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.

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48 Responses to I Blame Ronald Knox

  1. Richard says:

    Agree with all you say here, and also the wisdom of Russell T Davis who restated the “there is no canon” law for Doctor Who.

    Of course the Faction Paradox that appears in Doctor Who is the same Faction Paradox that appears in Faction Paradox. You might think it would amuse them, but the history of the Thirteen Day Republic suggests that they look on rival Factions very askance.

    For what it’s worth, Doctor Who *and* Faction Paradox are both canon source documents for my aNARCHY rULES novel(s).

    • I’m glad you agreed — I wrote that when very tired, and I’m still not awake enough to be sure it’s coherent.

      Any fiction I write takes place in the same universe as Doctor Who *and* Faction Paradox *and* Batman *and* Sherlock Holmes *and*… well, everything, really. Except the stuff that doesn’t.

  2. Personally, I’ve always worked from the idea that if it’s been licensed by the BBC or whoever the relevant licenseholders may be, then it’s canon. So Big Finish is canon. The BBC annuals are canon. Faction Paradox is canon. DO You Have a Licence to Save This Planet is canon. So’s the Walls ice lolly advert. And Dr Who Fights Masterplan Q, as serialised on bars of Nestle chocolate back in the early ’70’s. And the Victoria Wood sketch with the ming mongs. Which means that I have a personal Doctor Who canon in which the Doctor has been played by Joanna Lumley, Richard E Grant (in two separate incarnations, one animated), Peter Cushing (when he thought he was a human scientist) and Jim Broadbent, also in two separate incarnations. Oh, and Lenny Henry, now that I think of it. So the Doctor can be a woman and can change ethnicity. Yes, all these sources lead to contradictions, but so does the original series and as far as I’m concerned, it’s up to us to find ways that these things fit together.

    Examples of contradictions in the TV series? Were the UNIT stories set in the future or in the present? (Answer: both. Hisotry was rewritten in CIty of Death, when the Doctor was present at the dawn of life on Earth. When he picked up a lump of primordial ooze, some microbes were transferred from him into the ooze, meaning that life now started a few minutes before the Jagaroth ship blew up and was rather more advanced than it would have been otherwise. As a result of this, humanity develops quicker, and starts space travel earlier than it would have done, drawing attention to itself sooner than would have been the case and so the likes of Web of Fear and Invasion are rewritten and happen earlier than the versions we saw on TV. So, by the time we reach Mawdryn Undead, the UNIT era took place in the ’70’s, rather than the ’80’s.) Is the Doctor half human or not? (Answer: sometimes. The McCoy-MGann regeneration is the first to happen without the aid of either the Tardis or some other form of Time Lord control. Hence the Doctor’s body improvises and takes genetic information from the last compatable lifeform it was in contact with before he died – namely Grace, whose face he touches on the operating table. So,the 8th Doctor is half human.)

    You don’t like these ideas? Okay, come up with your own. f you’re feeling lazy, then the TV show’s provided you with easy get out clauses – the Time War changed everything. The cracks changed everything. When the Doctor reset the universe in The Big Bang, bits of it changed then. The Cushing Doctor is a fobwatched version of the Doctor whose memories are leaking back, so he can build a version of the Tardis in his back garden. And if all else fails, it’s happening in an alternate universe. If that’s how you want to do it.

    What it all comes down to, is we’ve been given a playroom here with a fuck off huge Lego set and licence to put it together however we like. You think the Rani is actually Iris Wildthyme’s personal Valeyard? Fine. Maxil is the 6th Doctor working undercover? Alright. The 4th Doctor at one point looked like Chris Serle and travels with a violent Italian astronomer called Vittorio? Okay. Tie it all together how you like. Then half way through, abandon it because you’ve had a better idea.

    I mean, honestly, why would you not want to approach it like that? It’s much more fun.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Exactly. If it makes the story you’re watching/reading/listening to/making up more interesting, it happened. If it doesn’t, it didn’t.

