Canonicity in Doctor Who

It was Paul Castle who answered his own question on the Outpost Gallifrey forums: what’s most likely to set Doctor Who fans at each other’s throats? If anything can, ‘canon’ can.

It’s my belief, indeed, that that’s what ‘canon’ is for. That that’s all that it’s for. Because ‘canon’ is purely and simply about authority, real or assumed, and nothing else. Let me explain…

Back in the mists of time, the fans of Sherlock Holmes thought it would be funny to refer to those stories about Holmes written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as being ‘part of the Canon’. They were thinking of the books that had been officially declared to be part of the Bible. They thereby confused two things, and it’s their fault we’ve been in a linguistic twist about this ever since. The canon they referred to was decreed by authority, the theological authority of a group of high clerics concerning how much truth and how much fan fiction was contained in a particular proto-Gospel. The Canon of Sherlock Holmes stories, on the other hand, wasn’t decided by authority after the fact, but by authorial authority. If Conan Doyle wrote it, it was in. If he didn’t, it was out. Sherlock Holmes fans could have no debates about what was and wasn’t ‘canonical’. ‘Written by Conan Doyle’ was what their new version of ‘canonical’ meant.

That new definition of ‘canon’ works fine if you’re dealing with works by one author. It works not at all in any other frame of reference. Doctor Who was created by many people, over a long period of time, and they did not cooperate. There is no authorial authority, and, as I’ll get to in a moment, no council of Bishops.

The reason I’ve been putting ‘canon’ in quotes when I use it without a ‘the’ nicely gesturing towards it, is that Doctor Who fans (and probably others sorts of fans now) use the actual word in a way nobody else does. ‘Is it canon?’ is part of fan language, a grammatical adjustment that has brushed aside the words ‘canonical’ and ‘canonicity’. Indeed, that new foundation is being built on. The other day I heard a podcast presenter reach for ‘canon…ness’.

Here’s what I’m getting to: we also use the concept in a way that’s different to everyone else. I can’t think of any other fandom that assumes they have a canon when nobody has ever told them that they do. Especially since our show itself declares that it doesn’t now have, and probably never did have, a canon.

Comics fans have the ‘shared universes’ of DC and Marvel Comics, and when something’s not part of that canon, they’re told so, in that such books are labeled ‘Elseworlds’ or ‘What Ifs’. Star Wars and Star Trek fans have official edicts about such matters from people employed to decide on them. You know, if you’re a Star Trek fan, that the animated series, in a hugely unfair way, considering some of the stuff that did get in, is definitively uncanonical. In these cases, ‘canon’ is not only about authority, but an authority exists that is interested in legislating about it.

That’s not the case in terms of Doctor Who. Nobody at the BBC has ever uttered a pronouncement about what is and isn’t canonical. (As I’m sure they’d put it, being such enthusiasts for good grammar.) Because there was never a Who product that the BBC made that got a producer’s goat enough for that to happen. And because canonicity takes some explaining to anyone raised outside of fandom (‘but… if it’s got Doctor Who on the cover… how can it not be Doctor Who?’) And because the continuity of Doctor Who was always so all over the place anyway that something in a new story not matching up with something from an earlier one was just the way things were, rather than an aberration that had to be corrected through canonical excommunication.

Not giving a toss about how it all fits together is one of Doctor Who’s oldest, proudest traditions, a strength of the series. (And a No Prize to the person who points out the first ever continuity error in the original series.) It’s allowed infinite change, and never left the show crunched into a corner after all the dramatic options had already been done. Terrible continuity equals infinitely flexible format. It’s indefinability that results in that old ‘indefinable magic’. Much in the same way that there’s no one definition of what a ‘Doctor Who companion’ is that includes all of them, and so a new one can be whatever works.

The fact that the BBC had never declared anything non-canonical is one of the reasons why canonicity is much fought over by Who fans. It’s not just about presumed authority (I’ll come to that), it’s about worth.

The idea that one could happily write, as many Star Trek and Star Wars writers happily write, official works that are definitely non-canonical, and everyone in that business accepts that, feels like poison to us Who fans. ‘Non-canonical’ is a term of abuse in Who circles. A threat. It’s the worst thing someone can say about a televised Who story, that they regard it as not having ‘happened’. ‘Fan fiction’ is also a term of abuse. Horribly. While collections of fan fiction have felt able (and felt the need) to try and elbow their way into ‘official’ guides. If the BBC aren’t going to legislate on canonicity, if it ends where payment ends is another hot topic.

That’s one sign that when people talk angrily about canonicity, what we’re seeing is nothing but the urge towards power. Let me now discuss the biggest subject of such debates.

The closest we ever got to a BBC pronouncement on canonicity was a couple of years after the end of the original series of Doctor Who. The show’s last production team declared that Virgin’s Doctor Who novels, the New Adventures, were an official continuation of the series, overseen by the last producer, John Nathan-Turner, with the last writing team onboard, heading towards the aims that that team had put in place.

For a lot of fandoms, that would be good enough for those books to be uncontroversially canonical. It’s enough for Buffy fans, for instance, who seem to unanimously agree with Joss Whedon’s declaration that the new comic continuation of the series is canonical. They’d probably say that’s because they have a single creator. He’s seen to have more authority than one of many production teams in a show created by committee. But that’s just the difference between current American and old British production models.

The canonicity debate you most often hear in Who circles is: ‘the New Adventures aren’t “canon”, we can’t be expected to accept works that were only read by a few thousand people, etc.’ To which fans of those books reply that an appeal to numbers has nothing to do with canonical acceptance. There were, after all, a lot of fans of several of those non-canonical gospels, and you could probably find a majority of Sherlock Holmes fans who’d like to include at least one thing not by Conan Doyle in the Canon. But they had to bite the bullet. Or fight long, bitter, religious wars. Or write angry letters to Holmes fanzines. Numbers had nothing to do with it. Authority had spoken.

This is what I’m saying. Those who argue against the canonicity of the New Adventures miss having an authority to declare or reinforce canonicity. They wish, having once had such an authority declare against them, that such an authority was now on their side. In its absence, they feel they should and can do the job of that authority. They have grabbed hold of what they think that authority should do and are doing it themselves. If an authority on canonicity is the law, they are a lynch mob. And judging from the passion they often show in abusing or looking down on the other sides of this so-called debate, they really enjoy the feeling of assumed power. (As if an appeal to numbers is something the Doctor himself would ever make. The gap between the Doctor’s own ethics and the ethics of us fans, there’s a subject for a future blog.)

Now, should you be in said mob, and now feeling slightly hot under the collar, keep reading, because I have some stern words for the other sides of this so-called debate too, and that may mollify you. A bit.

During the 1990s, when the New Adventures were such a source of friction, I kept saying, about my own work, since I was one of the authors, that there was ‘no such thing as “canon”’. The New Adventures were as ‘real’ as any other sort of Doctor Who. (That’s something else of a bullying nature that people on fan forums say. ‘None of it’s real, you know.’ Like the other person thought it was. They’re deliberately confusing the game of ‘it happened’ with the reality of something that actually did.) Now I want to say that again, when the boot is on the other foot. There is no such thing as ‘canon’.

Russell Davies probably could utter a pronouncement about canonicity that would be accepted. If he wanted to. He could declare that only the TV series was canonical, and that the books and audio plays were not. He’s come close, in that he’s said that only what the general TV audience remembers is important in terms of what’s referred to onscreen (I’m vastly paraphrasing here), and also that BBC television dramas must be whole unto themselves, and must not require extra purchases that ‘complete the story’, as per the BBC charter. (And how arcane a rule is that? But one that fan fora make as much ado out of… as probably the BBC themselves do.)

These are politenesses, niceties, and a mark of the kindness of the man. The first is a simple truth. You don’t make stories about decades-old continuity points and expect to keep eight million tuning in. (I think fandom offhandedly understands that.) But the second is a more interesting bit of give and take. It says the show won’t work out its continuity in other places, or finish off threads that were started in the old BBC Doctor Who novels or the Big Finish audio plays. But consider this. The easiest way to make that intention bulletproof would be a Star Trek like declaration of non-canonicity: ‘enjoy the books, we won’t be bound by them, we don’t regard them as having happened.’ Rather than what’s in place: ‘enjoy the books, we’re legally bound not to have any interaction with them, we won’t ever rule on that subject, oh is that the time?’

That’s a fine distinction, in every sense of the word ‘fine’.

To deal with that ‘won’t be bound by’ clause, Russell’s quietly invented something, and I have no idea as to whether or not he realised it could be used for this purpose. (I don’t think he sits up at night worrying about canonicity, except for the times when I’m pretty sure he does.) I’m talking about The Time War. As mentioned often by the Ninth Doctor. Probably between the Time Lords and the Daleks, and it probably ended with both sides being wiped out, probably that being a sacrifice made by the Doctor. (Like I have any idea, I’m just following the hints.) There’s a line in ‘The Unquiet Dead’ (I think) indicating that the War puts all historical events up for grabs. Nothing necessarily happened like we think it did.

Including previous Doctor Who.

Doctor Who fans, we like to think it all fits together. In our book about continuity, The Discontinuity Guide, me, Keith Topping and Martin Day suggested that, following the events of the story ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, a story where the Doctor is deliberately trying to change history, and says he succeeded in doing so, previous Dalek stories may not have happened, in the universe of Doctor Who, as they were seen onscreen. This theory has gained no ground at all. It was met with a resounding silence. Fans like to think that what they’ve seen remains ‘real’. (No abuse implied, I’m using ‘real’ in the way they’d intend.) Probably because if it doesn’t it makes fun with continuity that much more difficult. (But not impossible, and the game is surely worth it.)

But we’ve recently seen a much bigger example than that. The new series story ‘The End of the World’ absolutely contradicts the old series story ‘The Ark’. Both showed the destruction of Earth. In completely different ways. For completely different reasons. With the fate of remaining humanity being also completely different. (The earlier story is in black and white, which always seems to mean continuity points raised therein are easier to ignore.) Sure, you can come up with a complex theory to explain away the differences. But here it has to be so vastly complex that it would have to actually deny the authorial intent of both stories. We thought we, as viewers, had seen the definitive end of the world in Doctor Who. ‘The End of the World’ showed that we hadn’t. It had been changed. By the Time War.

Bitter debaters about canonicity often say ‘and don’t just say it was the Time War’. Because they know that would work and end their argument. It was the Time War. As Sebastian Brook recently suggested in his podcast conversation with Mike Maddox (see Announcements at the end), Torchwood didn’t exist in Doctor Who history until the Tenth Doctor went back and met Queen Victoria. That’s why we’ve never seen them before. (And Mike comes up with a brilliant one paragraph summation of all the debates I’ve been talking about here.)

So this is what those I yelled at above might get some comfort from. Those who say that because the New Adventures are canonical, therefore the TV series shouldn’t contradict them (and those people also are often inclined to abuse the opposition in search of false authority) are ignoring the fact that the TV series now has a licence to contradict itself, and has already used it, big time. (In the original series, it just did that without having any such device. Three different versions of the destruction of Atlantis, two of them irreconcilable. Perhaps simple time travel, rather than a Time War, is all it takes to make history, canonicity and continuity meaningless.)

That doesn’t mean we lose the lovely thought that Doctor Who is all one big story. It’s one big and very complex story, that rewrites and contradicts itself. That was always the case. Only now it does it with purpose, rather than by accident.

Don’t you think, for instance, there’s something rather tragic and romantic about the Doctor living through some of the same events in different ways, having lost chunks of his own past? That grandeur is touched on for a moment in ‘The Age of Steel’, where the Doctor is horrified to see the Cybermen being created… again. Like a curse or a cancer that can grow on any Earth. (Although that story turned out, in the end, not to be an actual rerun of the Big Finish audio ‘Spare Parts’.)

