Recently, collective ranting amongst the NSD team about a listicle purporting to share "ten things that don't make sense" in the first Back to the Future film grew into a larger discussion about the nature of "Nitpick Culture" - (mostly) online media "criticism" centered on throwing out as many "mistakes" or "plot holes" in a work as possible, whether there's an actual problem or not, and often contradicting itself in the process. Youtubers Shaun and Jack Saint have done some excellent video essays on the subject, but we wanted to have our own conversation, both as fans and as creators.
Bugsy: Let's talk about the specific post that set this all in motion, since it's not only about a topic we each know very well, but also embodies quite a few aspects of "Nitpick Culture" in general. Andy, how would you respond to the author of "Back To The Future: 10 Things That Make No Sense About The Original Movie?"
Andy: I worry that the author here isn't doing their research, and attempting to find fault in places that are either easily explained or wither away once light is shone upon them. This seems to often be an issue with Nitpick Culture in general - I'm hoping this post can provide a bit of that light. If I were to break down this particular listicle, I’d classify all ten of the complaints into one or two categories: complaints that go against the logic of the movie, and complaints that go against logic in general. For example, Doc Brown’s bulletproof vest is "too strong." The argument made here is twofold and fits into both categories. The first argument is that Doc does the bare minimum to survive. I think we can all agree that he must survive the attack, but appear as if he had been killed, otherwise Marty wouldn’t write him a letter about it. If Marty doesn’t write him the letter, he doesn’t take any precautions. This is a Catch-22, and doing any more than what Doc did would prevent it from happening at all. Perhaps if your vision could pierce the veil of time you could see different lines where Doc messes it up and kills the Libyans, then Marty doesn’t run for it, doesn’t go back in time, can’t warn Doc, and the timeline loops and goes again. Either you must "kill" Doc in a believable way, or Marty never goes back in time. We end up with a time loop or no movie.
The second part of the argument is more against general logic: “The vest isn’t strong enough for those rounds at that distance.” Did you do the research or are you guessing? I’m betting you’re guessing, otherwise you would have provided the info. I could be wrong, but I looked up both the kinds of guns being used and the protection. The Libyans are using old Soviet AK47s, which have been around for a long time. Bulletproof vests can stop rounds from them. The Kevlar bullet proof vest was invented in the 70s. So, yes it very well could have been strong enough. I’ll play along though. Maybe, just maybe that vest shouldn’t have held up. Great logic. Congrats, you killed Doc. No sequels. Everyone Happy Now? Or...Doc is a good enough scientist, or well connected enough, to have a better than average vest? Or perhaps he also sold the Libyans some fake rounds for ammo? The point is, what Doc did worked. However he did it, it seemed plausible enough.
I don't think these are the author's "mistakes" that bother me most, but I think "Doc Brown's Bulletproof Vest" serves as a decent example to my point. Am I way off-base in my assessment here, Bugsy? What in particular bothers you about this listicle?
Bugsy: I rather like that you mentioned Catch-22, which is a novel that intentionally includes a number of inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and is very much about bending the rules of its own universe and playing with the reader's suspension of disbelief. Back to the Future, of course, is quite the opposite, it has to establish its own rules (specifically regarding time travel), as the audience isn't likely to have much first-hand experience. This is one of the baseline requirements for engaging with any piece of speculative fiction, and it's really disingenuous for a critic to attack a work's central conceit while also expecting the reader to buy into that conceit enough to make the piece worth it. A similar example would be complaining about the specifics of warp drive in Star Trek, for instance. One could complain about inconsistencies with its portrayal from episode to episode, but warp drive is something that exists in the Star Trek universe, not ours. Even if one is discussing how a sci-fi conceit doesn't work with our current understanding of the universe requires engaging with that conceit on its own terms.
This is a rather long way to go about answering your question, Andy, but those are the "mistakes" that bug me the most: the ones that won't accept Back to the Future's rules of temporal mechanics. It's totally consistent across the film trilogy, for instance, that a person from an alternate timeline keeps all the memories and physical artifacts from that timeline, provided that the divergence isn't so extreme as to "erase [them] from existence" (to use Doc Brown's terminology). This isn't a "mistake" here, this is simply how time travel works in this setting. Even when erasure takes place, it’s effect isn't instantaneous, as portrayed by the disappearing family in the photograph. Whether this is the effect of decreasing possibilities for that future to take place (at the outset, there is still some possibility of George and Lorraine getting together with Marty's help, but as this becomes less and less likely, their children disappear in the order in which they were born) or simply because the timelines have to catch up is left as an exercise for the viewer, but the fact remains that they are a part of this universe.
Even outside of meeting a work on its own terms, there are agreed-upon suspensions of disbelief when one consumes media in general. The bulletproof vest complaint is of this type - an EMT would probably tell you that, Kevlar or not, Doc would still be badly hurt by the force of the bullets' impact, but these kinds of issues are endemic to all media featuring guns, not Back the Future in particular. If one wants to consume any media featuring firearms, there has be a certain allowance within the depiction of their function. Our author would have to go back to the very first Westerns if he really wants to take issue here. This approach to media engagement is about as useful to audiences as a screen door on a battleship.
