Usenet (or the User's Network) is a series of newsgroups or message boards that have existed for nearly twenty-five years. When the system first went on line, it was designed to allow designers and researchers of new technologies to share information about what was working and what wasn't - focused mainly on the development of new computer software. While Usenet is still used for that reason, it has also developed to become a network that deals with millions of messages each day on many and varied topics. Movies, music, television, sport, politics, law, jobs, adoption, cars, etc. And etc. Any topic worth discussing has a newsgroup where people of a like mind can get together to discuss it.
Twenty-five years is a long time. Very few people had access to the user's network way back when. Now everyone who has access to the internet has access to usenet. News readers are the most popular way of accessing these newsgroups through local news servers, but there is also the on-line equivalent - Google - which is not only a search engine, but a newsgroup reader and now an archivist of usenet history.
Google took over the job of allowing people to post to newsgroups through their browsers from Deja.com when that company folded a couple of years ago. In the intervening period, Deja's celebrated Usenet archives - stretching back to 1995 - were inaccessible. Google promised once they took over the archives would be back. They went further than most fans of Usenet could ever have hoped.
The Usenet archive now extends as far back as 1981. It's incomplete, mainly because the messages from the early days generally weren't kept unless considered significant for future users. Little did the early archivists of usenet history realize, nearly everything from the early days would be considered significant two decades on. Looking at these messages from so long ago is like getting a glimpse of the past.
The first message to mention Back to the Future is dated November 21, 1984. It is a report to the newsgroup net.movies about the recently held meeting of the National Association of Theater Owners. The message announces NATO's winners of Best Male Performer (Bill Murray), Best Female Performer (Debra Winger), Best Director (Ivan Reitman) and Best Producer (Michael Douglas) of the previous twelve months.
Then there is a list of films on the production slates of studios. Among the notable inclusions on the list - Explorers, The Goonies, Legend, Star Trek IV and Jewel of the Nile. Back to the Future is listed right at the end: "Back to the Future. From Amblin' Entertainment. Screenplay by Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale. Directed by Bob Zemeckis. With Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Eric Stoltz. Paramount." While Stoltz was replaced by Michael J. Fox after five weeks of shooting, the listing of Paramount must be a mistake - the film began shooting at Universal only five days after this message was posted.
Other interesting announcements that did not come to pass: a live action version of The Jetsons to star Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn, a feature film adaption of Stephen King and Peter Straub's The Talisman to be produced by Steven Spielberg and a live action version of Peter Pan, also with Spielberg attached.
Another message listed at net.movies, announces BTTF as an early summer movie. Dated January 13, 1985, Eric Stoltz is still listed in the cast, adds Crispin Glover to the cast list and gives on a tantalizing hint of the plot: "the story of a teenager who travels in time." By my calculations, Stoltz would have been gone by that time - but movie news moved slower in those days, without the internet to propogate information.
Jumping forward to a message of May 18, we find that Spielberg is trying to keep "a lid on the plot" (at the same time as keeping The Goonies "shrouded in secrecy"), but it is revealed rather erroneously that BTTF is the "story of a contemporary teenager who returns to the '50's and falls in love with his mother." The release date is listed here as June 21, whereas the film would ultimately be bumped back a further two weeks to premiere on July 3.
The first usenet review of Back to the Future appeared on June 30, 1985 under the subject header: Back to the Future (check it out). The writer acknowledges producer Steven Spielberg's influence on the story, but is also full of praise for director Robert Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Bob Gale. Of Zemeckis' direction he says: "he has developed the lightest touch in movies, and I now believe that this man can put ANYTHING over on you, and make you love it." A nice, if somewhat backhanded compliment.
The review also acknowledges the performances of Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox - although the author has forgotten Fox's name as he writes the review. He compares Fox's performance to Tom Cruise's work in Risky Business and to John Cusack's part in The Sure Thing. He's not overly critical of anything, though condemns the film for being "too Spielberg-esque in the windup and somewhat pat neatness of it all" - hardly condemning. He gives it three out of four stars.
Another review appeared later that day at net.sf-lovers under the simple header: Review: "Back to the Future". The first paragraph sums up the writer's view of the movie in total -
"Remember all those time travel stories you gobbled up in Amazing Stories and Galaxy when you were a kid? Well, have I got a deal for you! "Back to the Future", Steven Spielberg's latest epic, pays fond tribute to almost every hackneyed skiffy time travel plot ever conceived. In addition to time travel, the film has weird devices, silly special effects, a mad scientist, a nerd, bad science, a love story, a skeptical hero, pseudo-alien monsters, and a couple of plucky girls, with some foreign terrorists and a DeLorean sports car thrown in for good measure. Fortunately, it also has humor, excitement, rock and roll, and a couple of good performances to rescue it from the oblivion it might otherwise have deserved."
