The Writer’s Craft – How to Kill Your Story 101, Part 3

(Silverdale, Washington; Feb. 11, 2021) – Writers have an opportunity to create stories and franchises which can thrive for decades, attracting a broad coalition of fans through innovative, exciting tales featuring innovative, exciting characters.

Conversely, writers can turn their success into a disastrous recreation of the Hindenberg’s immolation by betraying their core philosophy, ignoring source material, and, most egregiously, wantonly destroying canon.

This three-part series concludes with a discussion of the pitfalls brought about by the wholesale destruction of established canon. Doctor Who’s current showrunners committed this error, resulting in the longest-running science-fiction franchise in history now teetering on cancellation.

Canon is the officially accepted history of a universe.  The word is used in literature the same way it’s used in religion because it means the same thing: the accepted and ‘official’ history and heritage of a story.  Literary canon can’t be completely static; it must be allowed to evolve if the story and characters are to evolve.  Careful additions and retcons made within the established rules of the universe enhance canon by adding to the fabric of the story.  Wholesale retcons obliterating canon violate the trust and emotional investment of the fans by destroying the very foundation of the story’s universe.

Superman’s original canon established he was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and could leap tall buildings in a single bound…but no one ever imagined he could fly.  This changed after the character’s debut on the big screen when Superman’s story was retconned to allow him to fly.  This retcon was based on the established fact that Kryptonians gain special powers from our yellow sun, thereby ensuring the retcon worked because it functioned within the Superman universe’s established rules.  This retcon enhanced the story and the canon.

In fact, the flight retcon was so incredibly successful that, today, only historians and die-hard comic book fans even remember Superman originally couldn’t fly.  This is the ‘high road’ a writer can take when enhancing canon.

Doctor Who took the low road by detonating a 5,000 lbs. smart bomb on the franchise, destroying nearly six decades of canon in one bombing run.  It took literally only one episode for the current showrunners to obliterate the entire history of the show and deconstruct every part of it.

The Doctor’s race, the Time Lords, regenerate into new bodies at death.  This power itself was the first major retcon in the series.  It was enacted in 1966 to keep the show on the air after the role was recast because the original actor left due to ill health.  Since the Doctor is a mysterious alien from another planet, adding such a power made sense as a way to openly address the obvious recasting of the role. 

The power of regeneration was further refined in 1976 by establishing a 12-regeneration (13 lives) limit.  The next retcon came in 1985 when it was revealed the Time Lords had the technology to grant an entire new regeneration cycle to worthy individuals.  The two key factors to note here are how slowly these retcons were done, and how adroitly they enhanced the established canon by working within the established rules of the Doctor Who universe.

The Time Lords themselves have been shown to be alternately noble, selfish, altruistic, and devious.  They were a race that striving for lofty goals and often falling short—just like people in real life.  However, even at their worst, the Time Lords were still generally held out as an example of hope, even if this hope was sometimes shown only through the character of the Doctor.

The episode “The Timeless Children” in 2020 destroyed that mythos, replacing it with a nihilistic nightmare.  The Doctor was suddenly not a Time Lord, but began life as a female child from another universe who was found by the Time Lords’ ancestors.  When it was learned this girl could regenerate indefinitely, the Time Lords’ progenitors murdered her over and over in a variety of horrible ways until they could unlock and steal her powers of regeneration.

The showrunners casually wiped away all semblance of hope and decency from the Time Lords by turning them into murdering monsters who repeatedly killed a child.  Half a century of history limiting Time Lords to 13 lives was also summarily deleted; now the Doctor is an immortal being who can regenerate an indefinite number of times (apparently even into animals!).

These appalling changes are anathema to what the story used to be about and alienated so many fans (including me) the juggernaut itself is beginning to collapse.  Doctor Who’s ratings were already falling, but this episode marked the beginning of a Hindenberg-like explosion.  Merchandise sales—the bread and butter of every mass media franchise—are collapsing, meaning interest in the entire franchise, not just the current TV show itself, has been decimated.

The destruction of the Time Lords and the destruction of the Doctor’s history yanked the rug out from under the feet of those who pay for the franchise (in other words, the fans).  This insanely asinine retcon turned a formerly beloved romp through time and space into a show about a wandering victim eternally running away from a race of murdering pigs.

Who the hell in their right minds wants to watch that every week?!

Stories are critical to human life and culture.  Stories and franchises like Doctor Who provide escapism through innovative storytelling.  They help maintain our social cohesiveness by creating a shared experience within our cultures.  Finally, franchises like Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars provide just good fun…or, at least, they used to.

Even a franchise built on change, such as Doctor Who, owes its existence to the basic rules of good storytelling.  One of these is being careful when retconning canon.  Writers should never be afraid to experiment, but success depends on following the established rules of that universe.  No one wants to emotionally or financially invest in a great story and great characters (especially over several decades), only to see the entire mythos wiped out in one disgustingly violent maneuver by amateur hacks who wouldn’t recognize good storytelling if it danced naked in front of them wearing Dobby the House Elf’s tea cozy (apologies, J.K. Rolling!).

Retconning a story’s history carefully and respectfully is critical to success.  Respect and work within the rules of your story’s universe to evolve the story’s canon and your audience will respect and work with you.  Wantonly destroy your canon in an orgasmic display of pugnaciously puerile hubris, and your audience might decide you’re a pugnaciously puerile dunderhead swimming in a dumpster fire, and dump you.

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