As for why these kinds of pieces exist, that raises a larger question of how we react to "mistakes." I have no shame (okay maybe a little shame) in admitting that some of my favorite books a kid where the Nitpicker's Guides to the various Star Trek series and the X-Files. So why did I love those, but feel angry about this? For starters, those books were very much directed towards fans, people who enjoyed the series as much as the authors did. There wasn't the aura of smugness that comes with a lot of the internet iteration of "Nitpick Culture," the tone that suggests the author is smart enough to raise these concerns, and, thus, smarter than the fan who failed to notice them - the subtitle of the post we're ranting about says "as is [sic] with every time travelling story, there are parts of Back To The Future that don't really add up when given enough thought," implying that the author has given it more thought than the reader. This might be a subtle distinction, but it makes a huge difference. No piece of media is perfect, but how we position ourselves in relation to the people who made it, as well as with the other people who enjoy it determines whether our comments comes across as a knowing chuckles or as sneers.
Andy: I don't think it just stops with the aura of smugness, though. All too often, these pieces are essentially clickbait. It isn't quite as bad as advertisements like "10 Reasons You Shouldn't Watch Back to the Future - Number 7 Will Shock You!" or extremely misleading headlines like "Hollywood star expresses regrets on having to cut ties with blockbuster film," and a picture of Michael J. Fox with his back to the DeLorean, but is really a short post about Eric Stoltz wishing he could have still been in the movie (although you can still catch his fist if you look really closely). Although, in a way, it's almost worse than those things. Listicle posts like this, and nitpick media in general, are pretending to be a real thing. At least the others are obvious trash, but these things put mildly attention-grabbing headlines and pretend to be informative or thought-provoking. I guess if you're just looking for clicks, this works. After all, it worked on me in the first place - "What doesn't make sense about one of my favorite movies?" It's really frustrating. A better post might have been "BttF: 10 Common Misconceptions about the Original Movie Explained." As with most well-written time travel stories, Back to the Future really adds up when given enough thought. I guess that requires more research and effort though.
Part of my problem may be that I just love Back to the Future a great deal. I grew up on it, and I find it strange for someone to find fault in something so well-done. Not that it's a perfect movie, but, again, these complaints are really frustrating. One part that I probably take a little too personally is "Marty Looks A Lot Like Marty" and "Dave is Apparently A Better Name Than Marty." My wife and I ended up naming our youngest son Marty (it's a family name, but come on...BttF all the way! We even did a pregnancy announcement in BttF cosplay.) These two complaints essentially sum up to "how could they not recognize their friend when their kid becomes his age? It's only been 30 years, and he was so important to them! Plus, they decided Dave is a better name for their first son? How dare they!" Yeah, it has been 30 years. As I edge closer and closer to having a kid in double digits, I can say no, I don't remember people well from that long ago, unless I still know them. I doubt most people would. Lorraine probably forgot about the name before Dave was born, or perhaps she had a beloved grandfather or uncle whose name she wanted to pass along first. George obviously picked Dave's middle name (Tiberius). Perhaps George got to make the suggestion for Marty and went with the family name. You know, Seamus' brother Martin? Again, perhaps I've taken it all too personally, and I'm just nitpicking a nitpick article. It really feels though that the author just didn't put enough care or thought in though. Can you give a less personal take on it Bugsy? Or is that even necessary? You seemed just as bothered by this post as I was.
Bugsy: I think we were both lucky enough to be bothered both personally by the subject matter and by its lazy approach to content creation, especially now that we've entered that world ourselves. I'd like to think we put a lot of effort into writing new material for Never Say Dice (and, uh... "borrowing" images), so seeing someone try to sell a thrown-together listicle by shocking nostalgic movie fans is going to really get under our skin. But even aside from our own relationships to the piece, there's the larger issue of this form of "criticism." Jack Saint gets more into this in the video linked above, but it comes from an idea that the quality of a piece of writing can be determined by how few "mistakes" it contains. They're sometimes referred to as "plot holes" to make them seem less subjective, but often draw from either a willful misunderstanding to support an underlying agenda (as has been seen with alt-right complaints about the recent Star Wars films) or out of a sense of superiority to popular tastes (as with this piece). Even when taken at face value, though, the concept of "good writing" being attached solely to internal consistency rather than less tangible elements such as character and theme, is rather disturbing - these are, after all, the unique features of narrative storytelling in any form. And while the suspension of disbelief requires that inconsistencies not be glaring enough to pull the audience out of the story, focusing on them at the cost of everything else turns any work into a mere plot summary, a concept I find utterly horrifying both a creator and as an audience member.
There is something to be said about the mirror image to this approach to media consumption - the "crazy fan theory," in which an audience attempts to explain away inconsistencies in a work through their own elaborate additions. And while this is still centered around a focus primarily on plot elements, it comes from a sense of engagement rather than negation, and even exercises the imagination to create new stories, whether in the universe of the original (as with the Big Finish line of Doctor Who audio plays, which often connect and "explain" contradictory aspects of that universe) or in totally original creations. The relationship between a GM and their players could be seen in a similar way, as a form of give-and-take, of collaborative narrative problem-solving. But that is probably a discussion for another time. For now, Andy, what say we make like trees...
...and get outa here.