Why People Get So Worked Up About ‘Canon’

Why People Get So Worked Up About ‘Canon’

Last week, the news emerged that director Neill Blomkamp’s recently confirmed Alien movie will wipe away the series’ less celebrated sequels and will pick up the story of Ellen Ripley from James Cameron’s Aliens. “I want this film to feel like it is literally the genetic sibling of Aliens,” Blomkamp said.

Something happens when the established order of treasured universes are disturbed like this, not just in films, but in comics and video games too – people get mad, and in a pretty specific way. Blomkamp’s movie is a great example, because even though it was carried to greenlight on a wave of social media enthusiasm, and even though it’s only proposing to quietly ignore two movies that are widely considered to be bum in space, some fans are still vocally unhappy. The top-rated comment on the Badass Digest story, for instance, is a simple yet monolithically symbolic “Boo” (followed by “*Marge from the Simpsons sigh*” and “*Tina Belcher guttural moan of concern*” then an admittedly less symbolic follow-up about someone’s aunt earning $US71 per hour working from home).

The unscientific point I’m making is that these kinds of canonical disruptions seem to be objectionable even when they turn out to be, after the briefest of consideration, actually rather a good idea, or at least a better idea than a blockbuster sequel set in a space prison full of hairless rapists, or resurrecting your hero as a no-look-basket-scoring alien hybrid. This is interesting because it raises the question: if fans aren’t objecting to this kind of retcon tinkering because of quality, then why are they objecting? The answer, I think, is integrity – the integrity of the worlds in question, and, more specifically, how that integrity affects the ability of fans to understand and inhabit those worlds.

Without dipping into dismissive stereotyping, it is true that canon and continuity are especially important to a particular sort of story, and a particular corner of entertainment culture. Nerds like us, I am saying, love a recorded fact that sits obediently alongside other facts, and this is reflected in the lengths that related fictional universes will go to in order to preserve consistency.

In the 1980s, for example, DC famously commissioned Crisis On Infinite Earths, a spectacular reckoning of its sprawling 50-year history that simplified its teeming archive of competing backstories and crossovers. It was a brutal, catastrophic bit of maintenance, a complex, multi-dimensional story that relieved fans of the burden of accumulated orthodoxy, and took great pains to do so in such a way that the wider fictional frame remained intact (in other words, there were reasons in the story itself that different versions of various characters died or disappeared).

This is a kind of intricate fan diplomacy, and it happens all over. While many fictional universes have unofficial records of continuity (like Mario), Star Wars has an official one. The Holocron is an encyclopaedia maintained by Lucasfilm, and specifically by Leland Chee (official title: Community Database Administrator, though he’s better known as the far cooler “Keeper Of The Holocron”) that records characters, events, objects, and even relative distances of places in the Star Wars universe. The Holocron was built in response to the “Expanded Universe” of Star Wars that came into being with the release of tie-in books, video games and other ancillaries: fan desire demanded that this quickly expanding world be be ordered and managed.

This explains why there was a small furore over the recent revelation that JJ Abrams’ Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens will ditch the previously-canon Expanded Universe, and all its meticulous record-keeping. Abrams has form here, as his Star Trek reboot, like Infinite Earth, was an elegant in-fiction way of wriggling out from under the weight of canonical expectation (the basic formula: “New Spock, Old Spock, explosion, explosion, NEW TIMELINE WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT”).

It happens in games, too. Like, all the time. Ninja Theory’s redesign of Dante for reboot DmC inspired a particularly aggrieved form of fury, as to a lesser extent did the younger Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, and the replacement of old favourite David Hayter as the voice of Metal Gear’s Snake with Hollywood hoarse whisperer Kiefer Sutherland. Reboots of Thief and Deus Ex were eyed with suspicion-bordering-on-hostility throughout production, and – perhaps most dramatic of all – at the close of Bioware’s epic RPG trilogy Mass Effect, fans made a pretty compelling argument that they had a better sympathy for and understanding of the game’s ultimate meaning than the developers themselves (who kind of agreed, by kind of changing the ending).

Why is this such a powerful thing? After the announcement of the Star Wars canon cull, Shelly Shapiro, the editor at Del Rey books responsible for the expanded universe novels (which are henceforth to be rebranded as “Legends”) said this:

“Even though they would no longer be part of a Star Wars official history, they’re still stories that mean something, and they can mean something to you, even if they didn’t ‘happen.'” [Source]

Two things are key here: those inverted commas around the word ‘happen’, which speak galactic volumes about the make-believe politics of managing a fictional universe, and the phrase “official history”. This is what all the fuss is about – that stamp of authenticity, a privileging of truth, and a seemingly arbitrary confirmation of legitimacy. “That fake thing you like? That is the real fake thing. We pronounce it.”