  3. Phil says:

    I almost completely agree with you, so naturally I’m going to focus in on the bit I sort of disagree with. I’ve never been a big fan of reading Faction Paradox in the context of Doctor Who, because while you’re absolutely right that “texts should be read with as much context as possible, not as little”, I don’t think Doctor Who IS Faction Paradox’s context. It’s the entirety of human history and culture and how fascinating and peculiar that is. “It’s about a time-travelling voodoo crime syndicate who fight on the edges of a war where history is the weaponry, the battleground and the disputed territory” is a much broader canvas than “When Doctor who got cancelled in 1987…” Which you know, of course, because you’ve written about it before. But it’s a sore spot with me, and I think the Faction Paradox books deserve to reach a wider audience, and that their connection to Doctor Who partly prevents that, even though they don’t need it to survive.

    I’m lying, obviously. Doctor Who is absolutely vital if you want to play The Great Game with Faction Paradox, and work out how it all fits together, which I’ve spent far too much time doing. Did you know that you can work out the general shape of what the story of the Faction comic book was going to be from the Adventuress of Henrietta Street? The crazy thing is, Faction Paradox is deliberately able to scratch exactly that sort of shameful geek urge towards categorisation, and might even provide the sort of consistency these people are demanding, if they’re willing to read it in any sensible fashion.

    Sorry, I seem to have turned your comments section into my own nonsensical essay. What I actually wanted to say is thank you for writing about the Faction Paradox books in the first place. Your posts a couple of years ago got me interested, and now they’re some of my favourite stories, and in some small way have changed how I see the world. So thank you, Andrew, and sorry again for the massive comment.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No, thank *you*, and please continue to leave massive comments whenever you like.

      I think, again, context is all, and the context of the Faction Paradox books and audios are different from each other. The books are pretty much self-contained, without many/any Who references. The audios, on the other hand, I remember Miles describing once as “aimed at the sort of people who would understand a story where Iris Wildthyme had an affair with Bernice Summerfield on the sandminer from Robots Of Death” or words to that effect.

      (I much prefer the books to the audios, partly for that reason).

      Doctor Who is definitely *part* of Faction Paradox’s context — specifically, Doctor Who as written by Robert Holmes or Christopher Bidmead. But also part of that context, at least in the books, are the works of George Orwell, I, Claudius, Monty Python, and loads more.

  4. Yes.

    And no.

    Er…it’s more complicated than that.

    I think that there is a difference between the writers “canon” and the readers “canon”. When Gene Roddenbury started to create Star Trek the Next Generation, he had to say “For the purposes of writing thise new series, did the cartoons ‘happen’ and did the movies ‘happen’: if Spock and Sarek appear in my new series, does their biography include Spock’s evil half brother or that time he was visited on Vulcan by his grown up self.” That stuff affects how you write about continuing characters.

    Certainly it makes less difference to something like Doctor Who than to something like Lord of the Rings. (Part of the liteary conceit of Lord of the Rings is “it makes sense as imaginary history”: Tolkien himself decided that some of his earlier writings “didn’t happen” — they still exist as stories, but they didn’t exist as part of the setting he was building up for later books.)

    I think a fan-reading that says that Matt Smith is playing the same person (with some kind of continuity of memory) who used to be Peter Cushing and was briefly Lenny Henry is great fun and there’s nothing wrong with it at all. I think that it’s very sensible for the new TV series to have made notes which said “McGann special — did happen; Rowan Atkinson skit – didn’t happen.)

    I think the insistence of some fans that all stories and all fan fic has to have “really happened” (and to build up great big edifices to explain this) is just as much like fundementalism as authoratitive one true canon all other canons are cast out approach. More like fundementalism, really, in a way. Are there two contradictory accounts of the creation of the world in Genesis (clue: yes). Yes, but once you realise that there’s a lost Genesis Season 6.1 (lost in the sense of “never written, transmitted, or thought of) in which the world got wiped out and had to be made a second time, then you’ll see there is no contradiction, and anyone who says there was doesn’t love Jesus.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I agree with pretty much all of this, too. If someone wants to write a Doctor Who story ignoring or contradicting something in Faction Paradox, that’s absolutely fine, as is someone writing a Faction Paradox story ignoring Doctor Who, or anything else for that matter.