There is, of course, and I wouldn’t want to put a stop to this, an entirely benign sort of canonicity discussion, in which a writer, such as Lance Parkin, enters into a game of where and how everything might fit together, if it did. That’s just fun, and the authority assumed is only that of a stage magician, because the intention isn’t to hurt anyone. Also, recently, message board posters have tried to declare a truce by use of the term ‘personal canon’. That is to say, we all have our own version of ‘what happened’. That’s entirely lovely, to say that canonicity is ‘an ecumenical matter’. But I’d like us all to go that one step further.

Because when you say ‘the books just aren’t “canon!”’ or ‘the books “happened” and the TV show can’t ignore them!’ you’re not saying something like ‘for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction’, you’re saying something like ‘the South will never surrender’. You’re yelling a battle cry, not stating the truth. Because there is no truth here to find. There was never and now cannot be any authority to rule on matters of canonicity in a tale that has allowed, or at the very least accepted, the rewriting of its own continuity. And you’re using the fact that discussions of canonicity are all about authority to try to assume an authority that you do not have.

In the end, you’re just bullying people.

Because in Doctor Who there is no such thing as ‘canon’.


ITEM!!! For a trial period, I’ve switched off the need for Comments to be approved by me, because I think we’re past the problems that led me to switch it on. I’ll still zap anything downright rude, and won’t reply to anything I don’t want to.

ITEM!!! As you can see from the banner to the right, I’ve swapped the useless Amazon link to XTNCT for one that allows you to buy it straight for the publishers, Rebellion. XTNCT is the collection of strips concerning intelligent dinosaurs trying to wipe out the last few remnants of humanity that myself and genius artist D’Israeli created for the 2000AD Megazine. The collection is a lovely, inexpensive, annual-sized hardcover, with an introduction, notes and sketches. Jonathan Oliver, Rebellion’s graphic novel supremo, tells me that in the couple of weeks it’s been out, it’s already shifted (and I gather this is extraordinary for a hardcover), 915 of the 1500 copy first edition. So if you want one of those for your retirement, you may have to hurry.

ITEM!!! Nev Fountain points me in the direction of this YouTube clip, concerning Jon Pertwee, Liz Sladen and ‘the most powerful killing machine ever devised’:

ITEM!!! At the Gallifrey convention in L.A. next weekend, I’m going to be appearing on at least eight panels. And so I’ve taken up the challenge of a number of friends to come out with something from a particular set of familiar phrases or sayings during every one of those panels. A prize to anyone there who’s the first to work out what I’m doing (I mean in terms of the phrases). I’m also intending to blog offhandedly every day, more in the spirit of the Christmas blogs than of the epic above. I’m on holiday, after all.

ITEM!!! My ‘Circular Time’ co-author Mike Maddox recently appeared on the Whocast podcast, available from ITunes or here:

More apt discussion of canonicity ahoy. Although I’m still a Podshock boy at heart. I’ll be doing some comics-related podcasting myself shortly. I’ll let you know.

ITEM!!! I’m going to Eastercon in Chester, and there’s now a link in the Conventions list. Looking forward to it.

ITEM!!! Phobic is a collection of new horror stories from Comma Press, which is out on March 1st. I’ve got a story in there, as have fellow Who alumni Paul Magrs and Rob Shearman. Do check it out:

I hope to see several of you at Gallifrey, but until then, be kind to each other, and Cheerio.

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109 Comments on “Canonicity in Doctor Who” so far - join in!

  1. DanProject76

    That YouTube clip is the best one since the rather amusing ‘alternative ending to Earthshock’ one.

    Glad to see the canon essay. Wise words.

  2. Jonn Elledge

    Someone – it might even have been Lance Parkin – said on a list I’m on recently that, in fandom, knowledge is power. And the reason many fans try and dismiss the books or audios is because they don’t like the idea that there’s a huge chunk of Dr Who out there of which they know nothing. By dismissing it as ‘less real’, they neutralize something they find threatening.

    I think there’s something in that.

    Personally, I think the fact it’s a sprawling mess and you’re never going to see it all is part of the charm of Doctor Who. Despite having been a fan for the better part of two decades, there are still huge chunks of the TV show I haven’t seen. I watched “Inferno” and “The Green Death” for the first time recently. They’re bloody brilliant.

  3. Mark H Wilkinson

    There is a line in The Unquiet Dead which sounds along the lines you’re suggesting:

    ‘Time’s in flux. It’s changing every second. Your cozy little world could be rewritten like that.’

    But the Doctor doesn’t specifically say it’s the result of the Time War. And later on, he states with certainty that Dickens will die before writing of the Gelth, so…

  4. A-M

    I think people dismissing the New Adventures are missing out on some cracking novels!

    Have fun in LA.

  5. scarfman

    And the reason many fans try and dismiss the books or audios is because they don’t like the idea that there’s a huge chunk of Dr Who out there of which they know nothing. By dismissing it as ‘less real’, they neutralize something they find threatening.

    I’ll cop to that. One reason I don’t use NAs, BBCAs or BF audios as source material for my fanfiction is because I can’t; I’ve only read or listened to a fraction of what’s out there.

    Another reason is that I was taught not to trust tie-in continuity by Doctor Dolittle in 1968.

    And again in 1999.

    Paul Gadzikowski,

  6. Jonquil

    I loved the essay, but every single fanfic community I’ve participated in discusses canon. In particular, there’s a debate among Highlander fans about which of the ghastly movies are canon and which not. Buffy fans argue about whether things said by Joss but not in the show are canon. It’s by no means unique to Who. Who has more different media to argue about, and that is unique.

    This, on the other hand: “It’s one big and very complex story, that rewrites and contradicts itself.” is brilliant. That’s the major point of the essay, and I agree completely. As Lois McMaster Bujold once said about minor contradictions between her early Vorkosigan books and her late ones: “The author reserves the right to have a better idea.”

  7. John Campbell Rees

    I enjoyed some of the New Adventures, found some so-so and hated some with a burning passion. However, as there was no agreement even within the BBC as to what is canonitical and what isn’t, then for me, the Canon is what ever you individually want it to be. In my opinion, if something is a dramatic presentation made for or by the BBC that the BBC broadcast under the title Doctor Who then it counts as Canon, no matter how much it disagrees with what has gone before. As I said, this is just my opinion, and I would not dream of trying to impose it on anyone else. If you want to include the New Adventures into the Canon, that is fine by me. Imagine how boring he World would be if we all agreed on everything.

  8. Lee Harris

    Another word we’ve hijacked and won’t let go: “genre”.

    To an sf/f/h fan, genre fiction means sf/f/h, when in fact all fiction is genre fiction as all fiction is written within one or more genre (genre being dfined as, of course, “pertaining to a partcular literary type”).

    Perhaps it’s the many years of being sneered upon that makes us grab a word and make it our own (even if people in the outside world do not agree, or simply ignore it).

    As sf becomes more mainstream – or at least more accepted (and therefore acceptable) – I think we’ll find that the excesses of fandom become more polarised. The excesses will become more excessive as the “uberfans” try to keep themselves distinct from the ordinary afficionados of (and yes, I’m going to use the term) genre fiction.

    I enjoyed Xtinct, by the way (having received a review copy from Jonathan) and urge anyone reading this blog to click on Paul’s link and grab a copy. At once quite contemporary, while retaining the feel of classic 200AD.

  9. Trey Lane

    thanks very much for the level-headed canon essay, not to mention the youtube link…

  10. stupid_little_horses

    Fascinating essay. As you seem to acknowledge, ‘Doctor Who’ always had a license to contradict itself via the time-travel device that forms the core of the series. I’ve always found it odd that various sections of fandom seem to want to curtail that possibility for whatever reason (hence the currency that the idea of an immutable and sacrosanct ‘web of time’ seems to have gained in post-original series ‘Who’ fiction and audio drama – a phrase used once on TV). After all, there seems precious little point in time-travelling if you can’t actively participate in events and then revel in the ensuing change and contradiction…

  11. Eric

    The whole canon mess — and it has migrated over there, word and all — is, if anything, even messier among the very few hardcore fans of the Wizard of Oz books who really care. There are many books, but they’re not all even coming out from one publisher any more. And since most of the early books are now public domain, there are a lot of new books coming out all the time, which blurs the line between professional works and fanfic. Even more than in Who fandom, I think the idea of Oz canon is a personal decision. But the truly frightening aspect of this is fans who will reject a story merely because it contradicts their own personal view of canon. I always try to point out that how good a book is has to do with the storytelling and not how it fits into some sort of list, and that it’s all right to enjoy a book on its own merits. Wicked is a good example, as it’s a good book and an interesting read, despite the fact that it doesn’t really fit into any established Oz continuity. (Of course, many dismiss Wicked because it doesn’t fit into their idea of what an Oz book should be, which was sort of the point of writing it in the first place.)

  12. Allison C.

    Very very interesting; I really enjoying reading this. Having been a part of several fandoms (such as Star Wars) that have officially mandated ‘canon’, coming into this one with its media all over the place has been a bit daunting. But I’m loving it just the same.

    I thought I’d bring up the point that even Star Wars, with its Lucas-approved canon, is not immune to contradictions: Lucas himself retconned the character of Boba Fett in the prequels, thereby contradicting backstory he’d approved several years earlier.

  13. Daniel

    Well put.

  14. Patrick Chapman

    Egg-sactly. By its very nature a show that hinges on time travel can’t possibly be linear, with one single continuity. Which is nice.

  15. Paul

    Fabulous essay Paul. Thanks very much. The ‘canon’ debate is baffling to me. I’ve been a fan of DW since 1977 and I have never subscribed to any ‘canon’, my attitude is simply: if its a good story, do I care if it contradicts?

    As you said, many people try and trump a good debate simply by saying “its not canon because it wasn’t on the telly”. Its so narrow-minded that it almost defies belief. I also agree with an earlier comment about fans denying the eligibility of a story within their so-called “canon” simply because they have no knowledge of it. If they haven’t heard it/seen it/read it, then it can’t be real.

    Unfortunately, despite your extremely well put argument, as long as there are fans there will be canon. Which is a shame, as there is a lot to enjoy in all forms of Doctor Who, its a pity some people don’t want to accept that. Its their choice – but I think they’re missing out.

  16. Philip

    “Canonicity” clearly doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter from the point of view of telling good individual Doctor Who stories. Genesis of the Daleks famously contradicts The Daleks and nobody minds because it’s a fantastic story — and The Daleks (which is at least equally good) is still there if you need it.

    It’s when you start considering the Doctor as a character with a life-story, rather than an icon who travels between adventures, that the question of whether these stories contradict each other begins to matter. This may be why the question of canonicity often seems to mean a lot to New Adventures fans.

    The Virgin ranges’ view of the Doctor’s life and his universe was the most coherent we’ve seen from any producer of Doctor Who, involving a protagonist with a specific background and origins travelling through a history where events fitted together with one another, whose actions had historical and personal consequences and whose character, and those of his friends, were shaped by these experiences. When you’ve lovingly immersed yourself in an environment which has been painted in that richness of detail, it can hurt to see it messed about with, no matter how much you agree in theory that “Doctor Who is all about change”.

    Modern TV Doctor Who is right up there with the Virgin era in terms of character development, of course, but that occurs on a story-to-story basis. The focus is narrow, the wider picture’s… faded. And not in every respect the one NA fans were used to. And, while we know (or damn well should know) that this doesn’t really matter as long as the series is good, it’s not surprising that some of us still hanker after a universe where everything fits.

    A couple of other thoughts. Firstly, there are rare examples of “spoiler” stories, written deliberately to discredit another story the author or editor doesn’t happen to like. These are unpleasant and difficult to justify, but that’s because of the attitude underlying the story (the “bullying”, if you like), not the contradiction itself.