The reason this is such a compelling thing, despite the surface madness of it, is that love sends us crazy. When we love a world, we want to exist and revel in it. We want it to be true. And that truth is disrupted by inconsistency and contradiction. We need that integrity – our belief requires it. Canon is about neatness, and appreciation, and the urge to know and absorb everything about something you love. It’s about ownership and protectiveness. And it can also be unexpectedly damaging.

The reason that all of the above canon changes are noteworthy – the effort put into making them invisible, the inevitable anger that happened anyway – is because at a certain point uncompromising lore becomes restrictive. Hideo Kojima recently joked that to straighten out the continuity of Metal Gear he’d have to remake every game twice (“I was always held back by the canon when I was writing for The Phantom Pain“) and Ron Moore, the man who was a longstanding Star Trek writer before he rebooted Battlestar Galactica, once explained the frustration of creating stories in the Star Trek universe:

“[You’d be] in the writers room and tossing out stories then having to stop yourself and go ‘Does this work? Does this violate continuity?’ And having to call people and check encyclopaedias and look up information. You want to have it all in your head and just play. The Trek universe has got to the point where you can’t play anymore.” [Source]

Purity of canon, and the need for officialness and narrative singularity, is in some clear and obvious way the enemy of creativity. And not just, I’d argue, because it makes new stories difficult to write, but because a monolithic interpretation of any idea is less interesting than different takes and perspectives. What that looming “Boo” in the Badass Digest comments doesn’t take into account is – well, nearly everything in the store of human knowledge – but specifically the fact that Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection are still there. Nobody is erasing them, they’re just no longer part of an official fictional history, whatever that amounts to.

The notion that these films have changed or suffered in some way is really the failure of that protective, possessive form of fandom to handle ambiguity – it wants singularity and certainty instead. But ambiguity, that ability to hold two potentially competing conceptions of something in your mind simultaneously and for them to enrich and comment upon each other, is something worth preserving. Ambiguities are in this way a form of mystery, something that resists rationalisation, and to end, as all articles should, with a David Lynch quote: “The more unknowable the mystery, the more beautiful it is.”

This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.


  • Good – I always regarded the Verheiden/Nelson comic series that followed Newt’s story and its direct sequels that carried on after Aliens as a far better story than the two films.

      • Truth. But the Aliens V Predator movies took a big, fat, steaming dump all over my love of the Aliens franchise…

        • Urrrrgh I pretend they didn’t exist. One was just torture-porn, the other was decidedly b-grade.

          The games actually weren’t too bad, though. Narratively.

    • They were good, but I always considered them an alternate timeline. The Assembly cut of Alien 3 was a really great movie that made sense. The theatrical cut was ridiculous, but not because they killed off Newt. I never considered that as anything other than a harsh lesson in how uncaring and brutal a universe that contains a creature like that can be.

        • Hahahahaha oh man. They killed everything she fought for in Aliens offscreen, before the opening credits. It was cruel and incredibly unfair. It was perfect for the tone of a series about an unfeeling killing machine and the faceless corporate vampires who wanted to control it for profit at the cost of any number of human lives.

          Alien 3 was pretty damn nihilistic at times. If that’s going to kill you, then don’t watch.

  • Normally I don’t like them completely disregarding content, I prefer if they ignore it or work around it, but in the case of alien I’m glad they are carrying on from the second film and wiping out the other rubbish.

  • One of the things that annoyed me most about Alien 3 was the fact Newt was killed off (it happens right at the start of the movie so even if you haven’t seen it yet, that’s not a spoiler). Ripley spends so long in Aliens rescuing and protecting Newt, including saving her from the friggin Queen Alien, only to have her die right at the start of Alien 3. It was a pretty big cop-out.

    • Not even at the start, really. Off screen and without much in the way of explanation beyond ‘Oh, yeah, those other people? They died.’. Honestly, since you never see the corpses, it could even be argued they are actually still out there. 😉

  • Hey, what is the source of the top pick, because if it is what i think it is, then in terms of likeness, i think that the aliens reboot pic above is actually an expy of the fusion suit from metroid, a game series that was influenced by aliens, might like to see what it turns out to be

      • I especially like the part when the Predator, having recognized the protagonist as worthy prey, decides to brand her and adopt her as a pet or something instead of ripping her head off and adding it to it’s collection.

        Because screw logic, amiright?

        • I know you’re being sarcastic, but I like that movie, and love that part in particular. The Predator didn’t see her as worthy prey, but as a worthy Predator, which makes prefect sense given the whole set up of the temple was testing worth. Having the Predator be capable of rational thought instead of just being a kill everything monster was interesting imo, though I’ll admit I have a bias towards stories where humans and aliens find common ground.

          • The Predator society is pretty much tribal samurai in space and it fits with the Predator lore from pre-expanded universe. It was totally fine for her to be accepted and taken as an ally.

