What Is Canon? an article of what is and isn’t by: GF Willmetts (article).

January 4, 2014 | By | Reply More

What is canon? I’m not referring to a religious rank, a piece of artillery or even a rotund 70s TV detective. It is the difference between the source material and franchise material or spin-offs. What we regard as being officially recognised part of the continuity or more commonly called canon. Rarely do the twain mix, let alone accept each other. The creators of films and TV series don’t want to be distracted from their own ideas and see the spin-offs as a studio’s means to make profit, as they do with any merchandise. More recent writers of franchise material for long-running series would deem it lucky if their ideas were acknowledged but they like the idea of making money from playing with someone else’s reality and gives them a writing career. For the reader, which some of you undoubtedly are, what do you prefer?

Bilbo Baggins...meet Smaug. Smaug...meet Bilbo Baggins.

Bilbo Baggins…meet Smaug. Smaug…meet Bilbo Baggins.

In many respects, the non-canon material came about largely because there was so little fictional source material for the fans. With a film series and a two year gap between them if they became a franchise, studios wanted to keep the interest warm and ensure the same people who liked the last film would remember what it was for the next film. Comicbook adaptations and such gave material to the more visual fan and when they had stories beyond they still sold. Film and TV series novelisations have been going since the 50s and were reasonably successful as well although this has somewhat waned to selectivity in recent decades because the rise of video, DVD and now blu-ray means fans can watch the film whenever they liked. However, fans had they’re own way of remembering, they wrote and published their own stories for their own amusement. It was only with the growth in fandom and that recent thing called the Internet in the past quarter century that things have expanded greatly.

The rise of fan fiction in recent decades, both those writing and the number of people reading it gave the studios pause for thought. Originally, this was for copyright infringement although no one was making much in the way of profit nor wanted to and was just seen as a minor annoyance than profit violation. The fact that the professional publishers saw a means to licence to do such stories meant both sides could make a profit. The reader fan would have a proper book and a neat cover. A lot of those writers arose from such roots. After all, for such work, you need writers with knowledge and love of the subject but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll forget the more sex orientated porn fan fiction.

The problem, thereafter, is whether these stories were accepted as being part of the same time-line ie were they canon. One of the earlier tie-in examples was by Alan Dean Foster in 1978 who wrote ‘Splinter Of A Mind’s Eye’ as the first spin-off from the nascent ‘Star Wars’ franchise whose first film had just been released the previous year. All fans thought it was at first, mostly because of Foster writing so many of the other novelisations at the time, until ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ came out and was a direct consequence of the first film and Luke Skywalker clearly hadn’t gone off for any more Jedi training yet.

As with the comicbook spin-off stories from Marvel, there were many restrictions as to what they could do and chief amongst these was not to use Darth Vader at the time. Considering that the Dark Lord of the Sith was the major selling point in the first film, this caused a few question marks. More so, as the next two films were released and between the two, the absence of Han Solo, which was another lost selling point but writers were creative. No matter what was written, it didn’t make any difference to George Lucas’ plans for the original trilogy or the prequel trilogy he wrote and directed more recently. Lucas is even on record in recent years that he doesn’t regard the franchise spin-off material as anything to do with the film series, ergo, it isn’t canon! If anything, I was surprised it took so long for that statement to come out as, long, long ago, I quaintly classed such material as only being one step up from fan fiction, which if you think about it, is what spin-offs really are.

I should say that Alan Dean Foster’s book wasn’t the first tie-in. There were spin-off books for the various 60s TV espionage series including ‘The Man From UNCLE’, ‘Mission: Impossible’, ‘I Spy’ and the horror series ‘Dark Shadows’, mostly because adapting the TV screenplays would have meant too short a novel and the impracticability of combining several into one book. What these series all had in common was they weren’t one season wonders and very popular to justify publishers dong them. Outside of ‘Dark Shadows’, the other series didn’t have a continuity as such and the non-canonical could look like canon, unless they committed faux pas like one of ‘The Invaders’ spin-offs did and give David Vincent an unknown ability until then to hypnotise the aliens in ‘The Highway Halo’.

James Blish did write novelisations for the original ‘Star Trek’ books and one spin-off in 1970, ‘Spock Must Die’ but it didn’t make any difference as to whether or not it was canon because like the above, there was no overall continuity. The important thing to note was that there was a market out there to be exploited.

As the higher quality Science Fiction films were sourced from already written books up to that time, the most the publishers would do is re-cover them to tie in with the films. As they did this with the other genre books turned into films, this was normal practice. The big move was to extend the range beyond novelisations and call them spin-offs when it came to original films.

This doesn’t just apply to ‘Star Wars’ but also to ‘Star Trek’ and later to ‘The X-Files’, ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’, ‘Angel’ and so forth. Well, not quite with ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Angel’ in the comicbook form because creator Joss Whedon has supervised these, making them into the next seasons after the TV series and he called them canon. Whether you read them or not is entirely up to you and how intent your interest in them is. Considering that the studio is planning a ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ film re-make, much to Whedon’s disgust, is also a clear indication who owns the copyright and it isn’t the creator. It just means another divergent reality if there are books based off this version. Whether fans of the old series and the new film see them as separate entities or want fiction related to both, only sales will show. With the recent ‘Star Trek’ film remakes, the original and related series spin-offs and films have been delegated to their own reality and the new films into a pocket universe of their own. In other words, you can have your non-canon and read it but changes nothing to the primary source. Not much in the way of fiction related to the latter yet but that’s largely because no one knows if it’ll be a one or two-hit wonder or how much development and difference there will be. Considering there are marked technology differences with anti-gravity fields, the transporter range and various relationships and proclivities, means things aren’t going along a similar path.

