When The Shit Hits The Fan

The Black Dog Podcast’s Lee Medcalf has one major bugbear when it comes to fandom; all of it. From his chair on GeekPlanetOnline’s front porch he likes to shake his walking stick and yell at the kids to get off his damned lawn; we’ve tried asking him to stop, but he has a nasty bite when riled…

Canon, just the very mention of the word, and not in a military hardware sense, has me ready to beat someone to death with a copy of Mr Scott's Guide To The Enterprise

You see, as a SF fan I have, on many occasions, found myself in discussions - oh alright, arguments - with other fans of the genre about various bits of minutiae surrounding a particular subject only to hit the phrase "But that's not canon" or "that's canonically incorrect" at which point I decide I'd like to tie the speaker to a deckchair and kick them down the stairs of a lighthouse. 

The mention of canon, in a geek conversation is like the sci-fi version of Godwin's Law: the further you go into chatting about SF the chances of someone mentioning canon approaches 1. 

And frankly I'm sick to bloody death of canon. 

Okay, for those of you who are lucky enough to have never encountered the word, and for those of you who have stumbled over this article by googling "shit cannon" expecting a humorous YouTube clip; Wikipedia, that font of all slightly dubious knowledge, states canon in fiction is "the material accepted as 'official', in a fictional universe's fan base" and goes on to elaborate with "it [also] refers to the overall set of storylines, premises, settings, and characters offered by the source media text". However, in my reality "Lee-ipedia" states that canon is "basically a big fucking great stick fans use to beat creators with, for not paying attention to the minuscule details while simply trying to entertain us." 

You see, for my money, canon in SF is a double edged sword. On the one hand, canon helps maintain a consistency within a property and in doing so helps form a fully realised universe which can enhance a show immensely. On the other, its a sword that is, unfortunately for SF show creators, being swung about by idiots who simply want to prove their encyclopedic knowledge on a particular subject and in doing so, give their obsession some kind of meaning and establish a hierarchy of those that know and those that don't. 

This initially appears to be kind of harmless and fun to start with until you encounter a fan website or someone with something to prove in a pub, at which point the obsessive attention to detail drains the joy out of your body like a starving vampire in a blood bank. 

Now don't get me wrong, I believe that any arc-based show, comic, film series etc, must maintain some workable continuity otherwise it might as well just be a series of random images stuffed in your eyes for no discernible reason. However when fans get involved, and more importantly fans get obsessed far beyond anything the creators could have imagined, that's when the problems start. 

You see, the aim of any TV show, SF or no, is to entertain. So when it comes to writing a show, usually on delivery deadlines that would make a McDonalds counter monkey sweat, the writers and everyone involved do their best to make a coherent story with logical progression, and ultimately stay true to the core concept of the show. If they can or if it's necessary they'll keep tight tabs on ongoing plot threads, character arcs etc. - usually with a production bible. 

However, what a production bible won't tell you is which button Captain Picard pressed to get his "Earl Grey, hot!" or how many seconds it takes for a Viper to fire out of a launch tube on The Galactica compared to The Pegasus. These sort of things are in the hands of random elements, such as actor interpretation of the script, the director's suggestions, the visual effects department's storyboards, the editor and millions of other odd little interactions that go into creating a show, but which are invariably not noted down, with the exception of some continuity notes taken by the camera assistant. 

And yet it's these little details and mistakes that will consume a fan, details that in the grand scheme of an overall show context mean frankly bugger all, yet will cause fan outrage and in some cases will cause them to abandon and reject the show all together! And again, while some details need to be watched out for and if be missed, or simply forgotten to catastrophic effect in the grand scheme of things - yes Lost, I'm looking at you! - for the most part these extra details do little except cause consternation amongst the more OCD members of the audience who want everything tied up in a neat little bow. 

It's these fragments of canon and fans' reactions to them that I find most infuriating when it comes to discussion about any SF franchise. Because, in the end, all it does is serve to stymie the creativity of the property when nitpickers come out of the woodwork to demand that there be a reason why Superman flies in one comic at the speed of light, while in the next he doesn't when it would have helped his situation in an unrelated story. 