      If Tolkien wanted to say that some of his writings didn’t count when writing his other books, that’s perfectly fine, and his prerogative as the author. If a Tolkien reader wants to write some fanfic that then connects those writings, that’s fine too. If that reader insists that the fanfic “is canon”, then they should be ignored.

      If another Tolkien reader notices that The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings aren’t perfectly consistent with each other, and goes through all Tolkien’s writings, assigning some to “The Hobbitverse” and others to “The LOTRverse”, and includes the Jackson films in the latter because they’re officially licensed, then they’re clearly barking.

      It’s fine to say that when Watson’s wife calls him “James”, that’s her nick-name for him, or he’s John Hamish Watson, or (as I’ve been setting up in my Watson stories) that she was introduced to him by Frederick Treves, who gets people’s names wrong, and she got used to calling him the wrong name, or that The Man With The Twisted Lip is actually narrated by James D Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who time-travelled back to meet Holmes on an adventure with the Doctor — that’s a fun game if you’re playing it. It’s also fine to say “no, none of those things happened. Doyle forgot what he’d written”. If you just say “The Man With The Twisted Lip is clearly not canon, and should be ignored in future when discussing Holmes stories” there’s something wrong there… But if Doyle had said “I’m ignoring that story in future, I don’t think it was very good, so I won’t make any reference to anything that happened in it in future stories” that would be perfectly reasonable.

      And I realise that in making what looks like an attempt at an exhaustive list of proper and improper readings I am falling into the same trap as the people I criticise… I suppose my point can be summed up as “it’s a bad idea to try to claim one definitive reading for a text, especially if you’re deliberately ignoring both authorial intent and intertextual references”.

  5. I’d suggest ‘closure’ is the missing word here. Geeks (as you define the word) want texts to be closed, in the same way cowherd gangs in Westerns want to fence in pieces of land. Everything tied down and neatly labelled. Then it can be yours.

    I like the idea of texts remaining open. They’re the gift that just keeps giving. Each text can itself be open, like the way a piece of land you think you know can suddenly reveal something you’d never noticed before. But also texts can interact, possibly by characters or motifs intersecting or simply by just sloshing about in your own brain.

    Or texts can be like subatomic particles, which seem to have no bottom, defy all laws of causality and have weird effects on each other. You can pick your own metaphor. That’s kind of the point.

    The Doctor revealed as half-human is actually a classic example of closure. The point about the Doctor is that he’s actually English. (Of course he bloody is! He used to wear cricket whites. You think he’ll reincarnate one day and have a South African accent or something?) But of course he’s also completely alien. The two co-exist in a kind of quantum state. They don’t vie with each other, they add to each other. By slicing him down the middle, by explaining away this mystery, you gain nothing and lose everything.

    But (as I’ve often said before) you take what works for you and leave the rest. If I think making the Doctor half-human was a gormless literalisation, I don’t spend my time coming up with convolutions which explain this away. I just ignore it. Is it canon? It’s crap! That’s the important point.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      If we are going to keep agreeing like this, people will start to talk.

    • Tilt Araiza says:

      Bit out of my depth here, but bear with me: closure’s one of the things that’s messed up comics isn’t it? Writer A closes an aspect of a narrative and Writer B wants to open it again (possibly so that he can close it again) and what’s left behind is a tangle and one of the things that creates the tangle is fear of ambiguity or open spaces. After Writer A has killed off Pancakeman, the return of Pancakeman just has to be a convoluted 6 issue story that tries to cover every base so his return makes sense. I know there’s a cynical commercial reason for long stories, but I also suspect that many writers and readers of genre stuff just wouldn’t entertain the idea of explain Pancakeman’s return in 6 lines rather than six issues.

      I just know that if/when they get around to having to cast a 14th Doctor there’ll be a great big explanation story rather than a couple of lines.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        Absolutely agreed with all of this. There’s nothing wrong with “So you escaped from that volcano after all!” and on with the story.

