A matter of canon
One thing I think nobody in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s could have anticipated, was the extent to which the popular science fiction and fantasy products of that era would continue to be dominant well past the turn of the new century. Certainly there was no indication, when the original Star Trek limped through the end of its third season, that the franchise — there was no franchise at that stage — would spawn numerous successful spinoff TV series, over a dozen full-length motion pictures, any number of comic book adaptations, and well over one hundred novels; both original stories, and novelizations of films and TV episodes. Roughly one decade later, Star Wars revolutionized movie-making, and turned science fiction into a common household commodity. Battlestar Galactica — derided by critics as a Star Wars ripoff — earned so much fan loyalty in syndication, that one generation later it was revived in the form of an entirely new series, with an all new cast, and a plot that had been reworked according to 21st century sensibilities. Now we’ve got new Star Wars movies afoot, picking up where Return of the Jedi left off. Given the lackluster experience of the SW prequels, my sense is that people are expecting great things from the new movies; to make up for what the prequels never got right.
But wait, Lucas himself — the father of Star Wars — was behind the prequels. How could the man who gave birth to a thing, do so wrong by that very same thing? And why do we look to people other than Lucas to set the Star Wars universe to rights?
The same was true for Star Trek, you know. Gene Roddenberry gave us the series, sure, but he was also (in many ways) his own franchise’s worst enemy. For Gene, Star Trek served as an outlet for his quasi-hedonistic, utopian idealism. Thus the first full-length Star Trek film almost ensured that there would be no more. They had to sideline Roddenberry in order to put things back on track, with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He was again sidelined after the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series that went on to greatness — but only when people other than Roddenberry were in charge.
Now, all of this may be a harsh indictment of Lucas and Roddenberry both, but the point I want to make is: when you (as creator/producer) don’t understand what it is your own fans see in your product, you’re liable to wind up creating (for yourself and your fans) a tremendous amount of heartache.
See, respecting the canon isn’t just a matter of preserving timelines or sequences of events; though this is a huge part of it. Respecting the canon also means respecting what it is that fuels the enthusiasm of the people who watch your TV show, go to see your movies, or pick up and read your books.
I remember in the mid-1990s when it was revealed that neither Paramount Pictures, nor Viacom (the parent of Paramount) considered any of the many Pocketbooks Star Trek novels to be canonical, in terms of the movies and TV shows. That was a rather serious blow to me, as a fan. I’d read several dozen of those very same Pocketbooks novels, and considered some of them to be among the finest works of science fiction I’d ever encountered — they were that good. Written by top-notch SF/F authors who were doing terrific storytelling within the Star Trek framework. Then, ruh-roh, the corporate powers behind the franchise revealed that the Pocketbooks novels didn’t count. I was rather upset by this, as a fan. Both because of the time and money I’d invested, and because of the fact some of those Pocketbooks Star Trek novels were every bit as good as, if not better than, the movies and TV episodes of the time. Who were Paramount and Viacom to tell me, the fan, what was legit, or not?
That sense (on my part) increased, as the underwhelming Next Generation films let me down, and then it was revealed (post-Nemesis) that they were “rebooting” the entire franchise with a fresh cast of actors who would recapture and remold the original series years. I saw and liked 2009’s Star Trek and thought Abrams brought a lot to the table — as a man who clearly knew how to meld SF elements with those of comedy, thriller, and so forth. But by the time Into Darkness debuted, I was in this weird place in my fannish brain where I was having to pick and choose what it was I personally considered to be “Star Trek” and what was not. Because, clearly, with the new incarnation re-writing events and forging a new path, what had gone before . . . was being called into question. Especially the feel of the show — its creative thrust and purpose. The Star Trek I thought I knew and loved in 1986-1989, was not necessarily the Star Trek boldly going in 2013.
I suspect Star Wars fans are now at a similar crossroads. I saw people doggedly fight their way through the prequels — for the sake of canon — only to emerge on the other side in a state of unique unhappiness. Star Wars had let them down. Badly. Lots of people said, “At least the Expanded Universe is there for us.” But aha, Disney is abandoning the Expanded Universe. The EU — like the Pocketbooks’ Star Trek novels — is being written out of the bigger picture. How many books does this cut from the main story? How many events? How many characters? More than that, how much fan investment is being scuttled? Emotional, and otherwise? I don’t necessarily blame Disney. You knew this was going to happen the moment Lucas sold off to a third party. And it’s way easier to start “fresh” than to try to build new films which coherently fit with all the many, many different continuing stories that the Expanded Universe contains. But that’s a massive amount of fan loyalty being tested — especially when the first “new canon” Star Wars book to hit print, chalks up a 40% one-star rating among readers — more than all the five and four-star ratings combined. Ouch!
