Why People Get So Worked Up About 'Canon'

By Kotaku on at

by Nathan Ditum

Last week the news emerged that director Neill Blomkamp’s recently confirmed Alien movie will wipe away the series’ less celebrated sequels and will pick up the story of Ellen Ripley from James Cameron’s Aliens. “I want this film to feel like it is literally the genetic sibling of Aliens,” Blomkamp said. “So it's Alien, Aliens, this movie”.

Something happens when the established order of treasured universes are disturbed like this, not just in films, but in comics and video games too - people get mad, and in a pretty specific way. Blomkamp’s movie is a great example, because even though it was carried to greenlight on a wave of social media enthusiasm, and even though it’s only proposing to quietly ignore two movies that are widely considered to be bum in space, some fans are still vocally unhappy. The top-rated comment on the Badass Digest story, for instance, is a simple yet monolithically symbolic “Boo” (followed by “*Marge from the Simpsons sigh*” and “*Tina Belcher guttural moan of concern*” then an admittedly less symbolic follow-up about someone’s aunt earning $71 per hour working from home).


The unscientific point I’m making is that these kinds of canonical disruptions seem to be objectionable even when they turn out to be, after the briefest of consideration, actually rather a good idea, or at least a better idea than a blockbuster sequel set in a space prison full of hairless rapists, or resurrecting your hero as a no-look-basket-scoring alien hybrid. This is interesting because it raises the question: if fans aren’t objecting to this kind of retcon tinkering because of quality, then why are they objecting? The answer, I think, is integrity - the integrity of the worlds in question, and, more specifically, how that integrity affects the ability of fans to understand and inhabit those worlds.

Without dipping into dismissive stereotyping, it is true that canon and continuity are especially important to a particular sort of story, and a particular corner of entertainment culture. Nerds like us, I am saying, love a recorded fact that sits obediently alongside other facts, and this is reflected in the lengths that related fictional universes will go to in order to preserve consistency.

In the 1980s, for example, DC famously commissioned Crisis On Infinite Earths, a spectacular reckoning of its sprawling 50-year history that simplified its teeming archive of competing backstories and crossovers. It was a brutal, catastrophic bit of maintenance, a complex, multi-dimensional story that relieved fans of the burden of accumulated orthodoxy, and took great pains to do so in such a way that the wider fictional frame remained intact (in other words, there were reasons in the story itself that different versions of various characters died or disappeared).


This is a kind of intricate fan diplomacy, and it happens all over. While many fictional universes have unofficial records of continuity (like Mario), Star Wars has an official one. The Holocron is an encyclopaedia maintained by Lucasfilm, and specifically by Leland Chee (official title: Community Database Administrator, though he’s better known as the far cooler “Keeper Of The Holocron”) that records characters, events, objects, and even relative distances of places in the Star Wars universe. The Holocron was built in response to the “Expanded Universe” of Star Wars that came into being with the release of tie-in books, video games and other ancillaries: fan desire demanded that this quickly expanding world be be ordered and managed.

This explains why there was a small furore over the recent revelation that JJ Abrams’ Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens will ditch the previously-canon Expanded Universe, and all its meticulous record-keeping. Abrams has form here, as his Star Trek reboot, like Infinite Earth, was an elegant in-fiction way of wriggling out from under the weight of canonical expectation (the basic formula: “New Spock, Old Spock, explosion, explosion, NEW TIMELINE WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT”).

It happens in games, too. Like, all the time. Ninja Theory’s redesign of Dante for reboot DmC inspired a particularly aggrieved form of fury, as to a lesser extent did the younger Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, and the replacement of old favourite David Hayter as the voice of Metal Gear’s Snake with Hollywood hoarse whisperer Kiefer Sutherland. Reboots of Thief and Deus Ex were eyed with suspicion-bordering-on-hostility throughout production, and - perhaps most dramatic of all - at the close of Bioware’s epic RPG trilogy Mass Effect, fans made a pretty compelling argument that they had a better sympathy for and understanding of the game’s ultimate meaning than the developers themselves (who kind of agreed, by kind of changing the ending).


Why is this such a powerful thing? After the announcement of the Star Wars canon cull, Shelly Shapiro, the editor at Del Rey books responsible for the expanded universe novels (which are henceforth to be rebranded as “Legends”) said this:

“Even though they would no longer be part of a Star Wars official history, they’re still stories that mean something, and they can mean something to you, even if they didn’t ‘happen.’” [Source]

Two things are key here: those inverted commas around the word ‘happen’, which speak galactic volumes about the make-believe politics of managing a fictional universe, and the phrase “official history”. This is what all the fuss is about - that stamp of authenticity, a privileging of truth, and a seemingly arbitrary confirmation of legitimacy. “That fake thing you like? That is the real fake thing. We pronounce it.”

The reason this is such a compelling thing, despite the surface madness of it, is that love sends us crazy. When we love a world, we want to exist and revel in it. We want it to be true. And that truth is disrupted by inconsistency and contradiction. We need that integrity - our belief requires it. Canon is about neatness, and appreciation, and the urge to know and absorb everything about something you love. It’s about ownership and protectiveness. And it can also be unexpectedly damaging.


The reason that all of the above canon changes are noteworthy - the effort put into making them invisible, the inevitable anger that happened anyway - is because at a certain point uncompromising lore becomes restrictive. Hideo Kojima recently joked that to straighten out the continuity of Metal Gear he’d have to remake every game twice (“I was always held back by the canon when I was writing for The Phantom Pain”) and Ron Moore, the man who was a longstanding Star Trek writer before he rebooted Battlestar Galactica, once explained the frustration of creating stories in the Star Trek universe:

“[You’d be] in the writers room and tossing out stories then having to stop yourself and go ‘Does this work? Does this violate continuity?’ And having to call people and check encyclopaedias and look up information. You want to have it all in your head and just play. The Trek universe has got to the point where you can’t play anymore.” [Source]

Purity of canon, and the need for officialness and narrative singularity, is in some clear and obvious way the enemy of creativity. And not just, I’d argue, because it makes new stories difficult to write, but because a monolithic interpretation of any idea is less interesting than different takes and perspectives. What that looming “Boo” in the Badass Digest comments doesn’t take into account is - well, nearly everything in the store of human knowledge - but specifically the fact that Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection are still there. Nobody is erasing them, they're just no longer part of an official fictional history, whatever that amounts to.

The notion that these films have changed or suffered in some way is really the failure of that protective, possessive form of fandom to handle ambiguity - it wants singularity and certainty instead. But ambiguity, that ability to hold two potentially competing conceptions of something in your mind simultaneously and for them to enrich and comment upon each other, is something worth preserving. Ambiguities are in this way a form of mystery, something that resists rationalisation, and to end, as all articles should, with a David Lynch quote: "The more unknowable the mystery, the more beautiful it is."