...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, June 22, 2007

Day 2364: Mysteries of Doctor Who #10: What is Canon?


The OBVIOUS answer is "whatever you want it to be".

If you have never HEARD the term you, might think that "canon" means some sort of small artillery gun on wheels, like you might find on a PIRATE SHIP. But you would be WRONG. Because that is spelled with TWO letter "n"s.

In fact the "canon" is the bits of story that are considered to be OFFICIAL. As usual, it is the POPE's fault, since it started off by meaning the bits of Catholic Law that met with his approval.

Since then, though, it has been applied to other works of fiction – the "official" plays of Mr Shakespeare; the "official" adventures of Mr Sherlock Holmes… and the "official" Doctor Who stories.

It used to be easy. Well, easier. Easy-ish at least.

Dr Who had a hundred and fifty-five adventures on the television for twenty-six seasons, from November 1963 until December 1989.

If you were a fan, you could also count the famous 1979 MISSING story of Doctor Tom, "Shada", which was about half finished. And if you wanted you could count Doctor Colin's "Trial of a Time Lord" as four stories instead of one, because it was made in separate bits (and NOT because it fell to pieces!).

But even before 1989 and the end of "Survival", it was not QUITE that easy to define the Doctor Who canon.

Since 1964, barely after the series had begun on the telly, Dr Who's adventures were being written down as BOOKS, beginning with Mr David Whittaker's "Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks".

And right from the word "GO" the books were getting the story SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT. Did Dr Who first meet Ian and Barbara in a junkyard before taking them to 100,000 BC or did they meet on a foggy common before travelling to the Planet Skaro in the twenty-third century? Inquiring minds… tend to believe the DVD, nowadays, but you can see the problem.

Sometimes things happened in the books that didn't happen on the telly – especially if Mr Mac Hulke was doing the writing! – but if they didn't CONTRADICT the telly, could you assume that those extra bits "really" happened AS WELL?

Nor does it help when ARRU take the same story and make it for a third time, this time as a great big colourful movie, with bigger Daleks and a smaller Susan. Not to mention Thals who are camper BY FAR!

Does Mr Peter Cushing COUNT as a proper version of Dr Who? Is he, do you see, CANONICAL?

Well, we think that the answer is "NO" because Mr Billy got there first AND did it properly. No, Mr Roy Castle, that is NOT how to play Ian Chesterton!

But here is a SECOND problem – already we are saying that some things ARE "officially proper" Doctor Who and some things are not. If we cannot say EVERY story about Dr Who is PROPER Doctor Who, then how are we to decide?

Now, here's where things start to get sticky.

After the (HOORAY temporary!) end of the television series, Dr Who's adventures continued as BOOKS, from the same people who had been writing up his television escapades. "The New Adventures" were a series of sixty adventures staring the seventh Dr Who (Doctor Sylv) continuing on from "Survival" and seamlessly leading into the sensational TV Movie starring Paul McGann (official title!). Plus one extra called "The Dying Days" that takes place AFTER the movie and so stars Doctor Paul.

But because they were BOOKS and not TELEVISION, some people did not think that they really counted.

This is the "Gordian Knot" method of canon – if it was on the BBC, then it is canon; otherwise cut it away.

Even this has its flaws – when BBC2 shows "Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD!" does that change it into canon? No that is silly. But if you only count programs MADE by the BBC, what about that TV Movie? That was made by Universal Television in America – so Paul McGann doesn't count. Oh, but he does because his FACE is in John Smith's journal of impossible things in an episode that IS made by the BBC.

The "New Adventures" were, however, very GOOD adventures, and several of the people who wrote them have gone on to bigger and better things. Among them, a Mr Paul Cornel, a Mr Mark Gatiss and a Mr Sir Russell T Davis, that you may have heard of. In fact, one of them was SO GOOD that Mr Russell decided that it was a shame that only a few thousands of people had read it, rather than all the millions of people who watch Doctor Who on the telly. So he made a new version with Doctor David.

Ah, a snag.

Put simply, Dr Who has to live though the events of "Human Nature" TWICE (apparently without noticing). They don't happen SIMULTANEOUSLY – the television story happened in 1913 but the New Adventure took place in early 1914 – so they COULD be one after the other. Suggesting that Mrs Joan is VERY forgetful. (Or a bit of a SLAPPER where men called "John Smith" are concerned!)

OR one version of "Human Nature" isn't canon.

Which is, of course, what got me thinking about this.

