Thursday, 23 July 2009

Canon and Sheep Shit: Why We Fight.

I hate the Doctor Who canon like Dawkins hates God.

Like him, I'm convinced the target of my animus doesn't exist, but that doesn't stop me spending half my life writing about how dreadful it is.

There's a bit of a difference though; the existence or otherwise of God is fundamentally irresolvable within the bounds of human knowledge, while the non-existence of a Doctor Who canon is bloody obvious to anyone with half a brain. After all, I know loads of people who reckon they've met God, and hardly any who reckon they've met Dawkins, so from where I'm sitting then his existence sounds on shakier grounds (There's a book I keep seeing in Christian bookshops called The Dawkins Delusion. I bet it's a crap set of 'proofs' of God, but I'd buy a copy tomorrow if I thought its authors were wheeling out some kind of Baudrillard logic to disprove the reality of Richard Dawkins).

But a Doctor Who canon? There's demonstrably no such thing.

Canon isn't "what most people think is canon" (otherwise the Buffy comics, unheard of by most of the millions who watched the show, couldn't be Buffyverse canon. Which they are) .

Canon isn't "what the majority of the fanbase would prefer was canon" (otherwise Han shot first).

Canon is what the people running the franchise tell you it is. It's not a democratic thing. Star Trek fans didn't have the option of outvoting Gene Roddenbury when he wanted something stricken from the record.

Of course, people are, in these free-spirited and post-structuralist times, quite capable of thinking for themselves and saying, "Well The Animated Series is certainly part of my Star Trek", but what they're doing there isn't changing the canon, or establishing a new and individual canon; It's a rejection of the idea of canon itself. A denial of the franchise owner's authority to tell you how to conceptualise the components of that franchise.

But there isn't a canon to reject or deny in Doctor Who. In some ways that's a shame, as I'd enjoy rejecting and denying one if there was, but nobody with the authority to define a Doctor Who canon has ever done so, so I'm cruelly denied that anarchic thrill.

Here's what the BBC had to say about Doctor Who canon during the lifespan of the English Series...

*Insert Echoing Sound Effect Evocative Of Infinite Hollow Nothingness Here. The Silence Beyond Silence of a Thought Never Formed*

That's right. Not a whisper.

If that seems suprising to you, that's because you're assuming a British mass-audience show from 1963 would work like American cult-audience show from the Nineties. Nobody at the BBC back then would have had a concept of canon in its modern, fannish sense.

So they never defined one. So one never existed. And the television show just chugged along fine without one, merrily incorporating information from the comics, the novelisations and even the Find Your Fate game books as they went along.

Here's what Russell T. Davies had to say about Doctor Who canon during his time as showrunner.

That canon "is a word which has never been used in the production office, not once, not ever" (DWM #356).

That he was "usually happy for old and new fans to invent the Complete History of the Doctor in their heads, completely free of the production team's hot and heavy hands." (DWM #356)

That thinking of the audios as being 'non-canonical' is boring and idiotic. (The Writer's Tale)

That "I'm just the writer [...] I've got no more authority over the text than you!" (DWM #388)

We've moved from a canon which didn't exist because nobody got round to establishing one, to a canon which doesn't exist because the only person who could establish one himself rejects both the idea and the very logic of writerly authority on which it stands.

While this is going on, the TV series itself is making direct and explict reference to events, concepts, continuity points, planets, companies and foodstuffs from the novels and comics while establishing that Time is in flux (The Unquiet Dead) and that stable facts aren't meant to exist (Utopia). Which means that if there was a Doctor Who canon (and assuming the Welsh Series was part of it) then it would paradoxically include the fact that there was no Doctor Who canon.

Which brings us to Steven Moffat, the new showrunner and so the only person who could now be plausibly considered to have the authority to rule on what is and isn't canonical. Will he do so?

No, he won't.

"It is impossible for a show about a dimension-hopping time traveller to have a canon."
- Steven Moffat, San Diego, 2008.

So, in summary...

Canon is a matter of authority.

At first the guys in charge didn't define a canon because it didn't occur to anyone back then that that was the sort of thing programme-makers did.

Then the guy in charge didn't define a canon because he believes that it's up to us to use our own imaginations.

Now the current guy in charge believes that a Doctor Who canon is actually an imposibility.

