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…
One film later and a whole universe to the side, Marty finds himself in what Doc calls “1985A”, an alternate reality caused by Biff’s stealing of a sports almanac in 2015 and giving it his 1955 self. As Marty, and the audience, stumble around a hellish eighties dystopia, we have to wonder how Biff knowing sports scores before they happened gave rise to this nightmare.
As ever, there’s only one trusted source. Only this time, it’s relayed on TV screens outside Biff’s Pleasure Palace. Yes, Biff’s awful behaviour has even tainted the reliable newspaper, showing just how necrotic Biff’s Hill Valley has become.
Kicking things off, we have Biff’s first win. The Telegraph seems to have switched to Capitalise Each Word policy for their headlines which I like far less than the all-caps approach they have employed up to this point. Then again, perhaps it’s because CLOCK TOWER STRUCK isn’t as big news as Man Wins Big and they’re reflecting that in the emphasis. There’s other news there, too, including some state highway funds – the sort of local construction project news that often makes headlines – and, strangely, international news about “Khruschev”, the new Soviet Premier. This would place it in March 1958, two and a half years after Biff first got the almanac.
Or it would, if the subs had got their spelling right. Perhaps they were violently ill and nobody in the office knew it’s “Khrushchev”, with three Hs. There’s also mention of Eisenhower at the bottom of the screen, too, to further hint at the day of the big win, and at least they got his name correct.
Following previous news stories, Biff Tannen is back and known only as Biff. When the newspapers treat you mononymically, it can only be a sign that you’re in them far too often. The misspelt Khruschev returns, so I’m forced to consider that this was either the accepted spelling back then and it isn’t any more or the Hill Valley Telegraph has an abstract style guide for Russian names. That’s not the only quirk of their style guide, and it’s about time I brought it up.
Indentation! Every paragraph is indented, which initially seems fine until you realise that also applies to the first paragraph of articles. As indents only denote the start of a new paragraph you don’t need them if the paragraph is obviously beginning. When it’s under, say, a headline. It’s not like this is a weird trick in journalism, it’s pretty standard practice basically anywhere paragraphs are used with a Latin alphabet. Scroll back up through this post, look at the indents. Clearly, the Telegraph is something of a stylistic maverick newspaper.
We’re back to calling him by his full name now as Biff becomes “Luckiest Man On Earth”. You’ll notice the Telegraph has gone back to capitalised words after a brief flirtation of all-caps last time. The indents are still maddeningly present. There’s a colossal amount of white space caused by include the name “Biff Tannen” above the headline and it’s pretty ugly as page design goes. Nasser has replaced “Khruschev” as the go-to international news figure of choice in this increasingly twisted version of the Hill Valley Telegraph.
In fact, it has got so bad that one might be convinced that Biff had decided to buy the Telegraph with his mountain of winnings and is just getting it to print stories about him. In the logic of the Back to the Future world this would be further damnation upon his character – remember his ancestor’s trigger-happy approach to journalism? – and thus a greater demonstration that he is the villain of the piece.
We’re back with all-caps! This would be time to rejoice, but it only accentuates the problem with the swathe of white space to the right of “Hill Valley” which, frankly, doesn’t make much sense. I suppose it’s to point out that the gambling has only been legalised in Hill Valley, and not nationwide? Even so, it’s an abhorrent piece of design. And given that smarmy photo of Biff on the front page let’s just go with the theory that Biff owns the paper. We know he builds a casino, perhaps he was trying to get the town onboard with the idea first?
Even if Biff doesn’t own the paper, then the spelling mistakes and design SNAFUs are another indication of just how badly Hill Valley is doing. Its once noble paper has been slowly eroded into a former shadow of itself. Still, it’s widely-read. Marty picks up a copy to establish the date, on Mr Strickland’s doorstep.
The desiccated husk that bears the Hill Valley Telegraph logo is running a story about Ronald Reagan going for surgery, it appears. No clock towers, no Biff, just Reagan news. If he’s getting surgery in Hill Valley, that would just about make sense.
When the Telegraph does focus on local issues, though, it’s even more of a horror-show. As if the world wasn’t in dire straits already, Doc shows Marty the full extent of the carnage wrought by 2015-Biff’s time meddling.
First up is the news that George McFly has been shot, with the Telegraph using a formula of all-caps headline, capitalised first letters subheadline. And a big headshot of George McFly. The use of his full name would indicate that he is reasonably well-known locally (“Local author shot dead” would be appropriate if he was unheard of), with the subheadline just clarifying matters for those unaware. We’ve also got other news creeping in with the Wounded Knee Incident, setting this piece of news in 1973. You’ll notice, for old time’s sake, that all the paragraphs are indented.
The Telegraph, some years later going by the “Nixon to Seek Fifth Term” headline, is still using the same arrangement for capital letters in headlines as when George McFly was shot. Except now they’re using a serif font for everything but the headline. Previously it was a lovely sans-serif number, and this frankly looks like a cheap use of Times New Roman. That this is also front page news suggests that by the eighties, Doc Brown was pretty famous around Hill Valley. And then they rather go and spoil it all by calling him a “crackpot” when he’s been “declared legally insane”, which is not an especially sensitive move.
By the movie’s end, though, the paper’s insensitivity doesn’t matter at all as the universe changes once more. Burning the almanac means Biff’s ascent never happens and, consequently, neither George nor Doc have their bad experiences. Instead, the papers end up weirdly familiar.
It is commendably plausible that the Telegraph would run a story on George McFly being killed as well as receiving and award – although the D of “award” is so close to the photograph as to look like sloppy layout work.
The strange and fluid approach to typefaces continues, but in this nicer timeline of less Biff the Telegraph doesn’t use the word “crackpot” even though they really need something to fill up some space round the edges. It’s just a classier newspaper without the influence of Tannen riches. We could also deduce the world is better because Nixon is long gone and it’s only Reagan seeking a second term.
Speaking of which…