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Canonicity in Doctor Who

In: English and Literature

Submitted By jpdempsey
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It was Paul Castle who answered his own question on the Outpost Gallifrey forums: what’s most likely to set Doctor Who fans at each other’s throats? If anything can, ‘canon’ can.

It’s my belief, indeed, that that’s what ‘canon’ is for. That that’s all that it’s for. Because ‘canon’ is purely and simply about authority, real or assumed, and nothing else. Let me explain…

Back in the mists of time, the fans of Sherlock Holmes thought it would be funny to refer to those stories about Holmes written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as being ‘part of the Canon’. They were thinking of the books that had been officially declared to be part of the Bible. They thereby confused two things, and it’s their fault we’ve been in a linguistic twist about this ever since. The canon they referred to was decreed by authority, the theological authority of a group of high clerics concerning how much truth and how much fan fiction was contained in a particular proto-Gospel. The Canon of Sherlock Holmes stories, on the other hand, wasn’t decided by authority after the fact, but by authorial authority. If Conan Doyle wrote it, it was in. If he didn’t, it was out. Sherlock Holmes fans could have no debates about what was and wasn’t ‘canonical’. ‘Written by Conan Doyle’ was what their new version of ‘canonical’ meant.

That new definition of ‘canon’ works fine if you’re dealing with works by one author. It works not at all in any other frame of reference. Doctor Who was created by many people, over a long period of time, and they did not cooperate. There is no authorial authority, and, as I’ll get to in a moment, no council of Bishops.

The reason I’ve been putting ‘canon’ in quotes when I use it without a ‘the’ nicely gesturing towards it, is that Doctor Who fans (and probably others sorts of fans now) use the actual word in a way nobody else does. ‘Is it canon?’ is part of fan language, a grammatical adjustment that has brushed aside the words ‘canonical’ and ‘canonicity’. Indeed, that new foundation is being built on. The other day I heard a podcast presenter reach for ‘canon…ness’.

Here’s what I’m getting to: we also use the concept in a way that’s different to everyone else. 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.

Comics fans have the ‘shared universes’ of DC and Marvel Comics, and when something’s not part of that canon, they’re told so, in that such books are labeled ‘Elseworlds’ or ‘What Ifs’. Star Wars and Star Trek fans have official edicts about such matters from people employed to decide on them. You know, if you’re a Star Trek fan, that the animated series, in a hugely unfair way, considering some of the stuff that did get in, is definitively uncanonical. In these cases, ‘canon’ is not only about authority, but an authority exists that is interested in legislating about it.

That’s not the case in terms of Doctor Who. Nobody at the BBC has ever uttered a pronouncement about what is and isn’t canonical. (As I’m sure they’d put it, being such enthusiasts for good grammar.) Because there was never a Who product that the BBC made that got a producer’s goat enough for that to happen. And because canonicity takes some explaining to anyone raised outside of fandom (‘but… if it’s got Doctor Who on the cover… how can it not be Doctor Who?’) And because the continuity of Doctor Who was always so all over the place anyway that something in a new story not matching up with something from an earlier one was just the way things were, rather than an aberration that had to be corrected through canonical excommunication.

Not giving a toss about how it all fits together is one of Doctor Who’s oldest, proudest traditions, a strength of the series. (And a No Prize to the person who points out the first ever continuity error in the original series.) It’s allowed infinite change, and never left the show crunched into a corner after all the dramatic options had already been done. Terrible continuity equals infinitely flexible format. It’s indefinability that results in that old ‘indefinable magic’. Much in the same way that there’s no one definition of what a ‘Doctor Who companion’ is that includes all of them, and so a new one can be whatever works.

The fact that the BBC had never declared anything non-canonical is one of the reasons why canonicity is much fought over by Who fans. It’s not just about presumed authority (I’ll come to that), it’s about worth.

The idea that one could happily write, as many Star Trek and Star Wars writers happily write, official works that are definitely non-canonical, and everyone in that business accepts that, feels like poison to us Who fans. ‘Non-canonical’ is a term of abuse in Who circles. A threat. It’s the worst thing someone can say about a televised Who story, that they regard it as not having ‘happened’. ‘Fan fiction’ is also a term of abuse. Horribly. While collections of fan fiction have felt able (and felt the need) to try and elbow their way into ‘official’ guides. If the BBC aren’t going to legislate on canonicity, if it ends where payment ends is another hot topic.