At no point has there ever been a Doctor Who canon. Anyone who thinks there is has got 'canon' mixed up with something else...maybe with 'Consensus', with 'Majority Opinion', with 'The Stuff I Personally Count', with 'The Condition of Being On Telly', with 'That Which has Been Offically Licensed', or with half a dozen other things that don't mean 'canon'.

So, back to the introspection, why does 'Doctor Who canon' bother me so much? Why do I get drawn into, and fascinated by, debates over this non-existent thingy? Why don't I just roll my eyes, post something like this, roll my eyes and go find some nice sensible flame war about the merits of Grant Morrison's writing or something like that instead?

Those who assume there's a Who canon are wrong, but what's so wrong with them being wrong that it gets on my tits to the extent that it does? Where did I pick up this Dawkins-esque zeal to spread the joyous news of the non-existence of something, like a Bizzaro evangelist? I shall now shut myself in a floatation tank and instruct my staff not to release me until I've either worked out what it is that bugs me so much or until I'm so thickly encrusted with salt that I could be sold at Pizza Hut.

Ah. That's better.

Right then. Make a cup of tea. Put a record on. Scroll down to 'It's Evil' if you're getting bored.

Here's why I hate canon so much.

It's Frustrating.

See all the above. It's the ultimate Someone Is Wrong On The Internet.

As Paul Cornell says...

"I can’t think of any other fandom that assumes they have a canon when nobody has ever told them that they do. Especially since our show itself declares that it doesn’t now have, and probably never did have, a canon."

Many, probably most, people who find their way to Doctor Who fandom are convinced that its continuity is regulated by something that doesn't exist. For those invested in sanity, such widespread and overwhelming wrongness is annoying.

It's Just So Common.

Look, just because every other geektext has a canon, doesn't mean ours needs one.

It's so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.

It's Not Very Doctor Who-ish.

Stability, certainty, order, the exclusion of difficult twiddly bits. These are the virtues of a canon.

Do they sound much like virtues the Doctor would be keen to champion?

Paul Magrs puts this very well in his afterword to Time and Relative Dissertations in Space...

So...this is important: Doctor Who is never complete.

It is about a lack. A need. A hunger.

And it is unending. There's that old cliche about the elasticity and infinitude of its format. which is kind of true, but its truer that its consumers don't half enjoy repetition and recurrent patterns. Like the Arabian Nights. Arabesques of infintie variety. Fulfillment of the design being infinitely deferred. Stories opening out into other, further stories... The nights of prevarication and story telling go on and on and on. Just as the Doctor always finds a new companion, a new incarnation, a new adventure to have.

But as we go on, the audience, the reader, the fan-consumer is always aware that we are missing something. We all always vaguely remember that there was an old Doctor. Now he's long gone. And there were others before him. They're all in our memories like family members who died or went abroad when we were small. And one day, maybe, they will come back...


Some of the fans want to complete the narrative. They construct continuity guides and canons. They want to plug the gaps. The completist wants to collect, restore, arbitrate on hefty canonical debates. They catalogue things, rather like Time Lords.

No, my impulse is always to further complicate matters.

The idea of 'completism' terrifies me. What happens when its all complete? What goes on then? Where do you go? It sounds a bit dull to me. (Remember when the Doctor eventually got to The Eye of Orion? His much-vaunted 'most peaceful place in the universe'? It was rubbish. It was boring and you could tell he was only pretending to enjoy it. It was wet and there was sheep shit everywhere.)


Its a curious irony, I think, in a series with a rabble rouser as a hero, and in a narrative about multiverses, alternities and possibilities, that the fans of this very show want to close possibilities down. Sometimes its as if fans want reality dictated to them- definitively. Canonically. They want parameters setting and concretising around them. Maybe they want a stable universe after all...

Well, they can't have one. They've got Doctor Who and they can bloody well learn to like it.

He was there, just ahead of her. Half clambered on a unicorn, clinging to its mane to keep from falling any further off. That mad coat flapping behind him. She could see his eyes ablaze with the fun of it all. Not just being swept along by the Hunt, but riding with it, leading it, celebrating it.

