Things that bother me:
- People getting particularly insistent about “what counts as canon”.
- People getting particularly insistent about “there is no canon”.
Actually, let me expand, because this feels kinda confrontational on its own. Specifically, the problem here is invalidating other people’s emotional investment.
The term “canon” can be thought of as expressing “this is what counts”. It’s related to the term “in continuity”, meaning that two stories count each other as having happened.
Let’s go over to Doctor Who for an example, since stuff that I was reading about that is what lead me to this observation. Now, as you may know, the mini-episode “Night of the Doctor” featured the Eighth Doctor’s first on-screen appearance since the Doctor Who TV movie in 1996. In NotD, Eight mentions his companions from the spinoff audio adventures produced by Big Finish. This is the first time those have been directly referenced in the TV show, leading many fans to declare “Big Finish is canon!”
Now, the majority of people I’ve seen talking about this are excited and happy. They’re happy that, by saying that their stories count, their emotional investment has been acknowledged and validated.
The problem, of course, is the people for whom that is not enough. They have to make everyone agree with them - agree that these are true facts, and if you disagree, you’re a bad fan and also factually wrong!
The idea of “there is no canon” is one that’s been promulgated in response to this. They point out that a long-running show like Doctor Who has had many different people writing the stories, and for most of it, there wasn’t that big of an effort made to make sure that said stories fit together into one larger landscape. Therefore, the logic goes, there is no larger landscape, no set of stories that can be called a “canon”.
Many people find this an enormously freeing concept, a reason not to worry too much and just go with what makes a good story in the moment. Others disagree; they actively enjoy having a guideline to work against, and playing the game of figuring out how to fit new stories into this structure.
(Personally, I think that having some larger landscape, some canon, is valuable, as a set of limitations that evoke creativity - but that’s no reason to stick to just one! There are as many possible canons as there are combinations of stories, and something to be gained from each one.)
The important thing is that none of these attitudes are actually wrong. They’re all valid ways of looking at and thinking about a fictional work. And there are people who use “there is no canon” in the same way as “this is absolutely canon” - as a stick, to force other people to agree with them, their viewpoint as a fixed thing that cannot be deviated from.
In the end, the important part is that other people aren’t required to agree with you, and by not agreeing with you about their preferred version of a thing, that doesn’t mean that they’re saying that your preferred version is wrong or bad. Feel free to share your version of canon (or lack thereof) with the world! Just don’t insist that other people have the same version.
Maybe it’s because I’m one of the people insistent that there is no canon, but reading this post, I can’t help but think that it kind of obfuscates what a canon actually is. That is, a set list of stories defined by an authority that determines what is explicitly included in and excluded from the list.
To me, saying “Doctor Who has no canon” is like saying “Doctor Who has no sentient radish determining a list of the stories that are worthy based on how good the dialogue sounds when spoken in iambic pentameter.” There might well be people out there who would dearly like to know what the radish thinks, and might consider the mention of Charley in NOTD to be the radish’s tacit approval of the rhythmic qualities of Storm Warning, but it doesn’t make the list (or the radish) suddenly appear.
What seems to be being argued for here is that everyone should be able to have their own personal take on continuity rather than a set canon, which I’m all in favour of. If someone out there feels that the Sky Ray ice lolly cards are the defining point of Doctor Who’s history but the TV show is apocrypha at best, that’s wonderful (and I’d personally love to read their fanfic), but that just leaves me to wonder why they’d need the approval of the BBC (or the company who made the ice lollies) to think for themselves that it’s the best take.
I personally wouldn’t want a Doctor Who universe without FItz, Izzy and Charley being Eight’s companions, but I’m not about to say that the BBC should declare them all canon and ruin the day of some poor soul who only wants Fitz or Charley included but not both so that Eight only has one great love interest. And for me, that’s the centre of the ‘no canon’ argument, that we shouldn’t be using authority to dictate that everyone has the same Whoniverse.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to consult the radish on how it feels about Wormwood Part 3.
Yeah, part of the conflict is that the “canon” and “continuity” of most texts are essentially synonymous, so that the authority behind canonicity is still presumed but unspoken. Which is to say that “this is canon” has come to carry a weight of authority that people lean on even when it’s not clear who that authority is or, in the case of Doctor Who, said authority has demonstrably abdicated.
Classic example of the canon/continuity mix-up: I’ve been in debates where someone has made a claim to canon (ETA: specifically to “what the BBC considers canon”), I’ve gently pointed out that the very people in a position to define what canon is have said that there is no canon, and gotten back, “But there has to be a canon, otherwise you could make up whatever you want!”
But most of the time canon-claiming is pretty benign, which is why, as a stauch(ish) no-canon-in-Doctor-Who advocate I’m against debating people just for saying, “Yay, it’s canon!” — it’s not particularly productive, and it’s unkind. When people presume an authority that doesn’t exist and then use it to browbeat other fans, that’s when my hackles go up.
I don’t think that not believing in a canon prevents one from playing continuity games anyway — it’s fun trying to fit all the various bits of Doctor Who continuity together into a semi-cohesive whole, regardless of whether it’s the one “true” narrative or not. It’s also fun to take a few bits and run with them. Choose-your-own-adventure canon, as it were.