Monday, September 23, 2013

Doctor Who, Star wars, Star Trek and the death of Canon (Part 1' What the Heck is Canon?)

(This started as a single post idea but looks like it will become a multi-post monster like the Yamato review. As many of you know I am a fan of Genre fiction and have a large degree of interest in the way that Genre, Canon and Aesthetics are used in modern fiction, so this is likely to be the first in a series on the constituent organs of modern genre fiction. Enjoy)
As a sci-fi or fantasy fan we have all heard that dreaded cry "But that's not Canon!" from fellow fans, blow hards on the internet and know it all writers in print (or web) magazines. As we in the west continues on its trend of reinventing or "rebooting" popular (and not so popular) properties these discussions of cannon have become more and more intense and seem to be culminating in the writers of said reboots taking to the internet to abuse the annoying nerds that give them money...

So what is canon? Why do we care? Who started this idea and why is it so important to fans?
Well the term literary canon refers to rules or principles that govern works in the field of art and philosophy. It is a middle English term that derives from Latin and earlier the Greek Kanon and refers to "an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture" according to Webster's and has been expanded to include the authoritative works of any Author or part of a series or group of works. In a very naive way the Bible has a bit in common with modern genre fiction and the idea of canon; after all the early church did eject a whole bunch of oddball fanfic from canon when putting it together. (See the Infancy Gospels ) 
Canon became a concept associated with popular genre writing way back in the early part of the 20th century with the growth of Sherlock Holmes fiction not authored by Conan-Doyle. It has since become applied to any fictional series, most often where there are contributions by multiple authors or sources. The Canon is the series' official history and lore, and was taken very seriously by fans even before the intertubes were in existence; Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series had a cannon issue just after his death with the story"John Carter of Mars" penned by his son and the Cthulhu mythos arguably gained a canon after being supplemented by August Derleth. (The man who coined the phrase in the first place) 
But like many internet obsessions the modern Canon wars have their origins with Star Trek; as a series it only went for three years but it reached an incredibly large audience via syndication. (150 domestic US channels and 60 internationals) Star Trek was able to develop a fan base that was more wide spread than its contemporary genre fiction compatriots. Trek had fanzines from 1967 and its fandom exploded after the cancellation of the series and its journey into syndicated success. Programs like "Doctor Who" and "The man from UNCLE" had cult followings as well, but the cancellation of Trek had unique impacts on the series canon. Unlike its British contemporaries it saw an increase of material not generated by its principle authors; it also had a series return in a different format in the form of the 1970s animated Star Trek series. Trek was seen by many in the 1970s to be a dead franchise as far as Television was concerned; Roddenberry had attempted unsuccessfully to relaunch the series in the 1970s with his Star Trek Phase II project so there was almost no "Canon" material until 1979's Star Trek: The motion picture. Movies however did not settle the nebulous state of Trek Canon (I'm not sure they can, but more on that later) as the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan saw more fan fiction, roleplaying games and novels produced and so by the time Star Trek made its return to television its canon stabilized. (Or did it, again a teaser for later..) 
So what I hear you ask? You need to think of fictional canon a bit like a tree, if we take the Star Trek example the Original series is the tree trunk and its offshoots are branches. Some are very large and strong; Next Gen is an example of this, but each branch germinates more branches as the canon grows. Fan generated canon in the 1980s for example generated its own offshoots (look at the Star Fleet Battles board game as a good example of this)  many of which have nothing to do with the "official" canon, but some of these little chunks of canon get re-grafted higher up the tree at much later dates. (Such as some of the Romulan cultural material from the novelizations) 
Many are fans of the idea of regular pruning of the canon tree, cutting away the weaker branches so only the strong "sanctioned' branches can survive. This is what I like to call the Roman approach to fictional canon; in honor of the Romanisation (ie. writing down) of Christian canon. The content creator or owner has final say in this vision, fan material is fine but it will never be part of canon. In other cases under this model branches are viable until the interfere with the "sanctioned" branches and are then trimmed bansai style to ensure the shape of the whole tree. Alien and its comic book offshoots are an example of this, the Dark Horse comics books were officially sanctioned by the content owner but fell into non-canon status when later films directly contradicted them. (eg by killing Hudson and Newt in Alien 3) Star Wars operates much this way as well, with a layered approach to canon; each more "real" than the last till you get to the current releases of the films themselves. (also problematic in this case because Lucas kept changing them.) 
Again I hear you say; so what? The content creator should have final say over his universe by gum! Yes and no, this idea of the lofty creator handing down canon from the mountain top is desirable because like all desirable ideas it is simple. However such an approach basically immunizes Genre fiction from some of the very basics of art and art criticism and places it in exactly the place that its critics put it. (As popcorn fed trash for the masses) Genre fiction is better than that, and that is what I hope to unravel for you dear reader and explore how and what canon is made up of and why the "Roman" approach does a disservice to us all as fans. Even the less extreme Bansai trimming approach in Star War's case gives us: 
  • Jar Jar Binks is more cannonical than Admiral Thron or Mara Jade
  • Han Shot second, or at least simultaneously with Greedo
  • Boba Fett died like a chump
  • Jango Fett (father of Boba via cloning) also died like a chump
  • Anakin Skywalker built C3PO

(To be continued...)