She kept her eyes locked on him. It was hard to focus - he was a dazzling blur. Where he was, even his face and body, nothing stayed fixed long enough for her to be sure of it. The possibilities and details of his past thrashing around like mad, shifting and overlapping. He was every single Doctor you could ever imagine at once.

But he was still there. Even without a fixed face or name or body, even if his past contradicted itself from moment to moment, that didn't matter. There was still something there, not just un-pinned-down but impossible to pin down. Something that even revelled in the fact that he couldn't be easily understood. That said more things were possible than a simple explaination would allow.

Something laughing.

- Unnatural History, Jon Blum and Kate Orman.


Some made-up stories are realer than other ones? Get away with you.

In a ideal world, every series' canon would have died of embarassment after the first panel of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

It Sounds Like A Lot Of Work.

46 years in, and Doctor Who seems to be surviving without one, doesn't it?

Unless you reckon it'd never have gone off the air in 1989 if only we'd had a definative statement on the status of Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma and on whether or not Disney Time is an official lead-in to Terror of the Zygons.

Other fandoms seem to think we have a hard old time of it... listen to what The Transformers Wikia reckons...

The BBC, owners of Doctor Who, have no canon policy. Indeed so little attention is paid to it that the franchise is riddled with countless irreconcilable continuity clashes despite being presented as a single continuous story, even in the TV movie and continuing television series that were made many years after the original series was cancelled.

Irreconcilable? Back over to the Moff to reconcile the lot of them in eighteen words...

"The audience just hasn't seen the adventure when the Doctor goes back in time and changes that detail."
- Steven Moffat, San Deigo, 2008.

That certainly sounds more elegant to me than, well, than this sort of thing...

G-canon is absolute canon; the movies (their most recent release), the scripts, the novelizations of the movies, the radio plays, and any statements by George Lucas himself. G-canon overrides the lower levels of canon when there is a contradiction. Within G-canon, many fans follow an unofficial progression of canonicity where the movies are the highest canon, followed by the scripts, the novelizations, and then the radio plays.
T-canon refers to the canon level comprising only the two television shows: Star Wars: The Clone Wars and the Star Wars live-action TV series. Its precedence over C-Level canon was confirmed by Chee.
C-canon is primarily composed of elements from the Expanded Universe including books, comics, and games bearing the label of Star Wars. Games and RPG sourcebooks are a special case; the stories and general background information are themselves fully C-canon, but the other elements such as character/item statistics and gameplay are, with few exceptions, N-canon.
S-canon is secondary canon; the story itself is considered non-continuity, but the non-contradicting elements are still a canon part of the Star Wars universe. This includes things like the online roleplaying game Star Wars: Galaxies and certain elements of a few N-canon stories.
N-canon is non-canon. "What-if" stories (such as stories published under the Star Wars: Infinities label), crossover appearances (such as the Star Wars character appearances in Soulcalibur IV), game statistics, and anything else directly contradicted by higher canon ends up here. N-canon is the only level that is not considered official canon by Lucasfilm. A significant amount of material that was previously C-canon was rendered N-canon by the release of Episodes I-III.
- Wikipedia on Star Wars canon.

It Frightens Me!

Look, I'm a child of the Great Who Diaspora of the 1990s. I came into the full bloom of my fandom during the New Adventures years. If there ever was a Doctor Who canon then... well, then a lot of the Doctor Who stories I care about deeply probably wouldn't make it in.

Had Davies ever been the one to issue a canon then, going on things like his Meet the Doctor article and his desire to have had the Eight-to-Nine regeneration in the DWM comic strip, we might imagine that the novels, audios, comics...all that sort of thing would have made it in. Though we'd probably have been, based on the fact that he was issuing a canon at all, more interested in who was holding a gun to his head.

But even then, even with a very broad canon, it'd still leave something out. Something that matters to someone would now OFFICIALLY NOT COUNT. And that'd be both sad and pointless.


Over in Batman right now, we're in the late stages of a big five-volume serialised 'novel' that Grant Morrison's been writing since 2006. It's been mentioned occasionally on this blog.

Very early in the run, it had a LOST-style flashforward to a gloomy future. Since then almost every significant piece of information revealed in that story has played out in the present of the narative. With two exceptions - the death of Dick Grayson and the damnation of Damien Wayne.