        • Tilt Araiza says:

          Another point about closure-storytelling is its literalism can sometimes betray a lack of trust on the part of the writer, in artists and readers or in actors and audiences. I’ve noticed a lot more tell-don’t-show in the last decade. A Dr.Who example is Dr. 9 looking in a mirror and talking about his ears so that we know he’s just regenerated, when looking in a mirror and flinching would have done the job. I always love the story about Yes, Minster scripts containing the note “Paul doesn’t have to say this line if he doesn’t want to”.

    • Christian says:

      Agree? Hah! You make a crucial mistake! Rogers and Hammerstein clearly laid out that the essential conflict over barbwire and “fencing in” is due to a dispute between nomadic cattle-driving itinerant workers and settled agrarian land-owners. As one later finds in Carousel, the progression of American history shows the greater social dynamic being a struggle of—

      Wait. You said “cowherd gangs in westerns”?

      Sorry. My mistake. “The Farmer and the Cowhand Can Be Friends” isn’t really canon to the Cinema Western.

      Mea culpa.

      • lucidfrenzy says:

        One day I will treat you all to my theory that the ranchers/outlaw gang vs. good-decent-townspeople trope in Westerns is recreating an imagined primary antagonism between hunter-gatherers and the first farmers.

        (I have an unusual definition of the word ‘treat’…)

    • Iain Coleman says:

      The Doctor is English? That’ll surprise Sylvester McCoy.

  6. Hal says:

    Interesting post followed by some fascinating comments. Attempts to achieve some sense of inarguable definiteness irritate the hell out of me not least because of the flaws that are *always* present. I feel that Irving the Explainer-ish exercises in tying everything together and explicating every minute element are often among the most boring, humourless, and pointless things on God’s Green Earth, as they strip away all the joy, imagination, and strangeness by Poindexterishly filling in all the space. There’s a big difference between amusedly proferring explanations for the Jameses Moriarty or for the John/James Watson fol de rol in a story, and trying to link every Doctor Who story into some seamless fricking tapestry. One is *alive* the other is to misunderstand the uh wonders of Doctor Who by closing off and shutting down imagination. That’s why Moffat’s apparent idea that “Doctor Who?” is an important question with some “definitive” answer is *fundamentally* (and I use that word advisedly [winks]) stupid, in my ‘umble opinion, it’s also why I find attempts by people to say that the U.N.I.T. stories certainly *didn’t* take place in some fictional vision of the then- near future as they looked like they were shot in the early 1970s very silly indeed. Where’s the imagination? It’s always fun to come up with your own explanations, usually with some expansiveness involved such as, say, the mistakes or differences in the Holmes stories occurring because C-D was accidentally writing of alternative realities all of which are valid (except for the bad stories of course). That multifariousness might partly account for Holmes popularity, there’s more to him than meets the eye. Intriguing stuff, Andrew.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I was just telling Holly last night “You’d think all those Sherlock Holmeses would have got in touch with each other and told each other about stuff like the Hound of the Baskervilles. I mean, that happened to all of them — the one that sounds like Orson Welles, the one that looked like Basil Rathbone, the one that looked like Jeremy Brett… it happened to the one that looked like Peter Cushing *twice*! You’d think they’d give each other the message.”

      But of course, that’s probably how Holmes makes his deductions so easily. He’s been told what happened by one of the other Holmeses it’s already happened to. And that’s why the stories where he doesn’t figure it out are hardly ever made into films.

  7. Tilt Araiza says:

    And another thing…the other day I was thinking about how often modern genre stuff falls into telling stories about stories. I think it’s become a lazy route to feeling clever is deconstructing something that was only ever meant as a simple minded narrative and you wind up meeting people who think they’re sophisticated because they’ve read a story about how Captain Orphan has issues arising from his bereavement. In the old days, to feel sophisticated you used to have to watch an opera about a prostitute dying of consumption in a garret in Kristiania, on BBC 2 even!