    Secondly, there’s a clear difference between The Time Monster contradicting The Daemons in an era when almost nobody would have had access to the stories except during the actual 25 mintues of broadcast, and, say, The Christmas Invasion contradicting Aliens of London / World War III when everybody’s got the DVDs. It’s not that it’s any more wrong, necessarily, just that the viewers are a hell of a lot more likely to notice. It’s not possible to do that sort of thing any more without there being some kind of philosophy to justify it, whether it’s the Time War or “We just don’t think it matters very much as long as you get the characters right”.

  17. Cee

    I only have two little views on canon as a writer and as a fan. I think at times writers get lazy by ignorning past stories in a shared universe but on the other hand having to check off each and every fact of a shared universe can also be very limited to what they can do in telling a story. I think you can go one way or the other.
    As for Doctor Who. Hey, it deals with time travel and as a fan who loves canon I have always just said to mayself, everything fits if you try hard enough.

  18. Caleb W

    Thanks for that really well-argued post Paul – I’ve been saying for ages that there’s “no such thing as canon”.

    I think that Philip raises a very good point, though, that of the issue of “continuity”. As Lance Parkin demonstrates in [i]The Infinity Doctors[/i] with Omega repeatedly destroying and undestroying Skaro, if the past can just be rewritten, then there is no meaning or drama to anything that happens. For drama to work, there needs to be consequences – and for that, you need consistency, you need “continuity”. That shouldn’t mean being slaved to every piece of trivia from the past 45 years or so of Doctor Who, but making sure that the dramatic consequences of the character’s actions and how it affects them are followed through, at least within the context of what people will remember.

    One of my only quibbles with the new series is that the focus is too narrow, and I think that series 2 was weaker in this respect than series 1. In series 1, we saw something of the impact of Rose travelling with the Doctor on her family and friends, and how that changed. In series 2, things like Rose not wanting Mickey to join them were raised and then ignored.

    The way everyone forgets about aliens every time they invade is beginning to look a bit ridiculous. In the time it takes to have a joke about how short-sighted these humans are (ho ho) you could easily have a couple of lines hinting at the impact of the world knowing about aliens. One of the reasons I enjoyed The Christmas Invasion was it began to show some of that development with Harriet Jones being Prime Minister and so on, but the reset button got hit at the end. Torchwood’s biggest weakness was also the general lack of carried-through dramatic consequences to the character’s actions.

    I don’t think you need to have complicated ongoing story arcs to have consequences and an unconfusing level of continuity, either.

  19. Ian Abrahams

    The first time I came across the idea of canon/not canon was in a comics fanzine years ago …. ‘Collectors Dream’ – a terrific article about the early history of Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ which weighed up the individual members early continuity and accepted/discarded particular issues of their comics based on continuity logic. I referenced it in a very early issue of ‘Skaro’ writing about Doctor Who continuity and suggesting that a similar thing might be beneficial in Who fandom. Hey, I might have been an early canon advocate! :-)

    Actually, the reason for mentioning it was that I quoted the Marvel Comics article because it in turn made reference to the Sherlock Holmes canon debate .. though I’m sure that the writer of the article suggested that Holmes fandom didn’t accept all of Conan Doyle’s stories as being canon due to problems fitting them into a logical continuity sequence. So I’m not sure how correct it is to say that canon is as simple as Doyle/not Doyle in Holmes fandom?


  20. Paul Cornell

    Thank you all for commenting. To most of you I’d like to just direct an ‘okay, sure, that’s cool’. Thanks for finding the quote, Mark. Highlander canonicity rows must make Who ones look tame. You poor guys. Lee, where did you review XTNCT, I’d like to see that? I’ve always thought that Oz fandom must be interesting, considering the subject matter and the various ways it’s been treated. I think Who watchers would probably remember two Atlantis references a year apart, but production issues just vanish when we’re called upon to treat the work as real. And yes, I think there’s a whole other article to be written about the ‘bullying retcon’. There’s another way in which the supposed existence of a canon is used for abuse. And I kind of wondered, Ian, if Holmes fans did have canon debates of any kind. That’s interesting, a kind of negative approach to it: *not even* all their original stories are canonical!

  21. Anonymous

    I like the books. I like the audios. I like the television show. And I don’t care if there are contadictions. Like you said, it’s part of the charm.

    See you at Gally!


  22. Janet Harrison

    I’m not in the loop of Doctor Who fandom so I’ve never had this argument. Reaing your essay made me realise that I do unconsciously make these canon/non canon distinctions myself though. I’m now forced to acknowledge that deep down in my gut I think of Doctor Who on the telly as, erm, ‘real’ Who (so to speak), but that doesn’t stop me enjoying the spin-offs. For instance I can’t tell you how desperately sad I am that the Doctor Who novels range have been shelved in favour of the kiddie book range. That to me seems like a real kick in the teeth to those of us who kept up our support of Who during the wilderness years by purchasing those books – canon or not. I dunno if that’s an issue or not in Who fandom but it certainly bugs me.

  23. Lee Harris

    Paul, the Xtinct review will be in issue 2 of Hub. Drop me a line with your snail mail and I’ll get a copy out to you once it’s back from the printers (2 weeks).

    The rest of you can buy one – go on… new short fiction SF magazine? You know you want to support that! 😉

    Click my name for the web address…

  24. Chris Hi

    Nice piece, Paul. I’m all for having fun discussions about continuity and ‘canon’ but if people start arguments about it, that’s just taking it waaay too seriously.

    Interesting to see your comment about the BBC policy; I had no idea that they had an official approach! Personally I think it’s a sensible attitude, otherwise you get the situation you have with the second Matrix movie (The Matrix Recycled as someone renamed it…). Do fully follow the story you need to have seen ‘The Last Flight of the Osiris’ from The Animatrix DVD, and played the computer game. This, I feel, is all very clever, but unfair to the casual fan.

    I feel sometimes that TV and film fans (and I include myself in this) often forget that the most enthusiastic parts of fandom are only a fraction of the viewing public. If a programme relied entirely on the fandom it would never survive!

    Great to hear you’ll be at EasterCon. I hope I get the chance to say hello, having missed you at the Clarke Awards!

  25. Ian Abrahams

    Hmm, well actually I dug out the original quote and it’s not as specific as I remember it .. but then it does derive from the late 1970s IIRC. “it might be best to describe some [Marvel] stories as ‘non-canonical’ … as the Baker Street Irregulars insist of some of Mr. Holmes’ more implausible published adventures’. NO specific reference to being Conan Doyle stories but I always took it as being the gist. Anyway, a couple of really good articles on the nature of canonicity in this old comics fanzine – you’d probably find it interesting. I’ll pop you a photocopy in the post tomorrow.

  26. SK

    Hm. I must take issue (could you predict I was going to say that?). I think you have missed the most interesting thing about canon as used to discuss ‘Doctor Who’.

    Obviously in order to simplify and make digestible your introduction, you had to select two instances of the history of the use of the word ‘canon’; but I think that the particular two you have chosen misrepresent in an important way that history, with the result that you assume as natural for the rest of your essay exactly the thing which I think is most notable in the Doctor Who use of the word. I refer of course to the identity Doctor Who fans see between canonicity and continuity.

    Your examples are both of this type: the purpose of the scriptural canon (at least with regards the gospels) was to identify those books which accurately record Jesus’ life and separate them from made-up accounts which began to circulate in the second and third centuries (the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, etc). Then you jump to the Sherlock Holmes use of the word, which again has been use to determine which events ‘really happened’ (this time in a fictional context). But these are two specific uses and not necessarily representative. For example, the use of the word to mean the body of work known or thought to be by a specific author: ‘the Shakespeare canon’, or ‘the Dickens Canon’. In Conan Doyle’s case this coincides with events in the Sherlock Holmes continuity, but in general no such linkage is implied. That Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol are both in the Dickens canon does not mean that they must be consistent. So I think your choice of example as a bad one, as it was unrepresentative of the general use and implied that ‘canon’ always was about what things ‘really happened’, when in fact that is only a feature of its application to Canon Doyle (and perhaps a few other authors whose oeuvre is all or mostly included within a single continuity), not its general use in this sense.

    (And indeed I see from comments above that it’s not even as simple as that in Conan Doyle’s case: not all of the Conan Doyle canon is considered to be part of the continuity.)

    Similarly, the use of the word ‘canon’ in literature to mean the body of works which ‘should’ be studied. For my second BA, which I may yet finish, I studied a course with a section on ‘the canon’ of English literature. But again, no one demands that because Milton and Dickens are both canonical authors that Martin Chuzzlewit must be consistent with Paradise Lost!

    And so here we come to the aspect of the use of canon in the Doctor Who sense which is at the same time most radical and a return to the ecclesiastical roots of the concept: the assumption that if something is ‘canonical’ that means that it (diagetically) ‘really happened’. The ideas of canon and continuity have been fused, creating an unnatural monster. If something is ‘canon’ it must fit; if it does not fit it cannot be canon.

    You point out the excuses that have been made to deal with this, the Time Wars and the alternate histories and whatever, and how these are ultimately unsatisfactory; and then you suggest abandoning the idea of ‘canon’ altogether, which I think is an over-reaction. But you don’t suggest that simplest and (I would say) correct answer: to decouple these two notions of canonicity and continuity.

    Because there is clearly a difference in validity between some real, professionally produced, licensed Doctor Who and some story somebody put up on their live journal about Jack and Rose getting it on (it’s always a bit pathetic to see fan-fiction writers claim that their stuff is just as valid as the real stuff, or worse that ‘the fans own’ something). There is a meaningful sense in which we can talk about a Doctor Who canon, so we should not abandon the idea of canon altogether. But only if we don’t assume that because something is in the canon, that means it must be part of any particular continuity. That ‘meaningful sense’, while real and important has nothing to do with continuity (this is a hard issue to grasp for some fans to whom the continuity is the only thing that matters: who would be as happy to read a synopsis as a story, as long as it covered the continuity points).

    Scream of the Shalka is certainly part of the canon. It was produced by the BBC and ‘broadcast’ by them, it was intended to be the next story in the life of the Doctor. It was overtaken by the new TV series. And that obviously bumped it out of _continuity_. But that only bumps it out of the canon if you assume that canonicity and continuity are the same thing. Which they needn’t and, I think, shouldn’t be. Scream of the Shalka can be part of the canon and yet totally irrelevant in terms of continuity. It is valid Doctor Who; it just doesn’t need to impact on any other Doctor Who stories. The same goes even more so for something like Death Comes to Time which was deliberately not meant to fit with other stories, but is part of the canon if anything is.

    And of course, as you point out, this is how the BBC has always approached Doctor Who: with an eye to canonicity (the BBC certainly is careful about which stories are valid, or at least their lawyers are) but a healthy disregard for continuity.

    So in summary: there is a canon, but there’s no need to couple that to concerns of continuity. Things can be canonical but irrelevant to continuity, like ‘Seven Keys to Doomsday’, or the Peter Cushing films, or the Doctor Who Magazine comic strips.

    Note that this doesn’t mean I subscribe to any notion of ‘parallel worlds’ or ‘different timelines’ or whatever was invented to try to make the novels and the audios co-exist. Those notions were invented because of this notion that if two things contradict, and are both to be canonical, there must be some diagetic reason why they can both occur. My point is that it simply doesn’t matter. It’s a non-issue. There is no more reason to say ‘Neverland and The Gallifrey Chronicles exist in parallel universes’ than there is to say ‘British Summertime and Something More exist in parallel universes’. Just the same way as we don’t assume that two books by the same author (ie, which are in the Cornell canon) must be consistent in terms of setting (and if they aren’t some excuse must be found, like time changing or parallel universes), so we shouldn’t assume that two stories should necessarily be consistent just because they happen to feature a character called the Doctor who travels in a police box.

    And this is why I ask ‘why is there such a big deal about canon?’ — it’s because it’s got mixed in with continuity. We should decouple the two, and then there are easy answers to both. Canon is easy — anything professionally made and licensed by the BBC is part of the Canon. Cushing, ‘The Ultimate Adventure’, the novels, the audios, everything. And continuity is easy — just don’t sweat it. The production teams never did. You can play the game of trying to make things fit all you like, if it brings joy to your little heart — but be aware that it is just a game, and don’t cry that because you can’t make something fit it must not be ‘canon’.

