Do you remember the 3W Institute in Capaldi's first series finale? Named in recognition of the “three words” that so terrified Dr Skarosa? (Actually it had a funny resonance for me, since 3W was the form I was in at school at the time of season 20 – our form teacher was Mr Caspell, who'd once been a stunt driver on the tv show Star Maidens – but I digress... maybe that's a story for another day.) What I'm getting at in this rather tortuous opening paragraph is the notion that, for me, the three terrifying words are something different: “Is it canon?”
Yes, that's right – the three words (or some variant thereof) that are guaranteed to creep into – and very often derail – any forum discussion about spin-off media. Usually by about the third or fourth post in any thread! You know the sort of thing: someone posts a perfectly innocent question on Reddit, like: “I enjoyed Paul McGann's portrayal in The Night of the Doctor – what other stories are there about the eighth Doctor's involvement in the Time War?” From which, you might expect some helpful replies, pointing them towards the Big Finish audios; then maybe mention of the War in the eighth Doctor novels, prompting an interesting discussion about whether that's a different earlier Time War, or the same event seen from another perspective. But it's not long before someone will chip in with the dread question – is any of that considered canon? It makes you want to scream. (If it needed saying, this is indeed a summary of a genuine Reddit discussion I encountered recently.)
So why does it wind me up so much? Primarily it's because the canon question is nearly always used in a negative sense – it serves to shut down debate and enquiry. I get that there are some people for whom only the tv show counts, and that's fine as long as it's their choice, not something that they feel has been imposed on them from without. (It does strike me as perverse however for someone to pile into a conversation that's clearly about spin-off media to question its canon status, as if those discussing it were simply deluded and needed the scales removed from their eyes.) For a long time Doctor Who fan like me, this idea of canon as something to be strictly observed has always seemed like an alien concept, probably imported into Who fandom as the show has become better known internationally – imported from other (that is to say American) fandoms. Don't worry, this isn't going to be a rant about them being rubbish – as a matter of fact, I like both of the chief culprits. More on them later.
But it's a fact that I just don't remember it being a thing in the old days. That's not to say that, even as a child, I didn't know the difference between the tv show and the spin-offs. But the point is, I still read the TV Comic strip or the Annuals as stories that were really happening to the Doctor. I didn't expect the tv show to reference them of course, but that didn't make them any less real for me. After all, these were stories about a character who could go anywhere in time and space, who could theoretically have any sort of adventure. The notion that they weren't like the tv show didn't really occur to me then – that had to wait until the 80s and my days as a super-nerd fanboy. Thank God the 90s (and one hopes a degree of maturity) loosened me up – with the arrival of the New Adventures (and I suppose the lack of a tv show) pushing me towards embracing Who in all its forms. Which, I guess, is why that's the decade when I first conceived The Complete Adventures.
Now, it is interesting to compare the way that other fandoms do it. Star Trek for instance: Paramount is quite insistent that only the tv shows and the movies count – none of the books or comics or other spin-offs really happened. (In fact, at some times, even the cartoon series has been in the exclusion zone – though that seems to have been done to humour the whims of Gene Roddenberry, who in later years, decided he didn't like it. After he died, the cartoon got brought back into the fold.) That doesn't mean though that Paramount hasn't been happy to license plenty of spin-offs over the years, and doubtless to reap the financial rewards. It's effectively saying: “Please buy the books, although we have no belief in them ourselves.”
What's really happening is that the producers are giving themselves a get-out clause – to free themselves from having to remember and take account of the details of fifty years of spin-offs when devising new stories. And really no one can blame them for that. It's surely hard enough just to keep track of all the tv episodes – which no doubt explains why they've contradicted themselves a good few times over the decades! What's troubling is the way that this sensible behind-the-scenes decision has been interpreted as an instruction to fans. And I think really it's the use of the word “canon” that's to blame for that. I don't know if Paramount actually used the term themselves or if it was the fans who applied it; but either way, the damage was done.
Star Wars on the other hand adopted a multi-tiered system of canon: basically anything George Lucas said was considered the topmost, unassailable level of canon – so effectively that was the films themselves – and various books and comic strips were placed on lower strata. They were to be considered as canon unless or until they were contradicted by something in one of the films. I suppose if you're going to have a canon declaration, that's the most sensible way of doing it. Effectively, it's the same as the Star Trek rationale, a way to protect Lucasfilm from having to be beholden to their own spin-offs – but it achieves it in an inclusive and less didactic fashion.
Or at least that would be the case if Disney hadn't bought Lucasfilm and fucked it all up. Now, I understand that Disney wanted to start making new Star Wars movies, and didn't want to have to take account of all that “expanded universe” stuff , which has effectively told us all about what happened to Luke, Han and Leia for the next forty odd years – and all about what happened to their kids too. Obviously that was going to contradict any new stories that they wanted to tell with those characters. Which makes it a more extreme case than that facing the Star Trek producers, I suppose. The weird thing is that Disney/Lucasfilm want to have their cake and eat it. They've announced that every book and comic produced from now on is going to be part of canon – but every spin-off produced previously is not. But they still want to market those old books (for reasons of profit one assumes) so they've rebranded them as “Legends” – literally, there's a big gold flash across the top of each book saying so. It's such an odd thing when one considers that Star Wars is a sort of fairytale that we're quite specifically told occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Aren't all their tales just legends then? Nevertheless, the most hardcore Star Wars fans seem to be happy embracing the distinction – I'm always finding YouTube videos discussing characters and their backstories, where the narrator clearly demarcates what's canon and what's only “legends”.
