If there’s one thing we nerds enjoy, it’s canon. Is this canonical? Is that? Is my OTP canonical? How does X fit into the canon? One need not look any further than the reaction to the announcement that the Star Wars Expanded Universe being retired into the Legends label to see how much a concise and clearly stated canon can matter to people. So there gets to be this mindset among fans of just about anything that whatever is stated to be canon is something akin to a holy text that must be viewed as complete and immutable from whatever state a fan finds it in. And that last bit is important because what eventually sets the bar as ‘betraying’, ‘contradicting’ or ‘ignoring’ canon depends a great deal on exactly what state the canon was in when and how you first were exposed to it.
After all, while the Green Lantern Corps was introduced in 1959, the concept of the Emotional Spectrum and the other Lantern Corps like the Red Lanterns, or the Sinestro Corps, didn’t come into being until 2006, despite it beings established that these things were in existence all along but the Green Lanterns may not have been aware of them. If you were a fan before Geoff Johns’ new interpretation of the Green Lantern universe, you might find this idea a bit on the heretical side. After all, how could the Guardians not know/expose this info? How come it took decades of issues before it was revealed that Parralax was a big space bug that was sealed away and they knew about it but kinda didn’t want to bring it up? On the same hand, if you came after that or say first got interested in Green Lantern due to the Green Lantern Animated Series – then the Emotional Spectrum and the other Lanterns are just part of the universe to you. Easy peasy.
Already we can see that time and method can dictate the view of what is considered to be canon and what isn’t. Will new Star Wars fans a decade from now when the JJ Abrams Trilogy comes to a close even think that the Legends novels were anything more than interesting What-If stories? That the Yuuzhan Vong are nothing more than glorified fanfiction characters? Perhaps. But aside from fan-interpretation and viewpoints of canon, what about when canon is changed by the ones who created it?
If you want a good example of fans getting upset at a ‘violation’ of canon by the ones who write the story themselves, look no further than our good friends at Blizzard Entertainment. Almost every expansion is met with cries of ‘That’s not what this character would do’, ‘Blizzard doesn’t care about their own canon’ or ‘This violates their own lore’, etc. I’ve played World of Warcraft since 2006 off and on, and I’ve seen these complaints so many times I’ve lost count. But it always comes back to this idea that what WAS should be preserved in a little box, and left to the point where it is never changed or influenced. Heck, I remember people complaining about the difference in characterization between Warcraft III and Vanilla WoW, almost like there was some sort of inexplicable 5 year jump mentioned in first few seconds of the opening cut scene. These characters change, the situation changes, and the world moves forward. The Forsaken were pretty much born out of Sylvanas’ quest for revenge against the Lich King. You can’t very well expect them to stay the same after their sworn mortal enemy is dead.
There’s also the issue of the fact that since WE are aware of all the details of the story and lore, we often will forget that the characters don’t. A character may not know the truth of all the details, or even heard the news if its something that happened on the completely other side of the planet and thus will act according to what they know and not what WE know. The concept of ‘metagaming’ can extend to fiction too, ya know. So while things sometimes look like a violation of canon, it can honestly sometimes just be a matter of ‘the characters wouldn’t know that’. Back to World of Warcraft for example, it’s stated in some places that the Eredar corrupted the Titan Sargeras into turning evil, it’s later revealed upon meeting the Draenei – an exiled faction of the Eredar – that it was actually the reverse. Sargeras had corrupted the Eredar. Is this a retcon? Yes, but does it break canon? No. No one who originally told the tales of Sargeras & the Eredar would have been in the position to know the facts of the tale. They are legends and fables, passed down for generations. Now when they meet the Draenei? Well, heck, Velen was THERE. He knows. Now he’s explaining it. Now you have the myth, and the fact. That’s developing canon, not violating it.
Wanting a canon to stay rigid, to have nothing new enter or depart the scene and for characters to stay the same as when we first fell in love with them just is flat out bad for storytelling. Is BioWare futzing with their own lore with TOR? Yes. Yes they are. The story is moving forward, a new enemy is appearing from beyond the borders of the galaxy and using a vastly different technique of force wielding to pursue a mission of galactic conquest. Honestly, from a personal standpoint, it’s not nearly as conflicting as say KOTOR to KOTOR2 when in the space of 5 years the entire Jedi Order was completely wiped out leaving only a few stragglers like the Exile around. No wonder they decided to set SWTOR 295 years later. Yeesh.
Now I’m not saying there aren’t ways you can mess up canon. Even Blizzard has admitted to messing up with mixing up established facts and they have employees devoted to entire task of keeping this stuff straight. But there’s a difference between ‘This never before explained thing has appeared and is attacking’ or ‘This ancient prophecy we just uncovered is coming true!’ and things like ‘Superman was never from Krypton, he’s from Snorglack-VII and always has been. Ignore what we said earlier.’ (And heck there are even acceptable ways to do that with continuity reboots, and elaborate explanations, that might reek of B.S. aren’t technically violating canon.) There are times when you just screw up and forget that you’ve already established some detail, and there are times you introduce retcons that will devastatingly run in contrast to how a character is viewed (Did you Batman ALWAYS hated rock music because his Dad told him it was bad the night they died?) but there is also just the idea that you are expanding the story and the universe.
As fans we sometimes have the tendency to get a bit zealous with our devotion to what we know. We like the permanence of the whole thing. It feels good. But that’s not necessarily what’s best for the story. For a story to grow, canon must be altered and expanded. Maybe there were 9 planets, but due to later revelations there are now 8 (or like 25). Canon must always be somewhat flexible in order for things to move forward. And I think we as fans need to be flexible with it.
Thanks for reading.