    Because in Doctor Who, there is such a thing as the canon. There’s just no such thing as continuity.

  27. David Thiel

    As Sebastian Brook recently suggested in his podcast conversation with Mike Maddox (see Announcements at the end), Torchwood didn’t exist in Doctor Who history until the Tenth Doctor went back and met Queen Victoria.

    I’d thought that as well, but that doesn’t seem to work either, given the presence of Torchwood in The Christmas Invasion and its namecheck in Bad Wolf. Or did he have an explanation for those?

    Very well-stated post about canonicity. My own feeling about long-running, shared universes such as DC Comics or Doctor Who is that it’s ultimately detrimental to worry too much about picky details. Look at the drastic measures to which DC repeatedly resorts in order to clean up the continuity detritus of decades of storytelling, and the further confusion over canonicity that has resulted from each reboot.

    I believe that long-established shared worlds can and should ignore or overwrite smaller details (such as the specifics of the sinking of Atlantis) as time marches on. The precise, previously-established function of a given knob on the TARDIS’ control panel is less important than the needs of the story that is being told now.

    I’m a believer in the notion of a “personal canon.” With Doctor Who, the televised shows (including the TV movie) are the only incontrovertible canon. I view books and audios as little more than slick fan fiction, though I’ll admit that argument buckles somewhat when creative talents from the TV show are involved. That partition allows me to safely ignore the stuff I don’t like, such as all that Cartmel-inspired loopiness about Gallifreyan looms.

    In the end, I think of shows such as Doctor Who as being like the legends of old: retold again and again, each time with different additions and revisions. Each is equally “real,” and it’s up to the individual audience member to decide which version is true for him or her.

  28. Caleb W

    If we’re playing the game of finding in-continuity explanations of how things fit together, then perhaps the Torchwood that was referenced in Bad Wolf and The Christmas Invasion was one that has been created after Queen Victoria somehow avoided being bitten by a werewolf without the help of the Doctor? It was only after the Doctor became involved with events that he changed history so that it was written into the founding documents of Torchwood so that they’d be on the lookout for him, hence why they’d never taken any interest in the Doctor before he’d been involved with its founding.

    (On a similar note, I’d have enjoyed it if it had been mentioned in Doomsday that Pete’s world’s Torchwood was founded to protect Britain after Queen Victoria was killed by a werewolf – perhaps her death led to Britain becoming a republic? More fun speculation!)

  29. Fallon

    Nice post Mr Cornell.

    The thing that gets me about this ‘canon’ stuff is that, to my mind, Doctor Who thrives on re-inventing itself. Whether that be in terms of regeneration, or in terms of writers/producers passing the torch, the show has switched creative hands so many times that you’d have to be mad to try and accomodate every little detail.

    Robert Holmes has contradicted himself on at least one occasion. Presumably because he wants to tell a good story. What a crazy and unusual goal, eh?

    What kind of nutter would prefer that a story doesn’t get written, or doesn’t get accepted, or doesn’t get enjoyed, rather than contradict things? How utterly boring you would have to be.

    Bloody Doctor Who fans. I’m off to walk my dog. He used to be half-human, half-Timelord, but it turns out they can regenerate into different species. And there’s not a god-damn thing you can do about it.

  30. Christopher L. Bennett

    Great essay, making some marvelous observations about the truth behind “canon” debates. As someone from the Star Trek side of the pond, though, I feel I should clarify a few things about ST canon.

    First off, as you say, canon isn’t always easy to define when a work has multiple creators. Now, close to 20 years ago, ST creator Gene Roddenberry decided he needed to define ST canon and issued a declaration excluding the books, comics, and animated series. But then he passed away, and although nobody ever officially revoked his canon policy, it wasn’t all that closely followed either. Numerous ST episodes made post-Roddenberry have included references to the “noncanonical” animated series, and the writers of the books have been totally free to use elements from it for many years. So although the extracanonical status of the animated series is still treated as a given by most people, in reality it’s more like one of those dusty old laws that never got officially revoked because it became irrelevant, like the one about how every motor vehicle must have a guy with a lantern walking ahead of it to warn of its approach.

    Also, different producers have had different opinions of canon. When Jeri Taylor was in charge of Voyager, she considered the two novels she wrote about its characters to be canonical, and a lot of references still cite them as such. But as soon as she left the show, the new producers began contradicting the books. So their canonical status, like the animated series’ non-canonical status, is really nothing more than an arbitrary label not reflecting real practice — or, as you say, a battle cry.

    When you get right down to it, none of the people who worked on ST over the past 20 years, none of the people who defined and created its canon, are still working on ST in any capacity. Even their bosses at Paramount have been replaced. So at the moment, there actually is no authority defining Star Trek canon, except for the authority of precedent — and perhaps tradition.

    Even though ST does have a (supposedly) clearly defined canon policy, there is still a great deal of argument in ST fandom about “canon” — indeed, many fans obsess over it ad nauseam. And half of them insist on spelling it with three ns — perhaps appropriate, since it is just a weapon in their factional wars.

  31. Ross Hastings

    Paul, I can certainly imagine that, as a WHO writer, it must be very frustrating to have your work come under attack as non-canonical by some of the more depressing individuals who make up WHO (and a lot of SF) fandom. Let’s face it, these geeks give the rest of us a bad name. The distinction between canonicity and continuity aside, it seems to me there’s a deeper issue at foot – if the idea of an imaginary/fictional universe being disordered is so upsetting, doesn’t it suggest that this fictional life is disproportionately important to the fans in question? Guys – what’s out of order in your own universe? Is it worth paying some attention, too??
    Having said that, here’s THIS fan’s point of view. At a glance, it would seem that there is only one part of the Whoniverse that explicitly places itself outside of the canon (I use the word here only for ease of illustrating my point), the Big Finish “Unbound” series. Interesting title, Unbound – unbound by what? Canonicity? Certainly. Continuity? There seems to be some irony in Gary Russell’s “He Jests at Scars”, where the Valeyard/Doctor screws up his own perception of continuity by interfering so much in his own past that… well, I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t heard it, but it’s interesting that Gary Russell, a writer often pegged for the inaccessibility of his work to non-Who fans, seemed with “He Jests at Scars” to set out to dismember all notions of continuity within the one WHO off-shoot that specifically set itself outside the fans’ notion of canon.
    In short, any discussion about canonicity (which I define here as what really happened/didn’t happen in the Whoniverse) in fiction that deals with a character who daily interferes with time over an approximate lifespan of one-thousand years (to date) AND willfully ignores it’s own continuity is, well… kinda dumb. The philosopher A J Ayer dismissed metaphysics as a meaningless subject for philosophical attention, simply because there was nothing verifiable to discuss. His authority, when deciding what was verifiable or not, was logic. In this case, as you pointed out, Paul, there IS no authority. Which, as you also suggested, renders discussion about canonicity equally pointless.
    Oh, and Einstein showed us that anything that happens in the universe, and WHEN it happens, depends on the point of view of the observer. If this is true of the Universe, it can also be true of the Whoniverse (Jeez, and I dropped the “geek” bomb earlier…)!
    I am also prepared to divulge a shocking truth here, WHO-fans… NONE of it ever happened! There is NO SUCH PERSON as the Doctor (gasp)! It’s ALL MADE UP – ALL of it! (horror!)
    The paradox of interfering with one’s own past is, in itself, enough reason to discard continuity to the wind (refer previous comments on “He Jests at Scars”) so, you know what, WHO fans? Just chill, as the Doctor himself suggested in “the End of the World”, and enjoy the Tenth Doctor retiring in Season 3 (or is it season 29???) to the quiet life of a schoolteacher… wait a minute, didn’t the Seventh Doctor try that already…? Or did that never REALLY happen…

  32. Reg H

    Not that I disagree with what you say but wouldn’t it have been better to hold off writing this until after ‘Human Nature’ airs on TV? Because you’re only going to have to get into the subject al over agian then anyway?

  33. Paul Cornell

    It’s great that this has got such a huge response. You throw a stone into the pond of Who fandom, and you get so many ripples. And every ripple is making something or thinking something. How wonderful. To mention just a couple of things: it’s interesting, Christopher, to hear from the Star Trek side. I guess things are much the same there now, but with an authority having had some play earlier on. Ross, in the blog I mention that ‘duh, it’s *all* made up!’ line you use. Do go and have a look.

  34. Jody


    This was a fascinating article and the comments were equally so. I do think, however that there is one thing that has been over-looked in this particular discussion of Fandom.

    For several years now I have been an ardent Hogan’s Heroes fan and an observer of pretty hard-core Buffy fans. And I feel part of the motivation for fan-fic v. cannon, etc has been neglected in this discussion.

    Reality. Not “reality” of the non-telly world where we all have to go to our daily cubicles and deal with bosses and traffic, but the reality that is our relationships with out televisions. There are many who intellectually understand that the people and situations we see on TV aren’t real. But for many of us, there is a deep empathy for the characters. Its why we love the shows so dearly. After a few seasons of “sharing” the trials and joys we feel those characters are friends or cousins. They have become, to a degree, real.

    This is why “cannon” “non-cannon” and “fan-fic” can be so volatile. Its like when you hear a rumor about a co-worker and you go, “I don’t believe it. That’s just not like them.” You see a situation a new writer (or just a writer looking for an interesting twist) has created and you’re reaction is “But Buffy/the Doctor/Picard/Hogan would never say/do/react like that.”

    Its not so much technical continuity. As defending your friends’ behaviors. To put forth these, often heated, debates are based primarily on what is or is not part of the continuity and merely a power struggle is a bit unjust, I feel. It makes the debator seem rather shallow and more-than-anal.

    I am not trying to discredit the entire discussion. Nor am I attempting to justify the fans that believe they actually attended Star Fleet Academy in the same class as Kirk and therefore know that he does not enjoy chocolate syrup on his pancakes. I mean simply to ask it to be considered that maybe the “cannon” debate be viewed a bit more sympathetically.

  35. Gizensha

    Mm. Personally I tend to use “Canon is whatever you want it to be” to make largely the same point as your “There’s no such thing as canon”

    …And just because it didn’t happen for the universe doesn’t mean it didn’t happen for The Doctor. One of the oddities of time travel in which one can interfear in the progression of history (and, ‘you cannot change one single line’ doesn’t wash, that’s what the Doctor does every time he defends the invaded against the invaders, etc) is that just because you remember something, and experienced something, doesn’t mean it happened, and conversely just because you didn’t experience something that happened to you doesn’t mean it didn’t.

    Mainly because it’s on while I’m making this comment – I wonder if fans of University Challenge have similar debates about the canonicity of the Paxman era compared to the Bambi one. I presume they don’t consider The Professionals to be canonical… 😉

  36. JRobbins

    I am one of those fans that loves to spend time fitting everything altogether and who winces when something comes out that seems to contradict what I already had figured out. But you know what – if it means Doctor Who will continue to be produced in any (and all – ESPECIALLY TV) forms, I am all for it. Whatever our personal views on canon/continuity, our love for this great show/novel/audio play/comic etc. should surpass that. I enjoy Doctor Who on several mediums, not all of which I apply to my “personal canon”, but it doesn’t detract from my ability to enjoy it. If someone has ability (and the “power”) to insure that Doctor Who is able to continue on for many years to come, let’s support them 100%. And besides, those of us that keep our own little canons, let’s just admit that we love the challenge of fitting one more thing into the puzzle :)

  37. Nevin ":-)"

    It isn’t canon per se that we want; it’s continuity & consistency.

    Canon is just a means to get there, as it allows quick editing; if it isn’t canonical, then it can be contradictory to the DW universe.