    • Tilt Araiza says:

      The above comes of a bit derailing doesn’t it? I meant it to be relevant to the canon discussion because clever clever canon-patches seem like they’re seen as a valid storytelling form in and of itself by “geeks”. I wanted to work in the phrase “Johnsian Literalism” but I can’t.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        No, it’s not derailing at all. I think it’s all part and parcel of the same mindset. If you’ve got literalist readers (or, indeed, if you’re a literalist writer) then subtext, metaphor and intertextuality are no longer tools that are available to you. That means that if you want to be even a little sophisticated you have to dump all of it directly into the text rather than imply anything, which leads to Heroman saying to Villainman “You know, in many ways, we’re two sides of the same coin. Just like that coin you tossed. If I’m the head, then you’re the tail. But if you cut off the head, can the tail still wag?” and everything becomes a third-generation photocopy of The Killing Joke.

        • Tilt Araiza says:

          The grim thing is that I see that tendency infecting non-genre TV. Geeks have the reins of culture. You know my old whinge that genre stuff (at least in TV and comics) used to be written by people with ambitions toward capital-D Drama* and now it’s written by people whose ambitions are towards genre stuff. I now get the feeling that capital-D Drama is written by people with genre ambitions. You know how bad I am at explaining myself in text, this probably read more high-handed that it’s meant to be.

          *I certainly don’t think the old school guys were slumming when they wrote Spies In Space rather than The Crumbling Marriage. Hulke had some Armchair Theatres under his belt before he wrote for Pathfinders or Dr. Who. I suppose he might have despaired of writing for the latter shows, but he might equally welcomed the chance to do a bit of teatime. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Mike Wallace interview with Rod Serling but he gets understandably antsy when dealing with the idea that Twilight Zone represents him giving up writing anything serious for television (it’s put to him in exactly those terms).

          • Tilt Araiza says:

            Did you see this week’s George Gently by the way? I know George Gently isn’t exactly God On Trial, but the way it took a highlighter pen to its theme and then drew big circles around it…wow!

          • lucidfrenzy says:

            I fear you are right here. We saw this virus first infect comics and hoped it would go away. But like bird flu it hopped mediums, infected genre movies and TV and from there contaminated more mainstream stuff.

  8. plok says:

    Retconning can be fun! That Tolkien decided there was a “Bilbo” version and a “Frodo” version of the story of The Hobbit, instead of simply saying “oh well, forget that earlier version”, is to my mind a great example of how deconstruction can cure a text of inconsistencies…not that anyone needed Tolkien to cure his own text this way, but the point is that it’s a form of art. Bilbo lies about how he got the Ring, because the Ring is already working on him in the same way and with the same effect as it had previously worked on Smeagol. It’s rather delightful, really. But you certainly don’t need to know about it! I’ve never read the earlier version of The Hobbit all of that revolves around, and I don’t plan to…

    But it’s all about the art, and I think in the case of comic books it’s the art that’s been forgotten. Now it’s all turf wars: Writer A thinks that Writer B’s story was stupid, so he destroys it instead of trying to enliven it. Steve Englehart used to “cure” texts all the time, and never tossed out or shit on a predecessor’s work no matter how dumb it was…instead just finding a way to use what they’d done in his own manner. And this always worked, and did not result in inconsistencies. However, for quite a long time now this kind of professionalism has been in pretty short supply among comics creators, and that’s resulted in inconsistencies that can’t be “cured” because they are not designed to be cured — they’re designed as scorched-earth retaliations.

    Of course, nothing ever really can be that, because artfulness always finds a way…especially when cures are just side-effects of telling a story. But that’s another thing that’s changed: no one just tells a story anymore, they must get involved with historicity. No zooming off to other planets and simply doing things there, anymore! No one wants to make new stuff, they just want to change old stuff, and then salt the earth after they’re done. Even though if there’s anything more unnecessary than a cure, it’s a cure for a cure. I like the art, and I like the play of art within constraints, but I can’t ever understand why some people confuse the art for the constraints, and the constraints for the art…it’s like confusing a steak with your stomach, instead of understanding that the steak’s supposed to go in the stomach, not actually BE it…

    Ha, I like Who fandom, though. Talk about art within constraints, and the impossibility of establishing finality in stories! FP definitely seems like a wonderfully playful business…look out, the Doctor and the Time Lords are contending with one another <right behind you as you read your book and watch your show…! If you turned around quickly enough, you could catch them at it.

    And root for the Doctor, naturally. Because, who’d want to root for the Time Lords?

