In addition to being a fun adventure, Oedipal psychosexual nightmare and blockbuster trilogy, the Back to the Future films are a parable about newspapers. Over the course of two of cinema’s greatest films and that one about cowboys, we are presented with an ode to local journalism, championing its community spirit and strict focus.
It is a story told out of chronological order. Until now…
It’s seventy years later and two films before, as Marty McFly takes a baffled walk through the town he knows so well. But he doesn’t know it any more. He’s not quite sure what’s happening, and looks for a clue. And he finds it when a suited gentleman drops his newspaper into a bin, which Marty retrieves. He scans the front page and has his definite answer.
Despite adverts for Ronald Reagan films, the 1950s cars nearly running him over, Patti Page and Nat King Cole in the music shop and a working clock tower, Marty only really clicks that he’s travelled back in time when he says the date in black and white. In newsprint. Saturday, November 5, 1955. In the world of Back to the Future there is plenty of strangeness, and the only reliable source of information is the Hill Valley Telegraph. It’s a reliable, impartial guide to the madness, a singular source of reason amidst confusion. It even has that blackletter masthead! A familiar sight for Marty, no doubt.
Having established that he is now in 1955, and ruining his parents’ first meeting, Marty is understandably desperate to get back to the eighties. You can only go so long without a Huey Lewis fix. And what does he need to get there, Doc?
Marty is faced with a problem and yet again (or for the first time in his own personal chronology), it is the Hill Valley Telegraph that saves him. The Hill Valley Preservation Society had earlier (by which I mean thirty years later) given Marty a flyer that has a copy of a newspaper clipping, leading him and Doc to know exactly when lightning will strike. A storm in Hill Valley and the surrounding area is never going to make the headlines of a national newspaper, and any fleeting mentions on TV news will be lost as soon as they’re broadcast.
It is local print journalism that is uniquely suited here. It informs and records history simultaneously, and can be preserved for incredible lengths of time – especially when the Hill Valley library adopts the archive, as we have seen it do.
And of course the newspaper thinks the clock stopping is the most newsworthy event of the prior night. The Telegraph is an august institution with a long history and as such has great affection for the town’s traditions, including the clock tower. There was a little matter of a local school student trying to rape another student, but the fact that Biff’s crime went unreported (at least on the front page, but probably at all) tells us plenty about the attitude of the 1950s.
Apart from the repetition of “clock” in the subheadline – “Stopped at 10:04” would be fine on its own – the front page of the Hill Valley Telegraph as presented here is a properly professional piece of work. No unnecessary white space, a clear headline, a picture and some columns, weather notices in the masthead. It all looks like the great local paper we know the Hill Valley Telegraph is.
I wouldn’t be so complimentary about the Preservation Society, mind, who really should have structured the top of their flyer as
“Tower” on its own on the second line looks a bit lonely otherwise. But the rest of the Telegraph? Well that’s spot on, as we’ve come to expect. What could possibly go wrong for the esteemed publication?