    Take Star Wars I-III. The most annoying thing about it wasn’t Jar Jar; rather, it was that it didn’t quite flow smoothly into IV-VI (no matter how many times Mr. Lucas “updates” the latter).

    You are a good writer. Would you put up with a story that was full of contradictions?

    The DW universe is really just a larger story. While accomplishing perfect consistency is, for all practical purposes, an impossible goal, we should still strive for it. The closer we can get, the better the show will because of it.

  38. Paul Cornell

    I know what you mean, Jody. I’m such a Battlestar fan that when someone says ‘But Adama wouldn’t do that’, my first reaction is ‘yes he would, because he did, I saw it!’ When I worked on Casualty, the BBC message boards for the show were full of fan fiction, written as scripts, and when we did something those fans didn’t like (like, erm, kill off a popular character), they’d keep on going like it never happened.

  39. SK

    Aaargh! Peopel are still talking as if ‘canonicity’ and ‘continuity’ are interchangable, or at least related. Nevin nearly gets there, but the idea that ‘The DW universe is really just a larger story’ is just wrong. It isn’t and it never has been. It wasn’t when the Daleks turned up after they had been totally destroyed in their first story, it wasn’t when Atlanis was destroyed for the third time, and too many other examples to list. It just is not true.

    Let’s use an example from something Paul mentioned in his original post: comics.

    If you were to study Superman, you could hardly ignore Alan Moore’s ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’. And if you were to study The Bat-Man, you could hardly ignore Frank Millar’s The Dark Knight Returns. Both are part of their respective canons, of the body of works which define the characters, which need to be studied to understand the work.

    The Millar, indeed, is not just part of its canon but is central to it! You simply could not ignore it, if you were looking at the development of The Bat-Man.

    And yet neither story is part of continuity.

    Thus proving that the canon and the continuity are totally separate.

    (‘The closer we get [to total consistency] the better the show will be because of it’… really? you think that The Bat-Man would be ‘better’ if The Dark Knight Returns had not been published because it does not ‘fit’? If so you hve a very very very strange definition of ‘better’).

    Doctor Who is the same. It’s not a single large story. It’s a paradigm in which stories can be told. The Doctor is not your standard literary character, he’s more of an archetype who can be insterted into different milieus and genres and whatever in order to illuminate them — and there’s no reason why all such insertions should exist in the same continuity.

    Can you really say that Death Comes to Time is not part of the Doctor Who canon? How can you justify that? It’s not part of the main continuity, sure; but how can it possibly not be part of the canon?

  40. Biscit (Simon Jerram)

    Great essay, but surly just esposuning a self evident truth. It’s just saying what I have been doing for years.

    I do sometimes find that people can’t tell the difference between someone arguing that it’s silly to say “the books aren’t canon”, and someone arging, “The books are Canon! You mustn’t contradict them!”

    Maybe Buffy and Highlander fans also argue about Canon. Doesn’t make it less silly!

  41. G J Brown

    Paul – although a long time who fan I only discovered your blog recently and I have to compliment you on this entry on “canon” so well balanced and holding of the readers attention despite it being a very dry topic. Please keep it up, and I eagerly await your new story in Series 3!

  42. LJC

    nreapSee, as a media fan who wrote skads and skads of fanfic (including Star Trek) in the last 18 years, I’ve always stuck to the “only what airs is canon” rule of thumb. Which excluded interviews, shooting script scenes what never got shot, filmed scenes what got cut, novelisations, novels, comics, websites, etc. It made life simple. There weren’t really any blurred lines between licensed tie-ins and canon. We knew that the novels took the TV series and film series as canon, but that so far as the series and films were concerned, they weren’t required to hold any of the tie-in material as canon. The only time I think anyone ever debated it was Jeri Taylor’s completely and utterly crap Voyager novels which Ron Moore gleefully threw out of canon in his VOY eps. But it was just generally accepted that the novels, while licensed, weren’t canon. Which is how we end up with brilliant novels like Federation and Strangers From The Sky being not canon, but Brannon Braga’s version of first contact and Zephram Cochrane and emo Vulcans, despite the massive continuity errors (because Braga never bothered with the original series, and told the press several times that no-one cared, only TNG forwards counted as canon).

    I wouldn’t mind living in a world where the late great genius Mike Ford’s How Much for Just The Planet? was canon, tho. This I admit freely.

  43. Tim Bishop

    The way I look at ‘Doctor Who’ is that everything that was shown on television on televison is part of continuity and everything else isn’t. Sort of. I take every story broadcast from ‘An Unearthly Child’ to ‘Survival’ to be part of the canon but I don’t include ‘A Fix With the Sontarans’. I know some people do. I include ‘Shada’. I include the one onscreen eighth doctor story. I know some people don’t which I have always found slightly ridiculous. After all we do see the seventh doctor regenerate into the eight. Whether the story is anygood or not is not the point. I include everything from ‘Rose’ to ‘Doomsday’ as part of the canon including the untilted 2005 ‘Children in Need’ special which I believe Russell T. Davies once amusingly refrered to as Pudsey cutaway. I don’t include ‘The Dimensions of Time. even though that was also made for ‘Children in Need’ and had a title. I include ‘K.9. and Company’, ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ & ‘Torchwood’. I don’t include the ‘Auton’ or ‘P.R.O.B.E.’ videos. This is nothing to do with quality of the story. I think that ‘The Devil of Winterborne’ is better than ‘K.9. and Company’.My favourite seventh doctor stories are ‘Timewyrn:Revelation’ and ‘Nightshade’ but I don’t consider them part of offical continuity even though they are a lot better than ‘Time and the Rani’ or ‘The Happiness Patrol’. I said sort of eariler on. I am halfway through ‘The Spectre of Lanyon Moor’ at the moment. I story I have listened to before and find better than any of the onscreen sixth doctor adventures. Whilst I am listening to it then I am involved in the story as much as when I am watching and episode on televison. ‘The Marian Conspiracy; was the Doctor’s last adventure and this is his current one.
    I know that ‘Doctor Who’ has numerous contridictions. I’ve never got over the ‘Pyramids of Mars”Mawdryn Undead’ one myself. It annoys me that I can’t more than anything but on the whole I like to think of everything that has happened on televison as one big continuing story. When I am watching the Tenth Doctors adventures with Martha of course whatever happenes in the story is the most important thing but I do like the idea that he is the same person who travelled with Susan, Ian and Barbara to the time of cavemen. It doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the comic strip, new adventures or audio plays. I don’t think I ever just conciously chose not to include them as part of the canon. It just seems to me that they are not but the television version is. So basically I agree with the idea of personal canon. If someone wants to fit everything in (Jean Marc L’Officer anyone?) then they are free to do so. As there is no offical canon then it should be up to the individual fan to what they include or leave out or not have a canon at all.

  44. scarfman

    And I kind of wondered, Ian, if Holmes fans did have canon debates of any kind. That’s interesting, a kind of negative approach to it: *not even* all their original stories are canonical!: In the introduction by “John Hamish Watson” to The Seven Per Cent Solution, The Lion’s Mane and one other Doyle story are disavowed.

    Rereading my comment above I see it’s possible to misconstrue that I was arguing in favor of the stories in a franchise/folklore’s primary medium being considered “canon”. To clarify, that’s precisely the opposite of what I was trying to state. The folklores that survive the ages do so precisely because they’re not held slavishly to the continuity of the previous bodies of works, but because they are revised every generation to play to new audiences.

  45. Paul Cornell

    Good points continue to be made. Including a description of the search for power via canonicity within a programme itself. This has got so many people talking that I’m going to do ‘what’s the definition of a Doctor Who companion?’ next.

  46. Johanna

    Interesting thoughts. As far as the use of the term ‘canon’ for the Holmes stories goes, there’s slightly more to it than that. If I remember correctly, it goes back to Ronald Knox, über-Sherlockian (and Catholic priest in Real Life), who satirized the methods of the then fashionable methods of biblical criticisim (which aimed to analyse the gospels and show that they were hotchpotches of different text), by applying the same method to Holmes, pointing out the inconsistencies, etc. This is why some Holmes fans will reject particular adventures as ‘not canon’ – it’s analogous to the insistence of the Historical Jesus scholars that this or that incident in the gospels is a later addition to the original accounts of Jesus (although I’m not arguing that Holmes fans are aware of the parallel, just that this is where Knox got the idea from; his point, of course, was that all the Holmes stories genuiunely WERE by the same author, and yet could be disintigrated in the same way as, say, the Gospel of Matthew)

    It all got rather out of hand, of course, but I think the origins of the term, and its theological overtone, are basically a consequence of the profession of one of the early Big Name Fans.

  47. Fiona Conn

    Actually, during my time as fanfic writer in the Harry Potter world, I found that there’s something else known as “Fanon”.

    Bet you can guess what that is, eh? “Fan Canon”.

    Essentially, if there’s something not mentioned in the books, but it’s a detail agreed on by the majority of the fans, it becomes “Fanon”.

    Interesting, no?


  48. Josephine

    A very good read that was. I basically think you’re right, and I know I hate it when people have fights about this. Still I’d like to say something in the defense of a solidly stated canon.

    When I watch a series weekly, I do that because the characters are compelling to me. I want to live through everything with them. The things they see, but more importantly: the decisions they’re forced to make. When they do, it’s important to know whether they’ve been through something similar before. It’s also nice to know if the writer in question realizes that they have.

    I’m new to this fandom, but I already wish I’d seen more of the previous incarnations, and I will. That’s because for me the motivational links between stories are massively important, and though I’m sure one writer or another has created some inconsistencies in that department, when I spot them I will say not without disappointment: “The Doctor would never do that.”

  49. Gary Bainbridge

    My Captain Subtext helmet just blew a fuse. Are we to take it Human Nature (the book) has dropped out of official continuity then?
    Looking forward to the two-parter though.

  50. SK


    How much clearer can be it be put?

    There’s official canon, but no official continuity. Indeed not only has the BBC never made a statement about official continuity, it has officially commissioned officially canonical things that don’t fit within any continuity.

    So whereas Superman and The Bat-Man have an official continuity, and bits of the canon which are outside it, Doctor Who doesn’t even have an official continuty (though it does have an official canon).

    Let’s repeat that: Human Nature never was part of official continuity. Neither was the TV movie. Neither was Survival, Planet of Fire, Invasion or The Daleks.

    Because things can’t be part of something which doesn’t exist!

  51. jrobbins

    I’m going to jump back in here again and touch on something that has been brought into this discussion. First of all, we are all agreed that there is no “official” continuity. I would even add that there is technically no “official” canon. Who determines that? Is it only those things actually BBC produced (what about Big Finish, DWM comics, etc.), or is it everything that gets BBC blessing, aka licensing. And has the BBC even actually established that?
    Don’t get me wrong. I am a firm believer in consistency and think that it adds to the mythos, but the only thing I would ultimately object to would be something that out-and-out contradicts the essential ethos of the show and its established characters (the Doctor becoming evil, the Daleks becoming hippies, etc.). This is the best show and we should be so grateful that it survives in every format it can (as I said before – ESPECIALLY TV). I would not jeopardize that by insisting that it must meet my (or a portion of fandom’s) particular criteria in order to go forward, as much as it may irk my fanboy canon. I hope I am not sounding contradictory, but our love for this show should surpass our personal preference.

    Now that all of that is out of the way, I just have one more point to make. It has been mentioned that there should be a distinction between canon and continuity. And that may be the case sometimes (maybe even here), but I do want to make the point that they don’t have to be separate. To use the analogy that Paul used in his initial essay, when the original canon of Christian scripture was established, they were establishing a body of work, but also a continuity within that body of work – otherwise there would have been no point in the body itself. Whatever your personal view of the result, it must be recognized that that was their original intent. I am not saying that we have to view Doctor Who canonicity that way, but I am saying that it is not wrong to do so. Let’s agree to support our favorite show and enjoy the fun we can have debating all of its endless possibilities.

