Canon

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Canon is a fan-based idea that exists in a unique way within the Doctor Who fandom. The degree to which the concept can be defined meaningfully for Doctor Who media is a subject of long-standing debate, but it is most commonly summarised as what a fan considers, or "ought" to consider, to form part of the Doctor Who universe — which sources describe events that "really happened" in this imaginary construct, and which do not. Despite this being a personal choice, it has been discussed and argued about in practically every Doctor Who-related forum or message board that has existed on the internet.

A literary canon of Doctor Who[[edit]]

In academic theory, "canon" refers to a body of work in an established body of literature that can be drawn upon by future instalments in the same broader tradition. In this sense, Doctor Who objectively has a canon, in the sense of later stories drawing upon the concepts and imagery of earlier works.[1]

A good demonstration of this principle may be the mythos of Peter Cushing's Dr. Who; Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., due to being retellings of the TV stories The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth which brazenly contradicted the televised version of events, are often considered "extra-canonical" in the continuity sense of the term. However, these stories still "exist" and have not been ignored by even the BBC; a short story starring this Dr. Who notably appeared in the BBC Books short story anthology Short Trips and Side Steps featuring Dr Who,[2] and critics have noted clear influences by the movies on the imagery of the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who, from the vibrant colour of the Doctor's TARDIS to the fairy-tale atmosphere to even the details of Matt Smith's physical performance as the Doctor owing something to Cushing's.[3][4]

As a narrative history, the fact that it exists is enough to consider it "part of the canon", in the sense that elements might make their way into future productions. The Dalek spacecraft of The Daleks were worked into CGI replacement shots on the DVD of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and then further into television stories such as The Parting of the Ways. Again, this in an example of narrative continuity within the show rather than as an established canon.

In-universe canonicity[[edit]]

Acknowledgement by the BBC — or lack thereof[[edit]]

Unlike the principal rights-holders of other popular science-fiction and fantasy universes, such as Star Trek, Star Wars or Lord of the Rings universes, the British Broadcasting Corporation has never made a pronouncement about what is or is not canon for Doctor Who.[5]

In 1999, Big Finish Productions secured the licence to produced Doctor Who audio dramas. Stephen Cole was appointed as executive producer for the BBC to oversee Big Finish's content. In Doctor Who Magazine issue 275, Cole said of Big Finish:

As far as the BBC is concerned, these new stories are seen as part of the official Doctor Who canon. A great deal of responsibility comes with that status, and Worldwide did not assign this licence without careful thought.Stephen Cole [DWM 275 [src]]

Shortly after he brought Doctor Who back to television in 2005, Russell T Davies said that "canon" was a word not used in his production office. He also stated that making the purchase of non-televised stories required to understand the TV series would break the guidelines of the BBC Charter:

Maybe old fans will be puzzled, wondering if the Novels' War has now become part of the Doctor's televised adventures. ('Is it canon?' they will ask, using a word which has never been used in the production office, not once, not ever.)
[...] this War, the Time War, is brand new and belongs to you, the viewer. This actually highlights something unique about Doctor Who in the world of sci-fi and fantasy: the fact that it's made by a Public Service Broadcaster, and is paid for by you, the licence-fee payer. As a consequence of this status, the BBC has to be very careful with its merchandising. We're happy for you to enjoy the Doctor off-screen, and read the new Novels, and play with a toy or two, if you want, but we must never, ever make that purchase necessary. That would crack the BBC's Charter in half. We cannot, must not, demand that you buy a product. [...] To spell it out: if you had to buy a BBC Novel in order to understand the plot, as transmitted on BBC One, then we would be breaking the BBC's guidelines.Russell T Davies [DWM 356 [src]]

Even when specifying that the television show was going to contradict certain revelations about Time Lord history and biology from the Virgin New Adventures, Steven Moffat declared that those novels were "a separate" but "equally valid continuity".[6]

A rare exception to this is in regards to video games: in August 2010, a BBC press release stated that, in Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, "Players will encounter new and original monsters, in stories which form part of the overall Doctor Who canon".[7] Similarly, in July 2018, BBC Studios announced that, with games like Doctor Who Infinity, they would be "taking content from our major brands and delivering gaming experiences that actually form part of the canon. It's not led from TV series it comes to the game first."[8]

Another factor regarding the BBC's lack of an "official canon" for Doctor Who is that the BBC would simply not have the proper authority to declare one, as they do not, strictly speaking, own the Doctor Who universe; while they control the trademark "Doctor Who" and the copyright of a handful of key concepts and characters (such as the Doctor, the TARDIS or the Time Lords), a staggering amount of essential building blocks of the DWU are (or once were) in the control of individual rights-holders, including such elements K9, the Daleks or the War in Heaven mythos[9]. As Paul Cornell noted[5]

[The modern fandom notion 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 […] no council of Bishops.Paul Cornell

As close to executive non-canonisation as the BBC ever came was the effective "disowning" of the animated serial Scream of the Shalka over the course of its production.[disputed statement] 2003's Scream of the Shalka was to have been the continuation of Doctor Who, with Richard E Grant promoted as the "new" Ninth Doctor, and was written in that spirit;[10] The BBC's first edition of Doctor Who: The Legend even has several pages which details the "Ninth Doctor".[11] However, some time before release, plans for Russell T Davies's live-action revival of the series kicked into gear and prompted the BBC to cease all advertising of the "Shalka Doctor" soon after, due to the understanding that Russell T Davies intended to cast his own Ninth Doctor.