  9. Hal says:

    I was just thinking about this (because I’m, you know, *weird*!) and some exceptions to my usual attitude come to mind, tho’ if you consider them logically they’re actually connected to it. When a modern writer sets up a situation in a definite manner – it could be a concept, it could be a cliffhanger – but then creates something that *explicitly* contradicts this or resolves it in a perfunctory manner (often while unsatisfyingly handwaving it away) thereby revealing that “definiteness” to be baldercrap I hate that. That sort of *laziness* and poor writing is unforgiveable, and I find myself jumping up and down like a demented chimpanzee (!) when people praise it just because of the sheer badness. Then, there’s stuff like today’s New DC, poorly set up by the aggressively mediocre Flashpoint (itself a copy of a copy of a…) the current status quo throws out much of the richness of the past – despite the half-assed idea that *some* previous stories still happened but in a much too concretely-stated “five year period” – in favour of a sameiness in tone and in the ages of many of the characters. Crisis On Infinite Earths may have created its own problems but it also led to works that grew from the past while being fresh such as Justice League International, Morrison’s Animal Man, the Wally West Flash, Suicide Squad, etc. John Byrne’s Superman may have been controversial but it worked better than the present’s reworking of him (in his non-“embarassing” armoured costume. Bah! God forbid it be uh “unrealistic”! Um, for a man who is of extraterrestrial origin and can fly, etc…). Ugh.

  10. Hal says:

    Oh, one more thing… Doctor Who is particularly interesting in the way it resists the definiteness of suffocating “canon” because of the Target novelisations. Although they originated at a time when it just wasn’t possible for younger viewers to see earlier stories (give or take a repeat or two) and were therefore a way for fans to experience them, they ended up as something *more*. Some of the books (The Cave Monsters, The Green Death et al) told the stories in a different way with altered motivations and changes to the plot etc. thus creating a somewhat different “experience”, but even the most straightforward of the Terrance Dicks novelisations transform the story because of the way the reader’s imagination interprets what s/he reads. And of course later on, partly due to the wide availability of VCRs and partly to the writers’ ambition, the likes of Ben Aaronovitch included elements only – if at all – hinted at on-screen which leads to The New Adventures which eventually led to Faction Paradox (via BBC Books) which is where we came in! Sometimes the Who novelisation was better than the orginal serial, at others they were both equally good so there’s no need to choose. I think, in many ways, modern Who is *much* more conservative than the old which is a great shame.
    P.S. Lawrence Miles’s Doctor Who Thing at beasthouse blogspot has an amusing piece on Ian Levene, which gets in some customary if fair shots at Moffat. Particularly hilarious – to me, at least – are Miles’s observations on Levene’s attitude to modern Who and why he might adopt such. Caustic and perceptive.

    • I thought Miles’ piece a bit unpleasant, to be honest. Levine is not someone who has any real power over anything any more, and while I think he’s comically wrong (he recently said he thought it was literally impossible for a Doctor Who story to be too long, arguing that cutting scenes for pacing purposes was always the wrong thing to do) he’s now just someone spouting off on the internet, like the rest of us.

      I’m not one of those people who think Miles’ personal attacks are normally unjustified — I love his blog — but normally his punches are aiming upwards. Levine seems just a rather sad and pathetic figure now.

      (I do find Levine a fascinating figure though. I don’t understand how someone who’s such a huge fan of Doctor Who, DC Comics and Motown can still be so consistently wrong about *everything* else.)