    P.S. Thanks Paul for the opportunity to have this discussion.

  52. SK

    There is an official canon. There is a body which owns the trademark Doctor Who and controls and licenses which things are allowed to call themselves part of Doctor Who. If that isn’t an official canon I don’t know what is.

    On canon and continuity: no. They are always separate concepts. Now, it may be that in certain cases the two overlap exactly; but that just means that the coninuity is contained in the canon and everything in the canon fits into the continuity.

    For one thing, continuity is a diegetic concept and canonicity is non-diegetic. So being so fundamentally different how can they be the same? There must always be a distinction between them, even though they are related (and the relation could be one-to-one).

    Personally, I’m not a believer in consistency at all and I think it takes away form the mythos: I’d rather have lots of different stories that take different, contradictory, approaches than have consistency. And while it’s nice to have multi-format Doctor Who I don’t think there’s anything ‘especially’ about TV, indeed, I think TV Doctor Who is mostly disappointing. So far prose has proven to be the best medium for the idea and I’d happily lose the TV series for good if it could be replaced by novels which did the idea justice.

    Finally, your point about the Christian canon is totally wrong. It was not establishing a ‘continuity’. The selection of the gospels was to enshrine as canonical those documents which were accurate historical primary, or close-to-primary, sources — that were written by eyewitnesses to the events they describe, or at least by those who had spoken to eyewitnesses. For one thing, the gospels do not agree on ‘continuity’: the orderings of events are different, some records of events which occur in more than one gospel have different disciples present, and so on.

    The point of establishing the canon was not to compile a definitive ‘continuity of the life of Jesus’; if that had been the intent they would have synthesised the available accounts into a single narrative strand, wouldn’t they? Instead they included four different, sometimes-conflicting accounts.

    And that’s when they had real historical events at the centre — so how much less we should be precious about it when the centre is not a real event but an idea, and how much more we should want to explore that idea and the themes it generates from every single angle, not being bound to a single continuity of fictional events!

  53. jrobbins

    I agree with basically everything that you said, you just termed it differently then I did, or expressed it more specifically in some cases. The main reason I emphasize the TV aspect is because, as the “Original Source” (to use our historical terminology), I find it is more able to engage the majority of my senses into what I enjoy most about Doctor Who. However, all of the other media expressions are able to expand, explore, and insure the longevity of the concept beyond what TV alone would be able to do, for sure. I agree with you that the scope of themes and ideas is endless, and hopefully so will the opportunity to explore through the the Doctor Who universe. Thanks for your response.

    P.S. When you refer to everything that is trademarked and licensed Doctor Who as being canon, does that include candy bar wrappers, trading cards, role-playing games/books, etc.? Just curious as to whether you also consider such things part of the body of collected Doctor Who lore/mythos, not whether they are enjoyable or not. Thanks.

  54. SK

    Slightly confused about your comment regarding television. Do you give it a special place because it is the ‘Original Source’, or because it ‘is more able to engage the majority of [your] senses’, or both?

    The first can’t really be disputed; it was the first medium and as such the first TV stories did set the tone in a way that nothing else can claim to have; however, by the time you get to the 80s and 90s both TV and prose are building on that foundation and there’s no reason, I think, to priviledge TV just because it happens to be in the same medium as the originals.

    The second, about engaging your senses, I would question whether that’s a good thing, given that quite often it is those things peculiar to the medium, like the bad acting or the bad special effects (neither of which the new series is free from!) which get in the way — while the well-written prose work doesn’t suffer from those problems. And, from the other direction, the books are able to encompass a wider scope than the TV programmes and so engage perhaps not the sense but the mind more; if what you’re saying is that the TV series has pictures, remember that the pictures may be better on radio but it’s the pictures made with words that are the very very best.

    Also consider that there’s two questions, one being is the TV medium inherently special and the other being has it in practice been special? As to the first, the answer is no, except insofar as it has mere chronologicay primacy (as above); as to the second, note that even with the acting and effects discounted, the TV series (old and new) generally has a lower quality of writing than the novels (obviously you can pick the best and worst of each to compare, but as a proportion, the worst of the TV series far outweighs its best, while for the the novels (at least the ones I’ve read) it’s more even).

    So the TV series has no a priori claim to primacy, nor has it earned that primacy by fulfilling whatever potential it had.

    Moving along… yes, licensed products are part of the whole ‘canon’ of Doctor Who. When you have a multi-medium ‘event’ such as Doctor Who, you can’t, when studying the thing, ignore its extrusions into various non-traditional areas. Or, to put it another way, the very fact that there is a Cyberman action figure says something about Doctor Who, and exactly what that Cyberman is like tells you a lot about Doctor Who (even if it’s only ‘the BBC cared so little about Doctor Who merchandise that they didn’t notice the Cyberman action figure had a nose’ — which is interesting in itself).

    I admit that this is an extension of the idea of ‘canon’, which is about texts. Of course some would argue that everything is a text, so the Cyberman action figures are in fact texts that can be ‘read’ in their own right; I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but on the other hand, you must agree that the merchandising you see in the shops these days is a huge part of the cross-media, cross-boundary phenomenon that is Doctor Who, and therefore must be considered in any study of the thing?

    And that therefore if it’s a choice between broadening the idea of ‘canon’ so that they can be included, or simply cutting them out and ignoring them, then the concept of ‘canon’ must be broadened?

  55. Taras

    Paul, I nicked some of your ideas for a Podshock piece on canon Podshock #67.


  56. ern2150

    Canon – something for the lawyers to worry about
    Continuity – a game, that you and your Grandfather are playing

    I, too, am dismayed by the dismissiveness and “easy way out” the phrase “is it canon?” uses to end discussion. Thankfully, though, people react against that, and always generate more discussion.

  57. Anonymous

    You know paul, all this talk of canonicity and continuity remids me of a short piece i read on the Douglas Adams website, quite a long time ago. It was called ‘Pedants’and described those people who insit on arguing over what are very minor details (such as 2001 being the REAL millenium year).
    you can find it at .
    Being a long time who and ST fan i always think of that piece whenever issues of cannonicty come up on the boards… and then I have a good giggle.

  58. scarfman

    Rereading this for having come across a new link to it, I thought you might like to know that, though I admit I’ve never seen it propagated anywhere else, the alternate-Dalek-history theory you co-authored in The Discontinuity Guide is incorporated into my fanfiction.

  59. Paul Cornell

    That’s very flattering, ta.

  60. Anonymous

    One responder made the comment that canon and continuity are totally separate. Not from where I sit. Instead, I see them as joined at the hip – canon is simply what fits and continuity is the method of determining if it fits or not.

    I try to have a very simple inclusive DW canon – the TV series is the anchor point and any other range that fits (e. g. doesn’t contradict or overwrite) with the TV series is canon. Things get complicated because IMO the various writers either a) can’t work together well enough to make things fit, b) don’t give a damn, or c) deliberately want to destroy any possibility of fitting things together.

    Yes, this is probably too simple, especially when it comes to the often dicey relationship I see between the subordinate DW ranges. However, given the lack of a truly objective DW canon – one based on fundamental storytelling principles instead of personal preferences – it’s the best I can come up with.

    Jack Beven

  61. Kenneth Dinkins

    Excellent article, Paul! Some comments and questions, if I may?

    I’ve always maintained too that the nature of the program itself causes canon to be impossible. I find it funny when people say, “Can’t the Doctor just travel back in time to Gallifrey”, “Why didn’t the Dalek in “Dalek” detect other Daleks who were preparing for the invasion of Earth in 2164?”, and other questions of the type. It’s because the end result of the Time War was that Gallifrey and the Daleks were destroyed in a way you can only be destroyed in a Time War. They were both wiped from existence.

    I think some fans have a hard time wrapping their heads around this concept. However, the interesting fact remains that none of the Dalek stories ever happened and none of the Time Lord stories ever happened! The Doctor and the TARDIS (and the surviving member of the Cult of Skaro) exist as an anomaly and a paradox (you should know about such things – you watched “Father’s Day”, right? LOL).

    The fact that events and even whole stories can be evicted from existence is not a new concept to Doctor Who, either. Does no one realize that the fist 9 episodes of “The War Games” had never happened by the end of the 10th? The Time Lord says, as they carry out the sentence on the War Lord, (paraphrasing:) it will be as though you and your planet never existed. Therefore, the war games never occurred and only those who are “time-sensitive” can recall the paradox.

    As you said, these things thus show that any type of official canon in Doctor Who would be pointless. “Time is in flux”.

    However, we arrive at a problem which leads to the question. Would the Doctor himself not have a canonicity to his life? Even with time in flux and things changing the Doctor would have a recollection of the Dalek invasion in 2164 even if it never happened, right? This regenerates the entire argument of canon! Non it’s no longer what events or stories in Doctor Who are canon, but what experiences of the Doctor are?

    In other words, for example, the 7th Doctor experienced the events of “Human Nature” in the novel. Something happens along the way, history gets changed, and now the 7th Doctor never experienced them, but the 10th Doctor does (for different reasons). The fact still remains that the 7th Doctor experienced those events prior to said events changing! So either have to accept everything as canon or nothing at all?

    Hopefully, one day, after were all dead, a group of people will come together in a great council and decide what is and isn’t cannon. They will do this, of course, right before going to war with the Church of Star Trek. :)


    P.S. I getting ready to watch “Human Nature” right now. I’ve been waiting all year for this! Thank you so much!

  62. Paul Cornell

    That’s all true, Kenneth, and utterly well thought out. There are no Dalek and Time Lord stories now! Thanks for that.

  63. Greg Randall


    Surely the special problem of canon and continuity arises in Doctor Who because of the enigma at the centre of the concept. That is, “who is The Doctor?” So, the central character is up for interpretation and reinterpretation in way that (say) James T. Kirk is not. Aspects deliberately left vague by Sidney Newman and his fellow BBC staffers can be taken up, dismissed, expanded upon or contradicted as following and future writers wish. What’s more, time travel and time wars mess with the path of time. When deliberately tampering with (fictional) history the ninth Doctor says “I know what I’m doing” in “The Doctor Dances”. The implication is that humans, and thus fandom, don’t know what they are doing. So trying to retrospectively construct continuity for this character, much more a canon, is a lost cause. The only two Doctor Who jigsaw puzzles that could ever be completed featured Jon Pertwee in the Tardis and Bessie.

  64. Tom

    I agree that the whole time-travel thing makes it clear that there can’t be a real DW continuity… BUT there has to be something “like” one. Otherwise the show could do “Dexter’s Laboratory” type things like blowing up the TARDIS every episode and we’d have to accept it because “there’s no continuity”. Also, clearly a bunch of stories reference previous happenings. Maybe the way to go about developing the “continuity” is as some sort of web… in which this book mentions the events of that episode which refer to that other episode, etc. Rather than doing it in blocks it would just be case-by-case, a sort of ball of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”, one might say.

  65. Nathanael

    For me all discussions of canon go back to something Kate Orman wrote back in 1996, on Usenet. Which unfortunately appears not to have been archived by Google.

    (If anyone has a copy of the message, send it to!)

    Paraphrasing, it went something like this:

    “I just read Ground Zero, and I had an odd reaction. Perhaps this was just because I wrote Set Piece, but I thought ‘That wasn’t real; it didn’t actually happen. Which is an odd thought considering what percentage of Doctor Who stories actually happened (none).
    “Perhaps that’s what people mean by canon. If that’s the case, none of these arguments are ever going to have any conclusion, since they’re really based on that gut reaction.”

    I think she was right, which is why I really really wish I could find the quote ! She pretty much described the concept of personal canon, quite early.

    This actually fits with the church meaning of canon — in that case, it’s the Church’s official position on what “really happened”.

  66. Nathanael

    Found Kate Orman’s message!

    I really do think this sums up what most fans really mean by “canon”. (Personal canon rather than working canon.) Do you believe it?

