Monday, January 10, 2011

Canon and continuity.

One of the most basic rules of fiction is that the fact that it's made up should be in some way disguised - not overtly, but subtly. Getting the audience to identify the actors as characters, or the sets as places, is a key aspect of creating fiction, and is largely connected to immersion and depth - the goal of this blog. If a setting or series does a good job of this, the environment will seem intriguing and immersive enough for the audience (and potential new writers) to want to be part of it. They'll like the characters, the background, the aesthetics, and so on.

However, there are some times when there will be breaches in the meta-framework of the setting - two writers will disagree on the tone, or an audience member will like one part, but not another. In my analysis of Lost Planet and Warhammer 40k, I pointed out the parts that I thought were interesting and the parts I thought should have been left out. This creates a conundrum: If I, or any other person, only like those parts, then why don't I create my own setting instead, and incorporate the parts I like? Of course, I would have to borrow from that setting to include those parts, but there are many things (such as vampires, dwarves, elves, and so on) that are already "public domain", as it were.

Another example is fan-fiction: if the writer wants to look at a scenario using a main character, but writes them like a different person, then why don't they just make up a story about a new person? Even if they represent the main character "accurately", why do they do it? What makes up for their lack of imagination when it comes to storytelling?

So in essence here's our issue: what is it about "established franchises" that makes them appealing enough to prevent people from simply making their own, even though making a setting isn't that complex? Relatedly, why is the "canon" of a series important - isn't it all made up?

Suspension of Disbelief
Canon is a strange thing. Some people claim not to care about it, and say "just think what you want", but the intrinsic issue is that fiction is fake, and more importantly to get immersed in the setting you have to try to hide that somehow. A story is valuable in the sense that you temporarily try to ignore the fact that it's fake. You get involved in the characters and their actions even though "the characters" don't exist, and are just actors in costumes. If you realized they were just actors in costumes, or this fact wasn't disguised, it wouldn't be possible to get the same level of emotional attachment. Therefore, you willingly suspend your disbelief so that you can get that attachment and convince yourself that, on some level, it's "real".

This may explain a few different things. For example, the issues of PvP/PvE and authorial fiat are both tied to this: even when something is just made up, the "fake reality" of the situation allows the audience to feel that it's got some kind of importance even though they're being lied to about it. It may also explain why people prefer to attach to existing franchises, rather than constantly making up new ones to fit their own viewpoints and preferences. Regardless of the fact that an author is just as "human" as you or me, their status as being in control of a franchise gives their words additional weight and importance. In the meta-sense, they're just making stuff up (even if that stuff is internally logical), but the necessity for suspension of disbelief means that it becomes more "real" than that. If that could be replicated without the author, we wouldn't need authors or writers at all.

The emotional reactions that we experience in response to the events of a show or movie are based on this sort of buildup. Why should we care if a character dies, or if a planet is destroyed, or an entire species is wiped out? It's not really happening; it's all just made up words. They could say that a guy killed a billion people and it would be just as easy for them as saying that they killed a million, or a thousand, or one. The point of believability (or at least the "logic" aspect) is to add the kind of depth that prevents the audience from saying that - to make the world feel more real, and thus avoiding plot holes that would drag the audience out of the experience.

If the brain can be convinced that a fictional thing is, on some visceral level, "real", then what happens when the same source for that information tells you something you don't want to hear? There are plenty of franchises that have been ruined forever, and while that TVTropes article may play it off like people are overreacting, you have to think about the logic here:

1) I, the viewer, am suspending my disbelief to pretend that this franchise is "real" - real enough for me to care about, to sympathize with the characters, and so on.
2) There is a part of this franchise that does not have the appeal of the parts I like, in terms of its nature or logic or whatever.
3) If I pretend that one part is real, I cannot pretend that another part isn't real - because they come from the same "source". I cannot pretend that one doesn't exist without damaging the parts that I like, because I am drawing attention to the fact that the whole thing is fake.

Now, this isn't absolute - some people are just capable of only caring about the parts they care about, and ignoring everything else. But let's use the Aliens franchise as an example (SPOILERS AHEAD). In "Aliens", the audience is made to care about the survivors, and when Ripley, Hicks, Newt, and Bishop make it off that rock, we get a sense that finally something has gone right for them. It's a happy ending, albeit one that comes at a high cost. This provokes an emotional reaction in the audience - one of bittersweet victory, but ultimately connected to the idea that they're going to be a family.