Since the 90s, the book franchises have bloomed and there are rare exceptions that have been declared canon. The only one that comes to mind belongs to ‘Babylon 5: Book 9, ‘To Dream In The City Of Sorrows’ 1997 novel by Kathyn M. Drennan, then wife of creator Joe Straczynski. The latter himself explained in the introduction that the fans asking what had happened to Commander Jeffrey Sinclair after going to Minbar and his brief return to Babylon 5 before going into the past and, without wishing to give away spoilers for those of you who have yet to buy the DVD series, becoming history. ‘Babylon 5’ spin-offs were an oddity in themselves as story continuity really shouldn’t have left any gaps to fit anything in and in one of them where Mr. Morden supplies some medication for an injured Londo Molari is definitely against what was done in the TV series when it happened there. The distinction of ‘spin-off’ and ‘novel’ should be apparent here as what is non-canon to being canon. Creator approval thus surely has to be the biggest consideration.

For the rest of the spin-offs out there, none have been considered canon as far as I can recall. The simplest demonstration of that is whenever a franchise has resumed, there has been no acknowledgement of such fiction. That doesn’t necessarily mean in dialogue, but appearance neither. Even though some books, such as with ‘Star Wars’ even has a running continuity amongst themselves and even have a time-line so you can read them in order. Most of these books have moved away from the original characters and centred on their children or new characters, making it easier to do what they want with them without breech of contract. Considering Chewbacca was killed in the 1999 story ‘Vector Prime’ by R.A. Salvatore and is likely to re-appear in the new batch of films, it shows how non-canon they still are and that they’ll become a pocket universe. As such, none of these stories can be regarded as being part of the ‘official’ time-line or canon. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a reboot with spin-off stories evolving from such changes.

This raises an interesting question as to why people read these books considering how precarious these spin-off versions are? The odd ones I read up into the 90s, indeed the ‘Babylon 5’ series of books were my last, where they began to disappoint me that they could largely be ignored. It was my own good fortune, depending on how you look at it, that I avoided the franchises of ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘The X-Files’, etc. etc.

From an article writer point of view, I’ve naturally veered away from them now because it would throw confusion if I bring up something that could easily be ignored in the original and as I’ve pointed out throughout this article it can be ignored and isn’t canon. There is also the little matter of films and TV series presenting their own inaccuracies that I have to explain or justify from time to time let alone worry about the non-canon material with the same kinds of problems.

Various people have told me over the years that they’ve got a love for a particular reality and just happy to read stories in their favourite realities and don’t really worry about them being canon or not. Although I can understand it where continuity isn’t an issue that might work, it also means nothing can be done to affect the characters who will ultimately be no different at the end as they were at the beginning. In other words, they can’t really grow or change. From this though, it doesn’t appear that they really care. It’s an outlet for their imagination and both writers and readers get their own fulfilment. Beyond that, you’ll have to make up your own mind as to whether you mind if their non-canon or not. The only thing it really affects is whether original books are squeezed off the SF, fantasy and horror shelves in the bookshops.

Just to take a different perspective on this, the reverse also happens. After all, films and TV series and specials have been based off of books, many of which are best sellers and biographies. Liberties are taken with these all the time. Sub-plots removed. Minor characters removed or combined or even re-named, let alone adapted to suit the actors chosen. They are even made even more fictitious by supposedly combining with other events at the time and forgetting the time frame and getting it wrong. A lot of these changes are made for pace or to fit into the amount of screen-time they have, let alone budget and what the director wants to put out there. The similarities to spin-offs are rather close, aren’t they?

When it comes to our own filmed genre, we are often lucky if the names of the characters survive and we wonder what drew the directors to the source material in the first place if they chuck most of it out. We accept these as interpretations at best or separate material at worse. Probably why we can see so many different variants of the same material, although usually it is often to see a modern version or in the hope that a version will match what we imagine. We have a black and white film with the finest actors of their day so it’s inevitable that a colour version and another set of finest actors do a similar thing. I suspect that unconsciously we accept that these aren’t canon and leave it at that. If anything, there’s a resemblance to those who like the non-canon works, accepting what is given to them and just eat it up. As most of us have seen such films, we see them for what they are and don’t become cultists over them. The main difference is for most people, they are forgotten until the next film and rarely becomes a way of life.

Computer games are also getting into the spin-off habit and I’m not quite sure where to place them. Their release is to flesh out the games in a way that it would be difficult to do in a combat environment. For the most part, the companies regard them as canon although whether your game play would improve by reading them is your judgement call.

Will it change your reading habits if they apply to you from what I said above? I doubt it. All I’m doing is recognising the situation. For some, the reality is the addiction and it engulfs them.

If there is ever going to be a major change in spin-offs, then someone or studio will one day make the bold step and declare such material canon and have everyone who’s interested in finding out what has happened between films or TV seasons buy the books, let alone worry about spoilers if schedules are different across the world. In some respects, that would please the demographics of studio and publishers because they would know that they have a core audience to cover both. Saying that, I doubt if it would be perfect because it wouldn’t account for the casual viewer and nothing significant could be done in the books without having to explain in either film or TV series. When you say that aloud, you know it isn’t likely to work unless you take the publisher out of the equation and do it on a website. Certain areas of extra knowledge has been supplied that way but not really with fiction. For me, there will always be that nagging thought in the back of my head, ‘Is it canon?’ Only the next film sequel and TV season will tell.


© GF Willmetts 2013

All rights reserved

Examples used are in the

interest of research.


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Film adaptations rarely compare to the book source but we accept that. Not only from nothing is ever going to compare to our imagination but condensing a book to a couple hours means sub-plots have to be sacrificed which is a key reason why you should never use them for exam revision.


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Category: Scifi, TV

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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