I Blame Ronald Knox
This week is the 260th anniversary of the founding of the Eleven Day Empire, and ‘coincidentally’ a lot of people have been linking to the Faction Paradox wiki, which has had a new lease of life recently after several years of inactivity.
This is mostly because there has been a huge doctrinal schism on wikia, and the result of it has been that the Faction Paradox series has been cast out of ‘Doctor Who canon’, and all mentions of anything from the Faction Paradox books or audios have been moved from the Doctor Who wiki over to the FP one. Both wikis now have very strict canon policies. The Faction Paradox one is here, while the Doctor Who one is here.
I do worry about the inability of geeks to understand jokes sometimes.
This inability is shown in little ways — like the fact that until I gave in to the compulsion to edit it, the Faction Paradox wiki had an entry on House Lucia and the role it plays in the War that assumed that House Lucia exists ‘in universe’ (people who have read The Book Of The War will now be giggling). But this ‘canon’ business itself is that inability writ large.
The idea of ‘canon’ in the geek sense was invented by Monsignor Ronald Knox, in his 1911 essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes“. This essay was a joke, pure and simple. Knox was parodying liberal Biblical scholars who try to reconstruct sources for the Synoptic Gospels (if anyone’s interested in what I think of those, I tend to agree with Mark Goodacre’s argument for Marcan priority but no Q, but anyway…) or try to separate a ‘historical Jesus’ from the Christ of the Bible, by using their methods to try to analyse the Holmes stories in the same way.
Among Holmes fans, then, the ‘canon’ became the works of Doyle, as they joined in Knox’s harmless game, trying to come up with explanations for inconsistencies. (My own attempt at writing a Holmes story, Doctor Watson Investigates, contains a hint at one of these explanations that I’ve come up with. It’s a fun game).
But then the idea got taken over by geeks, and like everything touched by geeks, it turned rotten.
(NOTE: I am here using ‘geek’ to refer to a specific type of person. Not everyone who calls themselves a geek is this type of person, and certainly not everyone who has interests in some ‘geekish’ things — I am, after all, someone who works as a software engineer on GNU/Linux systems and then in his spare time writes blog posts about comics and Doctor Who. Indeed, I’m someone who calls GNU/Linux GNU/Linux rather than just Linux.)
In the hands of the Sherlockians, the concept of ‘the canon’ was part of ‘the great game’, and whatever the intentions of Knox (an ultra-conservative figure) it became an expansive thing, a tool for playing with notions of authorship. It made the filling-in of plot holes and inconsistencies something with which the reader could play, something that turns the act of reading into a participatory act. It allows the reader to respect the blatant intentions of the author (that the Holmes stories are all about the same characters, are detective stories rather than cookery books, that sort of thing) but makes authorial intention secondary to the imagination of the reader.
Well, obviously we can’t be having any of that!
Because if there’s one thing a particular type of geek can’t cope with, it’s imagination and ambiguity. This is why for all the Libertarian posturing in geekdom, geek-Libertarianism is always on the lookout for a strong man to lead them, and is of the type that can easily tip into Fascism. There must be Rules, and Rules must be Obeyed!
And so Star Trek has a ‘canon’ set by Gene Roddenberry and Paramount Pictures. Star Wars has a ‘canon’ set by George Lucas. There are rules there about which made-up stories count more than which other made-up stories. There are ‘canonical’ and non-canonical Marvel and DC Comics too. These aren’t game-rules being set up by the players of an interpretive game — rather they’re rules imposed from outside, by owners of corporate properties. But they’re still imposed because the audience wants them — so they can tell which stories matter.
Now, for most things that geeks are interested in — ‘properties’ or ‘franchises’ — this is possible. Star Trek and everything in it are owned by Paramount, and they can say “the cartoons don’t count” if they want. They can’t expect me to pay any attention to them, but they can say it.
But this isn’t possible for Doctor Who, and for what I think is a rather wonderful reason. The only things about Doctor Who that the BBC actually owns are the character of the Doctor, the TARDIS, the phrase “Time Lord”, the theme music and a couple of other bits. Many of the things most identified with the programme — the Daleks, K-9, the Cybermen, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the Sontarans, and more — are owned by the writers who came up with them, and can be used, perfectly legally, with no involvement from the BBC.
Which means that if you want to do a story in which the Brigadier teams up with the Doctor’s former companion Nyssa and K-9 to fight off an invasion by a team of Daleks, Cybermen and Axons, which has been secretly masterminded by Magnus Greel, you can do so, so long as you can get the permission of the various writers involved, and so long as you don’t call it Doctor Who.