Then Alien 3 killed off Hicks and Newt in the opening and put Ripley back onto a planet with a xenomorph. Wait, what?! That's what you're going with? They die in a spaceship crash without even getting home? This might not even have been so bad if it wasn't for the fact that this was done for totally meta reasons. The franchise continued because people need to make money, and Hicks' and Newt's actors weren't available for one reason or another. So now when you watch Aliens again, you have to face the ending with the knowledge that, in-universe, Hicks and Newt both died without ever being part of Ripley's family - that happy ending is just an illusion.

Now here's the conundrum: people like Aliens because they connected with it, and thought of it as a universe that, while not actually real, was at least "real" in its own sense. You care about the characters because you're suspending your disbelief about them. When Alien 3 is thrown into the mix, you have two choices: one, accept the ending that makes things awful, or two, pretend that Alien 3 never happened - and bring to light the fact that Aliens could just as easily be considered "fake" or "not real", which makes it kind of silly to care about those characters in the first place.

One of the complaints about the New Star Trek was that, unlike old additions to the Star Trek mythos, the new one actively erased the rest of the continuity. That is, everything else is no longer canon - or at least it cannot be built upon. This introduces us to the other half of the "canon" issue: who's allowed to do what. This applies both going forwards and going backwards.

Star Trek XI is of the "forwards" variety: all new Star Trek material is going to have to play by its rules if it wants to be considered canon. The people in charge of making new Star Trek movies are going to enforce this, but even if they didn't, suspension of disbelief would maintain that rule for them. "Forwards canon" is based on ownership and established rules: George Lucas operates on the canon that George Lucas has established, and all new material in the Star Wars universe is going to have to connect in some level to that canon.

When people complain about "forwards canon", it's not just because of the fact that they don't like the upcoming product. It's because they're never going to see the product they like ever again. The new X-COM (or XCOM) game, for example, might end up overtaking the old, established franchise. There have been bad X-COM games before, but they existed off to the side. None of them have ever reinvented the franchise in a way that indicates the good parts are never coming back. The same is true for Deus Ex 3: the backlash isn't just because it's not like the original Deus Ex, but because it is going to overtake the original Deus Ex, and effectively cut off any potential for the original getting a proper sequel.

"Backwards canon" refers to the concept of retroactive continuity: the official process of pretending something didn't happen, or that it happened in a way that was different from what had happened before. In the context of the Star Trek example, it's like this: in the new universe, the old universe is destroyed - but it had to exist at some point so that it could be destroyed, and all the things in that universe happened in a meta-sense so that they couldn't happen when the past was changed. This is all a complicated way of saying "even if you retcon things, people are going to remember what happened before that".

For example, the movie "Superman Returns" is a sequel to Superman I and II, and ignores III and IV. Those movies cannot be "undone" - you can still go find them and watch them - but this new one is going to pretend that they didn't exist, like many fans tried to. The thing is, though, that there's no real sense of "prioritization". Can you really say that Superman Returns is more "real" than Superman III/IV? Would you want to, given that the story is basically just a retread of Superman I? Again, the same difficulty pops up: they're all equally fake, so how can you pretend one is "real-fake" and the other is "fake-fake"? It can't be undone that easily.

A term that I use a lot to describe these kinds of situation (both forward and backwards) is demoralizing. I enjoyed the heck out of the original Star Wars, as did millions of other people. I'm sure you won't be surprised at this point to find out that my favorite part was the Empire. You also might not be surprised to find out that I didn't enjoy the totally nonsensical military system in the prequels, because there was no real lead-up to the kind of government that the Empire became.

Like the Aliens example, one part of the franchise influenced the other. I can't accept the original trilogy without it being influenced by what happened in the prequels. I can enjoy it on its own, sure, but that's tempered by the fact that it comes from such ridiculous origins. In this sense, the prequels are demoralizing. It's not just that they're bad, it's the fact that they call attention to the fakeness of the original trilogy. Yes, you can say that "I liked this part" or "I liked those characters", but if you want to accept the prequels as being fake, then you have to acknowledge the fictional nature of the original as well.

The end result is that the original feels somehow more hollow, because as mentioned before, my choices are "admit it's fake, become less immersed" or "hold onto suspended disbelief, include the prequels". This is the kind of thing I feel like a lot of people dislike George Lucas for: he's almost going out of his way to make you feel bad about liking the movies he's made. That's demoralizing.