Quite impressive, wouldn't you say? Although I'm not sure what he means by "the oblivion it might otherwise have deserved". The rest of the review is quite positive - highlighting the two lead roles - and the film is rated three stars out of five. What's also noteworthy about this review is a note on the fact "there are a number of references to other movies scattered throughout" and, specifically, the review notes the obscure reference to Dr. Strangelove "in the first few minutes of the action". This was only the beginning of film fans everywhere trying to decipher all the hidden references and gags.
Something else it didn't take fans too long to spot were the numerous product placements in the film. A message dated July 4, 1985 - only a day after the film premiered - notes four appearances of Pepsi, three sightings of Miller beer and four tie-ins with Huey Lewis and the News. The writer also invites people who are yet to see the film to try to spot more product placements. He also signs off with a short quote from George McFly: "Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan told me that if I don't ask Lorraine out to the dance, he would melt my brain."
By August 8, there was a message posted to a thread titled "Back to the Future (Blatant Commercialism)". While the discussion is not really noteworthy, one post transcribes an article from the Newark newspaper, The Star Ledger -
"The raisins ended up on the cutting room floor rather than in the mouth of actor Michael J. Fox, so the California Raisin Advisory Board got a $25,000 refund. The film's producers were paid $50,000 to have Fox munch on raisins during the popular movie, "Back to the Future." That scene was cut, and advisory board members threatended to sue. But they were appeased when a $25,000 refund check arrived. After all, the movie shows California raisins advertised on a bus stop bench."
Was this scene really shot or did Zemeckis refuse to be so blatant? It's hard to miss the Pepsi and the Miller beer, but what could have stood out more than a teenage boy eating raisins? The entire thread on "Blatant Commercialism" can be found here.
Another topic that BTTF was bound to incite discussions on - the complexities and realities of time travel - was soon picked up on. A message with the rambling subject "Back to the Future, review, comment on Spielberg, followed by Spoiler" is the first to ask the tough questions - posted on July 1, 1985. The writer's contention is that there are two standard time travel theories and that you can't (or shouldn't) use both when telling a story. It's rather specious reasoning, but I guess it was designed with an argument in mind. Well, none began from that post.
The first substantial debate over time travel theory in relation to BTTF was begun as the result of a review. While nothing in the review is very contentious, that doesn't mean much when people are looking to unload about problems they perceive with a film. The question of why Marty's parents don't recognise that their son has grown up to look like the Marty they met in 1955 is also first raised here. The discussion thread continues here and it becomes very involved when the following question arises - "How did Chuck Berry learn Johnny B. Goode before time became out of joint?" - refering to the fact that Marty inadvertently inspired him to write and sing it.
A message posted to net.movies on August 5, 1985 - just a month after the film first aired - contains the first mention of the possibility of a sequel. The post credits Frank Marshall (who was then with Amblin Entertainment) with a few prognostications - beginning with the confirmation a planned live action version of Peter Pan was still in the works. As we know, Spielberg would eventually go on to make Hook - a modern-day sequel, but this was not the same project.
Marshall is also credited as saying Indiana Jones III would begin production in 1987, that there would never be a sequel to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, that George Lucas still has "3 or 6 stories floating around in his head" as follow-ups to the original Star Wars trilogy and they "definitely want to do a Back to the Future II." It would be two more years before Bob and Bob got around to penning their follow-up to the original film and Part II wouldn't be released until November of 1989 - not long after the debut of Indiana Jones III, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And George Lucas would take another 13 years before putting the next Star Wars feature into cinemas worldwide.
While not a lot has changed in the discussion of this first film over the years, it's interesting to read anticipation for the original film and the first reactions to it - unedited, unrevised nearly 17 years later. There are several other messages between the first message announcing the upcoming title and the film's first review. Check out Google's Advance Usenet Search function to take full advantage of this history. Who know what else you'll find back in time?
'BLAST FROM THE PAST": EARLY DAYS OF BACK TO THE FUTURE ON USENET was originally written for BTTF.com and first published on March 21, 2002. Revised in November, 2002.