TARDIS exploding inside the Time Vortex

Weighted Continuity in Doctor Who: Part 2 – Canon vs. Continuity

It has become increasingly common to use the words and interchangeably but they’re not the same thing. That might seem like an unimportant technicality but it’s not, because categorically does not have a canon for example, but it clearly does have a continuity, if a rather messy one and the reason that is true is precisely because of the difference between the two words.

Canon, That Weird Fan Obsession

Fans talk a lot about canon. Is it canon? That’s not canon! If I seem dismissive it’s because at times it feels to me like people are more interested in talking about canon than talking about the show they love. In part I think that is because the value placed in a fictional creation is a very personal and subjective thing. The temptation to try and make that personal opinion objective in some fashion by referencing “facts” is one that’s hard to resist, and canon is a way that people feel they can do that. They’re wrong though 

What is Canon

The origin of the modern usage of canon is from the bible where it defined the official and definitive set of scriptures. I believe it was popularized in fan circles by it’s use for Star Wars where due to the large number of licensed stories being produced they established layers of canon as a method for keeping their universe consistent, the goal was not to tell the fans what did or didn’t count, it was for the writers.

Canon is decreed by a force outside of the story. For a book that would be the author and for most tv series it takes the form of some sort of series bible and would be controlled by the show runners or the IP owners. It is an out of universe structure, entirely distinct from story continuity which happens “in universe”

Doctor Who, is an exception to just about any modern genre show in that it does not have any codified canon. It wasn’t a thing that was done in the 1960s and it’s never been done since. No one at the BBC including any of the three showrunners of modern Doctor Who have attempted to establish one and no one outside of the BBC can. Now, I assume that if a comic writer decided to make the Doctor a mass murderer, the BBC would step in at that point so you could probably argue that there is an unwritten canon but if so it would be a minimal one.

The significance of Doctor Who having no formal canon is that it becomes much easier to deviate from continuity because no central authority is keeping things in check. Does the TARDIs always have to look like a police box? Nope. Can the Doctor be half human? Yep. Can the Loch Ness monster have multiple origin stories? Sure. Are there multiple versions of Atlantis? You betcha!

From my perspective then fandom’s interest in canon is a problematic thing. It can serve a valuable function in trying to keep the multiple writers and directors on the same page so that what emerges isn’t completely inconsistent and that is certainly a good thing. In larger shared universes that have spin-offs in other media it also helps to impose at least some semblance of order across the whole universe. But it is a production tool, not a measure of story quality.

Unfortunately, far too often fans start to weigh Canonicity as a factor in the quality and worth of a story. But canonicity is just adherence to an arbitrary bible, it does not make a story better or worse, nor does it make a story less important if it is not canon, and yet far too often discussion of stories gets reduced to arguments about whether something is “canon or not”.  Instead of being a framework for building stories, canon becomes weaponized.

Head Canon

By definition Head Canon does not carry the weight of canon because it is imposed internally not by an external authority. It is an effort by a fan to say this is how I choose to interpret something and how I weigh its importance regardless of what is said officially. In fact, by definition, head canon isn’t actually canon at all. It has far more in common with than actual canon

I think it says something about how discussion of canonicity has affected the way we discuss stories that people feel the need to establish a head canon or express it in those terms. Fundamentally if you were to say “My head canon is that the Doctor loved Sarah Jane” what you are actually saying is “This isn’t official, but it is how I interpret those stories.”

Anyone who has had even the most elementary education in English should be aware of the concept of interpretation. There is what is on the page, what the author intended but may not have explicitly said and what the reader gets from the text which is partly informed by their own experiences. I’m not sure that I can state that all interpretations are valid, but most interpretations have validity to them if they are based honestly on the reader/viewer’s reactions. When it comes to interpretation, canon should be irrelevant.

Unfortunately there is an inclination once the concept of canon has been introduced to the conversation to assume there is a correct answer and people will cite canon to prove it. Thus we have “head canon”, a term with an implicit built in defense against the canonicity argument.

Not Canon, Continuity

So, you’ve likely gathered I’m not in favor of how fandom uses canonicity in conversations. I think the concept itself has value, but I think it’s been misappropriated. I have a feeling that if anyone is still reading at this point several of them will be quite flustered by that position. They want some consistency in their shows. You can’t just wave away canon, things have to mean something! Well, look at what canon actually is, it has nothing to do with meaning inside a story at all. That’s what continuity is for!

Continuity

This is consistency within the Universe of the stories. How tightly do the stories and plot follow on from each other and to what extent do they compliment or contradict each other? If a story is completely lacking in continuity then nothing matters and nothing has weight because everything could change within a few seconds. Continuity gives us a story and characters that build on themselves until we reach a denouement. When talking about a story and its meaning and what happened, continuity matters far more than canonicity.

What can be a little more challenging though is defining the scope of continuity. There is for example in-scene continuity; in episode continuity; in story continuity (if the story covers more than one episode); in season continuity, in series and finally in universe continuity (accounting for spin-offs sequels etc.). The requirements for each of these are a little different. If the Doctor changes jackets mid-scene then we should see that happening, if it happens between scenes during an episode it may just need to be mentioned and if it happens between stories it can just be assumed that he changed and no explanation is required because changing jackets is a thing that people do.

Similarly if a character was angry in the previous scene, the viewer is definitely going to need a reason why that character is no longer angry just a short time later. They would likely expect an explanation if the character was calm in the following episode, even if that explanation is simply that this is several weeks later. On the other hand if it’s 10 episodes later, unless those 10 episodes all happen in the space of a few days, there is an implicit understanding that people don’t maintain the same mood for weeks or months at a time.

