The Notion of Canon in Fiction, Part 2: Doctor Who

This is Part 2 of a three-part series of articles examining the perception and significance of canon in fictional media. Click here to read Part 1, which discusses Dragon Ball and comic books.

Before sitting down to write out my thoughts on Doctor Who when it comes to the idea of canon, I found a blog post from 2007 written by Paul Cornell, who has written a plethora of official Doctor Who stories from novels, to episodes of the TV series, to comics, to webcasts, to Big Finish audio dramas, as well as being one of the writers of the reference book, The Discontinuity Guide, alongside Martin Day and Keith Topping. In this post, Cornell breaks down the very idea of canon in fiction, its origins, how it pertains to Doctor Who, the interpretation of canon by fans, and how the notion of canon really does not apply to Doctor Who based on the core idea that what is or is not canon lies in authorial authority, i.e. only the original author of a work or collection of works can declare what is truly “canon” to their vision.

Cornell explained this concept through the origins of the term “canon” being applied to fictional works that were not Biblical in nature (that is not meant to be an attack on the Bible or religious tales; the word “canon” was originally used to describe Biblical texts and stories which actually occurred). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator and author of the stories of the character Sherlock Holmes, was revered by fans of his work, so much so that anything with Holmes which was not written by Conan Doyle was declared to not be part of the canon by virtue of not having been written by the original author. Through this understanding of the term, Cornell posits the idea that the very notion of canon, when referring to fiction, works as intended so long as there is one author or creator.

This is in direct contention with Doctor Who, which, over its nearly 55 years of stories across several mediums, has had dozens, if not over a hundred creators and creative teams who did not work together or communicate each other’s intentions, thus leading to a hodgepodge conflicting stories, events, and intentions.

The TV Show

Let’s start as simply as possible with the television series, which originally aired from 1963 to 1989, came back in 1996 for a TV movie, returned as a proper television program in 2005, and has been on the air ever since (a couple of year-long breaks notwithstanding). Over that time, particular during the original twenty-six season “classic” series, there were numerous creative teams who had different visions for the show and presented conflicting ideas or information in the series, one of the most well-known being the existence of three versions of Atlantis that had incompatible explanations for their respective demise.

The series has and continues to play loose with its own continuity. Numerous classic serials take place in the early 21st century, which is when the revived series that started in 2005 largely takes place, and the presentations of the period vary between the various eras and creative teams. Humanity’s shock and surprise at the Daleks’ existence in 1964’s “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” is later contradicted by 1988’s “Remembrance of the Daleks”, which features two opposing Dalek factions waging war in Shoreditch in 1963, 2006’s “Doomsday”, and 2008’s “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”. The Second Doctor was exiled to Earth following his trial in 1969’s “The War Games”, but later appearances of him on the show suggest that he did some work for the Time Lords before his exile and forced regeneration. And that’s not even touching on how the Doctor’s age seems to have regressed in the revived series.

There seems to be a notion among fans that argue incessantly about the franchise’s canon that the TV show, being the main vehicle for moving the franchise forward as well as the primary if not only Doctor Who general audiences engage with, is the ultimate canon and cannot be contradicted. Yet the series contradicts itself. What do you do then? Simple: the most recent event or explanation is the canon event or explanation. Unless you don’t like it, then just blame Steven Moffat for being a bad writer who wants to destroy Doctor Who because he despises the show.

I am kidding, of course, but I have come across numerous fans who take such an approach, discounting Moffat’s contributions to the franchise on the basis of those contributions being from Moffat. Such fans do not like him, it seems.

But discrepancies arise with fans who take the TV show as the only canon when the show references expanded universe works. 2010’s “The Pandorica Opens” references the Chelonians from the Virgin New Adventures novels by name. 2013’s “The Night of the Doctor” features the Eighth Doctor name dropping his companions from Big Finish’s audio dramas. What now? I can not comment on the approach taken with the Chelonians by such fans, but I imagine it would be similar to how I have seen some fans treat the unambiguous mentioning of Big Finish companions: the characters are canon, but their adventures are not. To me, that is simply ludicrous. There are dozens of stories being presented as being canon or “having happened” in the life of this character (a character who had only this and one other on-screen appearance, I might add), why would you not take it? Especially when, for the most part, including these adventures does not contradict the TV show or “main canon”?

Even when just discussing the TV show, the canon of Doctor Who is messy and at times inconsistent, though generally fans will accept it as definitive canon despite there being little in the way of authorial authority being asserted over the series as a collective.

The Books & Comics

Now we are going to get a bit messy. After the series was canceled in 1989, Virgin Books attained the publishing rights for Doctor Who and began publishing their New Adventures series featuring the then-incumbent Seventh Doctor in 1991. In the blog post I referred to earlier, Paul Cornell asserts that the closest declaration of any sort of canon made by the BBC (as of 2007) was when the last production team of the classic series declared that these novels from Virgin were an official continuation of what they had been planning to do with the show had it not been canceled. The publisher even had writers from that last team and the oversight of John Nathan-Turner, who was the showrunner from 1980 to 1989.

