The Case for Extended Canon in Science Fiction

Posted Monday, January 7th, 2013 07:42 pm GMT -5 by

“First Planet Problems”

 I have no illusions that in the nerding community I’m in the one percent who cares about this, but since I have a keyboard and an opinion, I’m going to fill you in on the debate that has yet to– but desperately needs to- happen.

It is an accepted practice that a scifi show have spin-off media such as novels, comics, radio plays, and encyclopedias. Official means that whatever show it’s attached to is, in some way, getting some profit from it. Don’t get me wrong. That’s great… except I rather doubt much of that, if any, goes to the actual creators of the story. Unfortunately, official doesn’t necessarily mean canon and canon means that its story is part of the overall fabric of the show’s universe.

So what’s my problem with things being official, but not canon? The franchise is asking me to buy something that is essentially fanfiction. Now keep in mind, fanfiction is something I can read for free on the internet, with the added bonus of having characters I think should get it on do so very explicitly.

But really, this is just the tip of the iceberg for me. Obviously, if the book is going to be published, it will be of a higher quality than your average fanfiction, though with decidedly less fornication. Some might think the latter to be a detriment to enjoyment, but they have websites to go to that give them stuff for free.

Here’s the rub, then. I feel like there is no point in reading something, enjoying it, and than having it have no bearing on the world it’s from, especially if you’re going to have to pay for it. It makes it such an empty, pointless exercise.

I know I’m not the only one who has this opinion. In fact, Joss Whedon shares it to some extent:

“Canon is key, as is continuity. If you are  massive nerd. Which I am. I believe there’s a demarcation between the creation and ancillary creations by different people. I’m all for that stuff, just like fanfic, but I like to know what’s there’s an absolutely official story-so-far, especially when something changes mediums, which my stuff seems to do a lot.”

And that is why I must extoll the virtues of Torchwood today, because everything under the name Torchwood is officially canon. Radio plays? Yes! Novels? Thank god, yes. The BBC interactive Torchwood website? Yes!

And that, my friends, is amazing. You would be astounded at the amount of depth approaching a story in different formats can give, and it also helps give layers to characters who may not have been given much opportunity throughout the series. It’s wonderful, and the best part is that you can listen/read it without wondering if you basically just purchased a fanfiction.

Because of that, I love different mediums. I think there are stories best told on screen, others in novels, and so on and so forth. I half wish someone would, when they think of a story, focus on which medium is the best way to tell it instead of trying to pigeonhole it into something that won’t work (yes, I’ll admit that I wish all early Doctor Who was done as radio dramas, and I’m not afraid to admit it either). But then again, I’m think I’m already getting a name for having rather crackpot opinions.

Canon is important, though. Knowing what the story is so far, regardless of author and medium, makes you feel more a part of the universes. However, that is where Whedon and I disagree. This is what he says about whether or not he’ll read the Battlestar Galactica comic:
No, because if they stopped doing Battlestar Galactica, and then two or three years later Ron Moore and David Eick said, “We ourselves are going to continue the story in comic-book form – as opposed to something ancillary to the show done by other people,” then I would be all over it.

Conversely, I do think that if the creator has some influence (be it through okaying the story and guiding certain elements), and there is already a strong idea of what should be allowed as canon, then absolutely it should be canon, no matter who wrote it! But I’m not so naive as to think that there aren’t inherent problems with this.

You need look no further than ALL THE STAR TREK BOOKS to know this sort of thinking will end in tears. I know that the Buffy-verse spin-offs often contradict one another, but that’s nothing in comparison to what happens in Star Trek. So, clearly, having all sorts of people that aren’t necessarily related to the series write stories isn’t that great of an idea, but I think that largely only happens when a company decides to whore for more money without keeping the integrity of a show’s basic substance or timeline.

Having so many authors means there is a chance with contradictions because different authors have different interpretations and also may forget what another wrote. Or what’s more likely, not even pay attention to what the other writers wrote in a fit of either laziness or narcissism. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the soul author of Sherlock Holmes, and he still had issues keeping his timelines straight (thought this may be because he was sort known for not liking his own series). If only he had impassioned fans obsessively updating wikis for his periodic perusal…

So, here’s what I say! Do it like TorchwoodAnd take note of that, because it is unlikely you will ever hear those words again without… you know… being in regards to sexy times. In the Torchwood extended canon, there is always a thread that goes through all the stories that relates not only to the series, but to the other books. Nina Rogers, for example, appears in several books with her own bizarre plotline that gets wrapped up in the last book. Project Goldenrod is often mentioned through the first season books and the Torchwood team have to keep returning to Skypoint to fight aliens in the second series! All of these are written by different authors, but yet they all make references to one another. Now THAT is an example of spin-off canoncity doing its job right.

In any case, there is obviously some guiding force in the Torchwood spin-offs that have made some rather exceptional books help expand the Torchwood universe in a way that television is ill-equipped to do, and I love it.

I’ve also read some amazing Star Trek books in my time, not the least of which is The Never-ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack, and more recently, the New Frontier series (well, recently for me, but probably not the rest of you trekkies/trekkers). Neither, sadly, are canon, and I wish to god they were because they make the Star Trek universe so much more layered and beautiful without contradicting or detracting from the originals series.  So while I can appreciate the stories, I have no way to feed them into the Star Trek canon, and that depresses me in.  With the spin-offs, the show seems a lot less one-dimensional and suddenly it becomes a very real world, and characters like Rugal, Shelby and Mackenzie become honest to god real people/characters and not the caricatures they appear as in the series.

This all being said, the exact opposite is also important. If the original creator feels that all they needed to say was in their franchise, then no ancillary works should be made at all. I want canon to be canon, and making non-canon books to make money is not only wrong, but insulting to the fanbase.

So the TL;DR of this is simple. I desperately want shows to take their franchises’ extended canon a little bit more seriously and go through what’s already out and explicitly state what is canon and what is not. George Lucas did this to some extent with his different sorts of canons (G,T,S, N-canons, for example), and I appreciate that. Though, I think I would appreciate it a lot more if he hadn’t revoked the canoncity of novels when he made the movies, but that’s a story for another time. I think it would behoove all shows to lay out exactly what is canon and what isn’t for the sake of our–or really just my- sanity.