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The entire Back to the Future timeline explained

The Back to the Future trilogy is a classic, with a weaving narrative that pinballs back and forth through time, folding in on itself over and over like a perplexing piece of origami. While these movies have been around for so long that the distant "future" they imagine is now our past, their storytelling is complex enough that it's understandable if you still don't fully understand how all the different timelines play out and relate to one another — which is why we're here to explain it.

There's really no good way to chronologically trace the timeline of the Back to the Future movies, since each one splits into alternates so many times that it would be confusing to attempt to look at them all side by side. Instead, what we're going to do here is follow the different timelines as they branch off, even though that requires some bouncing around through various decades and centuries. So buckle your seatbelts and hold on tight as we ramp up to 88 miles per hour and dive into all the time-traveling adventure of Back to the Future.

1885 - Original timeline

There's not a lot we know about the original version of 1885 before Marty and Doc started messing with it, but we do know one vitally important event that happens: Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen) was hired to be the new teacher at the Hill Valley school. She had just arrived at the Hill Valley train station, loaded up her wagon with her possessions, and was heading to her new home when a snake spooked her horses. She lost control of her wagon, and her horses took off galloping toward Shonash Ravine.

After careening into the ravine, Clara died without ever making it to her teaching post. Clayton Ravine wound up being named after her, and the story of her death became an urban legend at Hill Valley High. When students didn't like their teachers, they'd say they wished they would fall into the ravine like Clara Clayton. At the time of her death, Clara was single with no children.

1955 - Original timeline

In Hill Valley during the fall of 1955, a teenage George McFly (Crispin Glover) is up in a tree using a pair of binoculars to watch his high school crush Lorraine Baines (Lea Thompson) change in her bedroom when he falls out into the road and is hit by a car. The driver of the car turns out to be Lorraine's father, who — not realizing that George was peeping through his daughter's window — brings George into their house to recuperate.

Lorraine finds herself attracted to George, drawn in by his apparent helplessness, and the two decide to attend the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance together, where they kiss for the first time. However, Lorraine is also pursued by Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), another teen in their high school class who bullies George relentlessly. Although Lorraine chooses George, Biff remains fixated on her, and works to make George's life more miserable as a result.

On November 5, shortly before Lorraine and George meet, Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd) slips off his toilet while hanging a clock, bangs his head, and is temporarily knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he's had a vision of an invention called a flux capacitor, which is what makes time travel possible. On November 12, the clock tower at the Hill Valley courthouse is struck by lightning.

1985 - Original timeline

The original Back to the Future film begins in 1985, where George and Lorraine are now married and live in a modest suburban home in Hill Valley. At work, George reports to Biff, who continues to bully him and creepily hit on Lorraine. Instead of doing his homework, George has now graduated to doing Biff's reports for him. Lorraine's brother Joey is in jail, and has failed to make his parole for at least the second time.

George and Lorraine have three children: Dave (Marc McClure), who is in his early 20s and works at Burger King; Linda (Wendie Jo Sperber), who is around 19 and single, and their youngest, Marty (Michael J. Fox), who is 17 and dreams of being a rock star. Marty's best friend is the eccentric scientist Doc Brown, and he has a serious girlfriend named Jennifer (Claudia Wells), of whom Marty's mother doesn't approve.

After 30 years of refining his initial design, Doc finally perfects the flux capacitor and builds a time machine out of a DeLorean. Because his invention requires a huge amount of energy, he lies to a group of Libyan terrorists, promising that he'll build them a bomb with the stolen plutonium they supply and instead giving them a bomb casing filled with pinball machine parts. As Doc conducts the first test of his time machine at the Twin Pines mall, the terrorists arrive and shoot him dead. In an effort to escape from the terrorists, Marty jumps into the DeLorean and accidentally travels back in time.

