Canon is kayfabe for writers

Thursday, September 7, 2023   (updated 19 hours later)

Comments: 23   (latest 4 days later)

Tagged: canon, kayfabe, star trek, star wars, doctor who, myst

Chatting about "canon" yesterday a few days ago:

[...] But one of the things I love about Doctor Who is that, if you mention canon to it, it just laughs. And not a small laugh! A "Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian" laugh. NYA-HAHA. NYAAAAA-HAHAHAH!!! -- @SJohnRoss, Sept 3

I think it’s fair to say that Star Wars and Star Trek are both happily standing on top of smoldering craters labelled “canon”. They took very different paths to get there, with very different initial intentions — whereas Doctor Who has just meandered amiably for years. But the end result has converged on “canon what canon”, no matter how many wikis people write. -- @zarfeblong, Sept 3

Reflecting dans les escaliers, I want to take that further.

Canon isn't a straitjacket; it's a game. That's why it's fun! We're not here to watch writers be consistent. We're here to watch writers come up with awesome moves in the game of consistency.

It's kayfabe! It's exactly kayfabe. The writers are selling us a meta-story that their story conforms to a great and glorious master plan, a beautiful aperiodic crystal of harmony. And we pretend to buy it -- even though we know the writers are making it up as they go. They've been making it up as they go for sixty years. (For the DC and Marvel (multi-)verses(-es), even longer.) We know perfectly well that the story will change the next time someone has a better idea, and we're fine with that. But we are united in the pretense.

There was a time, oh, call it the early 1990s, when you could at least assert that Star Wars had a single canon, and Star Trek had a single canon, and Doctor Who had a single canon. You had to wave your hands at various "well-known" retcons and push a lot of novels into the semicanonical hinterlands. But it was an observable position.

(Coincidence or not: this was the very beginning of Internet fannish activity -- the Usenet era. You could observe a community consensus because there was a single online community for each fandom: rec.arts.startrek, rec.arts.drwho, and so on.)

Then... more stuff happened. Doctor Who spun off a novel line that exploded into its own meta-drama of competing visions. Star Wars tried to codify a universal standard of canonicity levels, which worked as well as every other universal standard. Star Trek, late to the party, toyed hesitantly with retcons-in-time.

Fandom, now fractionating on the Web, followed along with sage nods.

But bigger moves were in the air. Star Wars prepped for its third trilogy by rebooting its canon levels (2014), exiling the "Expanded Universe" in favor of a grand unified timeline. (Including Clone Wars and Rebels, which were happily importing all the EU's best plotlines, ssh don't tell.) Star Trek pulled off the Kelvin Trick (2009): a reboot with on-screen temporal retcon and Leonard Nimoy for its nihil obstat.

As I noted above, Doctor Who took a gentler approach. Its 2005 relaunch was deferentially in-canon with the early show, adding only the backdrop of the Great Time War from the interregnum novels. (This was certainly a reaction to the 1996 TV movie: everybody agreed that whatever canon was, that wasn't it.) However, New Who was revolutionary in its own way. Russell T. Davies reconceptualized the roles of Companion and Doctor. Steven Moffat dug into the show's roots as a story about stories (the TARDIS is really a genre-travel device) and cajoled fans into accepting that all of the Doctor's stories could be real.

The point is, fans ate this stuff up. And the only thing fans love more than one universal consistent continuity is a new universal consistent continuity every couple of years. Call it the Lesson of Infinite Crisis.

With that assurance, the writers were off the leash. Star Wars now has half a dozen alt-quels and TV shows (I haven't remotely caught up). Are they consistent with each other or the mainline films? Who cares? Star Trek: same deal, same answer. And honestly the Fugitive Doctor is the best thing that's happened to Doctor Who since River Song: characters that can walk in on any episode, no explanation needed, and give the Doctor a much-needed kick in the ego.

Here's a lovely phrase from theater: Leonard Nimoy originated the role of Mr. Spock. Like Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett, the character will always be associated with the actor -- but not owned. We can try out other takes. (Ethan Peck is the fourth adult Spock I've fanboyed, after Todd Haberkorn on Star Trek Continues.)

Sometimes we get an "explanation". Doctor Who enshrined "regeneration" so long ago that we've forgotten it was a continuity hack. Star Trek loves its temporal manipulation retcons. (I haven't caught up on SNW S2 either, but I hear rumors.) But again, this is kayfabe consistency. It's a performance. We're cheering a good performance. That doesn't mean we want to see the same moves again next year. Quite the opposite!

The only problem is that not all the fans have caught on. Or they're pretending not to. (Is that heel kayfabe? But it's not fun when it's directed at the writers, or at fellow fans either.)

I once heard a writer for a major multimedia franchise (not Star Wars) say "Wookieepedia is colonialist violence." It was a joke (and not intended to downplay the reality of colonialism, yes, I see your hand). But it gets at an element of fannish entitlement which is real and toxic. Collecting trivia in a wiki is fun. Browsing a wiki to catch a show's in-jokes is fun; that's how I watch Lower Decks. Searching a wiki for reasons to get angry at the writers is way down a bad road.

I could go on. Marvel's grand MCU plan splintered trying to keep Agents of Shield S1 synced up with The Winter Soldier's Hydra reveal. Myst Online's attempt to rationalize Myst and Riven into a contemporary timeline was left flat-footed when Myst Online died. (It's a delightfully non-toxic fandom, but people get too het up about trap books.)

In all cases, the lesson for showrunners was "Next time, just wing it and make it sound good." The lesson for fans is "Just relax and enjoy it." Call it the Lesson of the Satellite of Love; MST3K was way ahead of the curve on this.

And next time someone complains about canon inconsistency in your favorite show, gently rebuke them for breaking kayfabe. That'll take the starch out of their socks.

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