And yet there are still some fans who discount the validity of the New Adventures for some reason or another, despite being legitimized by the show’s then-most recent creative team. I have not read any of the New Adventures novels, as they are not exactly easy to come by in the United States (though I did purchase a reprint of Human Nature, which was written by Cornell), so I cannot talk at length about them. What I do know, however, is that for every fan I see denouncing them, I see several fans singing their praises. Between these books and the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, these were what was keeping Doctor Who alive through the early- to mid-90’s, leading up to the 1996 TV movie.

Insofar as I have been able to research, there was no collaboration between the comic strip writers and the New Adventures writers, meaning that contradictions may be abound. I have found some guides from fans online which help to weave the two series together into a coherent narrative, though I have yet to personally find out if they work. Perhaps the idea that they were not television stories downplays their worth in the eyes of some fans. Maybe fans who came into the show after 2005 see no reason to seek out sixty novels featuring characters with whom they are unfamiliar, and write them off as being non-canonical to convince themselves that there is no reason to look into them. Or perhaps there were fans who read them, did not particularly enjoy them, and wrote them off as a result of their own personal taste.

Big Finish Audio Dramas

Here is where most of my experience with the expanded universe of Doctor Who lies. Big Finish Productions was granted an official license by the BBC to produce full-cast Doctor Who audio dramas in 1999, and since then their output has exceeded the entirety of the television series. That alone is daunting, but what is even more daunting is the tangled web that Big Finish have been weaving with their stories.

Big Finish often release stories out of chronological order. One month the Seventh Doctor could be a lonely man toward the end of his life, then in his next story he could be in a panto with Mel. In 2003, the phrase “For King and Country” could appear in a story, and the significance of the phrase would be explained in 2010, in a story that takes place after the 2003 story from a linear perspective, but earlier in the Doctor’s life. And that story would be the culmination of two story arcs that had been building for a decade. And then a minor event or consequence from this story would spark another story arc that started years earlier for another Doctor, who may be traveling with a companion of his future incarnation who has her own story arc between two Doctors.

I took a few liberties with that explanation, but it was not very far off base. Thankfully, there are easy points of entry for Big Finish, but that is something to discuss another time. The simple idea that there is just so much to absorb and that so much of it is directly connected to each other, as well as the fact that many people simply don’t gel with the medium or consider it to either be lesser or erroneously believe them to be simple audio books, can drive people away. It certainly does not help that, because they are an independent company with an official license, Big Finish are notoriously expensive.

Even with their major contributions to the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Doctors (making him more likable, expanding on the gap between “Survival” and the TV movie knowing where he ends up, and actually giving him a character and story, respectively), which have been performed by the original actors, there still seem to be a good many people declaring them to be non-canon or simple fan fiction.

Some fans write off the entire catalog because a few of their stories either inspired or were adapted into episodes of the revived series. Jubilee was loosely adapted into Series 1’s “Dalek”. “Utopia” was inspired by MasterSpare Parts inspired “Rise of the Cybermen” and “Age of Steel” so much that Marc Platt, who wrote Spare Parts, got a story credit. However, despite the inspiration or adaptations, the TV episodes and the audio dramas which inspired them are, for the most part, their own separate stories, so the argument does not hold water.

So What’s Canon?

Everything and nothing. The BBC does not comment on such matters. Why would they? Declaring something or another non-canon simply tells fans “this doesn’t matter.” If it doesn’t matter, what is the point in buying it? That would mean less money coming in.

Of course, that is a gross over-simplification, and the idea of a “personal canon”, i.e. if you think it’s canon then go for it, does not really mean much of anything. Authorial ownership when it comes to Doctor Who is not as cut and dry as something like Sherlock Holmes. Sure, the BBC owns the franchise, but they do not seem to be interested in defining a “true” canon. And that’s okay.

Like it or not, every writer, director, and producer of the show, comics, novels, audio dramas, etc. have a legitimate claim to authorial authority. Verity Lambert, Barry Letts, Philip Hinchcliffe, Graham Williams, Douglas Adams, John Nathan-Turner, Eric Saward, Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronovitch, Nicholas Briggs, Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat, Chris Chibnall, and countless others all have or had authorial authority over the series at some point or another, and arguably still maintain some level of authority over the show due to their contributions to the franchise in an official capacity. Arguing about whether their contributions matter or are “canon” and getting wrapped up in the very idea of a “definitive canon” makes it far too easy to miss the forest for the trees.

Doctor Who can go anywhere and do anything because of its basic premise. Why get so embroiled in canon when we can enjoy the ride? That’s not to say “Doctor Who is above criticism,” because it is not above criticism. But remember that it’s just a show. You should really just relax.

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