1955 - Alternate timeline A

Arriving in 1955, Marty crashes into a pine tree and winds up in a barn. After hiding the time machine, Marty walks into town, where he sees a boy about to be hit by a car and rushes to push him out of the way. The car hits Marty instead, and the driver brings him inside, after which Marty realizes that the boy he saved was his father, and that instead of becoming attracted to George during his convalescence, Lorraine is now attracted to Marty, who goes by the alias Calvin Klein.

Determined to restore the timeline, Marty seeks out the advice of the 1955 version of Doc, who has just had his vision of the flux capacitor. Doc instructs him to do whatever he has to do in order to get his parents together before Marty's timeline is completely erased from existence. In the process, Marty's intervention gives George the idea for a sci-fi novel. Marty's plan to push his parents together results in George standing up to Biff for the first time, and a newly confident George finally kisses Lorraine.

Meanwhile, Marty gives Chuck Berry the idea to write the song "Johnny B. Goode," three years before the song was composed in the original timeline. Marty and Doc take advantage of the clock tower lightning strike to create the power needed to run the flux capacitor, harnessing the lightning so Marty can return to 1985. Before Marty departs, he writes Doc a letter warning him of his death in 1985, but Doc rips the letter up, saying that the consequences of knowing his own future could be disastrous.

1985 - Alternate timeline A

Marty decides to set the time of his return to a few minutes earlier than he left, hoping he'll be able to save Doc. However, by the time he arrives at the mall — now Lone Pine Mall, thanks to the tree Marty crashed into in 1955 — he's too late, and watches Doc get shot again. However, after the terrorists depart and Marty approaches Doc's body, Doc sits up, revealing that he's wearing a bulletproof vest. Stunned, Marty asked how he knew; Doc admits that he let curiosity get the best of him, and taped Marty's letter back together.

Marty returns home to find his family significantly better off than he left them. George is now a published science fiction novelist, and he and Lorraine are healthier and much more flirtatious than they were in the original timeline. While they still live in the same house, the decor has received an upgrade, although Marty's room remains the same. Biff now owns an auto shop, and is responsible for the detailing on the McFly cars.

Instead of a Burger King, Dave now works in an office, and while we still don't know much about Linda's life, she's at least dating a lot, which seems to speak to her increased self-confidence. Perhaps thanks to her own altered high school dating experience, Lorraine now loves Jennifer, and the McFlys have purchased Marty a black pickup truck, which they expect him to take on his weekend trip with her.

2015 - Alternate timeline B

We never see what would've originally happened in the original 2015 timeline before Marty traveled back to 1955 the first time, and we actually never get to learn exactly how things play out in the first new timeline he creates either. The first perspective of 2015 that we get is Doc's, whose presence in 2015 causes yet another timeline to branch off. However, odds are that most of this new timeline was very similar.

In this timeline, after graduating high school, Marty going to pursue a career in music, but finds his rock star dreams thwarted due to a hand injury sustained during a car accident. Eventually, Marty and Jennifer get married in the Chapel O' Love and have two children, Marlene and Marty Junior. In 2015, Marty Jr. agrees to help Biff's grandson, Griff Tannen, rob the Hill Valley Payroll Substation. He's apprehended by police, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Marlene then attempts to break him out, and she is sentenced to 20 years.

Doc witnesses all of this during his visit, and takes a newspaper to help him track alterations to the timeline. He also gets a hover conversion for the DeLorean which allows the car to fly, replaces the DeLorean's energy source with a Mr. Fusion portable nuclear reactor, and puts his dog, Einstein, into a suspended animation kennel — which honestly seems pretty risky, considering that he's about to reset the whole timeline again.

2015 - Alternate timeline C

Just as everything seems perfect for Marty in 1985, Doc returns from 2015 and informs Marty and Jennifer (now played by Elizabeth Shue) that their future children need their help. The three of them pile into the DeLorean — which can now fly, thanks to its alterations — and zip back to 2015, thus spinning off a third alternate timeline. Biff sees them disappear, but can't make sense of what he saw for another 30 years.

