…

24 out of a possible 30.

Join us next time when we rake up another challenger. Clue for next article: Heinemann!