Star Wars VII is, therefore, going to have to not only rock the house, it’s going to have to rock the house so completely that Star Wars fans who’ve invested in the EU are willing to quietly let go of almost 30 years of books, toys, series, and stories, none of which will be allowed to factor into the new canon that Abrams and Co. are forging with the new movies.
Is any movie sufficient to the task?
Or are Star Wars fans going to simply sigh, and begin drawing up their own personal left and right limits on what Star Wars is for them on a fan-by-fan basis? Has this already been happening anyway? I know for me, my unhappiness with the SW prequels is so great, I’ve pretty much disavowed them. To me, Star Wars literally begins with the shot of Princess Leia’s ship fleeing the Star Destroyer (over the skies of Tatooine) and I consider the events beforehand to be just as murky as they were when I was seeing Star Wars fresh in the theater the first time, way back when. I am prepared to walk into Star Wars VII and be so wowed by it, that I happily sign on — in my imagination — to the new direction Abrams is taking. After all, having had the rug yanked out from under me once (Paramount, Viacom) I did not — in the the 1990s — invest much time or effort in EU product. I read and enjoyed a few of the books, yes. But I had this little voice in the back of my head saying, “Don’t take any of it as gospel, because they’re going to disavow it all eventually anyway.”
Which they’ve now more or less done — talk of “legends” notwithstanding.
All of which makes me think: is every story that gets big and famous enough, guaranteed to begin warping in on itself, as time — and interested parties, with money, and a desire to make more — begin to meddle? It takes a singular, iron hand to keep a thing pristine in the face of this kind of artistic and economic entropy. But people die. They get tired. They decide to make money while the money is good. Inheritors, too, decide to make money while the money is good. They’d be stupid not to. So, Star Wars is becoming something different from what it once was, just as Star Trek also became different, and both of these franchises may become more different still, given a further generation of “adaptation” for new markets and marketing.
Most of us won’t see anything we create reach the point of massive world-wide popularity, that corporations are willing to invest billions of dollars for the chance to “revive” our imagined worlds — for a new line of books, TV shows, movies, et cetera. As freelancers trying to tell stories, in a storytelling market that is more competitive than it’s ever been before — because we now have more people with talent and skill telling more stories than ever before — there is a certain freedom that comes with not being “big” to the extent that big has come to be defined in our present age. But every book we publish is the kernel of what could eventually become huge, given time and word of mouth. That’s how a novel like Andy Weir’s The Martian soars out of the indie publishing scene, to become a phenomenon. Did Weir plan it that way? Hardly. He sat down and wrote a book to the best of his ability, telling the kind of story he wanted to tell, and now it’s a Ridley Scott movie, capitalizing on bestseller status. Andy got the lightning strike. And I would bet you Andy’s got a lot of people putting a lot of money in front of him, if only he’ll “continue on” with that same story. Even if Andy’s told all the story he cared to tell, with The Martian. If the movie is a hit — and it’s probable that it will be — the financial incentive for sequels will be massive. Whether or not Andy feels there is a logical storytelling reason for those sequels, or not. Heck, Andy may just sell the rights, and somebody else will be brought in to tell more stories in that same universe. And if those stories do well . . . anyway, can you see how this works?
Ditto Harry Potter. Anyone want to wager on if/when J.K. Rowling will begin telling new stories — about the generation of wizard students following Harry’s — before 2030?
Will the Harry Potter films be made again, in twenty years? New cast? New take on the whole Hogwarts thing?
Look at the world of comic books and comic book heroes — I still remember very clearly, the Christopher Reeve Superman of 1978. Yup. It’s been re-made, and the Superman story rebooted. Which, of course, was not the first time, either — since any number of serials and movies have been made during this comic book character’s existence in the popular imagination.
Batman too, from the 1989 version. Which merely came on the heels of still earlier incarnations.
And so on and so forth, back through the creative ages.
Maybe the best thing that can be said is: once we (as a culture) latch onto a thing, we love it so much, we simply refuse to let it go. We keep re-doing it and re-making it and trying to keep it fresh and up-to-the-minute. Sometimes the results are good. Sometimes the results are not-so-good. In the case of the comic book lines especially, their canon have been so twisted, warped, re-shuffled, and re-worked, that there are potentially dozens of different parallel universes — all running side-by-side with each other, depending on which iteration(s) people choose to like.