In 2015, Jennifer is knocked unconscious while Marty impersonates his son so he can avoid the payroll robbery, thus giving both of his children a better fate. Thanks to Marty's intervention, Griff and his gang are arrested instead. Feeling lucky, Marty purchases a Grays Sports Almanac, detailing the results of sporting events from 1950-2000, but Doc makes him throw it away. However, recognizing the flying DeLorean from 1985, a much older Biff realizes that it's a time machine. Unbeknownst to Marty, Old Biff grabs the sports almanac and steals the DeLorean.

Meanwhile, Jennifer is brought to her future home by well-meaning police officers who believe she's the 2015 version of herself. While hiding from her future family, she witnesses the older Marty being fired by his boss after agreeing to participate in an illegal scheme with a coworker. Afterward, she reconnects with Marty and Doc, and the trio (plus Einstein, who's thankfully fine) return to 1985.

1955 - Alternate timeline D

Old Biff returns to November 5, 1955, the same day Marty originally traveled to in the first movie. He tracks down the teenage Biff at his grandmother's house and gives the Grays Sports Almanac to his younger self, instructing him to use it to place bets on sporting events. At first, the younger Biff is skeptical, but Old Biff convinces him of the almanac's authenticity by using it to predict the results of a live event being reported on the radio.

After convincing teenage Biff of the almanac's potential power, Old Biff instructs him to always keep it hidden and locked up. He also warns his younger self that at some point in the future, a "kid" or a "crazy, wild-eyed old man who claims to be a scientist" may show up asking about the book. When that happens, Old Biff tells Young Biff that he shouldn't hesitate to kill them. Old Biff then takes the DeLorean and returns to 2015, leaving the almanac with his younger self. Not long after, Biff uses the sports almanac to place his first bet, and quickly starts amassing a fortune.

1985 - Alternate timeline D

Sometime after Marty was born, Biff — now a billionaire, thanks to the almanac — murders George McFly and marries Lorraine. He also starts a company called BiffCo, uses his vast resources and influence to legalize gambling in California, and builds himself a 27-story casino in Hill Valley named Biff's Pleasure Paradise. Biff's control doesn't end with his businesses, though. He also largely usurps control of the Hill Valley Police Department, leading to Hill Valley becoming a teeming crime hub. As for Lorraine's children, by 1985, Dave has fallen into a life of crime, although Biff pays to keep him out of jail; Linda lives off of Biff's credit cards; and Marty is sent to boarding school in Switzerland. Back in Hill Valley, Biff forces Lorraine to get cosmetic surgery and she becomes an alcoholic.

This is the 1985 that Marty and Doc return to, in which they quickly realize that something in the past has gone horribly wrong. Doc learns that the 1985-D version of himself has been committed to a mental hospital, and that George McFly is dead. Marty confronts Biff, who readily admits everything about the almanac and his murder of George, and also tells him exactly when he received the almanac from his future self. Biff then attempts to shoot Marty with the same gun that killed his father, but Marty and Doc escape in the DeLorean.

1955 - Alternate timeline E

Marty and Doc travel back to 1955 to steal the sports almanac back from younger Biff and restore the timeline. Most events play out as they did in 1955-A, since Doc and Marty have to be careful not to allow the other versions of themselves from the first movie know they are there. Marty manages to steal the almanac from Biff after George knocks him unconscious, but Biff later manages to steal it back.

Finally, Marty is able to retrieve the almanac from Biff's car while he's driving it, resulting in yet another car crash. Doc implores Marty to burn the almanac, which he does using a matchbook he'd taken from Biff's Pleasure Paradise in 1985-D. As the almanac burns, the logo on the matchbook changes into the one for Biff's auto detailing business from 1985-A. Satisfied that they've restored the timeline, Marty and Doc prepare to return to 1985, but before Doc can land the DeLorean and allow Marty to climb in, the flying car is struck by lightning and disappears.

