A recent episode of John Gruber’s The Talk Show with John Siracusa, and Guy English as guests. The topic was Star Wars — basically all of the films, with a few mentions of expectations for the upcoming films, the Expanded Universe, and how it fits together. The really interesting part of the conversation is hearing the three of them describe what is, and is not, Star Wars, in Star Wars. Fans refer to this as canon. Canon surrounds fictional works, it permeates them, it binds a fictional universe together — It usually results in a lot of heated arguments.
Recently, there have been rumblings about Star Wars’ Expanded Universe characters, and stories, being removed. Some Star Wars fans are quite distressed by this, while others are relived the new films won’t be tied to the stories that have been told, and a third group had no idea any of that stuff existed.
There is a tendency with nerds to analyze the minutiae of stories. To catalog what we find, assign it a spot, and weave together relationships with other elements. A number of reasons exist for this behavior:
If everything is logically consistent in a story, then it makes it easier to believe the events of the story, and the events of other stories. This is a blessing, and a curse. People can know about a race, characters, or ship combat mechanics, from a previous story and it the current story doesn’t have to earn that. Unfortunately, that also means that if the current story behaves in a way that contradicts prior stories, without explanation, then you’ve thrown a bunch of fans out.
There’s a confidence that stems from knowing, and understanding, all the rules, and facts, of a universe. It wasn’t a waste of time! It was all worth it! The knowledge is comforting, even if it doesn’t yield any practical reward.
There is an unfortunate offshoot of this with the know-it-all-nerd stereotype that we’ve all seen in The Comic Book Shop Guy from The Simpsons — or probably witnessed in an actual comic book shop. A desire to lord their knowledge over others, and keep out all but the true believers. To use “facts” and “logic” against other nerds’ “facts” and “logic” and provide comfort, in a negative way.
People might believe canon should exist — in the abstract — but lack any mastery of it. They want to know that things function on a surface level without having to get into the details and wade through wiki articles. They want to know police are protecting them, but they don’t want to be the police.
The first time I ever heard the term “head canon” was from Erika Ensign on an episode of The Incomparable. I don’t think she invented it, but I can’t find any sources for it. Conceptually, it refers rationalizing things, filling in the gaps, and generating a personalized truth. Head canon is not official in any capacity, but the person’s belief in it is unshakeable. Some might think of this as a form of denial, or pointless speculation, but that’s just, like, their opinion, man.
The idea of canonicity stems from religion. Not to touch that third rail, but it’s pretty easy to see how there’s a lot of material that organized religions sift through, and approve, as the actual beliefs of the religion. Let’s move away from the discussion of religion, and talk about something a lot less controversial: Star Wars vs. Star Trek.
Oh yeah, we’re boldly going there.
While I love both Star Wars and Star Trek, it’s pretty obvious that I love Trek more. I can easily say this is because I grew up with Star Warsbeing a trilogy on VHS tape (which I would watch over and over) and grew up with Star Trek while TNG was on the air, and the original cast was still making movies. Even by that point, there was a lot of Star Trek and there was good, and bad to be found in much of it. Star Wars was just the three VHS tapes. Kids my age were so starved for Star Wars that they bought in to much of what The Expanded Universe had to offer, particularly the N64 game, Shadows of the Empire, and anything concerning Mara Jade.
Star Wars had, until very recently, the dubious luxury of George Lucas deciding almost everything. Even though George Lucas didn’t direct two of the Star Wars movies, he was certainly involved with them. He owned the company responsible for licensing books, comic books, games, and cartoons. Even though he didn’t approve each of those Expanded Universe titles, he was the top dog.
Star Trek, in contrast, has a long, chaotic history with many different views, and opinions being expressed by showrunners, producers, and writers. Even during the original series, Gene L. Coon, not Gene Roddenberry, ran many of the shows. Indeed, he created the Klingons, Khan, the Prime Directive, the United Federation of Planets, and Starfleet Command. Even a non-Star-Trek fan knows all of those iconic things. Roddenberry, the show’s creator, did not always like the things that the fans liked, much in the same way that George Lucas didn’t really approach Star Wars the same way fans had.