One of the refreshing things about Doctor Who is that the show's producers or the BBC have never tried to lay down such rules. They've never so much as uttered the word “canon” – (well, except for that one time when some PR idiot used it to tell viewers the Adventure Games could be considered part of the ongoing storyline.) Which I guess means that they trust fans to make up their own minds what they want Doctor Who to be. Some will point to the BBC charter expressly forbidding the need to purchase additional material to make a story complete – surely that proves that the spin-offs don't count? Well, I don't see that at all. I think that is specifically to ensure that the show doesn't conclude with a cliffhanger leading into a commercial spin-off; imagine the last series had ended with World Enough and Time and an announcement that the conclusion was exclusively available to buy from BBC Store. But it doesn't deny the existence of further Doctor Who material that you can buy should you choose to do so – such material can even be referenced in the show itself (and it has been) as long as it's just for colour and backstory. It can inform one's viewing and give a deeper meaning, but it mustn't be essential for the understanding of the general audience. (So I guess, as they were free for licence fee payers to download, they were allowed to plug the Adventure Games as being part of the series.) From the point of view of the producers, they have a rich seam of history to draw upon, but they don't need to feel bound to it. Of course, where Doctor Who scores over Star Trek and Star Wars is that the very nature of its narrative allows the wholesale rewriting and disregarding of its backstory anyway. We're told that time keeps getting rewritten, and I've discoursed at length before about the way the Doctor's timeline might intersect with a changing universe. The show has contradicted itself so many times that it's clear the producers aren't even interested in keeping faith with past tv episodes, let alone the spin-offs.
So we're left with the current situation, where every fan can have their own idea or interpretation of what constitutes canon. I think that's a wonderfully liberating thing, something we should all cherish – rather than fighting when another's opinion differs from our own. I can fully understand why some only want to count the tv show – it's the most easily accessible and requires the least investment in terms of time and money. But as I've said above, even that can be optional really. I'm sure there are fans who've come to Doctor Who only with the modern series – for whom even the original 26 seasons must seem like some distant legend. And some may want to include the novels but not the comic strips – or only the New Adventures – or Big Finish audios, but not books. It should be entirely up to the individual. For myself, I decided long ago that there was no “canon” as far as Doctor Who was concerned. There was just a mass of stories that happened to the Doctor.
I think ultimately I understand the purpose of the “is it canon?” question, especially when it comes from a new fan. They're looking at the daunting mass of past Who spin-offs and asking themselves if they really need to get amongst all that to understand the series. And the answer is, of course they don't. But if they want to dip their toe in, it doesn't commit them to anything. And they may find something they love. The flipside to that though is when a long term fan has decided not to indulge in the spin-offs – and that could be for any reason, it's not for us to judge – but then uses the “it's not canon” argument to justify their choices. And the worst example of this is when they use it to try and shut down discussions about material they're not familiar with. I think it's a sort of inverted self-justification, a way to belittle those whose conversations they can't keep up with. What does that achieve? Just accept that everyone gets something different out of Doctor Who, and bow out gracefully. We'd all get along a lot better.
What do these different reactions tell us about the fans of each series? I suppose no one should be surprised that Star Trek fans are so eager to swallow the dictates of Paramount. They've always struck me as the keenest to embrace rules and regulations, and bow to a higher authority. That's why they dress up in the uniforms, give themselves ranks, and act as if they're really members of Starfleet. Doctor Who of course is a story about a maverick, a pricker of pomposity, an anti-authoritarian iconoclast, and that's why the “no canon” stance seems the most appropriate, as long as we accept the choices of the individual to embrace or reject whatever they like. The Star Wars fans intrigue me though, with their quick embrace of a doublethink mentality over “canon” and “legends”. You'd think that they would be rebels, like the heroes of the series – not prepared to bow down before didactic pronouncements from the content providers. Maybe, they all secretly want to be in the Empire! Myself, I was always a fan of the Star Wars EU – some of it was shockingly bad, some of it was brilliant, but isn't that true of everything? Yet I've only bought four books since the new canon declaration, and all of those are ones set during the timeframe of the older films, so are just filling in backstory. I've not bothered with anything set post-Return of the Jedi, because I've already got a continuation of the Star Wars saga that I'm perfectly happy with. I've seen the new films, of course, and I'm quite comfortable with the notion that there are now alternative timelines. I'm just not feeling the need to invest additional time into a whole other EU. And that's my choice. But I don't call it “legends”, I just call it Star Wars.
So... canon? It really is just a load of nonsense. I like Doctor Who, I like Star Trek. Shouldn't I be happy that there are even more adventures of the Doctor or Captain Kirk for me to enjoy? I think so. Do I worry that they have some sort of sanctioned authority to exist? What we're ultimately arguing about is whether one lot of fictional tales is somehow more fictional than another lot. And frankly, I can't see any sense in that.