Writing Prompts: ‘Canon’

Make reference to the subject of canon in respect of sci-fi and fantasy works, and you will immediately set a lot of fans frothing at the mouth. Why? Because canon is what counts, canon is what matters, and yet, so many fans of so many shows, movies and books cannot agree on what canon is. Let’s discuss what canon actually means.

In some cases, it’s simple. As canon in this context is often regarded as an official continuity of events from a film series/TV show/books, a series that is small in scope and quantity is easy to figure out. For example, the recent Dune films consist of two entries, so the canon entries of this particular continuity (this is where things can start to get messy, more on that in a mo) are straight-forward. Dune Part One and Dune Part Two are the entirety of the movie universe, so to speak, of Denis Villenueuve’s vision of Dune. Both entries are part of the same continuity, and both are canon with that continuity.

Some universes can get tricky. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is but one of several concurrent universes that explore the activities of Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor etc. The MCU’s own canon consists of the movies, the Disney + TV shows, and retroactively invokes the Spider-Man movies of Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield. There’s a hierarchy that also involves ancillary material, such as the Agents of SHIELD series, and the original Daredevil show. The former made a lot of effort to reference MCU movie events, but was not mentioned in the movies, denoting a secondary status. The latter was left in an ambiguous state, but was later retroactively brought into the fold, via character appearances in Spider-Man: No Way Home, and the Hawkeye series.

With Marvel, there is clearly a lot going on, and things are liable to get more complicated, what with the multiverse stories that look to incorporate the X-Men movies (themselves something of a tangled timeline mess) into the MCU.

Where Canon and Timelines Overlap

Confusion can reign when franchises embark on soft reboots or create new timelines. The 2009 Star Trek film made it explicitly clear that this was an alternate reality to the previously-established continuity (even going as far as for Lt. Uhura to use the words ‘alternate reality’), and thus made it obvious to fans that the events of this new timeline would not tread upon established Star Trek lore. The only aspect of the new timeline to reference the original timeline was do with the destruction of Romulus, and even this was debated in some quarters. The Picard series made it clear that the destruction of Romulus was a canon event in the original timeline.

The Picard series – and Star Trek: Discovery – did create quite the stir (especially Discovery). When DSC first aired, it was billed as set a few years before the events of the Original Series, but brought new interpretations of ship designs, as well as a radical new interpretation of the Klingons. DSC also depicted a previously unreferenced Federation/Klingon war.

Due to these events, some fans set about insisting that DSC was not a part of the original continuity. All well and good, but fans do not determine what is or is not within any given continuity, and nor do they decide what is or is not canon within any given continuity. For better or worse, DSC (and the subsequent shows) is regarded by the rights holder as a canon element of the original timeline. Yes, there are confusing and perhaps unsatisfactory elements to this, but this does not change the facts. No level of exhaustive analysis can change the fact that the rights holder has the final say, and they have spoken.

‘Canon until Contradicted’

Some franchises make use of layered approaches to canon. Star Wars historically had several levels. The movies and TV shows have always been the top level of canon, but beneath them came several other tiers. The Expanded Universe featured numerous books and other material that explored a post Return of the Jedi time period; this material was rendered as Legends material by Disney following their 2014 takeover of the franchise. Disney did not want to be beholden to the Expanded Universe material, though in an interesting twist, beloved EU ideas (such as the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine and the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn) have made their way into the Disney Star Wars canon.

It ought to be noted that as the rights holders, Disney are now responsible for determining what is and is not canon in the Star Wars universe. The continuity established by Disney is the canon that anyone making new, official Star Wars material is expected to maintain continuity with.

Does it Matter?

Fans of any given fictional franchise will often argue and bicker over the minute details of their franchise’s lore. Often, major franchises are full of inconsistencies, or there may be a failure to maintain attention to detail somewhere along the line. These become sticking points among fans. What is the correct interpretation of any given event? Do events in a later episode of a show supersede prior events in the canon hierarchy? If a franchise has multiple shows (such as Star Trek), is one show considered more ‘canon’ than another? Fans will often debate these elements, and will rarely, if ever reach a consensus.

Studios and publishers are less concerned. They seek to maintain a certain degree of continuity, but ‘canon’ is a word a lot of them steer away from. The producers of Doctor Who will often avoid the subject, which gives them a lot of scope to explore strange and fantastical stories. Some sort of continuity is, in this meerkat’s humble view, preferred, but the extent to which it can be obsessed over can reach absurd levels. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but ultimately we need to remember the rights holders are the decision makers over what counts.

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