Plot Holes: Back to the Future 3

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Posted by David on August 28, 2020

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I got to thinking about Back to the Future this morning, as I'm wont to do, and I remembered a plot hole that occurred to me 15 or so years ago when Lisa Bartlett and I watched my DVDs at her apartment. Pseudo plot hole? Maybe.

The plot hole, if it is one, occurs near the beginning of BTTF 3. Doc and Marty are at a cemetery for some reason, and Marty discovers Doc's headstone. The engraving reads, Erected in eternal memory by his beloved Clara.

We know Doc and Clara meet in 1885 when he and Marty hear her cries for help while they're scouting territory for a train to push the DeLorean up to 88 mph. A snake spooks her horses and they bolt, sending her across barren land and over the side of Shonash Ravine, which is renamed in her honor.

Marty explains that kids in school know the story, and they used to joke about which teachers they'd want to go over Clayton Ravine. Only Clara couldn't have gone into the ravine and been alive to have Doc's headstone engraved, much less have met him. Those events cannot occur in the same timeline.

Clara dies in the "proper" 1985; hence Shonash Ravine being renamed Clayton Ravine. The fact that she died means Doc never saved her, and in fact never met her; she was on her way into town when the snake spooked her horses. Clara was dead before Buford Tannen shot Doc, an event that occurred days after Clara Clayton's death. Thus, she never could have engraved his tombstone.

Either Marty returns to 1885 so he and Doc are in the right place at the right time to save Clara, thus preventing her death and Shonash Ravine being renamed after her; or Marty doesn't return, Clara dies without ever meeting Doc, and Buford shoots and kills Doc with no "beloved Clara" to memorialize him.

I thought I'd either looked up this supposed plot hole years ago or ran it by the brain trust at Shacknews. One way or the other, I believed it debunked. As it turns out, there is no definitive answer. 

I looked up this quandary and came across the official FAQ for BTTF, which describes three scenarios for this event. Scenario 1: Neither Doc nor Marty go to 1885. This is the unaltered timeline before any time-traveling shenanigans. Clara goes over the ravine, and the fathers of Hill Valley rename Shonash Ravine to Clayton Ravine. Buford Tannen does not kill Emmett "Doc" Brown because Doc never went to 1885.

Scenario #2: The unaltered timeline remains in effect until the moment Doc, in the DeLorean, is zapped by lightning and whisked backward in time to 1885. He meets Clara, they fall in love, Buford shoots him, and he dies after Clara's best efforts at nursing him. Marty retains his knowledge of the ravine's history because he's from the unaltered timeline, and fans posit that if he were to visit the ravine in 1955 at the beginning of BTTF 3, it would still be called Shonash Ravine.

Scenario #3 plays out in the movie: Marty follows Doc to 1885, warns him about Buford, and Doc saves Clara. Shonash Ravine retains its name because Clara never dies. However, there is an alternative second scenario.

Scenario #2b: Doc saves Clara, but after he dies, she throws herself into the ravine in despair over his death. The townsfolk rename the ravine as a gesture of sympathy for the woman who died so tragic a death.

I… guess? Scenario 2b is still hearsay, but Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale neither confirm nor deny it. My verdict: This is a plot hole. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to explain away the fact that Clara erected a tombstone in memory of a man who never would have or should have saved her.

Not a big deal, really. BTTF 3 is still a fantastic chapter--though still my least favorite; 1 and 2 are just that good--and this plot hole certainly isn't disruptive enough to take away from my enjoyment of my favorite movie trilogy. But this plot hole has nagged and, it seems, will continue to nag me.

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