That’s one sign that when people talk angrily about canonicity, what we’re seeing is nothing but the urge towards power. Let me now discuss the biggest subject of such debates.

The closest we ever got to a BBC pronouncement on canonicity was a couple of years after the end of the original series of Doctor Who. The show’s last production team declared that Virgin’s Doctor Who novels, the New Adventures, were an official continuation of the series, overseen by the last producer, John Nathan-Turner, with the last writing team onboard, heading towards the aims that that team had put in place.

For a lot of fandoms, that would be good enough for those books to be uncontroversially canonical. It’s enough for Buffy fans, for instance, who seem to unanimously agree with Joss Whedon’s declaration that the new comic continuation of the series is canonical. They’d probably say that’s because they have a single creator. He’s seen to have more authority than one of many production teams in a show created by committee. But that’s just the difference between current American and old British production models.

The canonicity debate you most often hear in Who circles is: ‘the New Adventures aren’t “canon”, we can’t be expected to accept works that were only read by a few thousand people, etc.’ To which fans of those books reply that an appeal to numbers has nothing to do with canonical acceptance. There were, after all, a lot of fans of several of those non-canonical gospels, and you could probably find a majority of Sherlock Holmes fans who’d like to include at least one thing not by Conan Doyle in the Canon. But they had to bite the bullet. Or fight long, bitter, religious wars. Or write angry letters to Holmes fanzines. Numbers had nothing to do with it. Authority had spoken.

This is what I’m saying. Those who argue against the canonicity of the New Adventures miss having an authority to declare or reinforce canonicity. They wish, having once had such an authority declare against them, that such an authority was now on their side. In its absence, they feel they should and can do the job of that authority. They have grabbed hold of what they think that authority should do and are doing it themselves. If an authority on canonicity is the law, they are a lynch mob. And judging from the passion they often show in abusing or looking down on the other sides of this so-called debate, they really enjoy the feeling of assumed power. (As if an appeal to numbers is something the Doctor himself would ever make. The gap between the Doctor’s own ethics and the ethics of us fans, there’s a subject for a future blog.)

Now, should you be in said mob, and now feeling slightly hot under the collar, keep reading, because I have some stern words for the other sides of this so-called debate too, and that may mollify you. A bit.

During the 1990s, when the New Adventures were such a source of friction, I kept saying, about my own work, since I was one of the authors, that there was ‘no such thing as “canon”’. The New Adventures were as ‘real’ as any other sort of Doctor Who. (That’s something else of a bullying nature that people on fan forums say. ‘None of it’s real, you know.’ Like the other person thought it was. They’re deliberately confusing the game of ‘it happened’ with the reality of something that actually did.) Now I want to say that again, when the boot is on the other foot. There is no such thing as ‘canon’.

Russell Davies probably could utter a pronouncement about canonicity that would be accepted. If he wanted to. He could declare that only the TV series was canonical, and that the books and audio plays were not. He’s come close, in that he’s said that only what the general TV audience remembers is important in terms of what’s referred to onscreen (I’m vastly paraphrasing here), and also that BBC television dramas must be whole unto themselves, and must not require extra purchases that ‘complete the story’, as per the BBC charter. (And how arcane a rule is that? But one that fan fora make as much ado out of… as probably the BBC themselves do.)

These are politenesses, niceties, and a mark of the kindness of the man. The first is a simple truth. You don’t make stories about decades-old continuity points and expect to keep eight million tuning in. (I think fandom offhandedly understands that.) But the second is a more interesting bit of give and take. It says the show won’t work out its continuity in other places, or finish off threads that were started in the old BBC Doctor Who novels or the Big Finish audio plays. But consider this. The easiest way to make that intention bulletproof would be a Star Trek like declaration of non-canonicity: ‘enjoy the books, we won’t be bound by them, we don’t regard them as having happened.’ Rather than what’s in place: ‘enjoy the books, we’re legally bound not to have any interaction with them, we won’t ever rule on that subject, oh is that the time?’