As the story creeps forwards, the presence of that flashforward works as a device to make us anxious about Dick's life and Damien's soul. It's supposed to make us worry, "Hang on...if all that other stuff happened, does that mean...?"

So anyway, the other day I was chatting away about all this when someone took me by surprise by saying that the flashforward issue (#666) had nothing to do with the current storyline.

I explained how it worked. I quoted Grant Morrison explaining how it worked. I invented an entire 20 volume swords'n'sorcery Fantasy Epic in order to draw out a complex analogy which would explain how it worked.... I'm not sure how I could have been more helpful.

But to each of my points the guy kept coming back with, "Batman #666 isn't canon."

And over
And over

Which is, as it happens, perfectly true. The DC universe has a canon and Batman #666 isn't in it.
But that's got nothing to do with the fact that it's part of the story and the way the story's being told. Because stories work by allusion, and reference, and intertextuality and all sorts of other sexy things that're the antithesis of fencing off fictions into approved lists of things that matter.

This particular Someone Wrong On The Internet had been locked into a real rigidity of thought by the importance he placed on canon. Because that's all canon is - an obstacle to understanding stories.

It's Evil.

Here's what prompted this article.

Last week Bleeding Cool reported that Tom Baker is returning to Doctor Who to play the Doctor for the first time since he left (other than hissing some nonsense into a microphone for a link sequence in Dimensions in Time).

Tom Baker. Playing the Doctor. In FIVE new plays.

The third post in the coments section was to say that, no he's not. This doesn't count because it's not canonical.

Posts follow saying that even though they're not canon, the audios are still pretty good. Or that people shouldn't worry too much about canon. Or that they can be thought of as canon until the TV series contradicts them.

These are all reasonable responses, but they miss the rather crucial fact that this whole "They're not canon" business is just something the third poster made up.

Fair enough he's not interested in them. Fair enough they're not part of 'his Doctor Who'. But not canonical?

Well, he's right. Of course they're not. They can't be. There's no canon so they can't be canonical.

Gridlock isn't canonical.
The Doctor Dances isn't canonical.
The Chimes of Midnight isn't canonical.
Lungbarrow isn't canonical.
Once Upon a Time Lord isn't canonical.
Kinda isn't canonical.
These five new Tom Baker plays aren't canonical.
Carnival of Monsters isn't canonical.
The War Games isn't canonical.
An Unearthly Child isn't canonical (neither version).

This is where Cornell's right that 'canon' is just a bullying word.

Because when you say ‘the books just aren’t “canon!”’ or ‘the books “happened” and the TV show can’t ignore them!’ you’re not saying something like ‘for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction’, you’re saying something like ‘the South will never surrender’. You’re yelling a battle cry, not stating the truth. Because there is no truth here to find. There was never and now cannot be any authority to rule on matters of canonicity in a tale that has allowed, or at the very least accepted, the rewriting of its own continuity. And you’re using the fact that discussions of canonicity are all about authority to try to assume an authority that you do not have.

In the end, you’re just bullying people.
- Cornell. This blog.

But it's one that bullies people who fall into using it as much as those it's directed at. The poor chap on that Bleeding Cool thread was just trying to say he didn't personally count non-tellybox Who (an entirely reasonable thing to do). He didn't seem to be in persuit of any power that would set him up amongst the gods - observe his IMHO and his awareness that others will think differently - but using the 'c' word puts him into exactly that position of assuming authority he doesn't have.

It is not a good word.

I Know I'm Lying.

Oh, alright then. There is a Doctor Who canon.

The Doctor defined it in The Gallifrey Chronicles...

"Sherlock Holmes solved the case before I could, as I recall."

"Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character," Trix pointed out.

The Doctor grinned. "My dear, one of the things you'll learn is that it's all real. Every word of every novel is real, every frame of every movie, every panel of every comic strip."

"But that's just not possible. I mean some books contradict other ones and -"

The Doctor was ignoring her.

Lance Parkin, The Gallifrey Chronicles.

He later refined it in The Unicorn and the Wasp when he told Donna that there is no Noddy.

So Doctor Who canon looks like this...

My daughter grasped this the other day in a conversation we had on the bus. She said, "There's three ways of getting to all the different lands. The Faraway Tree, whirlwinds, and Doctor Who's little house."