Hello! Is anybody in there? Think McFly, think. In the Back to the Future films the Tannen family terrorizes the McFly family in five separate time periods; 1885, 1955, 1985, 2015, plus and an alternate version of 1985 in which Biff Tannen rules Hill Valley from a hot tub. But who are Biff’s parents? What about Griff’s? And where did all the Tannens come from anyway?
In the original Back to the Future, Thomas F. Wilson brilliantly plays a 40-something Biff Tannen in 1985, and a teenage Biff in 1955, both providing nice McFly nemesis parallels. In 1985, Biff is George McFly’s biggest problem, but in 1955, Biff becomes the problem of Marty and thanks to time travel, Biff becomes Marty’s same age. Similarly, when Marty travels forward in time to 2015 in Back to the Future II, he’s confronted with Griff Tannen, a teenager about Marty’s age who is Biff’sgrandson. In a flip from the first film—where Marty’s father George is Biff’s age— Marty’s son, Marty Jr. is exactly Griff’s age.
But there are no members of the Tannen family who are Marty’s age! Or, at least none that we see. In 1985—the temporal location where all this originates— Biff appears to be unmarried, and yet in 2015, it’s confirmed that Griff is the grandchild of Biff, thanks to Old Biff’s quip “Whatyda think, Griff calls me gramps for his health?” However, we have no idea who Griff’s immediate progenitor is, i.e. Biff’s child. Presumably, one of Griff’s parents should be Marty’s age in 1985 and hanging around with people Marty knows in high school. Could there be a member of the Tannen family in Marty’s band The Pinheads? Could Jennifer actually be friends with Biff’s daughter? Early script ideas for Back to the Future II did included a “Tiff Tannen,” who would probably have existed in 1985, though this also indicates Tiff is an unused version of Griff. Still, if Tiff was Biff’s daughter in 1985, she would have served as the Tannen foil for Marty’s generation, but as it stands, if she exists, we never see her.
Weirder still, is the fact that in 1955 teenage-Biff lives with his grandmother, and just like his 2015 descendent, Griff, has no parents that we see. And while Griff’s parent (maybe Tiff) just didn’t get any screen time—so therefore still might exist— dialogue from Back to the Future II tells us the house where Biff lives with his grandmother is “the only the Tannen in the [phone] book.” This leads us to believe the only Tannens who actually live in Hill Valley in 1955 are Biff and his grandmother, making Biff’s origin, at that point in the story, even more unclear than Griff’s. If Grandma Tannen is the only Tannen in Hill Valley listed in the phone book, then where are Biff’s parents?
There are two easy answers: they’re dead, or they’re criminals who aren’t listed in the phone book because they’re in jail. The dead answer isn’t super interesting, and there isn’t much evidence. But, the criminal answer could actually get some traction, and seemingly solve some of the mystery. According to the 2010-2011 released Back to the Future: The Game, Biff’s father IS a criminal and his name is “Kid” Tannen, a mob boss not unlike All Capone. If we buy this, then some of the missing parent stuff makes sense;the reason we don’t see Biff’s father is because he was a crime boss hauled off to jail. His mother either fled, or was killed and Biff was sent to live with his grandmother. Case closed, right?
No way! First, something in a tie-in video game doesn’t count, ever. Video-game canon is only relevant to universes that are indigenous to video games, and their canon isn’t influenced by spin-off stuff based on them. For example: Mario Bros. video game canon is not affected by the 1993 Super Mario Brothers movie, and vice versa. Plus, video games have fluid canon by design and thus are dubious when it comes to fitting puzzle pieces into narratives, even tricky time-travel ones. I’ve managed to get James Bond killed a lot over the years while playing Goldeneye, but that doesn’t make the plot of that movie somehow retroactively different. So even though the game mentions Tiff Tannen, I say the game is off the table, and while we’re at it Back to the Future: The Ride and the awful cartoon series don’t count either. Biff Tannen’s parents are still a mystery, as are his offspring.
So where does that leave us? The last puzzle piece of the real BTTF canon: Back to the Future III.
In the final chapter of the trilogy, we meet Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen in the old west of 1885. Mad Dog, we’re told is Biff’s Great-Grandfather and this highlights another conspicuous missing branch in the Tannen family tree. If this really is Biff’s Great-Grandfather, that means he might be the father of Biff’s Grandmother in 1955. However, maybe not, Biff’ Grandmother maybe have married into that name. The only problem with this is that you’re pretty much totally sure that Mad Dog will be hanged after Marty and Doc split town 1885 in BTTF3. And even though we don’t know if Mad Dog had family, wife, prior to his hanging, we certainly don’t see them. Biff and Griff’s only male ancestor probably dies in 1885 and from that point on, the Tannen family seems to only have a representative alive from every other generation, at any given time.
None of this should be confusing though, because presumably Grandma Tannen, Biff Tannen, and Griff Tannen all have parents, right? They’re just never shown. And yet, why are there three missing branches of this tree? Who are Biff’s Grandmother/Father, Father/Mother, and son/daughter. Assuming the various alternate universe in Back to the Future are not responsible for members of the Tannen family to be “sucked up” by “cracks in time” like in Doctor Who, then there has to be a reasonable logistic way in which the Tannen family keeps going, even in the face of every other ancestor seemingly being missing.
And here’s the answer: Biff is not only his own ancestor AND father, but his own “son,” too.
In BTTF2, Biff steals the Delorean to give his past self a sports almanac, which of course, creates the nightmarish alternate 1985 where Biff is in charge of everything. We briefly learn that Biff was married before snagging Lorain Baines-McFly in this alternate timeline, and actually had to kill George McFly to make it happen. Now. We don’t know how long Biff is in the time machine, and when he returns to the “present” in 2015, he’s visibly ill and clutches his chest. A deleted scene even had him “disappearing” as though time itself sucked him in. But why? Why is Biff so tired?
Well, it’s because he just used the DeLorean to travel through time and fill in all the gaps of his family tree. He goes to 1885 and becomes Mad Dog’s hier, after Mad Dog is hanged. He shows up sometime in the 30’s and becomes his own father, and then, sometime in the 90’s he briefly becomes Griff’s father too. After doing what he needs to do, Biff skips town. And he does this because future Biff is a little bit smart.
Biff in BTTF2 is noticeably more intelligent than all of his previous incarnations or family members. He deduces what the DeLorean and in his eureka moment, he realizes paradoxes can be useful to helping get your life on track. He also might start “remembering” that certain family members from his past (including his own father) looked exactly like him and then were suddenly gone. Biff not only goes back in time to give his younger self money, but also to literally maintain his family tree. Sure, how he figures this out is not depicted, but when you consider the fact that his family tree had to come from somewhere, this seems like the most viable, even if improbable, answer. In the time he has the DeLorean, Biff himself becomes all the missing branches on his family tree. All that time traveling and messing around is also probably what causes him to look so sick and tired when he reemrges in 2015.
The reason Biff and his family are all such consistent buttheads throughout all of time is not just because it’s a genetic family trait. There is no Kid Tannen, there is no Tiff Tannen, because literally, every other member of the Tannen family line is also a time traveling Biff. We may understand a little bit were all the McFly’s came from—but all you Tannens—are actually mostly just the same creepy person.
I know, heavy!
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.