  67. Nathanael

    Aargh, let’s see if I can actually get that link up:
    Kate’s reaction to Ground Zero

  68. Paul Cornell

    I’m still amazed this is the post that’s still attracting new readers. And very pleased to see them. Nat, my attitude remains thus: there is no such thing as canon in Doctor Who.

  69. Θεμις Μαντζαβινος


    It is a very nice and good post and I really like it.

  70. skerit

    I understand the thought behind this post, stories can change, especially because Doctor Who is a show all about time travel.

    But that’s just the stories!

    The doctor itself is exempt from this rule, is he not? All of history can change but, since the Doctor always sees time itself in his head, he does not.

    So stories could be changed from our point of view but the Doctor will still remember them the way he first lived them.

    And isn’t that what people want? For the Doctor to be able to say “Oh yeah, I remember that one” or something.

    There are other things which just can’t be “erased”, like scientific stuff.
    Events can change, but the laws of physics can’t. For example: If they start drilling through the earth’s crust and the entire world explodes you expect the same behavior to occur should they try it in another story.
    So if any non-tv story makes some bold claim that “you can never do this or that because it would destroy the other thing” then that needs to be true in every story.

  71. Anonymous

    Canonicity can be explained quiet easily with a bit of ancient Hindu philosophy. Everything occurs at the same moment. It is our limited perception which perceives time as linear. Time is, in fact, a single point. In such a universe, nothing can be non-canonical.

  72. Sam Spencer

    Being a reasonably new Who fan, I have this rose-tinted view of wanting everything to have happened in that world. That’s why I love the stories that play with time. Showing ways of including everything

  73. Paul Cornell

    Welcome to the blog, Sam. This post is the most visited next to the BBC Space Themes one!

  74. Mike M

    I do love the idea that every tv show, comic strip and novel takes place in the same endless saga. It’s strangely wonderful to watch William Hartnell and think that some day he’s going to become Matt Smith. There’s an odd kind of thrill to (pointlessley) trying to figure out if the Tenth Doctor is making a sly reference to Bernice Summerfield when he told River Song that he ‘laughs at archaeologists’. It’s fun to imagine that the Ninth Doctor might be refering to events in ‘The Left Handed Hummingbird’, (or even that comic strip with the Sleeze Brothers) when he’s telling Rose about the time he was on the Titanic. Trying to make everything fit into the same frame is all part of the fun of Doctor Who for me. As for the argument against the New Adventures– it’s something one should be able to take or leave at personal convenience seeing as there will never be any ‘official’ record of the seventh Doctor’s later years.

    From my point of view something had to have happened between the end of ‘Survival’ and the beginning of the 1996 movie. A whole lifetime of the Doctor had to have taken place between the end of the movie and ‘Rose’. We’re never going to get an episode where the Doctor just stands in front of the camera for 45 minutes and explains, using diagrams where necessary, precisely what took place during all the years he wasn’t on the telly. Likewise it’s shoutingly unlikely that the BBC will ever commission a ‘Doctor Who: The Missing Years’ in which and ageing Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred pick up where they left off in Perivale. Still, something had to have happened during those gaps– and it might as well be the novels/comics/audios because that’s all there is! Most of the aforementioned spin-off media was authored by some of the splendid people who now write the TV show (including the writer of this blog) which gives it a big shiny stamp of authenticity as far as I’m concerned. However, if the thought of ‘Sky Pirates!’ being a ‘real’ event is too much for you, you can simply allow yourself to believe that Ace decided to move back in with her Mum minutes after the end of ‘Survival’ and the Doctor spent the next six years redecorating the TARDIS before picking up the gooey remains of the Master. The show leaves it open that way.

    Ultimately, Doctor Who canon is and should be a personal fantasy. Once the makers of any show start getting too concerned with it, something dies– hence the unravelling of Star Trek as it tried to rewrite and then later tip-toe around continuity with ‘Enterprise’.

    Obviously this thread died off a while ago but I just wanted to add my two ha’penny.

  75. Paul Cornell

    People can never resist this one! I do wonder how you find it!

  76. T-Jay

    As far as I am concerned regarding this issue of ‘canon’.

    The Doctor is a time-traveller, and has meddled with history for quite a while now. Everything is ‘canon’, because all the stories are true.

    How? They are the myths and legends of the Timelords, The Doctor, the Daleks and the Cybermen.

    Simple – myths and legends, therefore the books, the TV movie, the classic and new series and anything else that gets thrown in, all count!

  77. Newton Gimmick

    Very good article. I agree with a lot of what you said. To me, Who’s canon can be completely jumbled and mixed because of the nature of the show. The only thing that could be brought into debate is the TV movie and since it included McCoy and was licensed by the BBC it obviously wasn’t like a remake or something that can be tossed away. He is the 8th Doctor.

    Some other canon and continuity interests.

    The Godzilla movies. Originally they follow a strict continuity, but then it breaks down into eras. Even the eras don’t follow the same continuity. In the 1990’s move they go through some time travel elements and rewrite the entire history of the characters.

    In 1998 they licensed America to make that dreadful Godzilla movie. Is it canon? Well Toho (Godzilla’s parent company) believes it is canon… It’s just not Godzilla. They renamed the monster and settled the debate. It is canon, just not the same character.

    But here’s an even more puzzling one for you. The Ninja Turtles. Founded by two men, Eastman & Laird, they decided to try and keep track of what was canon and not realitively early on. They would occasionally say “This isn’t canon” and said that the original TMNT cartoon was a complete seperate entity from their comics.

    HOWEVER, in early 2000ish, Eastman sold his shares and control of the turtles to Laird. Now Peter Laird decides what is canon and has went back and changed some things as he sees fit.

    This has brought down a huge bunch of anger from certain fans as Laird is redoing the entire canon to his liking. Unlike some of the other mentioned franchises, this is a case where it has a single creator (or at least dual creators) but now that the one has control things are being changed.

    Laird’s stance is that any changes he makes is the official canon, but he reminds people that “those other stories exist, how else do you know about them?” thus basically saying canon is what you make of it.

    I tend to believe that philosphy. Obviously my fan stories aren’t official parts of any canon, but fans can basically pick and choose what we believe is canon. No one can make us believe otherwise.

  78. Paul Cornell

    Interesting stuff guys, particularly about the TMNT. This really is the blog post that keeps on going!

  79. Alice

    By the time I’d gotten to the end of the comments on this post, I completely forgot how I found the essay in the first place. I’ll take that as a sign that I should read this again and again (:

    Yeah, I basically agree with you on the canon/continuity thing. My friend phrased it well to me a few minutes ago: “It’s all real and fake at once.”

    Not sure if that’s how you perceive it, exactly, but it’s a way that I make sense of it all.

    Confusing but making perfect sense at the same time, I think!

    I think a huge part of the issue is that people feel lost without hard evidence and facts. It’s as if you don’t really know anything about the subject at all, when you thought you did. Unnerving, but exciting.


  80. Paul Cornell

    Thanks for taking a look, Alice. This is one of a couple of blog posts of mine that get attention way after the fact!

  81. Alice

    No problem – I can see why it’s so popular, such an interesting topic to talk about.

    I’ve linked this to a fair few friends since I belatedly discovered it, and the majority have found it just as insightful as I have (:

    Not signing off with my name this time, because I just realised it’s at the top of the comment anyway. Bit slow of me.

  82. Paul Cornell

    Thanks very much.

  83. barnert

    Paul, you keep wondering why people keep finding this post, out of all of your blog posts?

    It’s because of the links to it, of course. Most notable, it’s the first External Link in the Doctor Who Wiki page on Canon. But it’s also been linked from Wikipedia talk pages, and who knows where else.

    Whenever an argument about canonicity within Doctor Who comes up, someone reminds everyone, “Here’s what Paul Cornell has to say about it.”

    Partly, this is because your answer is so good, or at least you frame the question so well that it can derail a pointless quest.

    But there’s also the fact that any fan geeky enough to argue about canonicity knows who Paul Cornell is and wants to know what you have to say about it, and you (along with maybe Lance Parkin) are the closest thing to that “authority” that people are looking for.

    Having that authority say, as authoritatively as possible, that there is no authority–well, that’s a great contribution!

  84. Paul Cornell

    Thanks, I appreciate that!

  85. Jonathan

    Hi! I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, but I’ll post it anyway.

    After giving myself headaches over the whole Loom/children thing, I’ve decided (for the time being) that it really doesn’t matter. None of it’s real, anyway. If it must be explained away in the show, then time travel did it.

    Because I like the idea of the Doctor being Loomed fully-grown, growing up with his Cousins in the House of Lungbarrow.

    And I like the idea of him knowing his mother and father and having been a child.

    I like the idea of him being half-human (to a certain extent) and I like the idea of him being totally alien.

    And I can accept that they’re all true, and I would say that the Doctor doesn’t even know himself.

    Haven’t read any of your novels, but I love the end of The Family of Blood – I love it when the Doctor is really powerful. And Joan’s damning condemnation of him – “Would anyone here have died?” – is absolutely superb.

  86. Paul Cornell

    Thanks very much, and glad you’ve sorted your own canon issues! Cheers.

  87. John S. Adair

    Since no one sane is still reading comments at this point, I’ll take this opportunity to say that I considered you to be the best of the NA/MA authors (canon or not!), with Kate Orman coming in at #2, and I was very happy to see you involved with the new show.

    p.s. Can you PLEASE get them to stop resurrecting the Daleks? :)

    p.p.s Nathaniel, I miss rec.arts.drwho!

  88. Paul Cornell

    Thank you!

  89. Graeme Sharpe

    This is a rather late reply, or early depending on when you’re reading it, or when I’m posting it.

    Great read, Paul. Wonderfully put together and thought out. I absolutely agree, and I’m just a casual DW fan. Brilliant.

  90. Paul Cornell

    Thanks very much, Graeme.

  91. Anonymous

    Isn’t it part of the BBC Charter that all BBC shows must have self-contained continuities? Ie. the viewer must be able to fully understand the entirety of the plotlines, twists, turns etc. from JUST watching the tv show or listening to the radio show. It is official BBC policy that the viewer must not have to purchase any additional items in order to fully “get” what is happening on the screen. Of course, in Doctor Who’s case there are the obvious in-show contradictions that we all know and love and yet….

    As good as any of the books, comics, audios etc, are, the fact remains that for the fan to be able to read/listen to these legally, currency must change hands with a retailer. That is contrary to the BBC Charter. This does not mean that the books, comics, audios are less than the tv show that anyone with a tv can see, but it does mean that under the BBC’s own laws, theya re not part of the main continuity.

    Many books, comics, audios are far superior to many of the tv episodes. Many brilliantly explain away the inconsistencies on-screen, many offer further information about characters, plots, civilizations etc. But since the fan must spend currency, they fall outside the BBC Charter, and thus under official BBC Policy, are outside of the official Doctor Who continuity. There are of course tv episodes which make references to non-tv episode characters, plotlines, planets, adventures etc., but this doesn’t make them any more “real”.

    What is the official Doctor Who continuity/canon then? Whatever Joe Public would have been able to enjoy without having had to spend any money over and above a tv or radio. Thus it’s the 695 episodes of Classic Series, The Mcgann TV Movie, the New Series from Rose onwards. It’s also K9 and Company, Torchwood, the Sarah Jane Adventures. It’s the radio adventures Slipback, Paradise of Death, Ghosts of N-Space, and those Mcgann audios that aired on BBC Radio. There is other stuff like “Curse of Fatal Death”(obviously a parody), “Fix With Sontarans”(clearly non-canon as it was a Jim’ll Fix It spot about the tv show Doctor Who), and the Australian show K9(not a BBC production at all).