Do not misunderstand. I would be DELIGHTED if all sixty-one New Adventures were remade for television. Well, maybe not "St Anthony's Fire"; that one is a bit of a chore. But this does knock a hole in our version of canon.

The "New Adventures" were such a success, that the publishers decided to launch a SPIN-OFF range – the "Missing Adventures" which could feature new stories for previous Dr Whos. Or is it "Doctors Who"? Anyway, these were pretty good too, especially if they were by Mr Gareth Roberts. And they fitted into "gaps" between television adventures – they said which gap on the back cover – which worked okay because there were not too many of them.

This idea of doing new stories with old Doctors was how the Big Fish audio adventure people got started, too. Using Doctor's Peter, Colin and Sylv, with some of their original companions, they could expand their adventures too! This was particularly good news for Doctor Colin, who had had bad luck with the stories he got to do on telly, and through Big Fish was more than able to make up for this with a whole string of excellent adventures.

But, the Big Fish people also had a problem. Because of the combinations of people that they wanted to use, they had to slightly invent a gap that is not really there. Doctor Colin has lots of spare space for adventures in the time between "Trial of a Time Lord" and "Time and the Rani"; Doctor Sylv can keep adding adventures after the end of "Survival" (sort of… I shall come back to that); and up to a point, Doctor Peter can have a good few adventures with his friend Nyssa between "Time Flight" and "Arc of Infinity". But for Doctor Peter to have adventures with his friend Peri, they had to invent a gap between "Planet of Fire" and "The Caves of Androzani". You CAN sort of squeeze maybe one or two adventures in there. But not loads, because Peri and Dr Who still have a fresh and new relationship in "Caves". And as the Big Fish people make more CDs, that gap seems to feel more and more of a strain on credulity.

Doctor Sylv has a problem too. It's those "New Adventures". It would seem that there are only so many audio stories that you can reasonably put in after "Survival" before you start trampling over the start of the NAs. Particularly, the character development for Ace over the CDs is clearly that of an older young woman, more mature than the Ace of the earliest "New Adventures". But not as battle-hardened and bitter as the Ace of the later "New Adventures" either.

Plus the whole fact that nine "New Adventures" in Dr Who picks up his totally brilliant companion Ms Professor Bernice Surprise Summerfield. Known as Benny.

There IS an almost-a-gap between "Legacy (of Peladon)" and "Theatre of War" where Benny goes off on an archaeological dig and Dr Who and a more mature Ace COULD sort-of-maybe go off and have adventures together. Perhaps.

But it's getting to be a bit of a strain there too.

Mind you, that is not so bad as the BBC's version of the "Missing Adventures" the "Past Doctor Adventures" or Blackberries PDAs.

Here Doctor Sylv gets a series of stories – almost all by Mike "does the special effects on the TV series" Tucker and usually his writing partner of Dave Parry – which fundamentally contradict the "New Adventures", eventually by killing Ace. (Again – see "Ground Zero", below!) Fortunately, you are not missing much if you just pretend they never happened, so that is one of the easiest bits to declare Non-Canon!

(Actually, the PDAs go on a bit of a killing SPREE, slaughtering former companions left, right and centre. But there's also a BBC book for Doctor Paul called "Sometime Never" that does seem to take all the PDAs and erase them from history. So it's sort of a self-cleaning problem.)

After the TV Movie… actually, that really is a dreadful thing to keep calling it, like referring to "City of Death" only as the second season seventeen story. Well known Uber-fan Mr Ian Slitheen insists that it should be called "Enemy Within", but that is a really boring title and does not really refer to the plot at all. We prefer to use the tag line from all the posters and the VHS video release that daddies could get by queuing up at midnight: "Time Waits for No Man" (which actually DOES sound a bit like the plot, temporal orbits and all!).

Anyway, after "Time Waits for No Man" the eighth Dr Who, Doctor Paul, has a series of adventures that are described EITHER in the books from the BBC OR in the audio adventures from the Big Fish people OR EVEN in the comic strip from Doctor Who Magazine.

This is the point where someone sticks a CORK in the front of the canon and causes it to BLOW UP.

Yes, I KNOW that's spelled with two "n"s.

You see, they've all, sort of, got a claim to being the MOST official. The books were now being produced by the ACTUAL BBC so that made THEM official. But the Big Fish audio adventures had the ACTUAL Doctor Paul McGann, so that made THEM official. But DWM had many, many times the circulation figures of either the books or the audios so in terms of how many people were following Dr Who's adventures, that made THEM official.