  11. Hal says:

    Mm. That’ll be Ian *Levine* then not Levene, confused him with Benton…

  12. Hal says:

    Fair enough, it may have been in dubious taste but I didn’t find it unfair and it was *about* the changes in relative fortune. That said I take your point, and there are people in positions of “power” who are just as irritating as Levine – in fact more so (there is, however, a really embarrassing moment on the Genesis of the Daleks dvd in which Elisabeth Sladen loses her temper with one of Levine’s more inane questions, I thought they should have cut that).
    The idea that one should never cut anything from a Doctor Who story is um interesting, that’s as silly a statement as those people who say every Doctor Who story is great (this is especially annoying and ridiculous when it’s someone now working on the series who we know not to believe this. Ach, marketing bullshit, how do I hate thee? Heckuva way to forestall criticism). As regards Miles’s weblog it is at least always interesting and flamboyant, it’s not necessary for me to agree with everything he says – and I surely *don’t* – but he provides a useful corrective to a lot of the Kool Aid-friendly nonsense that dominates. I know some question his opinions on certain figures but harshness aside he often makes sense.
    In other news your comments on people feeling the need for a “Strong Man” to lead them does match my opinion of certain fans attitudes to RTD and Moffat’s Who, they have their leaders and anything that would lead them to question their leaders is ignored. Perhaps that sounds cynical?!

  13. andrewducker says:

    I rather like Grant Morrison’s Hypertime as a way of thinking about this. All of these pasts/futures did happen. And for each “now” there are many different pasts that could cause it, and many different futures it could spawn – the “present” is a lens that pasts go through to form futures.

    So when writing any particular story (and thus constructing a series of “nows”), we implicitly prune the pasts down to the ones that would produce that present, and the the futures to the ones that could include our selected moments.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Absolutely — Hypertime is one of those things like Plok is talking about above, a storytelling idea that actually reconciles stories and provides opportunities to create new ones. It opens things up, rather than closing them down.

      • plok says:

        Well, I do think Hypertime is mostly a cure for a cure for a cure…it’s a way of escaping the obsession with historicity from within historicity, rather than just simply telling a story that hasn’t got anything much to do with historicity? But it’s clever and recursive, and it’s a Grand Unified Theory, so we like it. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be much real use in comics. Hmm, maybe its problem is that it’s in the wrong universe? At Marvel comics, the shared-universe concept has sickened so drastically that it actually does resemble Hypertime at this point…just, a Hypertime that official policy is absolutely dead-set against, a sort of closeted Hypertime, kinda self-loathing…

        That Faction Paradox stuff, though, that’s Hypertime used to good effect though, isn’t it?

  14. rankersbo says:

    Of course everyone has their problems with this and mine is, despite the disclaimer, the use of the word geeks. To me it’s too widely used as a disparaging, bullying term to be redefined as something genuinely negative.

    Otherwise I’m just about 100% with you. Apologies for where I cover the same ground.

    The thing about canon, though is that you need authority to define it. With Holmes the writer is dead, so the autority sort of goes off on one, with Star Trek it belongs to the rights holders (possibly in consultation with MBR between Gene Rodenberry’d death and hers), Star Wars with Lucas. With Doctor Who, it’s the BBC, who actively refuse to define a canon.

    Now it’s not like Sherlock Holmes where the creator is dead and the works largely out of copyright. The fact the BBC through the current production team have refused to rule on canon, doesn’t mean the authority passes down to fandom, it means there is no canon. Canon has not been left to others to be defined, it has been declared that there is no canon to define.

    There’s an awful lot of stuff out there, fan fiction, spin offs, licenced books and dramas, stuff, and yes it is difficult for some to reconcile. Others do feel that they have no time to spend reading beyond a certain point, so they exclude the books, CDs, and/or comic strip. And for me that’s fine. What isn’t fine by me is the need to set declared boundaries to divide the stuff they want to consider and the stuff they don’t. Worse is the desire to seek validation for that limit setting by trying to get others to share those “rules”.

    There are probably now more licenced Doctor Who books published that I haven’t read than I have. I’ve listened to quite a few Big Finish CDs, but the same applies there. I don’t seek to exclude any of that from Doctor Who.

    It’s fine to have personal ideas of what counts and what doesn’t. It’s when you start calling those ideas something as grand as canon, and trying to get others to agree to your limits that it becomes a problem.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, I thought hard about what word to use there, but as far as I can tell this particular kind of wrongness only exists in people who define themselves as geeks. I don’t know of a better word…

      • lucidfrenzy says:

        “The thing about canon, though is that you need authority to define it”

        There is no authority but yourself!

        “I don’t know of a better word…”

        Obsessives? Controllers? Corallers? (not sure if there’s even such a word as the last one, but it conjours up the right image!)

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