BACK TO THE FUTURE: THE ANIMATED SERIES
What would it be like to meet your parents as kids? Would they live up to their recollections or would their real personalities surprise you? That’s what writer/producer Bob Gale wondered when he posed the concept of Back to the Future to collaborator and director Robert Zemeckis.
|Doc explains how the time machine works to Marty.|
The pair drafted the script by 1981, setting the movie in 1955 during the rise of the teenage culture. However, this was the 80s and it was almost a requirement that a comedy involving a teenager be risqué. The studios deemed it too tame and it was continually passed up whenever they would shop it around. Ironically, it was considered too risqué for a family movie under the Disney banner (particularly because of Zemeckis’ contribution of a mother falling for her future son). Steven Spielberg, who had worked with Gale and Zemeckis on a few films, was interested in the script, but considering their collaborations had resulted in flops the pair didn’t want to drag Spielberg down with them or make it seem like he was the only one giving them work. However, after achieving success with Romancing the Stone, Zemeckis felt confident to reapproach Spielberg with the project. Spielberg came on board, and with him came backing from Universal Studios.
|Marty in 1955 trying to introduce his teenaged future parents to each other.|
The film involved the creation of a time machine by Doctor Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd), an eccentric scientist who squandered his family fortune in pursuit of that project over the course of 30 years. The time machine was made from a DeLorean, eventually chosen by the production team for its mobility and futuristic look. Things went awry when the terrorists Doc stole the plutonium that he needed to power the time machine from came looking for him. His teenaged friend, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), was forced to use the time machine to escape and, after accidentally activating its systems, was shunted back to 1955 upon hitting 88 miles per hour. There, he inadvertently prevented his parents Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and George (Crispin Glover) from meeting, with Lorraine falling for him instead. Tracking down a younger Doc, Marty enlisted his help in not only getting his parents together so that he and his siblings would be born, but to help get him back to his own time due to a lack of extra plutonium for fuel. Unfortunately, bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) kept getting in the way as he wanted Lorraine for himself and loved beating up on George.
|The posters for the trilogy.|
The movie was released on July 3, 1985 and was the most successful film of the year. As a result, it gained two sequels filmed back-to-back. 1989’s Back to the Future Part II saw Doc and Marty travel to the year 2015 to help Marty’s future family avoid legal trouble in dealings with Biff’s family. The DeLorean also gained a hover conversion allowing it to fly and “Mr. Fusion” which could turn ordinary garbage into fuel for the flux capacitor, the device that made time travel possible initially via the aforementioned plutonium. Back to the Future Part III took the crew to 1885 after the DeLorean was struck by lightning in Part II. Marty went back to save Doc from being killed by Biff’s ancestor, Mad Dog Tannen (also Wilson). In the process, they met schoolmarm Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen), with whom Doc fell in love. The series ended with Doc returning to 1985 in a steam-powered locomotive time machine to pick up his dog, Einstein (named for the noted scientist), assure Marty that he was fine, and to to introduce him to his and Clara’s two sons named after their favorite author, Jules Verne.
|Ad for the series.|
In 1990, Universal decided to enter into the family-friendly Saturday morning market and approached Gale about translating the movie franchise into an animated series. Gale agreed with the caveat that it be educational in the vein of Mr. Wizard, since he had a 2-year-old daughter at the time and worried about what she would be watching on television. Universal agreed, and the series entered production with Gale serving as an executive producer.
|The Browns: Clara, Doc, Jules and Verne in their kitchen.|
The animated series took place following the events of Part III. Doc (Dan Castellaneta) and Clara (Steenburgen, reprising her role) had settled in 1991 Hill Valley, California (the fictional setting from the movies) with their children Jules (portrayed as a genius like Doc, voiced by Josh Keaton) and Verne (a troublemaker inspired by Dennis the Menace, voiced by Troy Davidson) and their dog, Einstein (who was made more anthropomorphic for the show, and voiced by Danny Mann). Doc, despite wanting it destroyed in the movies, had rebuilt and improved the DeLorean with new features including voice-activated time circuits, the ability to travel anywhere in space as well as time (whereas in the movies they ended up in the exact same location from which they jumped) and the ability to fold up into a suitcase for easy portability (plus whatever else the plot would require of it).
|Marty and Doc prepare to take off in the new DeLorean.|
Together with college-aged Marty (David Kaufman), they had misadventures through time usually featuring an encounter with one misbegotten relative of Biff Tannen after another (all played by Wilson). Also carried over was Doc’s time-traveling train from the end of the third movie and Marty’s hoverboard (a skateboard without wheels from the second movie that he somehow used in the present day without incident). The series placed a greater focus on the Brown family than Marty, since Universal believed putting the Brown children up front would attract their desired demographic and their youthful recklessness opened up a variety of story possibilities with the concept. James Tolkan would also reprise his role as strict school official Dean Strickland from the movies, as well as ancestors from the Strcikland family in several episodes. The production was careful to be as accurate historically as possible, which kept them from getting heavily involved with major historical figures (except for Ben Franklin) or key events.