"Developing Characters" vs. "Iconic Characters"
In fiction, there are basically two sorts of characters. "Developing characters" are people who naturally develop through the course of the story. They're part of an ongoing cycle of events that changes situations, events, and how they think about things or perceive the world. A developing character is also tied ot their actor, for the most part - they are an individual, and thus "who's portraying them" is an intrinsic part of the role. Developing characters are most often found in limited productions - shows or movies with a definite endpoint, rather than an ongoing super-mythos. They have one run. Harry Potter is a "developing character", because after seven books he's done. Throughout the story, Harry grew and changed things, and each book is a year of his life. Even if a new book comes out, it would be set later in his life - it wouldn't just retread his previously established school years.

"Iconic characters", on the other hand, are "roles". It's okay if we know what happens to them - they exist as a sort of "comfort food", to be seen over and over, rather than actually worrying about a developing story or setting. Robin Hood, for example, is a key iconic character. We know his story, and we don't expect a lot of deviation from it. We watch the countless shows and movies not to see what happens to him (usually), but to experience "Robin Hood and his Merry Men fight the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John". Most superheroes are the same way - Batman versus The Joker, Superman versus Lex Luthor, Captain America versus Red Skull, whatever. The audience doesn't expect things to change or develop - they come to watch the fight. There's not a "finite amount" of adventures that these people can have. If they want a new Batman movie, bam, there's a new Batman movie. It might even be its own short-term continuity, which happens for most Superhero movies: you keep track of things that happen to "Tobey Macguire as Spider-Man", but that has nothing to do with "Spider-Man" as a larger character.
Developing characters have limited runs, and everything counts the first time through. Iconic characters are like Saturday Morning Cartoons - only a few things (if any) actually change, and the viewers are just there to see that week's adventure. A developing character exists for the story, and has a hand in its events. An iconic character is pure escapism. The audience shows up not because they think he or she might actually die for real, but just to take part in their adventures. You could argue that there's a lot of protagonists who blur the line, but in essence developing characters are part of a story, and iconic characters just sort of exist. There's no point worrying about canon for iconic characters, because they exist in a way that allows for perpetual adventures. The Status Quo is the most important part, because if things changed (the bad guy was actually caught, for example) then the adventures would be over.

Iconic characters exist because they provide a solid emotional connection. You know these characters, and you've known them all your life. They provide an easy way for the audience to go "hey, yeah, it's that guy! I love seeing that guy do stuff!" It may not be exciting in a developmental way ("Gee, I wonder if they'll kill Sherlock Holmes off?") but the point is that you're there to watch a familiar character do things, and that triggers a lot of comfort zone sensors. Like with games, the point of an iconic character is to make it so that things keep going. In a game, if one faction actually won, then there would be no more game. For an iconic character, it's the same thing. If they just shot Cobra Commander or Skeletor or the Joker, the game would be over. For a developing character, there must be a conclusion eventually.

Earlier, I said that fanfiction was unusual because people often change things enough that it might as well be a new franchise with thematic similarities to the intended original product. This, I feel, is the reason why: the pre-existing emotional connections and suspensions of disbelief that make an established universe more "real" to an author than something they just made up. They've already gone through the process of subconsciously convincing themselves that, on some level, it's real enough to care about. Why would they go through that again? It provides context, familiar characters, and social connections as well (it's easier to find people who like Harry Potter than to convince people to like "Wizard school I just made up"). The fact that people have internalized Draco Malfoy or Ron Weasley makes a story about them (even a "non-canon" one) more familiar, because they're starting on established ground. It may not be a challenging or creative concept, but it does have its justifications.

Now, I won't lie here: I don't like iconic characters, and relatedly I don't like fanfiction. However, I do try to understand why people do. I get that it's comforting and reliable and emotionally evocative. A lot of the things I like in a story come from its logical development, which is impossible to achieve with iconic characters. It's just that "what I like" and "what they like" come from different places. Believability is about making the product connect with the audience, not just enforcing realism.

So, to sum up:
1) Fiction is fake. When the audience has to think about this, it takes them out of the experience.
2) A divergent part of the franchise can undo the plausibility of a series, which is unimmersive.
3) The emotional connections created by a series are a source of comfort for a lot of viewers.
4) Removing those connections is going to eliminate a primary reason for people watching something.
5) Creators aren't usually going to care about 1-4 as long as they get paid.

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