Fast Return Switch #001: Roar of the Canons

In this inaugural episode of the podcast, we will look at the issue of “canon” in Doctor Who. No, that does not mean The Highlanders. Canon is the list of stories that are to be recognized as authoritative. Does it exist? If so, what is it, exactly?



Roar of the Canons

Back in the early 1990s, when The New Adventures of Doctor Who, that is, the books that attempted to continue the series after its cancellation, initially appeared in print, fans of the show began having their first in-depth discussions of which Doctor Who stories were to be accepted as “canon,” and which were not. Today you can hear the word on the lips of just about every Doctor Who fan in some conversation or other. Have you ever been asked, “Is this canon?” or been told “That’s isn’t canon”? The thing is, not everyone is using the word in the same way, and this is one of the reasons controversy about canon continues.

I’d like to address the subject and some of its subtleties, after which I hope to demonstrate first, that everyone who claims there is a canon is wrong, and second, that everyone who claims there is no canon is also wrong. Let me explain.

The term “canon” was borrowed from the Star Trek fan world, who had for some years been reading stories of their favorite show that had never been televised and wondered which ones were to be taken as truly part of Star Trek mythology. They, in turn, had borrowed the term from Sherlock Holmes fans, who had done something similar, and they had borrowed the term from the Christian church: yeah, the word “canon” had been employed by theologians to refer to the list of authoritative books that belonged in the Bible, a formally-approved collection of Scripture. In other words, fans wanted to construct their own “Bibles” for their favorite fiction franchises. Is there such a Bible for Doctor Who?

First we need to nail down the meaning of the word “canon,” because not everyone has the same concept in mind when they speak of it.

In 1992, Geoffrey Cotterill wrote an article for Doctor Who Magazine in which he tackles the issue of canon in the Doctor Who universe, and he offers the following definition: “Canonical Doctor Who,” he writes, “is those stories which are authoritative in providing the ‘facts’ on which other ideas about the show can be based…. Most other stories which are not regarded as canonical should be treated as imaginary.”[1] This concept of canon is alive and well today. On the Doctor Who TV website, Chris McIntyre offers a similar definition: “Canon could loosely be described as the stories that make up the ‘true’ Doctor Who story. On the other hand, non-canon is essentially stories that, while including the Doctor, his companions, monsters or other characters from the franchise, do not actually fit into the Doctor who story and therefore shouldn’t be considered to be ‘true’.”[2]

There is an inherent problem with this definition of canon in Doctor Who. It implies that there is, for everyone, a “true” or “real” Doctor Who and a “fake” or “imaginary” Doctor Who. Cotterill explicitly says that any adventure that contradicts information established in the televised stories is “untrue.” First of all, there are televised stories that contradict information in earlier televised stories, so his framework falls apart right there. But let’s be honest. From a real world point of view, all of the Doctor Who stories are imaginary, so the concept of a canon based on factual vs imaginary tales is ridiculous in itself.

Nevertheless, if you are the type of fan who prefers to believe that there are Doctor Who stories that are true, why not just accept all of them as true? After all, the show itself says that there are an infinite number of parallel universes, right? Therefore all of the stories conceivably could be true, whether they contradict or not. So why be choosy? The ancient Greeks embraced all their myths, whether they harmonized with each other or not. Most mythopoeic societies do that. Why not embrace all there is of Doctor Who mythology, and if there is a contradiction between two stories, just conclude that they take place in different universes.

I digress. We still have not defined canon. Some use the word canon simply to mean the Doctor Who stories that are authoritative or “official.” But authoritative or official for what purpose? I mean, you can give something an official stamp, but there is no point in carrying authority if that authority is not exercised in some way. Otherwise the words are meaningless. Besides, this concept of canon requires that there be an authority to designate which stories are authoritative for Doctor Who fans, and no such authority exists. So when Cotterill writes that a canonical story “must be officially sanctioned by the makers of Doctor Who, the BBC,” he is basing his statement on a false premise. The BBC never claimed to be an authority on canon, nor has it designated its own productions as canon for fans. It’s not engaged in this discussion at all. And just because they were the first to make Doctor Who does not mean they are automatically the authority. Is George Lucas still the authority on Star Wars? Nor can we say the showrunners as a group constitute this kind of authority. They don’t get together for annual meetings and draw up lists for press releases for the fans. Moreover, we know for a fact that earlier producers and script editors would not see eye-to-eye with later ones, so which ones would we consult? It is doubtful that any of them would even volunteer to be the authority on canon. So, whereas in the universes of Marvel and DC Comics, or Star Wars, or Star Trek, there do exist authorities that designate canon to the public, there is no such arrangement in Doctor Who. There thus is no such thing as an official or authoritative list of stories for the fans.

Paul Cornell, in his 2007 essay “Canonicity in Doctor Who,” points out the above issues with the use of the term canon in Doctor Who. He draws the conclusion, therefore, that “in Doctor Who, there is no such thing as ‘canon.’” For Cornell, canon is about authority and nothing else. While he is right that, for each individual consumer of Doctor Who, no one in authority has dictated, or can dictate, what constitutes canon, he is wrong that canon does not exist for Doctor Who. It most certainly does. Sorry, Paul.

According to the commonly accepted understanding of the word, as it was first coined by the Church, canon is the standard upon which doctrine is based. In other words, it lays the foundation upon which a mythology can be constructed. (And I do not use the word “mythology” pejoratively here.) Any new story of Doctor Who bases itself on past Doctor Who. So whatever that writer chooses to be the accepted or understood background or standard for the story becomes that writer’s canon.