And many people *have* done stories like that. There are now many entire series of books, audio plays, and videos, of qualities ranging from diabolical to extraordinarily good, that are based off characters that originally appeared in some Doctor Who story or other — Faction Paradox, Kaldor City, Time Hunter, PROBE, Iris Wildthyme, Bernice Summerfield, The Minister Of Chance and more.
And these stories are all meant to be read in the context of Doctor Who, in some sense. Lawrence Miles has talked of Doctor Who as being ‘his native mythology’ and his stories as additions to it — no-one expected any two stories about Hercules to be consistent with each other, but they were both still about Hercules.
The Doctor Who wiki people acknowledge this — they have a whole page about “why the DWU isn’t like other franchises” — but that terminology itself says all you need to know. “The DWU” is a “franchise”. It may be a bit different from other ones, but it still needs to be looked at in the context of media “franchises” rather than examined as a set of artistic, creative works.
They defend the exclusion of stories by saying
Thus we need to know which stories “count” and which don’t. If we didn’t attempt a little bit of definition, our biography of the Doctor would have to include “the time he spent on Earth when he was a human called Dr. Who” or “the incident in which he regenerated into his thirteenth body that looked an awful lot like Joanna Lumley”, “the one time he sounded an awful lot like Nick Briggs, “the other time he sounded an awful lot like Nick Briggs”, and so forth.
You’ll be telling me that Robin Hood was never a fox, next…
It may seem like I’m getting overly annoyed at what is, after all, a few geeks doing geek things, but it’s not the separation of these two wikis that annoys me in itself. Rather it’s that this is a symptom of a larger problem, a basic illiteracy which is spreading.
For example, there was a character called Chris Cwej in some of the Doctor Who books. He also appears in the book Dead Romance, which was originally published in the Bernice Summerfield series (counted as canon on the Doctor Who wiki) before being republished as a prequel to the Faction Paradox series. He then appears in The Book Of The War (a Faction Paradox book), where he’s cloned into a whole subspecies called the Cwejen. One of the Cwejen then appears in a Bernice Summerfield audio drama.
Makes sense, right? Simple enough.
Except that because of this enforced split, these people are insisting that one should instead read it as “there was a character called Chris Cwej in some of the Doctor Who books. Later a clone of him called a Cwejen appeared from nowhere” or “a character called Chris Cwej didn’t do very much, and he was cloned, and the clones did nothing of importance either”. The Chris Cwej in “the DWU” has to be different from the Chris Cwej in “the FPU”. The same goes for the Sontarans, Iris Wildthyme, the Peking Homunculus, Sutekh, even Faction Paradox themselves. Totally different, unconnected characters, in two different ‘franchises’.
The need for rules, for consistency, and for a ‘canon’ has overruled all intelligent reading of the texts, any engagement with them. Not only the author’s intention (and it’s *clearly* the intention that, say, the Sontarans in The Faction Paradox Protocols are the same species as in The Invasion Of Time — there’s a clear intertextuality going on there) but also any kind of sensible reading of the text at all. It’s like trying to read The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen while pretending that the Alan Quartermain or Mr Hyde in it are totally different to the ones who appear in Victorian fiction.
And this is a very, very dangerous idea. Texts should be read with as much context as possible, not as little. While authorial intention isn’t everything, it is *something*, and all works have inspirations from other texts.
Trying to look at texts completely in isolation from their context — and trying to pretend that it’s because of some great authority, even when no authority has spoken — is the mindset of fundamentalism. For anyone who doubts the importance of what I’m talking about, take a look at the way American politics is being distorted by people who insist on ‘literal’ readings of the Bible without paying attention to things like authorial voice or metaphor, without differentiating between recountings of myths and attempts at accurate history, within that very complex, difficult book.
There is a direct link between the mindset that says “Mary Christmas, Santa’s ex-wife who left him because she thought he had an affair with Iris Wildthyme, is ‘canon’, but the Iris Wildthyme who she thought was having an affair isn’t the same one who tried to visit the City Of The Saved. That would just be silly”, and the mindset that uses Scofield Reference Bibles to link completely unlinked pieces of text, written thousands of years apart by different people, into an incoherent but ‘literal’ whole.
It’s only to be expected, though. While Ronald Knox would not have approved of fundamentalism (as a Catholic theologian, he would hardly have supported Calvinist sola scriptura readings, even ones far more intelligent than the Darby/Scofield ones that dominate American fundamentalism), there’s still a profoundly anti-intellectual bent to his essay.
One of the things I like about Doctor Who is that its central character questions authority at all times. To find Doctor Who fans trying to impose imagined authorities is saddening, but sadly unsurprising. Bad laws are made to be enforced rigorously, apparently.