‘Canon’ and what it means

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(A scene from Star Trek Discovery, the latest televised Star Trek)

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(a clip from the trailer for The Last Jedi)

In TV/movie franchise circles, there is a buzz word for what is and isn’t considered a part of the story. That word is ‘canon‘. If something is canon, it ‘counts’ toward the story and be considered a valid source of information for reference. If it’s not canon, it doesn’t count, and might end being considered as a point of interest but nothing more. That’s a rather simplistic take on a subject that, to some fans of some franchises, can become a huge, major issue.

Canon is something that the producers and writers of any given show don’t actually put a great deal of stock in. They will aim to be internally consistent with their material (because glaring contradictions can mess up the stories), but there is no ‘Bible’ that they have to stick to. The fans tend to turn this into a particularly messy topic, with arguments raging back and forth over what is and is not canon. Star Trek and Star Wars are two major cases in point.

Star Trek

According to Star Trek fan database site Memory Alpha, all on screen material (the TV shows and films) is considered canon. This gets a little more complicated with the addition of alternate timeline material (aka the Kelvin timeline, consisting of the 2009 movie, Into Darkness and Beyond). The link includes statements from some of the powers that be, who are involved in the process for deciding what is part of the official continuity, and what isn’t. Not everyone will agree with the official statements, but they represent the final authority on what is and isn’t ‘canon’, not that they even care for the term. Whilst some fans would like Star Trek Discovery treated as part of a reboot, it has been declared canon by the powers that be.

Star Wars

With Star Wars, the situation has historically been more complicated. The movies were always ‘canon’, beyond question. However, Star Wars has produced a large volume of books, comics and games, some of which tell the story of what happened prior to the movies, some of which seek to fill in the gaps, and some of which told the tales of what happened after Return of the Jedi. These stories became known as the ‘Expanded Universe’ or EU. To many fans, these represented the continuation of the saga, furthering the adventures of Luke Skywalker and co after the films had finished.

This didn’t stop an exhaustive effort by some parties to suggest that the Expanded Universe bore no relevance to the movies, existing in an entirely different timeline, and therefore inadmissible as a reference in discussion (and particularly, in Star Trek vs Star Wars debates). This effort ultimately didn’t amount to anything more than an incredibly long-winded way of saying ‘my opinion is somehow superior to yours’, and wasn’t backed up by the powers that be who oversaw these matters.

Up until the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm a few years ago, the EU was part of the continuity, but Disney, wanting to make new films without feeling bound to existing material, relegated the EU, declaring it to fit into under the heading of ‘Legends’. Disney also set about commissioning new novels to fill in the gaps between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, as well as creating the Rebels cartoon series, which filled in some of the timeline between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. In the meantime, Disney did take elements from the EU to use as they saw fit, including bringing in the character of Admiral Thrawn (a very popular character from the novels) to the Rebels show. It remains to be seen what else might make it from the Legends EU into Disney’s new continuity.

So there you have it – a brief run down of what’s what with the Trek and Wars universes.

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