  92. Anonymous

    Ah, yes, Paul Cornell mentions the BBC Charter in the article, and then I say “What about the BBC Charter?” Talk about short-term retention! But the basic idea still stands. It should not be required of the fan to have to purchase the books, audios, comics(just how many are there?) in order to follow the storylines and character development. Things get stranger when one realizes(as just one example) that the BFA reference the Audio Visuals. So does THAT become canon? I honestly believe that the Star Trek approach is the best here. If it’s been on tv and radio it’s canon. If it hasn’t it not.

    The other thing(which someone may have mentioned, I haven’t read all the comments), is the “working it out for yourself) game. Since the tv show did(and still does I suppose) leave many questions unaswered, or plotlines ambiguous, the fan would form their own ideas about what happened that wasn’t shown on screen. The problem comes if any medium addressed these issues. If the new storyline mirrors what the fan thought, then of course it is canon! If it has a different explanation, then it’s NOT canon. As an example people who had previously believed in the Season 6B idea would have stated that it was obvious that “World Game” is canon, as it was published by the BBC and written by none other than Terrance Dicks. People who rejected the Season 6B idea would have said of course it’s not canon, as it’s just a book.

    While ALL Doctor Who has its merits and has obviously been made by people who are passionate about and respectful of the show, I still believe there SHOULD be some definitive statement made. But maybe there already has been, made by the Charter that Paul mentioned…

  93. Anonymous

    I am sorry, but I have to take exception to comments along the lines of “there has never been any official statement on canon policy”. Likewise, the fact that a ”’producer”’ has never stated anything definitive is irrelevant.

    As Paul Cornell, and others, have stated the BBC has a Royal Charter which dictates its policy. And as Paul Cornell stated, said Charter insists(rightly or wrongly) that all BBC original television drama must be self-contained, contuinuitywise.

    Now, the BBC is not a commercial enterprise such as ITV, or NBC or FOX. It is a public service, funded by Joe Public’s tax money. Its very existence is because of Her Majety’s Royal Charter, and the BBC’s agreeing to stick to the policies of the Charter.

    In addition what Steven Moffat or Russell T. Davies or John Nathan Rurger or Barry Letts(…) ever said or didn’t say is neither here nor there. Unlike Messrs Roddenberry and Lucas Doctor Who producers are ”’not”’ the authority figure who dictates show policy. They are(and always have been) BBC Employees who are appointed to the Doctor Who production Office by the BBC suits. Their job is to produce the episodes on time and without going over budget. And, as has been thanks to Michael Grade, the Doctor Who Producer can easily be overruled by the BBC Suits. Thus, official policy comes from higher-up. The Producers, Script Editors, Writers are employed by the BBC.

    Even the Doctor Who Production Office is not an authority. The BBC chooses to set up production Offices, and hires/fres people as they see fit. The Doctor Who Production Office ahs never been an independent company ala LucasFilms. it is a department of BBC Drama, which is a Department of the BBC. The BBc chooses who will work for the Doctor Who Production Office, and those people are those bound by Official BBC policy. Actually, has a Producer ever been hired from outside the BBC? Don’t think so.

    Thus the producer, the Doctor Who Production Office are bound by Official BBC Policy. Whatever anyone from Verity Lambert to Steven Moffat has said is not really relevant, as they were never in any position which agve them the right to decide what is or isn’t canon.

    So what is the Doctor Who Canon policy? It’s exactly the same as the Canon Policy for ALL original BBC drama, namely that the television series be self-contained continuitywise. The idea that the Doctor Who Production Office is somehow an entity that exists independent of Official BBC Policy, or that the Producer has some sort of special authority is fantasy.

    Which is not to say that the non-television products are not a very important part of the Doctor Who Experience. But they do exist separately from the television show. Each can establish its own continuity as it sees fit, unhindered by BBC Policy. And indeed, the different lines have established continuities that contradict each other.

  94. Anonymous

    This is really very simple. The tv programme is made by BBC programming. BBC Enterprises/Worldwide, an entirely different department of the BBC that is totally removed from production of the tv show Doctor Who, is involved in the ”’busines”’. Enterprises/Worldwide is there to make money, not tv. As such they license out BBC copyrights to outside parties, which are even further removed from the Production Office. And that’s what ALL non-tv Doctor Who is. Merchandise. Asking whether the novels or audios or comics are’canon’ is equivalent to asking whether the action figures or biscuit tins or boxer shorts are ‘canon’. I have personally spent far more money than I even want to think about on Doctor Who merchandise. But it is not, nor will it ever be, part of the television continuity.

  95. Marco Donati

    I guess it is relevant to consider Russel T. Davies approach to audio stories/novels/radio dramas.

    In the case of Torchwood, the radio dramas “The Lost Files” continues the tv series show’s story, even explaining/solving/exploring important facts for the essence of the Torchwood series itself.
    For instance, the conclusion of the radio adventure “The House of the Dead” explain how the Rift in time and space in Cardiff was sealed. Yet, it wasn’t written by RTD, and he appears in several interviews not aware of that story, not knowing its implication, and justifying the closure of the Rift with facts appened in the original New Doctor Who tv series (the closure of all rifts in time and space consequenting to series 5 finale), which contradicts what listeners have found enjoying the radio drama.
    As said in the article and in comments above, RTD haven’t the authority to declare what is canon and what is not, but yet I think that, being him the producer of the tv series and therefore the main story archs, it implies that spin-off adventures are not taken in any account in the tv series continuity (and if they fit it’s mere coincidence). You may enjoy both, you may consider real both, but I cannot see how two version of the same event can at the same time (without the Doctor, the TARDIS and same timey-wimey stuff being involved).

    Said that, I would like to ask anyone opinion on the ‘canonicity’ of animated series, which on one hand aired on tv as what is widely accepted as the core material for the Doctor Who continuity, but on the other are regarded as spin-offs on any other media.

  96. Anonymous

    The interesting thing about this topic is this:Have you ever heard Moffat or Davies or Turner or Letts or Lloyd or… state “There is non canon”? The only people who’ve made such statements are Mr Cornell whose Who works are primarily, or in some cases, in the non-tv media. As noted, RTD stated that only what people remember from the tv show “counts” AND he ignored the audios. JNT often stated that he never really read the VNA. Barry Letts stated that he had nothing to do with the comics or annuals, and that the TV Comics and World Distributor people had nothing to do with the tv show. I can appreciate that if someone has put a lot of time, effort and passion into books etc. then they obviously wouldn’t want them just dismissed seemingly out-of-hand. But to Paul, if you had written loads of tv episodes, and little or no books or audios, do you believe you would take the same position as you do here?

  97. Anonymous

    If there is no statement on canon or references to other series, you just automatically assume only the original series is canon. That’s what happens with every other series, why not doctor who.

    The only thing is, doctor who does reference other forms of canon. The doctor’s most famous nickname in the new series is the “oncoming storm”, for example, and that comes from a vigin adventures novel. And the adventure games were flat-out stated as canon.

  98. Anonymous

    Oh, and Doctor ho seems to think it is special in terms of retcons, as well. There are plenty of series which have loads of retcons, marvel being the one I can think of on the top of my head.

  99. Anonymous

    Something not telling the story isn’t the same as not being canon.
    The other media in doctor who don’t tell the story of doctor who, this is obvious from just reading them.
    You don’t see any book exploring a concept like time lord victorious, for example, without the TV show showing it first.
    What it does do is show things that are in the universe of doctor who, but that does not necessarily mean they are relevant to the story. Half of the spin-offs don’t even have the doctor in. And Lucas doesn’t control star wars canon. That’s Chee.

  100. Anonymous

    I think people are blurring the issue here. As far as the tv show Doctor Who is concerned, there is no “canon” in the sense that people apply it to Sherlock Holmes. However, there are rules about what they can and can’t reference. The tv show Doctor Who must have a self-contained continuity, and the production team can’t expect the viewers to have read/listened to etc. spin-offs. Characters/plotlines from spin-offs introduced in spin-offs can’t be brought into the show. Plotline resolutions in spin-off media don’t count, and are often resolved in totally different ways in the tv show. The BBC have never mandated whether the spin-off media “actually happened”, but as far as the tv show is concerned, that’s a moot point. Since it can’t crossover with or even acknowledge the spin-off media.

  101. Anonymous

    To quote “anonymous” above me…

    “…it can’t crossover with or even acknowledge the spin-off media.”

    Why on earth can’t it acknowledge it?

    I understand that the BBC Charter forbids the BBC writing a story for TV where pivotal understanding of that story revolves around having read such box or heard such audio (which involves making a purchase of merchandise).

    But if the Doctor were to casually, off the cuff make reference to (chooses a purposefully provocative subject) “Looming”, as long as not know what “looming” is doesn’t spoil the enjoyment/understanding of that TV episode – then where’s the harm? Doesn’t mean everyone has to rush out and read Lungbarrow.


  102. Anonymous

    Whenever something non continuity like came up, I just said: “Time can be rewritten”, or “Well that’s Doctor Who for you”… =P

  103. Shan

    There’s a few good examples of history in flux in the TV show, the whole 3rd Doctor story “The Day of the Daleks” is one, where we get that famous Limitation Effect mentioned, then there’s the scene from “The Pyramids of Mars” which showed why they couldn’t just just back to the 1980s without doing anything.

    There’s an excellent non Doctor Who scifi book called “The Fall of Chronopolis” that really showed this principle in action.

  104. Brady

    I have the theory that all those other doctors (Cushing, Martin, Banks, Shalka, and COFD) happen in a third Regen cycle, but Cushing doctor and the others used a chameleon arch. I know there are many other doctors that just appear in like one comic each, and they’re in that cycle too. This whole DiT is not continuity is not true. A Fix with Sontarans could be continuity now, since that new IDW comic where Doctor Who as a show exists in a parallel universe.

  105. Anonymous

    Various stories(Dead Romance, Zagreus, Spiral Scratch, others) establish that the various Doctor Who stories are not all taking place in the same continuity. There may be a single television Doctor, but there is not a single character called “The Doctor”. There are Doctors existing across multiple universes. It’s silly to say that the television story “The Daleks” is real, while the novelisation and/or the Peter Cushing movie aren’t. It’s idiotic to say that “Rose” counts but “Scream of the Shalka” doesn’t. And it’s downright imbecilic to dismiss the entirety of the TV Comics/Countdown strips because of revelations that were made decades AFTER those strips.

    If it’s official licensed Doctor Who it’s canonical. It may not necessarily fit in neatly with anything else, but some single stories can’t even remain consistent within themselves.

  106. Anonymous

    You’re completely wrong about why fandoms like having canon.

    It’s a matter of suspension of disbelief. If a series has no internal consistency, it’s very, very jarring for some people; it totally ruins immersion.

    You’re wrong about Atlantis, by the way, there’s absolutely nothing irreconcilable about the adventures in question; two take place in completely different times (1500ish BC and the 1960s), and the third is a comment made by a villain. While the classic series did have its moment of discontinuity, it never broke continuity as brutally as revival series Who did.

  107. Anonymous

    Yes, fans(and indeed people) like everything to fit together coherently. And it would be lovely if all Doctor Who ever all fit together with no problems.

    Unfortunately, that is not the case. It’s not just that two different ranges may contradict each other, it’s that two different stories may contradict each other. In fact, there are cases where two different stories by the same author in the same range may contradict each other.

    And as soon as you make a statement on canon, you are stating that you believe that one story is somehow more important or more valid than another. You may get this to work by elevating the television episodes over non-television media, but even within the television series there are continuity problems.

  108. Matt Gauck

    As for any issues of Cannonicity I always use the Fannon definiton which is “If you think it’s cannon than so it shall be!” you can debate why something is in your personal cannon but doesn’t have to exist in someone elses.

    Also when it comes to anythin WHO related I always follow what Ten said, “Wibbley Wobbley, Timey Wimey” there is no cause and effect when time is fluid.

  109. The Deconstruction of Time | Escape to Adventure!

    […] (George Roddenberry, George Lucas et al), telling fans what counts in the universe.  As Paul Cornell argues, it’s about power and authority.  It’s about trying to make people think in a certain […]

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