None of which would have mattered if they could have all played in the same sandpit.

Doctor Who magazine started it. Yes, they did. During the run of the "New Adventures" they had worked quite closely with the books, and tried to continue their comic strip in parallel, referencing one another and developing similar themes. Until a story called "Ground Zero". Then they decided that this was no longer possible, largely because the "New Adventures" in order to keep developing, had introduced new companions and finally left Ace behind. So the comic strip blew Ace up in order to prove that they had a different "continuity".

Well, now you see as far as I'm concerned this is NOT PLAYING NICE. If it is a shared universe, then you have to… well… SHARE. Saying "our story ignores theirs" is a sure-fire way to convince US that your story isn't the "real" one.

For a while, the books and the audios managed to get along. Okay, so the books carried straight on from "Time Waits for No Man" with the (I am sorry, Uncl' Terrance, HORRIBLE) "Eight Doctors". And the audios sort of carry straight on from "Time Waits for No Man" with the (really jolly good) "Storm Warning".

But you can get around that, because "Storm Warning" doesn't HAVE to continue straight on (and indeed much later Big Fish have revealed/retconned that it doesn't after all) so you can have the books and then the audios are a bit in their future. The fourth audio (and I've got to be fair and say that this one is an audio that is HORRIBLE) even goes so far as apparently to drop in a reference to the books companion "Sam" (also subsequently revealed/retconned that it doesn't after all).

But then, with the excuse that they were getting bogged down by all the Time Lord continuity, the books took the decision to BLOW UP Dr Who's home planet of Gallifrey. "FOOM" is the technical term, meaning may or may not have been erased from history depending on who's writing the next book. Ironically, this turned the eighth Doctor books into an almost unreadable continuity fest, understandable only to those readers who had a detailed knowledge of why the Doctor had amnesia and why the universe was apparently completely different to the one seen in the television series.

(For an example of how it SHOULD have been done, see pretty much the entire TV series produced by Mr Russell!)

In the audios, where Gallifrey HADN'T been exploded, this left them essentially trapped in Dr Who's past writing "missing adventures". Well, that wasn't really fair, but their response was a bit over the top too, deciding to infect Dr Who with "anti-time" and exile him from our universe FOREVER.

Ironically this turned the eighth Doctor audios into an almost impenetrable festival of dullness, with not even the most fervent of listeners able to fathom what the operating rules of this new "timeless" cosmos were supposed to be since clearly the producers hadn't got a clue either.

Fortunately the new TV series came along and the Big Fish people decided that "forever" meant "for two years and, phew, we're back in the room – look, Daleks!"

Nowadays, most people are reduced to either (a) tears, or (b) waving their hands and saying: "well, it’s the Time War isn't it".

So what IS canon?

I will ask Daddy Alex.

"AAAAAAAA AAAAAAAA AAAAAAAA AAAAAAAA AAAAAAAA!" he says, running screaming to the hills!


HE Elsom said...

Dear Mr Elephant, the idea of a canon isn't the Pope's fault. It is much older. A Greek sculptor called Polyclitus described and then made a statue of a man in which every part was perfect and fitted perfectly with the whole statue. This was called the Canon, which means "measuring rod" in Greek.



Gilliam said...

I thinks Doctor Who canon am a big joyous incomprehensiboo hallucinogeneec festivoo! I likes to think EVERYTHING appened, but the things on the telly appened MOST.

Poly_Gianniba said...

People assume that continuity (and therefore what you can fit into canon) is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff.
That should be explanation enough :)
Fictional worlds are alternative worlds anyway - literally, they do exist but not in a universe as we know it. Within the alternative world, there are countless alternative possibilities and it would be a pity not to explore as many as possible. Maybe, like Groundhog Day, the Doctor/John Smith and Joan keep living the same story till they get it right.
By the way, I love your blog.

Nick said...

I like the idea of calling the Paul McGann thing 'Time Waits For No Man', as it then keeps up the tradition of stories that have 'Time' in the title being a bit silly.

As for 'canon', it's obvious to me that every story in every medium is just a fantasy passing through the head of a dying Marc Cory, as he creates a 'Doctor' character able to save the universe from the Daleks. Thus, only 'Mission To The Unknown' is canon (and only HERETICS WHO WILL BE BURNED call it 'Dalek Cutaway') and all arguments are solved.

James said...

"Mr Peter Cushing COUNT"

No, you silly elephant. Mr Christopher Lee COUNT. Mr Peter Cushing VAN HELSING.

Schoolboy error!