        • A significant amount of plot, especially the interaction between the main character and the Predator was taken from the AvP novel Prey. The brand or Bloodening is a Predator ritual where the subject is recognised as a true Hunter.

        • Well, she saved him and I get the feeling that, if he hadn’t branded her, she would have been killed by the other predators. So he saved her back.

  • I read a fascinating post somewhere online about how one of the big drivers behind “canon” is that nerd fandom, for a long time, has been about cataloging – knowing the issue Wolverine first appeared, or having read Every Sherlock Holmes Story. When things are changed or ignored – when we say “yeah, Wolverine knew Captain America in World War II”, or “this is a new Sherlock Holmes and he’s in modern London”, that stuff becomes “useless” to the discussion, and so the person whose importance was that he Knows That Stuff suddenly becomes, or at least feels they become, unnecessary.

    The problem, of course, is that restrictive canon is stupid. It happens in comics all the time – people will bend over backwards to explain away a weird out-of-character decision, when the real simple answer is “it was a crappy issue by a crappy writer and we should just forget it and move on”.

  • Canon is whatever you want it to be. As soon as Qui-Gon Jinn mentioned Midi-chlorians I just went – “NOPE, that’s non Canon. I don’t care if Lucas says it is, because that is fucking ridiculous and I won’t have it in my Star Wars.” Not so Easy! 😀

    Great article by the way!

    • Yep, I have my own personal SW canon. It includes the original (not special edition) trilogy along with Timothy Zahn’s books, those from a few other writers and some game stuff. It’s brilliant.

    • Yep, regardless what anyone else says me and a group of my friends all agree that Metroid: Other M is non-canon. In fact one has a kind of plausible theory that it’s more just a movie adaptation of the series. I like that one.

  • I think it’s all about investment. If someone has invested a significant amount of their own time and energy into becoming very knowledgeable of a certain topic, it’s logical that they may become defensive about proposed changes to that knowledge. As Michael mentioned above, their vast knowledge base becomes redundant overnight.

    I think the underlying problem though is that (in my opinion), people who tend to get really worked up over canon are those who have trouble differentiating themselves from their knowledge. The changes to the ideas become attacks on them individually. And that’s probably more than a little unhealthy.

  • If ignoring Aliens 3 and Resurrection is what has to happen to make a Neil Blomkamp / Sigourney Weaver Aliens film, FUCK CANON.
    And I say this as a guy who loves canon so much. The Principal and the Pauper makes me sad.

  • Ah canon, due to the new disney star wars canon boba fett died a stupid death, thus cutting his story short, with his adventures after episode 6 deemed non canon, as acknowledged by deathbattle when they did boba fett vs samus aran remastered

    • That’s not necessarily the case though. The new Disney canon states that the old extended universe canon didn’t happen, which means that Boba’s numerous escapes from the Sarlacc pit as detailed in the extended universe stuff didn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean he won’t escape in the new canon. Boba Fett is a ridiculously popular character, and I’m sure Disney are aware of how much of a boon it would be to them to bring him back.

  • I actually quite liked Alien 3. I thought it worked quite well, and the characters were well drawn, especially the one played by Charles Dance. Alien 4, on the other hand, was an unmitigated bucket of shit that not even Ron Perlman could save.

    • 4 I thought was much better and much more classy than 3 (though still didn’t hold any water to the first two). 3 was horse poo, mostly because they completely disregarded the events that occured in 2.

      Mind you a lot of it wasn’t the director David Fincher’s fault, he came into a project that had already started filming with an unfinished script and the bigwigs kept overruling his creative decisions, so the final product was not the film he wanted to make.

      • Assembly cut was closer to what Fincher wanted and it was VASTLY improved. Character motivations make actual sense, which is a 100% improvement on the theatrical release.

  • Great read. As a massive fan of the Alien universe i completely agree. Stories change over time and I’m more interested in being told one as opposed to enforcing my personal agency over it. Great final paragraph.

  • I have no problem to erase Alien 3 and Resurection from timeline.
    If they say, these movies was just nightmares at cryosleep i will buy it with no problem.
    Alien 3 was bit dreamy and sureal for me. I love that movie, specialy longer cut.
    Alien 3 was failure becose kill all good ideas and give us just prison complex.
    That movie should be last in Alien saga.

    Resurection is cheap spinoff and AVP movies are more like fan fiction. They obviosly are not canon at all.

    Neil Blomkamp have that gift to make Aliens like movie. Elysium weapons and Krugger crew was like cut from Aliens movie. I dont realy love his new concept art. I looks like elysium.
    But he is only hope to see anythink good at cinema about alien. Prometeus was epic mess.
    Only possible explanation i have that crew of prometeus ship was hired to collect biggest idiots
    to increase chance of mission failure. Prometeus 2 ??? No thanks. Quality usualy goes down by sequels.

    And Micheal Beihn could be badass even as old. I belive. 🙂

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