It was something DC realised after they had let their writers do whatever the hell they wanted with their characters. If challenged about canonical inconsistency, DC would simply say that this mistake was a part of an alternative universe or Earth. Its not the most creative of solutions but it worked and shut the nitpickers up. Well, until some bright spark decided that everything had to work together again and created a series which I, to this day refer to as Crisis on Infinite Cluster Fucks. And yet now that the dust has settled on DC universe's house cleaning, the writers, now completely painted into a corner have once again started to break the universe up into infinite earths to simply have interesting stories. 

The Crisis on Infinite Earths débâcle and its fallout is indicative of the kind of crap that comes out of a desperate need to be as obsessive about a universe as the fans who “enjoy" it. I use the word enjoy in quotes there because frankly, the joy seems to stem not from the simple entertainment of the property but from the extrapolation of utterly irrelevant bits of information, and subsequent indignation when the real creators ignore the small stuff the fan has poured over and takes a story in a totally different direction. 

A perfect example of this was JJ Abrams' Star Trek, a film which, in an incredibly smart move, essentially stuck two fingers up to continuity and took the DC route of creating an alternative universe which brought everything back to the very core of what made the original TV series great. By avoiding the forty years of confusing, conflicting and downright contradictory canon generated by a plethora of spin-off tie-in novels, comics, TV shows, films and a online community that could actually spend months ruminating on the precise angle of warp nacelles, Abrams and co were able to simply go back to the original premise of an adventure into the unknown with a noble captain and his two trusted friends, both of whom act like facets of his own personality, all aboard the Starship Enterprise. 

And yet, despite this, the rage, indignation and outright hostility that the film garnered from the "fans" of the Star Trek franchise was incredible. It seemed that many incorrectly assumed that the old history was actually wiped out, something that was explained fairly comprehensively not to be the case in the film. But, for many more reading between the lines of the online venom, the message was clear, "everything I know about the history of Trek is now null and void, I am no longer knowledgeable". Now if someone said the Enterprise could reach warp factor 21, for all anyone knew it could be true. 

Like a trapped beast, fandom howled at the indignity of it all, because now the playing field was level now meant ANYONE could enjoy Star Trek without having to watch 726 episodes. Whether or not fans will admit this point, I sincerely doubt it myself, it is something that is another aspect of comprehensive canonical knowledge that is clearly a big draw for the "hardcore". 

The elitism of the whole thing. 

Yet, canonical elitism and canon in general is, in my opinion, harming SF in the mainstream. Many will subconsciously or otherwise, enjoy the fact that the Barry Shitpeas in the street doesn't "get it" but those fans are also the ones who'll bemoan the lack of genre programs or films because companies see no profit in making something for $50 million if only the "hardcore" of several thousand fans world wide are going to see it *cough* Serenity *cough*. 

We live in interesting times, with SF riding high in the mainstream; it's the go-to genre for summer blockbuster concepts and prestige TV shows. And all of this prosperity for the genre comes from its accessibility to the general public, who'll go and see something for entertainment value and escapism, not to debate the merits of having animated heat exhaust vents on the back of warp nacelles. And frankly, I think Joe Public has the right idea, rather than worry yourself into an early grave over whether or not it was a mistake or something more deliberate when it's revealed as a surprise that the Romulans have cloaking technology, twice, in two separate episodes (Balance of Terror and The Enterprise Incident, fact fans) just watch the damn stuff and enjoy it, or not, based on the story, the acting etc. not based on how convinced you are about a theory explaining how Klingons suddenly went from looking like Peter Sellers in The Party to looking Nana Mouskouri fired through a Ginsters pasty shop* and let the creators create something enjoyable and entertaining without hamstringing them with constrictive continuity based on a mistake 99.9% of the audience would barely notice or care about. 


* Yes I know they explained it in Star Trek: Enterprise, but that in itself is a perfect Crisis on Infinite Cluster Fucks-style retcon that didn't need to happen, beyond a desire to appease fans with some continuity porn.



This week Lee is writing a strongly worded letter on a Ouija board to Gene Roddenberry, demanding an explanation for the Enterprise's max warp speed inconsistency between every episode of Star Trek: TOS.