As creators ourselves, we have to look in the mirror every day and ask ourselves how married we are to our things we make, and how willing are we to allow these things to become their own entities, out in the wider world? Are we flexible enough to allow audiences to see things in our work, which we ourselves may not see? To fixate on aspects of our stories that we either consider trivial, or which interest us not at all?
Case in point: Gene Roddenberry was far more interested in the “free love” aspect of his 23rd century star navy — a navy Gene denied was a navy at all — than most of the fans, many of whom were interested in the star navy; as an extrapolated future military. In fact, Star Trek and its Starfleet became the personification of military SF storytelling for millions of fans. I am pretty sure Gene never intended it to be that way. But that’s how it worked out. Gene’s been gone for almost 25 years now, so we can’t ask him how he feels about this legacy. Frankly, I think I’d be damned proud to have a fictional footprint the size of Starfleet on my storytelling resume. Starfleet is the idealized service many actual, current servicemembers wish they could join — myself included.
Starfleet will live forever.
That’s canon. That’s the fans finding meaning in the work.
I noticed recently — when examining Amazon.com reviews — that fans of David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, weren’t terribly pleased with the comic book adaptation that’s come out. From a purely visual standpoint, the comics look great. But fans of the books seem to feel that the comics are taking too many liberties. The authenticity isn’t what the fans expected it to be. The Honor Harrington they know and love in the novels, is not faithfully replicated in comics form.
This, too, is canon. Or, at least, an example of fan reaction when canon has not been sufficiently adhered to.
Maybe another generation of readers, sufficiently removed from the source, could read and enjoy the Honor Harrington comics with fresh eyes?
That’s what almost anyone treading familiar ground has to hope for — that there will be enough fresh people who like the new material, to offset old-guard fans who are married to the old material. Star Trek survived this, when The Next Generation came on strong. Of course, The Next Generation did not disavow anything which had gone before, and was sufficiently visually and thematically Star Trek that it was relatively easy for most fans to adapt to the new ship, the new crew, the new stories, and the evolved world put forth in Jean-Luc Picard’s 24th century Federation, versus James Kirk’s 23rd century.
Abrams’s “Nu Trek” is a very different approach — it overturns everything, going all the way back to square one. Same characters, but events are scrambled up, and everything we saw and knew before has been placed into a “plot bottle” and set on the shelf. We may never see any more movies or TV series told in that timeline.
Are fans going to hold with it? How much overlap is there between the fans of the older series and movies, and fans of Nu Trek?
I ponder all of this as I work on my own books. These future histories I lay down, in story form, they are “real” in my mind. But I have to always remind myself that they will be double “real” in the minds of readers — and those readers are going to expect me to take my job seriously; as the teller of the future history. I have to be faithful to the eyes and ears who will receive that future history. I have to strive for consistency. And, over time, I have to be respectful of the fact that what my readers see in my work, may not necessarily be what I see in my work. (again: Roddenberry.) For them, the books will become a unique experience. Apart from me or what I intended. Created anew in the minds and hearts of people who know little or nothing about me, or who I am; they are simply coming to the story fresh. When they are done, the story will have attained something of permanence in their minds. Hopefully, if I’ve done my work right, it will be a pleasant permanence. Something they can take with them into the future, as a memorable, worthwhile experience. And it will be their experience. Make no mistake.
I think that’s where Lucas goofed. He said to himself, “I made Star Wars so I can do whatever I want with it, and people will love it.” Only, no. The “fixes” to the first three films, have not aged well since they were adopted. Look at how many fans are begging Disney to make good on its promise to offer us unadulterated, pure versions of Episodes IV, V, and VI — sans the CGI and other 1990s meddling that may have seemed like a nifty idea at the time, but which have ultimately proven to be a distraction. Or have even angered some fans, who walked away feeling like Lucas didn’t respect them sufficiently to leave well enough alone.
And that’s the bottom line: respect for the audience. The moment your book or story is out in the world, that audience “owns” the experience as much as you own the story. Go easy, folks. Be gentle in your desire to re-work a thing, or tell that audience how they ought to see your creation. Maybe what they get out of it, is totally different from what you’d like, or what you intended. But that’s okay. Storytelling is a two-part creative enterprise. The first part is complete when the story leaves your fingertips. The rest happens between the ears of the receivers on the other end — their imaginations, their time, their investment. Honor that. Cherish it, in fact.
Because we’ve seen what can go wrong, when any creator(s) decide to do otherwise.