Back to the Future debuted on September 14, 1991 on CBS. The series was written and developed by story editors John Loy and John Ludin, along with Wayne Kaatz, Earl Kress, Mary Jo Ludin, Mark Klastorin, Michael Klastorin, Randy Gale, Michael Zimbalist, Cliff MacGillivray, Alex Herschlag, Mark Hoffmeier, Rick Cunningham, Peyton Reed, Mark Gowen, Sean Derek, and Mark Valenti. A re-recorded version of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Back in Time”, which closed out the first movie, served as the series’ theme song. The end credits played over a scene of Doc peddling to power a device that bordered the screen. Typically, Alan Silvestri’s score played over that, as it did throughout the series as incidental music, but occasionally a new song fitting the theme of the episode would play (the Bewitched theme was used for the credits of “Witchcraft,” for example). Michael Tavera handled the rest of the series’ music needs. Big Pictures and Wang Film Productions provided the animation. Unfortunately, the series performed poorly in the ratings. CBS honored its commitment to a second season, however with a dramatically reduced budget. They formally cancelled it at the conclusion of the second season.
For the first season, the intro featured Doc traveling through time to pick up his family, introducing the characters and devices to the audience. The second season changed the intro to feature clips from various episodes intermixed with some of the original footage. Clara’s design was slightly modified for the second season, the only character to have this done. Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer (Cathy Cavadini), was designed to be a blonde rather than the brunette she was portrayed as in the movies. The series also marked the first time Doc’s middle name, Lathrop, was used on screen; having previously appeared in the novelization for Part III by Craig Shaw Gardener. A post-credits scene would feature Biff telling a joke in relation to the episode’s plot, possibly alluding to Wilson’s own stand-up career.
|Biff Tannen: a butthead throughout history.|
The most notable feature of the program was the inclusion of live-action segments that bookended the episodes, handled by ZM Productions and written and directed by Peyton Reed. Christopher Lloyd reprised his role as Doc to introduce each episode and narrate a scientific experiment that pertained to the main theme of the story. The actual science was performed and supervised by Bill Nye, whom Ludin knew from a local sketch show in Seattle. Not only did it keep up the Mr. Wizard inspiration, it also fulfilled the FCC’s mandate that Saturday morning programming have some element of educational value. The segment proved so popular that Nye received his own educational science show from 1993-98 called Bill Nye the Science Guy.
While numerous toys and props have been made in relation to the movies, particularly in the years leading up to the franchise’s 30th anniversary, the show itself didn’t have much in the way of merchandise for a while. Several episodes were adapted into comic book form by Harvey Comics, who also produced original stories set in the animated universe. The comics were written by notable comic writer Dwayne McDuffie and drawn by Nelson Dewey. McDonald’s produced the only toys related to the series for inclusion in their Happy Meals in 1991. At Toy Fair 2019, it was announced that a new wave of merchandise would be released for the franchise’s 35th anniversary in 2020. Among them was a set of action figures by NECA featuring Marty, Biff and Doc with Einstein, with an announced DeLorean vehicle.
|The French DVDs.|
Nine VHS collections and three laserdiscs were released, featuring 18 episodes of the series. Originally, the series was only available on DVD in France, but it was released both individually and as part of the 30th anniversary box set on October 20th, 2015 (the day before the future date of the second movie). In 2016, the animated series was re-released as individual season sets and a separate DVD showcasing “A Dickens of a Christmas” with “A Family Vacation” as a special bonus feature, as well as part of a new version of the complete collection.
|Verne wearing a coonskin cap in the Back to the Future comic from IDW.|
Even though the series has been said by Gale to be non-canonical, Telltale Games included several references to it in its Back to the Future: The Game in 2010-11. Amongst them included Marty’s middle name, Biff’s ancestor Beauregard Tannen from “Brothers”, Verne being a gamer, and a mention of the Tannensaurus from “Forward to the Past.” IDW Publishing’s Back to the Future comics would also feature several references and nods to the cartoon utilizing similar characters, such as Clara’s family, locations like Hill Valley Elementary School, or visual gags like Verne wearing a coonskin cap.
“Brothers” (9/14/91) – A brotherly spat pits Jules and Verne on opposite sides of the Civil War.
“Mac the Black” (9/19/92) –Verne goes to the Caribbean in 1697 to become a pirate so he can get an earring while Marty is mistaken for pirate Mac the Black.
Originally posted in 2015. Updated in 2019.