2104: Biff Tannen
Title text: I can't help myself; now I want to read a bunch of thinkpieces from newspapers in Biff's 1985 arguing over whether the growth of the region into a corporate dystopia was inevitable.
Cueball is expounding a theory to White Hat regarding the alternate timeline seen in the movie Back to the Future II, in which the character Biff Tannen stole a time machine and used it to travel 60 years into the past to 1955. In that timeline, Future Biff gave his younger self a sports almanac containing 50 years of outcomes of sporting events, which enabled his younger self to earn millions from betting on horse races. The end result of this is that the now-altered present of 1985 has become a corporate dystopia due to the actions of the exceedingly wealthy Biff and his company, BiffCo.
Cueball's theory is that the people now living in this dystopian 1985 would never know that their timeline was altered; as far as they are concerned, theirs is the true timeline. Because of this, they would seek to analyze every detail of Biff Tannen's rise to power, inventing their own theories as to his success and arguing with each other over the supporting evidence.
However, in the third panel, it becomes clear that this has all merely been Cueball's elaborate setup for a bad pun, causing White Hat to voice his disapproval.
- Back to the Future II
This comic is based on Back to the Future II. In this movie, the character Biff Tannen steals the time machine, which is the main plot device, and uses it to go back in time from 2015 to 1955. He then gives Marty McFly’s sports almanac, containing the outcomes of 50 years (1950–2000) worth of sporting events, to his own younger self. His younger self uses this sports almanac to make millions by successfully betting on horse races. He then forms a company, and calls it BiffCo. In the movie, the protagonists reverse this, by going back to 1955 and stealing the almanac back soon after Biff delivered it. It is heavily implied that the universe where BiffCo exists, also called “1985A” in the movie, stops existing after this change, since the Biff from 1985A tries to kill Marty to stop him from doing this. However, Cueball imagines the 1985A timeline as continuing to exist in parallel, rather than being destroyed by the almanac heist as the movie seems to imply. This is consistent with the multiverse theory.
The movie is set in the fictional town of Hill Valley, California. When the protagonists return to 1985, they find that Biff has turned the town’s “Courthouse Square” into a 27-story casino, and generally taken over Hill Valley. This has apparently resulted in the town being overrun by armed gangs, and beset by crime, violence, corruption, and an overall atmosphere of quasi-dystopian misery. This is what Cueball refers to as “the decline of the city, and general social decay”.
Cueball mentions that this universe – that is, the 1985A Back to the Future timeline – would not have any counterfactuals to work with. This is often short, in epistemology, for counterfactual conditionals, that is, conditional statements about what would be true if something were true that we know for a fact is not true. Randall’s what if? series is based on counterfactuals, since it explores hypotheticals—conditionals which are contrary to fact. For example, the first “what if?” post, about what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball that was thrown at 90% the speed of light, is a counterfactual, because we know for a fact that a baseball has never been thrown at such a speed. In the case of the 1985A universe, they would not have any information on the counterfactuals, that is, the facts about what would happen if Biff did not have this almanac.
- Hillbilly Elegy
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a book, published in June 2016, that gives an account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town, and gives a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. This comic is a play on the title of this book, which has been described as explaining the “social, regional, and class” issues in white working-class America. The white American working class was a key factor in the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, and many critics have interpreted the book as an explanation of his election, which was deemed improbable by many analysts before it happened. Netflix had purchased the rights to an upcoming film adaptation of the book three days before this comic, prompting another wave of criticism of the book’s theories.
Cueball is proposing a similarly-titled book, set in the Back to the Future II 1985A timeline, that would describe the supposed factors leading to the rise of Biff Tannen in Hill Valley. In that universe, while the rise of Biff—and the subsequent decay of the city—is the result of his using a future sports almanac to cheat at sports betting, the rest of the population would have to guess at the structural societal issues that might have caused Biff’s otherwise inexplicable success. Thus, Cueball compares such blind guessing with the analysis contained in Hillbilly Elegy.
- White Hat’s reaction
This makes White Hat angry. This may be for various reasons:
- Because it’s such a painfully long setup for a really stupid pun.
- There is a decent chance that the book White Hat is currently reading is Hillbilly Elegy. If he is enjoying it, this would make the joke more insulting to him, as it compares the book to useless theorizing about an event which was really caused by time traveling.
- After seeing the similarity alluded to by Cueball between our current reality and a reality where the book Hill Valley Elegy is written, he might imagine that we may be living in a world where Trump’s election was predetermined, just as Biff’s rise to power was predetermined by time travel. If he opposes Donald Trump politically, it would probably frustrate him to imagine that being optimistic for the future would be in vain, as any social change he might hope for may be simply predetermined not to happen, perhaps by time travelers.
- Relationship to political events
Randall is known to have supported Hillary Clinton, the main opponent of Donald Trump, in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, having made a comic just to promote her. This may add to explaining the comic in the following ways:
- Randall may have made this comic as an insult to a book which supposedly explains the election of the candidate he opposed, by comparing it to useless (and wrong) theorizing.
- The comic may be intended as an insult to Trump himself, by comparing the dystopian 1985A universe, where Biff rose to power (albeit not as President) to the actual universe, where Trump was elected to the presidency.
- The comic may be an allusion to alleged Russian tampering of the 2016 U.S. elections: Randall may be proposing that it is futile to attribute Donald Trump’s rise to power to any set of structural societal issues, that may have acted indirectly, while ignoring the hidden, speculated, but far more direct cause of foul play, just as it would be futile to analyze Biff Tannen’s rise to power by similar means, ignoring the impact of foul play via time travel and a sports almanac.
The title text continues the comparison to the election situation by mentioning thinkpieces from newspapers that would appear in the Back to the Future II 1985A universe where Biff has taken over. Various thinkpieces did appear in real life newspapers in an attempt to explain Trump’s rise to power after his election, and asking whether it was inevitable.
As Back to the Future II’s important October 2015 setting date approached, commentators began noting the similarities between the older version of the character Biff Tannen and then presidential candidate Donald Trump. When the comparison was brought to the attention of the film’s writer, Bob Gale, in an interview, he claimed that elements of Tannen’s personality were actually based on Trump, who was already well known in the late 1980s for his work in real estate and tabloid controversies. Thus, there is a real connection between Biff Tannen and Donald Trump. This supports the comparison between the two made by Randall. That being said, actor Tom Wilson has denied that his performance of the role was in any way based on Trump.
- [Cueball talks while walking up behind White Hat, who is reading in an armchair.]
- Cueball: You know, in the universe where Biff Tannen took Marty McFly’s sports almanac back in time, the people wouldn’t have any counterfactuals to work with.
- Cueball: Their world would be the world.
- [In a frame-less panel White Hat turns his head to look at Cueball as he keeps talking.]
- Cueball: They would have spent decades debating which structural problems enabled the rise of BiffCo, the decline of the city, and general social decay.
- Cueball: Everyone would find reasons it confirmed their pet theory.
- [White Hat turns his head back to his book.]
- Cueball: I'm going to write a book set in that universe. I'll call it Hill Valley Elegy.
- White Hat: ... I hate you.
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