About Christmas TV History

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Back to the Future Christmas (1991)

The animated series Back to the Future ran for two seasons (1991-92).

Remember watching the Saturday morning cartoon series Back to the Future--adapted from the blockbuster Hollywood movie franchise? The first season Christmas episode is a tribute to literary giant Charles Dickens. Let's review this 1991 episode "Dickens of a Christmas" and unpack some of the details.

Remember the characters? left to right: Einstein (the dog), Marty McFly, Clara Brown, Verne, Jules, and Doc Brown. Here the family is feeling irritable in the summer heat.

After enduring a hot, miserable July day, Doc suggests that the family take a break and cool off--by time traveling to Christmas in Victorian London! The group lands the DeLorean, dons period costumes, and sets out to explore the city. Jules is honored when his father lets him look after the keys to the car.

Doc Brown entrusts Jules with the keys to the DeLorean.

Mechanical toys are appealing to scientific minds!

Everyone marvels at the mechanical toys on display in a toy store window. While Marty, Clara, and Doc enter the toy shop, Jules' keys are stole from his pocket by a boy on the street! Both Jules and Verne take off in pursuit after the thief. The two brothers follow the pickpocket up stairs and into a building.

Reg works as a pickpocket on the streets of London to survive.

Jules and Verne find themselves facing Reg's boss--an intimidating man named Murdock.

It turns out the pickpocket's name is Reg and he's not such a bad sort of kid after all. But he's already turned over the keys to his boss Murdock. Jules and Verne decide they may need to stick around a while to find out where the keys have been hidden. That means Jules and Verne will have to pretend to become pickpockets themselves in order to have an excuse to remain with Reg and Murdock. You recognize these Dickens literary characters, don't you? Although their names are different, Reg certainly resembles The Artful Dodger, Murdock is Fagin, and Jules and Verne have become like Oliver--all from the classic Dickens novel Oliver Twist.

The landlord Tannen brings in the police to arrest and jail the Fedgewicks.

Meanwhile Doc discovers his sons are missing and goes out looking for them. While Marty and Clara are talking with the toy shop owners, their landlord arrives and demands the rent. It turns out the shop owners are a few months behind in their payments. The money grubbing landlord decides to throw the Fedgewicks in debtors' prison. Poor Clara Brown is mistaken for someone else and is thrown in jail as well! Marty doesn't know what to do to extricate Clara from this horrible Victorian institution. Just who is this harsh, greedy landlord? It's an ancestor of Marty's nemesis Biff Tannen--named Ebiffnezer Tannen.

Using his hoverboard, Marty presents himself as a ghost and flies into Ebiffnezer's window on Christmas Eve.

Learning that the landlord is the only person who can free the Fedgewicks and Clara from debtors' prison, Marty sets out to change Tannen's mind. Marty decides to haunt this scrooge and teach him a lesson about generosity and compassion. Yes, this cartoon is now referencing a second Dickens book--A Christmas Carol.

The Ghost of Christmas shows Tannen how children labor.

The homeless and starving on the streets of London.

The Ghost of Christmas-aka Marty--takes Tannen on an overnight flight to show him how people without means often suffer. Not only is Tannen exposed to child labor conditions, he also sees how homeless families live on the streets. If you're familiar with Dickens' work, you know that these social issues were a concern for the author. However, in this cartoon, the character of Tannen remains uncaring and unchanged until...

This "vision" frightens Tannen into becoming a better person.

Marty accidentally drops his personal movie viewing device from his hoverboard and a monster movie begins projecting on the wall. Fearing his own mortality, Ebiffnezer Tannen is moved towards compassion for others. He follows the ghost's advice and releases Clara and the toy shopkeepers from debtors' prison.

Doc and Wilkins.

Meanwhile, Doc Brown has been looking for his sons Jules and Verne who have been learning to become pickpockets in order to stay close to the keys to the DeLorean. Both Jules and Verne come away from this experience better understanding the difficulties young orphans endured in order to survive on the streets during Victorian England. Doc Brown helps Reg and his sons by alerting the police about Murdock and Wilkins who are exploiting the youngsters.

The police are eager to capture Wilkins and Murdock.

Another character from Dickens' Oliver Twist that turns up in this animated story is Bill Sikes. Here the character is renamed Wilkins--and given an eye patch. I'm guessing the animators gave Wlkins/Sikes an eye patch out of tribute to the popular 1948 movie adaptation of Oliver Twist (directed by David Lean) in which actor Robert Newton was cast as Bill Sikes. Newton is also well known for playing the pirate character Long John Silver on both the silver screen and on television--thus eye patch!

Christmas in July for the Brown family!

It's a happy ending when the Fedgewicks adopt Reg, Doc gets the keys to the DeLorean back, and everyone celebrates Christmas together. There's only a slight problem when Ebiffnezer Tannen, now a changed man, recognizes Marty on the street as his ghost from the previous night!

An interesting way to keep the conflict going between Biff and Marty in all the episodes.

Bill Nye the Science Guy demonstrating the laws of physics.

The episode ends (like all the Back to the Future TV series episodes) with a live action segment with Bill Nye the Science Guy serving up a science lesson. Here, Nye demonstrates the difference between kinetic energy and potential energy by using a pendulum.

Remember the 1965 Christmas episode of The Avengers? They attend a Dickens party where Emma Peel dresses as Oliver Twist and Steed dresses as Sydney Carton (from A Tale of Two Cities).

This episode is interesting to me for several reasons. One is that the story pays tribute to the classic literary works of Charles Dickens (both Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol). While certainly there are hundreds of TV and movie adaptations of A Christmas Carol, this episode attempts to honor more of Dickens life work. Many Christmas episodes do this--including the 1965 Christmas episode of The Avengers entitled Too Many Christmas Trees." Click on the link to see my review of that episode again.

What does the Christmas episode of the Dukes of Hazzard share in common with this animated episode of Back to the Future?

Another reason I find this episode interesting is that one of the characters attempts to gaslight another by tricking them into having an overnight moral conversion. Here, Tannen (as Scrooge) doesn't experience his change of heart after an evening filled with nightmares or by means of his own conscience--but rather, by being manipulated by Marty McFly who is familiar with Dickens' A Christmas Carol book. This Back to the Future episode is not the only example of this device. I've written about other examples before, including the 1967 Christmas episode of Bewitched, the 1976 Christmas episode of the Six Million Dollar Man, the 1980 Christmas episode of the Dukes of Hazzard, and more.

What do you think of this Christmas episode of Back to the Future? Please feel free to share your comments below.


  1. I never knew about this!! Adding it to my track it down to watch list!! Thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks Bob. I'm pleased to introduce you to something new :)