While Star Trek has books, comic books, games, and a cartoon, it’s always been additional stuff that the shows, and movies, have never been bound to. Star Wars dismantling some of the officialness of the Expanded Universe just knocks it down to Star Trek tie-in properties. The market for that is still there, people still buy it, and actors still lend themselves to the tie-in projects. It’s not the end of the universe, and not the end of the expansion.
Star Trek fans have been dealing with continuity, and canon, issues for decades. The sheer amount of Star Trek material is immense, and allows for sprawling, multi-series, multi-movie analysis. That doesn’t mean fans won’t bump against those issues, but there’s so much bumping that it’s not a new experience. Phasers fired out of the torpedo tubes? Ferengi and human first contact in Star Trek: Enterprise? Klingon makeup? The warp factor scale? Almost everything else?
So is Star Wars. What’s your point? Is your point that Star Wars is so perfect, and rarified that it should never be subjected to the kind of inconsistent treatment Star Trek has been? It has silly stuff right in the sacred films, ignore it at your own peril.
Silliness doesn’t matter, introducing silliness, to a degree, doesn’t kill anything. Otherwise, the best you can hope for is a weird stasis with Star Wars being protected to the grave. It needs new fans, new audiences, new stories to tell. I don’t like the JJ Abrams’ Trek films as much as most Trek stories, but I’m glad that something exists because it might push people to look back on historical Star Trek.
A person doesn’t need to like all of Star Wars, or integrate all aspects of Star Wars into a cohesive whole. It is possible to accept that Star Trek: Nemesis is a movie that happened, even though I thoroughly, and unequivocally, hate the movie.
Retroactive continuity was first used to describe changes made in comic books. Rewriting “history” in the fictional universe to better suit current stories, or current attitudes of the authors. It’s not the same as plot inconsistencies, but it can be used as a way to fix inconsistencies. Errors are not retcons, and George Lucas’ Special Edition doesn’t count as a retcon.
It is entirely possible that Lucasfilm will keep elements from the Expanded Universe as part of the canon of Star Wars going forward. Possibly characters, but not the stories involving those characters. Rewriting them to fit in to the new stories, and the continuity going forward.
Whether or not you consider that a retcon, a reboot, a revision, or a reimagining, is all open to interpretation since it depends on what you feel is canon.
People might cry foul over this, that Admiral Thrawn demands respect, but the situation is no different from the competing, conflicting, coexisting timelines Disney’s other acquired company, Marvel, goes through. The movies are separate from the comics, but use them as inspiration, they tell whatever story they want to tell. People still buy the comics, and enjoy them, and buy movie tickets, and enjoy them. It is possible to cope with these changes, other fans do it all the time.
Other fanbases have to deal with this too. John Siracusa points to James Bond, and Doctor Who for examples of franchises that see sweeping changes.
There have been so few official sources of Star Wars that people have developed very intimate attachments to what existed. This stands in stark contrast to nearly every other popular franchise of the last 30-40 years. It is possible that this is a key factor in many fans taking hardline stances about what’s “real” Star Wars.
It is also possible that fans feel so burned by the official prequels that they have hardened to any changes to Star Wars. It’s the original trilogy only (mostly they just like Empire Strikes Back).
This isn’t the same thing as “head canon” because there’s no self-awareness. Their personal preferences are truth, not just to them, but must be respected by others.
The easiest way to see if you’re talking to someone afflicted by this:
- “Do you like The Phantom Menace?”
- It’s not Star Wars.
- “Do you like the other prequels?”
- They’re not Star Wars.
- “Do you like Return of the Jedi?”
- (unprompted) They should have been Wookies instead of Ewoks.
If anyone answers with the third options then give them this map.
When what literally counts as Star Wars is The Empire Strikes Back and parts of two other movies, then that person can’t interpret anything that might upset a very specific, narrow view they have. It is unlikely that person will see the JJ Abrams movie and think it’s official either.
People are smothering Star Wars with their love of a select set of things. The franchise needs to grow, shift, and change.
You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.