Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered
Oh wait. We’re taking about canon. One “n”. So why am I quoting Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade? That doesn’t make any sense.
Canon, according to dictionary.com, is “the body of rules, principles, or standards accepted as axiomatic and universally binding in a field of study or art.” And the issue of canon has been quite a talking point in various fandoms, including among Trekkies. There are some who believe it is important and there are others who do not care about it at all (at, least that’s what they say). Personally I fall into the former category, and after seeing a post today on a Trek Facebook page where someone said they did not care about canon and Star Trek was “just a show”, I was inspired to write the article. Truthfully I was planning a Trek ship list or reposting my Top 10 Trek Alien Species article, but I just had to say something.
So with a Dyson Sphere-sized SPOILER ALERT here’s my four cents on Trek canon and why it is important.
Cent 1: Is it just a show?
The canon conversations were pretty hot and heavy during the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, which is not surprising as there were several things that appeared to be either bending or outright breaking the canon. Some of these, like why we never heard about a Spore Drive in the future or why was there holographic communication technology when decades later view screens are standard, were retconned in the following season. There is still no explanation for the radical Klingon redesign other than the “they were bald because they were at war” excuse, which in itself does not follow canon. There has also been some light canon conversation about Star Trek: Lower Decks but the show is a comedy so I take everything there with a spoonful of tranya.
Now someone who does not think canon is a big deal might say, “Why are you nitpicking? It’s just a show.” Well, no it’s not just a show. It is STAR TREK, one of the longest-running Sci Fi franchises ever and a multi-media juggernaut with a fanbase so large it could probably populate a moderately-sized country. So the weak “it’s just a show” argument to dismiss concerns about canon-breaking shenanigans just doesn’t fly. Maybe that could work for a brand new show, but not for Trek which has been so important to so many people for so many years.
Cent 2: The rule book
It may be strange to use a sports analogy in a Star Trek article but stay with me (I’m a very mild sports fan myself). Every official sport has a set of rules that everyone has to follow and it provides everyone, including the fans, with a baseline. Now imagine if in a game of football (soccer for our US Redmangoreaders) all the players decided to start running with the ball in their hands. Or in a basketball game where everyone decided to start kicking the ball. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Like utter chaos? And the fans would be annoyed to pissed off. Well imagine if you’re watching an episode of your favourite show and someone starts bending or breaking the rules (see canon) of your show? Is it shocking that Trek fans would be annoyed to pissed off?
Trek’s canon is the established rules of the show. Unlike in sports it can be added to (more on that later) or advanced, but ignoring it outright? Buster, you bucking for trouble. Now if you’re writing a non-canon novel or fan fiction then you can do whatever the heck you want. But if you’re writing for a canon Trek show then you follow the rules and stay in that sandbox.
Cent 3: Previous Example Counter
In my first point I mentioned the “it’s just a show” argument to dismiss canon concerns. Well it’s sister argument is the previous example counter. With this method people point to previous examples when canon was bent or broken to dismiss current concerns. A popular one is that the change in the Klingons’ appearance from The Original Series to The Motion Picture and onwards was not explained until two decades later. You could throw in Spock calling the Vulcan species “Vulcanian” in an early TOS episode or James T. Kirk’s tombstone reading James R. Kirk in Where No Man Has Gone Before. Or for non-TOS examples you can use the Ferengi appearance on ENT or the change of the Trill species between TNG and DS9. And don’t get me started on the warp speed thresholds.
So while Discovery was a repeat canon offender in its first season it is not the only time there have been canon breaking/bending incidents. But pointing to errors of the past is an ineffective defence for errors of the present. TOS examples are especially weak because the show took some time to settle into a canon, and they had no idea they were building a canon to last for more than five decades. And the other incidents I cited (or can be cited) are exceptions that prove the rule. And they are no excuse for playing fast and loose with canon.
Cent 4: Don’t break; expand!
The main source of Discovery’s canon issues was its prequel setting. You can’t set a show a decade before TOS and just do whatever you want. You have to follow the rules of that time period. Now I had no problem with them updating the look of the technology because TOS production design would not work for modern audiences. But they went a little too far, notably with the holo communication and the Klingons, and had to do some gymnastics to try and fix it. I wasn’t a big fan of the Spock stepsister retcon but that is a light canon bend that I can excuse.
But you know when Discovery stopped receiving so many canon complaints? When they jumped into the future for Season 3. Instead of having to walk on the canon tightrope of the past they were adding to the canon of the future. And I enjoyed that. Sure there was still the odd slip up with the Trill storyline—they returned to a canon that only select Trill could be joined but the DS9 episode established that was a myth and nearly half of the population could be joined. But most fans likely missed that (I did) and overall the canon ship flew very well.
People complaining about canon may sound like petty nitpicking but it comes from a place of deep love for the series. We just want the writers and the Powers That Be to follow the rules for the good of the show. So yeah, canon is important. And I strongly suspect those who say it is not would be completely aghast if it was ever completely thrown out.
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. I can also be found posting about TV and movie memes, news and trailers on Facebook at Movieville. And to stay on top of all Redmangoreviews articles you can like and follow us on Facebook here.