2MTL 316: What IS "Doctor Who Canon" Anyway??? (Time Dilation)

So while we wait for Sunday's announcement of the actor that will play the next Doctor, let's talk about that stickiest of subjects, Doctor Who canon. We won't discuss whether Dimensions in Time is "in" or Time Crash is "out" (the answer is no and no, by the way) but where this whole notion of canonical stories comes from in the first place: religion!

What does "Doctor Who canon" have in common with religious canon? How does one determine which stories "matter," and does a 50-year-old television series develop a canon in the same way that a 2,000 year-old (give or take) religion did? Rabid Doctor Who fan and New Testament historian Mark Goodacre is the perfect guest for this Time Dilation conversation. No proselytization, just Doctor Who geekery at its finest, placed in a historical context.

And Mark, update your website.

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  1. The answer is no? The answer is NO? Not as simple as that my friend!

    Dimensions in Time, believe it or not, has a BBC production code. Time Crash does not.

    That makes DIT canon, TC not 🙂

  2. Oh yes, canon is not a matter of whether the story "matters", that is a subjective viewpoint.

    Canon comes from an objective viewpoint, a way to I suppose, almost scientifically define the paramaters of what stories are part of the official universe.

    Doctor Who canon is so easy, incredibly easy. The stories on screen are canon, and nothing else. Unlike other series (Star Trek springs to mind) that have been defined as all TV, movies, print etc being canon, Doctor Who hasn't done that. Which is probably what makes deciding it amongst fans so hard, as they all feel they have input into it.

    Doctor Who TV is canon, the only canon. If we start opening it up to the printed media, it is much harder to define the limits of such expanded canon. If you count the BBC range of printed books, do you count a book that somebody else gets published, not under that range? Should you even count a range such as the books which do not even follow established TV canon, and in fact purposefully change it for the sake of their story?

    That is the same argument for Big Finish audio – if we count that audio, what other audio do we include? And as BF have gone kinda off on their own tangent continuity wise, it makes it more difficult.

    Canon is not a subjective argument. It is something that can be rigidly defined, using very clear parameters. Any other discussion about what stories "matter" are indeed very interesting and fantastic discussions, but they are not CANON discussions.

  3. Trevor, I love you like a brother. But did you even listen to the conversation? 🙂

  4. I think it's worth pointing out that Sherlock Holmes is arguably the first modern media "fandom"–and also, as Mark points out, the originator of the term "canon." The word was used in reference to what Sherlockians called the "Great Game"– discussing the fictional work as though it described real people in events. This seems to have been started in earnest by Monsignor Ronald Knox, a theologian who applied the tools of his trade to Conan Doyle's work (for the purposes of satire!) in an essay called "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes". I don't think his essay actually used the term "canon", but it seems to have kicked off a line of thought that's ultimately responsible for the word's use in fandom.

    The reason this string of Sherlockian factoids is relevant is because, in my experience, the "Great Game" of the Sherlockians is one of the core activities of media fandom to the present day, which is why you'll find people earnestly proposing "in-universe" explanations for things that might be better accounted for through writers' quirks and production mistakes (I say this without judgment–I play that game all the time too because it's ludicrously fun). I think the word "canon," as we hear it used today, refers to the RULES of that game–the parameters for what's in, and what's out, for the purposes of any given in-universe discussion.

    The Doctor Who fandom just happens to have a lot of different discussions, with a lot of different sets of rules, and therefore a lot of different "canons." Some are appropriate in one situation but inappropriate in another. In a discussion about Evelyn Smythe on the Big Finish forums, asserting "But Big Finish isn't canon!" would be absurd and counter-productive. But for a discussion on Gallifrey Base about Nyssa of Traken, defining Big Finish as being in or out of canon could potentially be useful in defining the scope of the discussion, since those would be two very different discussions, but both potentially interesting and fun.

    So "canon" is kind of a useless concept for real-world discussions. When discussing the Doctor as a real person it's fine to say he never looked like Peter Cushing, but as Mark points out, when discussing Doctor Who as a media product existing in the real world it really doesn't make sense to marginalize those two films.

    Anyhow, this is a topic of particular interest to me so it was great hearing you both chat about it. Awesome episode.

  5. And it was a 'time dilation' episode of the two minute timelord, which I don't regard as canon.

  6. Other thoughts connecting fandom to religion–shows call their own internal guidelines that they give writers (so that for instance a new writer knows where the Jeffries Tube is and what it's for) the show's bible, indicating within the industry, and in pre-internet-enabled-fandom times, an awareness that internal consistency in a show's world is a kind of canon–they are creating it and seeing a need to maintain it.

    Mark's experience of the Peter Cushing Who as obviously real is not unlike the way the Catholic Church and its members have for centuries felt the Latin Bible to be the real version. You can know that in fact the Hebrew and Greek are the "real" Bible, but the power of lived experience overrides intellectual knowledge every time.

    One aspect of the liveliness of fandom's debates over what is real and the willingness to quarrel with what RTD and SM establish is perhaps the "prophet without honor" phenomenon. Since they are known, contemporary, human people, fans feel more entitled to disagree with them than they would with a more remote authority. As we will doubtless witness in a couple of hours.