That’s a fine distinction, in every sense of the word ‘fine’.

To deal with that ‘won’t be bound by’ clause, Russell’s quietly invented something, and I have no idea as to whether or not he realised it could be used for this purpose. (I don’t think he sits up at night worrying about canonicity, except for the times when I’m pretty sure he does.) I’m talking about The Time War. As mentioned often by the Ninth Doctor. Probably between the Time Lords and the Daleks, and it probably ended with both sides being wiped out, probably that being a sacrifice made by the Doctor. (Like I have any idea, I’m just following the hints.) There’s a line in ‘The Unquiet Dead’ (I think) indicating that the War puts all historical events up for grabs. Nothing necessarily happened like we think it did.

Including previous Doctor Who.

Doctor Who fans, we like to think it all fits together. In our book about continuity, The Discontinuity Guide, me, Keith Topping and Martin Day suggested that, following the events of the story ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, a story where the Doctor is deliberately trying to change history, and says he succeeded in doing so, previous Dalek stories may not have happened, in the universe of Doctor Who, as they were seen onscreen. This theory has gained no ground at all. It was met with a resounding silence. Fans like to think that what they’ve seen remains ‘real’. (No abuse implied, I’m using ‘real’ in the way they’d intend.) Probably because if it doesn’t it makes fun with continuity that much more difficult. (But not impossible, and the game is surely worth it.)

But we’ve recently seen a much bigger example than that. The new series story ‘The End of the World’ absolutely contradicts the old series story ‘The Ark’. Both showed the destruction of Earth. In completely different ways. For completely different reasons. With the fate of remaining humanity being also completely different. (The earlier story is in black and white, which always seems to mean continuity points raised therein are easier to ignore.) Sure, you can come up with a complex theory to explain away the differences. But here it has to be so vastly complex that it would have to actually deny the authorial intent of both stories. We thought we, as viewers, had seen the definitive end of the world in Doctor Who. ‘The End of the World’ showed that we hadn’t. It had been changed. By the Time War.

Bitter debaters about canonicity often say ‘and don’t just say it was the Time War’. Because they know that would work and end their argument. It was the Time War. As Sebastian Brook recently suggested in his podcast conversation with Mike Maddox (see Announcements at the end), Torchwood didn’t exist in Doctor Who history until the Tenth Doctor went back and met Queen Victoria. That’s why we’ve never seen them before. (And Mike comes up with a brilliant one paragraph summation of all the debates I’ve been talking about here.)

So this is what those I yelled at above might get some comfort from. Those who say that because the New Adventures are canonical, therefore the TV series shouldn’t contradict them (and those people also are often inclined to abuse the opposition in search of false authority) are ignoring the fact that the TV series now has a licence to contradict itself, and has already used it, big time. (In the original series, it just did that without having any such device. Three different versions of the destruction of Atlantis, two of them irreconcilable. Perhaps simple time travel, rather than a Time War, is all it takes to make history, canonicity and continuity meaningless.)

That doesn’t mean we lose the lovely thought that Doctor Who is all one big story. It’s one big and very complex story, that rewrites and contradicts itself. That was always the case. Only now it does it with purpose, rather than by accident.

Don’t you think, for instance, there’s something rather tragic and romantic about the Doctor living through some of the same events in different ways, having lost chunks of his own past? That grandeur is touched on for a moment in ‘The Age of Steel’, where the Doctor is horrified to see the Cybermen being created… again. Like a curse or a cancer that can grow on any Earth. (Although that story turned out, in the end, not to be an actual rerun of the Big Finish audio ‘Spare Parts’.)

There is, of course, and I wouldn’t want to put a stop to this, an entirely benign sort of canonicity discussion, in which a writer, such as Lance Parkin, enters into a game of where and how everything might fit together, if it did. That’s just fun, and the authority assumed is only that of a stage magician, because the intention isn’t to hurt anyone. Also, recently, message board posters have tried to declare a truce by use of the term ‘personal canon’. That is to say, we all have our own version of ‘what happened’. That’s entirely lovely, to say that canonicity is ‘an ecumenical matter’. But I’d like us all to go that one step further.

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.

Because in Doctor Who there is no such thing as ‘canon’.

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