This approach to continuity works very well in a serial with a beginning, middle and end and can also be adapted effectively for shows that run multiple seasons. However, it does start to fall apart when you’re talking about shows that have been on the air for a decade or more though because of the sheer amount of continuity to consider. A problem which much smarter people that me have found ways to address.

Sliding Continuity

In a long running multi-author universe continuity often has to be adjusted to accommodate things that were not anticipated when the universe started. The most famous example I can think of is Marvel Comics sliding timescale.  Roughly speaking everything that has happened within Marvel Comics since the publication of Fantastic Four has occurred within a 10-15 year period and this means that while that comic was published in 1961, the events depicted in it now occurred in roughly 2007-2010. Other elements get similarly compressed so that Iron Man’s origin was based around the Vietnam war, but most recently I think it has been Afghanistan and no doubt soon it will be Ukraine.

While this does create some problems as the years get really crowded, and you really don’t want to contemplate how many things Spider-man has experienced in just 15 years, or how he could possibly still be sane. However, it allows Marvel to keep their core characters within a certain age range and continue telling the type of stories that their audience wants. If they did not slide the timescale then Peter Parker would be in his 70s now. And while there is certainly a portion of the audience that would enjoy that progression, it creates far too many problems to be worth doing. These types of characters don’t have permanent endings because then there are no more stories and Marvel doesn’t intent to stop publishing comics anytime soon.

Crisis

Another option available when your the continuity of your universe gets out of control is to do what Marvel’s long time rivals DC Comics did, and continue to do. First with the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and then several more times after that, in which they effectively hit the reset button on their whole universe. It’s an extreme approach to the problem and, as shown by the fact they’ve done it repeatedly, it can often create more continuity messes than it solves.

Weighted Continuity

That brings us finally to what I refer to as Weighted Continuity. I’m not personally aware of any series other than Doctor Who which uses this approach, but there probably are some. Instead of rearranging timescales or universe spanning events to justify continuity changes the show simply fades up or down the importance of various events. Almost nothing is explicitly eliminated even if it is later contradicted.

So how does this work? Who decides what weight any particular bit of continuity has in Doctor Who? I’d say there are two major forces at work shaping weighted continuity but their function, influence and engagement are each very different:

The Showrunner

When it comes to shaping Doctor Who and thus influencing weighted continuity the showrunner is simply the most significant person. The fact that they are commissioning scripts, writing scripts and shaping the season arc makes them both the most influential person and the one with the most engagement with the show. As a storyteller their interest in continuity generally relates more to how it would impact the story they are trying to tell than an interest in the minutia though as they are also often fans, they may care about that too.

The Audience

The general audience is of course the least directly involved of these forces but their influence is substantial since they are the bulk of the people watching the show. I believe they are considerably less worried about many types of continuity for the simple reason they’re not aware of them. They know the broad strokes but may or may not remember that the Doctor has previously met Shakespeare and if they do remember may or may not care.

A Delicate Balance of Interests

It is the interaction of these two forces and their competing interests which creates the weighted continuity that drives Doctor Who. At a fundamental level the show and its showrunner cannot stray too far from how the casual audience views the show. They know it’s about this alien who travels through time and space getting into scrapes and fixing them. They know the TARDIS is a police box. These sorts of things are close to immutable because everybody knows them and so they carry more weight, they become anchor points

As you move further away from the things that “everyone” knows about the show, things become less definitive. At this point the influence of the showrunner becomes paramount. Whatever their particular “head canon” is influences the show and as those elements are highlighted in episodes they become more widely known increasing their weight, at least temporarily. So the more often the show references something the more  weight it gets and the longer the show goes without referencing something the less it weighs. This effect is particularly strong if the episodes in question are popular and well received as they get talked about more and watched more.

But What About the Fans?

You may notice I haven’t really talked about the fans in this process and that’s because quite frankly they aren’t that significant. I’m sure people won’t like to hear that but as a percentage of the watching audience they are pretty small and also they are fans so they’ll probably watch anyway regardless of the direction the show goes in.

The only time fan influence seems to shape the show is when you have a showrunner who takes a particular interest in fans (JNT) or is themselves a fan (RTD, Moffat, Chibnall) and in that case it’s still only impacting because they are the showrunner. Since the revival the fact that all three showrunners have themselves been fans has had an impact, but in each of those cases what we’ve seen on screen has been driven by their personal fandom, not fandom in general.

It Only Matters If It’s Remembered

So that’s really the secret of weighted continuity. Continuity only actually matters if people remember it. Almost everyone is going to remember what has happened in the episode they are watching. An overwhelming majority of people will remember what has happened in the season they are watching. Most people will remember the larger elements of what has happened in the last 3+ seasons and likely only fans will remember specifics from further back than that. 

Weighted continuity relies on the show referencing elements again and again, over time what elements get referenced change and so the continuity morphs. The Doctor was probably human at the start, but then he wasn’t and people forgot about it. The Time Lords were powerful, effective and godlike and then they became corrupt and inefficient but people didn’t mind because they didn’t remember the previous version anyway. Fans minded and complained at the time, but corrupt and inefficient is a version of them which got repeated a lot and so it has stuck.

Doctor Who isn’t a single story about the life of a rogue Time Lord. It’s a series of stories. Continuity within those stories is of critical importance. Continuity between stories becomes increasingly less significant as you zoom out.


Posted

in

,

by

Leave a Reply