    A notable, and more recent than Marcion, writer of a personal Bible would be Thomas Jefferson.

    There's a name for that kind of consensus about what counts: fanon (for instance, a substantial sector of fanon agrees, rightly so, that the incidents in the film Serenity did not occur). Fanon is a group, small or large, version of the personal canon, the "what I like" version of the show's reality (and I like the knowledge that the Serenity and her whole crew are right now still out there). Another term I would bring into this idea of creating fanon is doublethink. As you said, it is all a bit of a game. We know simultaneously, in good Orwellian fashion, and as the Sherlockians excel at, that it is real and that it is a TV show. Engaging in doublethink allows us to reject things we don't like as being errors made by the writers of a TV show (I'm talking to you, Eighth-Doctor-is-half-human people) and embrace the things we do as being part of the reality that we love (Time Crash!!). This lets us smooth over all kinds of things, like Susan naming the TARDIS (in English? plus they call it that on Gallifrey) or the TARDIS herself saying the sign on her doors says Pull to Open and the Doctor always pushes, when it's only the door to the phone that pulls (I adore Neil Gaiman beyond expressing, but Homer nods . . .). We can pull in things from the other media that seem especially apt–the Sixth Doctor NEEDS Frobisher!!–and just enjoy the other things that don't really integrate into the canon as a lark in an AU.

    Humans are amazingly good at doublethink. It's just a TV show, with ridiculous monsters and bad science and massive inconsistencies . . . and it is completely and utterly real and terribly important.

  7. We often laugh about canon because we think of it as a game fans play or, at worst, a sort of cliquish concern, but I think the desire for canon in serialized fiction has honorable roots. When the serialized works of fiction are chapters in a book by a single author, we expect continuity because that's how we regard the characters as fully imagined people. Without it, we have trouble following character development or theme. So the extent to which canon or continuity matters in Doctor Who matches the extent to which character development or theme matters in Doctor Who.

    For example, we talk sometimes about how stoically Nyssa copes with the destruction of her planet by the Master. I can't remember the first time there's a plausible gap in the Davison era where you could, say, insert a series of missing adventures (novels, audios, etc.) in which she might have had more time than we see to come to terms with her grief. In theory, at least, we might interpret Nyssa's future behavior and attitudes differently if we see her as someone who can either shake off or repress an enormous tragedy like that, vs. someone who even just in private has processed it. (Or someone who has actively participated in the murder of a vampire Time Lady, if you want to approach it from the other direction.)

    As readers we have a bit more freedom, because we can decide for ourselves what connects the stories we see (as discussed in Stephanie's comments about fanon) and it doesn't really impact anyone except us. If we were fortunate enough to be writing for the show, though, in order to create a coherent narrative with more than a millimeter of depth, we would have to take some opinion regarding canon for at least the stories and events that impact the characters we're going to be writing about. For example, if the Twelfth Doctor were to run into Romana, he'd really have to deal with her differently if he'd last said goodbye to her in "Warrior's Gate" or in one of the novels where she's become a ruthless member of the Gallifreyan High Council.

    Which I guess is why there's this opprobrium in conventional fan wisdom about "continuity-heavy" stories like "Attack of the Cybermen"; since canon is so difficult to determine with all the authors and media and years and contradictions, if you're a Who writer it's wisest to skirt around past events and relationships as much as possible, and work with characters whose growth depends only on near-term continuity. And even then you run into pitfalls like the famous "who cares about our baby?" problem from season 6 of the new series. The show just WANTS to be free, an anthology rather than a soap, with character development and themes local to the current story as much as possible. That doesn't have to be shallow, but it doesn't work so well with a focus on our main characters (as opposed to the guest cast, who are more the focus in an anthology format), and that's the way the Doctor-centric new show is trying to operate. It's therefore a very very lucky thing that we get to hit the reset button on the Doctor and his companions every couple of years, and start building character more or less anew every time.

  8. Just wanted to take a quick moment to note how much I enjoyed the episode about canon. Doctor Who is, of course, not the only TV show whose fans invoke the idea of canon, but few shows have fans, and others, who can discuss the issue with such fervor and intelligence. It was very cool to have an "expert" opinion on the subject, as well as an individual who also knows his way around the Doctor Who universe and other popular culture programs.

    One side note is that it is apparent that the show's fans and the show's writers and producers have a different view of canon and continuity. The writers may see creative narrative possibilities in swerving from ideas and themes "established" in an earlier episode, where a fan may see that earlier episode as somehow definitive and perfect. The challenge is in satisfying both the practical problem of coming up with new and exciting stories, and in maintaining the essence of the show. Always a neat balancing act.

  9. I stand by my remarks of five years ago–PLUS it is necessary to note that three months after that, the heart-exploding The Night of the Doctor burst into the 50th anniversary hub-bub, completely unspoilered. In it, some of Big Finish becomes canon, as the Eighth Doctor (whose adventures would hardly exist without Big Finish) salutes many of his companions by name before regenerating into the War Doctor.

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