1885 - Alternate timeline F

Doc arrives in 1885, back in the earliest days of Hill Valley, and finds that the time circuits of the DeLorean have been completely fried by the lightning strike. Lacking the technology to fix the time machine, Doc realizes he's stranded in 1885, and builds a new life for himself as a blacksmith. After spending some time in 1885, Doc decides to hide the DeLorean in a mine shaft and leave detailed instructions for Marty on how to fix it in 1955, so he can return to 1985. Doc turns the letter over to the postal service, instructing them on the exact location, date, and time that they'll be able to deliver it to Marty in 1955. In his letter, he gives Marty explicit instructions not to return for him.

One of Doc's jobs as a blacksmith is shoeing a horse for Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen, Biff's ancestor, but Tannen then refuses to pay. Afterward, the horse throws Tannen off, causing him to break a $5 bottle of whiskey. Tannen blames Doc for the incident, saying he owes him $5 for the whiskey and $75 for the horse.

Shortly thereafter, Doc is asked by the mayor to go meet the new schoolteacher at the train station, leading him to save Clara Clayton from her fall into the ravine. The two quickly fall in love, but their romance is sadly short-lived. After getting his portrait taken in front of the new courthouse clock, Doc is shot in the back by Tannen while dancing with Clara at the town festival. He dies and is buried in Hill Valley, where his grave is later discovered by Marty in 1955 after receiving Doc's letter.

1885 - Alternate timeline G

After enlisting the help of the 1955-F Doc to fix the recovered century-old time machine, Marty travels back to 1885, despite Doc's instructions. However, Marty nicks the fuel line once he arrives in 1885, causing the DeLorean to run out of gas. Although Doc challenges Marty's decision to return for him, Marty explains that Doc has only days left to live. Doc and Marty — the latter of whom is now using the alias "Clint Eastwood" — begin working together to try to figure out a way to get the DeLorean up to the required 88 miles per hour without fuel.

Aside from Doc and Marty's attempts to get the time machine working, most events play out as they did in 1885-F, up until the town festival, when Marty saves Doc's life. Angry at Marty's interference, Mad Dog Tannen challenges him to a duel in two days' time. Marty and Doc realize that they have to execute their plan to travel back to the future before then, and start preparing to hijack a train. However, Doc becomes so despondent after saying goodbye to Clara that he refuses to leave.

The following morning, a heartbroken Clara buys a one-way train ticket out of Hill Valley, while Marty is forced to face Tannen after all. Using a trick from an old Clint Eastwood Western, Marty manages to survive and incapacitate Tannen, and he and Doc go to commandeer the train, not realizing that Clara is on board. As the train approaches 88 miles per hour, Doc chooses to save Clara rather than return to the future with Marty, and as the train soars off the track into the ravine, the DeLorean travels through time again.

1985 - Alternate timeline G

Marty returns home for good, to a timeline very much like the one he'd hoped to restore, with the exception that the ravine is now named "Eastwood Ravine," after he supposedly perished in it in 1885-G. No sooner has Marty arrived back in 1985 than a modern train comes through, smashing the DeLorean to bits while Marty jumps to safety. Although it's bittersweet, Marty realizes that this is what Doc wanted: to have the time traveling be over, the timeline secured, Marty back home, and Doc with his true love.

Marty reunites with Jennifer, and the two of them go for a drive. They're challenged to a race by Marty's future criminal accomplice at a stoplight, but instead of racing, Marty puts his truck in reverse. Watching a Rolls Royce cut into the would-be path of his truck, Marty realizes he would have gotten into a devastating car accident, which Jennifer realizes is the accident that would've cost him his music career. Looking at the fax from 2015-C in which Marty was fired, Jennifer sees that it's been erased.

Marty and Jennifer head back to the site of the wrecked DeLorean, and are shocked when a flying locomotive engine appears out of nowhere. It turns out that sometime after Marty traveled back to the future, Doc stole another train and built a new time machine, which he and Clara are using to travel throughout time. Doc reveals that he and Clara are now married with two young sons, Jules and Verne, after their favorite science fiction author. Doc urges Marty and Jennifer to make the best futures possible, since nothing has yet been written, and then takes off in his train for worlds — and times — unknown.