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Does canon even matter?

FEATURES - OFFWORLD

If it's 'unofficial' - did it ever really happen...?

Shalll we stick to the script...?

For those that aren’t familiar with the lingo of the fanboy, 'canon' is the continuity of any form of media. Everything that has happened in the history of a television program, series of books or movies, or comic book falls into this category. Many writers do their best to stay within the set canon of whatever project they happen to be working on. But it can be difficult, especially when you have several writers working on the project. Mistakes will be made. And it happens in every genre. Just ask fans of Roseanne who are still wondering what happened to Dan’s sibling, who was only mentioned once in the entire run of the show. Or maybe someone will explain what happened to Hawkeye’s siblings on MASH. Since most viewers are casual viewers, they don’t notice things like how Chandler had supposedly never met Monica when she was overweight, but several seasons later had a flashback to meeting her on a Thanksgiving episode.

Of course, it didn’t matter all that much until recently. Unless you caught old episodes on reruns or happened to have them recorded, you didn’t have a way to find these mistakes. But with the advent of television programs being released on DVD, and fan-run websites and wikis giving rundowns of their favorite programs, people can now learn all about these shows, and the mistakes within.

But for those of us that delve into sci-fi/fantasy, casual viewing is not an option. We follow every story line, we read tie-in novels and comic books, and want to know about EVERY aspect of our favorite programs. Sure, there are the semi-nerds, the ones that watch the Star Wars movies, but couldn’t tell you who Mara Jade or Admiral Thrawn are. They watch Star Trek, but have no interest in reading the novels. Or perhaps they only occasionally watch Doctor Who (I know, it’s wrong, but these people are out there), and could care less about the ongoing adventures outside of the programs.


"A friend of mine once asked why she should bother with the Star Wars novels, because, after all, they weren’t the movies. And after all, how many times have we seen these series completely ignore outside media?"


A friend of mine once asked why she should bother with the Star Wars novels, because, after all, they weren’t the movies. And after all, how many times have we seen these series completely ignore outside media? So do these other works even fall in the category of canon? Up until a few years ago, I would have said yes. In the case of Star Wars, the novels enriched the already enjoyable saga, adding new depths, and a continuation for the characters we loved. The novels, sanctioned by George Lucas himself, started with the brilliant Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn (if you read no other Star Wars novels, at least pick these up, they’re fantastic). And according to the Lucasfilm CD-Rom Behind The Magic, they were considered, for all intents and purposes, official canon.

But when Uncle George started doing the prequels and changing the story, he told fans that the Extended Universe was other people’s take on the story, basically making it sound as though if it weren’t from him directly - it didn’t matter. But fans didn’t listen, because to us, it’s still a part of the overall story. Just because Talon Karrde wasn’t featured in the movies doesn’t make him any less a part of the saga.

Likewise, Star Trek has often ignored much of its own set canon. According to producer Harve Bennett, Gene Roddenberry often ignored episodes and even the entire animated series, because they didn’t fit in with his vision. In fact, he apparently hated the animated series, and only made it because he didn’t know whether or not he would ever get to make another live action series or movie, and often told fans that the events of said series never really happened. While the episodes weren’t great, they were still Star Trek, and there were some good moments in it. And I can understand maybe ignoring the events of 'Spock’s Brain'. So where do these stories fit? At least with the recent feature film, they used the tried and true explanation of parallel realities, so that we could start with a clean slate and not have decades of canon to weigh down the uninitiated viewer, but without negating everything that had previously happened, so that we can still enjoy those other stories knowing that they did, indeed, happen, but in another reality. That is, if Gene said it happened. And then you take the novels and comic books into account, and there’s even more canon to take into account. Unless, of course, none of that actually took place. Is anybody else as confused as I am? Good.


"Gene Roddenberry often ignored episodes and even the entire animated series, because they didn’t fit in with his vision. In fact, he apparently hated the animated series, and only made it because he didn’t know whether or not he would ever get to make another live action series or movie, and often told fans that the events of said series never really happened"


But none have even come close to ignoring decades of in-universe history the way Doctor Who has. For years, no one really knew if the show would last, so no one worried about keeping to any sort of bible as far as continuity. And the way the BBC archived programs – often recording over them or just tossing them out – it’s really quite an accomplishment that any of the first three Doctors’ adventures were ever seen past the first run. But in those days no one ever thought that they would have the fanbase that they have obtained today.

And certainly, no one could foresee that there would be those fans that were going to scrutinize the series, noticing every little mistake. Things like The Doctor going from being over a thousand years old to being 907. Or the Fourth Doctor mentioning knowing Shakespeare, but the Tenth Doctor acted as though he’d never met him. And they never have adequately explained why he sent K-9 to stay with Sarah Jane when she had left before his time. And the granddaddy of them all – The UNIT Dating Controversy!


"I would like to think that canon matters, even if it isn’t held in high regard by anybody but those of us that go that extra mile to learn more about the series that we love"


And to add to the confusion, there are all of the novels and recent comic books and graphic novels that have made up the rich universe of Doctor Who. Granted, it seems that over the years the books and series have existed to basically retcon each other over the years. But how do you explain 'Human Nature', a novel by Paul Cornell? The novel takes place during the Seventh Doctor’s lifetime, and has him changing himself to a human to hide from an alien race. Then, after the series revival, Paul took his novel and re-worked it to work as a two-part story for the Tenth Doctor. This sort of opens up the proverbial can of worms, as now any novel or literary work’s canon status is up in the air. Do any of them have any place in the canon, or should they just be considered optional reading for the diehard fans?

I would like to think that canon matters, even if it isn’t held in high regard by anybody but those of us that go that extra mile to learn more about the series that we love. Extended works enrich the universes of our heroes, and add depth by adding new characters and worlds to explore, while further developing the characters we are already invested in. And keeping to some sort of continuity helps keep the stories straight without constantly contradicting everything we’ve already seen and read, making for a more pleasurable time spent enjoying those adventures.

And if all else fails, we can chalk the mistakes up to wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff.

See also:

Will the real geek please stand up?

I Was A Teenage Doctor Who Fan In America

A purist's defense of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings screenplay

Fanboy war prompts closing of DC Comics' blog comments


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