Canon is continuity, and one can no more deny the existence of canon than deny the existence of continuity. No matter how many inconsistencies we can find between episodes of televised Doctor Who or the audio adventures or comics or novels, continuity does exist. Doctor Who on television, for example, is explicitly presented as a single arc story where all events are directly connected chronologically. Thus the current Doctor has memories of himself as the First Doctor and of experiences in earlier parts of the show. Although there are many Doctors across the Series, they all are tied to that first televised story, “An Unearthly Child,” which aired back on the 23rd of November, 1963, and one distinct narrative representing the life and adventures of the Doctor character, in one “lifestream,” you might say, is the trajectory shown throughout the televised program, both the old one and the new one. We can see each Doctor regenerating into the next one. There is no disputing that this continuity is very much intended by the makers of the Series. It’s no accident. So a Doctor Who fan has every right to be interested in continuity and cannot understand the current program fully without having some knowledge of it.

But the point here is not about the viewer, about the fan—it’s about the creators. For them, there is canon, because they attempt to make new stories continuous with the old ones. They may not be 100% successful in doing so—inconsistencies exist, for sure—but the point is that they try. They have a canon that they work with.

Big Finish Audio has its canon too: it includes the past television shows and past Big Finish stories. For novels, the past televised adventures also appear to be canon, but also other novels, though perhaps not all. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that there is a different canon for the TV show than there is for, say, Big Finish. The makers of the TV program generally do not consult these alternate mediums when making their episodes, and they frequently contradict them. For the showrunner, the Big Finish stories are not canon. They are canon, however, for the Big Finish writers. Just as Catholics and Protestants have different canons of the Bible, so different producers of Doctor Who stories have different canons. There need not be any agreement, nor any consensus, among all the makers of various Doctor Who stories. There needs only to be a consensus among those who work in one particular subset of Doctor Who story creation.

Now some might say, “No, wait a minute. There is proof that the television series accepts the Big Finish stories as canon. In the mini-episode “Night of the Doctor,” written by Steven Moffat, the 8th Doctor makes reference to his companions Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, and Molly, all from Big Finish audio productions. This automatically makes the Big Finish stories part of the TV canon.” Wait, what? No. Only what is said or appears in a television story is television canon. So yeah, that the 8th Doctor had those companions is now established as canon for the TV series. But that doesn’t mean that every other story written featuring those companions is now canon. When the Doctor says in “The Doctor Falls” that the Cybermen developed on Marinus, which is a reference to a comic strip story from Doctor Who Magazine called “The World Shapers,” should we take that to mean that all the comic book stories are now canon? Or even that the World Shapers comic strip story in full is now canon—the story in which Jamie dies? No. Remember: canon is what a writer will accept as the basis of Doctor Who doctrine for the story. Future TV writers will accept that Cybermen developed on Marinus, because it was said in the TV program, but they are not going to consult all the comic books now to make sure their stories are in line with them just because Steven Moffat wanted to throw in a reference to please the comic strip fans.

Because Doctor Who stories are still being written, most of the canons are in a constant state of flux. Even with the TV Series, the canon changes with each and every story. For the episode “World Enough and Time,” for example, the canon is all of the episodes from “An Unearthly Child” to “The Empress of Mars.” But the canon for “The Doctor Falls,” the very next episode, is slightly different. It includes all the episodes from “An Unearthly Child” to “World and Enough and Time.” Its canon, in other words, is one story longer. So while you can say that for “The Doctor Falls,” “An Unearthly Child” is canon, you cannot say the opposite, that for “An Unearthly Child” “The Doctor Falls” is canon. No, no. For “An Unearthly Child” there was no canon yet established. And for the next episode, “The Cave of Skulls,” only “An Unearthly Child” was canon. That’s how it works. Because canon is the foundation upon which mythology is constructed, you can only point backward to canon, not forward.

What does all this mean for the consumer of Doctor Who? It all depends on the context. If you are watching an episode of Doctor Who on TV, you are in the world of one canon, but if you are listening to an audio adventure, you are in the realm of another canon, and if you are reading a Doctor Who novel, your canon has likely changed again. For this reason, it is possible for us to conclude that a story is non-canonical in one context and canonical in another.  Which one of these canons is “official”? None of them, or all of them. Whichever one you happen to be in. If I wanted, I could write a Doctor Who story, which used only “Dimensions in Time” as its canon. I’d call it “Dimensions in Time 2,” and for me only “Dimensions in Time” is true. What’s stopping me? Nothing. So if you are reading my Dimensions in Time 2 story, guess what? You would have to accept and acknowledge my canon as authoritative. But as soon as you left it to watch or read something else, my canon disappears.

Have you ever seen fans attempting to harmonize all Doctor Who stories—televised and untelevised—into a single canon, a sort of umbrella canon, as it were? This is not only a fruitless enterprise, but it makes no sense. It would be like someone trying to construct a Bible for everyone out of the existing canons from all the world’s faith groups—a Judeo-Christian-Islamic-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-Daoist-Shinto-Native American-etc. Bible. The makers of the TV show will no more accept this mega-canon than Jewish people would accept the New Testament in their Bible. So yes, canon exists, and yes, canon is authoritative, and yes, canon represents “reality,” but not across all mediums or in all minds—only in the universe of whatever story you are presently experiencing. Instead of using the word “canon” by itself, qualify it by using the terms “TV canon” or “Big Finish canon” or “the canon of this particular story.” This helps avoid confusion. My recommendation is to enjoy each story on its own terms and in its own universe or mythology. Get to know the canon of each Doctor Who experience, and forget attempts to harmonize them all. Harmonization within a canon is valid and, I would argue, necessary, but cross-canon harmonization is a complete waste of time.

[1] DWM 193, p. 18.