Discussion among authors[[edit]]

In the 1996 book The Completely Useless Encyclopedia, a parodical and tongue-in-cheek encyclopaedia of Doctor Who, stated that "hordes of fans procured [Shada] from the BBC archives and practically treated it as canonical".

In the foreword fo The Nth Doctor, Jean-Marc Lofficier argued for the "canonicity" of even the unproduced 1990s script for a Doctor Who movie, although granting that the concept was "subjective". According to him, their occasional contradictions, albeit radical, to earlier stories, should not overshadow their clear intent to serve as continuations to the TV series, and, coupled with their having been approved by the BBC, this should allow them to stand as "canonical" to the same extent as other continuations like the Virgin New Adventures.

Argument about each 'Nth Doctor' script's degree of 'canonicity' will ultimately depend on each reader's own evaluation. (...) Since these scripts were not produced, their status as regards their 'canonicity' is highly subjective. However, one should bear in mind that these scripts wee fully licensed and approved by the BBC. The new elements that they proposed to introduce in the Doctor Who universe may often seem fairly radical, but (...) change, often radical change, has always been a respected tradition of Doctor Who. For these reasons I feel justified in treating the 'Nth Doctor' scripts as, at the very least, something closely related to main Doctor Who contnuity, not unlike the New Adventures.The Nth Doctor

Paul Magrs argued that a large issue when attempting to construct a definition of canon for Doctor Who is that it is never finished; between its many stories across practically every medium, Doctor Who has been in more or less constant production in one way or another since 1963. Some fans may want a complete narrative, but Doctor Who can never be complete; therefore "canon" is a non-starter.[12]

At a 2008 San Diego Comic-Con panel, Steven Moffat remarked, "It is impossible for a show about a dimension-hopping time traveller to have a canon", laying the foundation for one way for "all stories to be true": rampant time travel and dimension-jumping combined to allow seemingly-contradictory stories to make up a single reality.[13] Paul Cornell later wrote an essay on his blog in which he accused "canon" of being a reductive concept which primarily boils down to an excuse for fandom quarrels, highlighting how "‘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’." [5]

Echoing a similar sentiment, Nate Bumber released a short essay in which he compared the conception of canonicity in Doctor Who to the original context of terms such as "canonicity": the history of the Abrahamic religions.[14] Bumber's fellow Faction Paradox writer Jayce Black pioneered systematic use of the more positive term "canon-welding" in online Doctor Who circles, treating "canon" not as quantifiable data, but as raw material to be "welded" into new patterns of continuity.[15][16]

Via a meme, the official Big Finish account acknowledged in 2021 that canon tended to be good for causing arguments and little else.

Ian Winterton suggested in 2021 that if there were a definition of "Canon", it should boil down to "whatever can be accessed via the BBC Licence Fee" — but that this did not devalue spin-offs, "tangential" as their connection to the BBC's Doctor Who might be. Winterton, however, admitted in the same interview that his definition did not seem to be foolproof, considering references to non-TV media on television such as Abslom Daak's cameo in Time Heist or the Eighth Doctor's "regeneration speech" in The Night of the Doctor which mentioned a few of his Big Finish companions.[17] Big Finish themselves put out a joking tweet in March 2021, parodying the UK National Census with a question "Is it canon?" which was answered as "Other" rather than "Yes" or "No", and appended with a "helpful note" stating, "This question is going to cause an argument".[18]

John Dorney drew a distinction between "canon" and "continuity", in that each audience member is free to choose which stories to accept in their personal continuity, whereas canon simply means "the recognised ‘official’ body of work. That ‘generally regarded as true’."[19] "I don’t have a ‘personal canon’. I think the canon exists and it’s basically all the TV episodes, as they’re basically what everyone agrees on. I have a ‘personal continuity’, which includes the audios, the books, the DWM strips. No idea how they fit, but they’re in there."[20]

In April 2021, Nicholas Briggs responded to a fan who about whether the Big Finish audio stories were canon, with Nicholas stating outright, albeit in a unserious way, that the stories were canon.[21]

Writer Scott Gray later stated on his Twitter account that "all [of] Doctor Who is canon. Even the TV show."[22]

In October 2021, Chris Farnell made comments on Twitter referring to his two Doctor Who tie-in novels, Knock! Knock! Who's There? and Time Traveller's Diary, as "canon".[23][24]

In October of 2022, Faction Paradox and Iris Wildthyme writer Blair Bidmead stated that there was "no canon".[25]

In November of 2022, prolific Doctor Who writer Cavan Scott replied to concerns about whether the novel At Childhood's End was still canonical in the wake of its contradiction by The Power of the Doctor with "Ah it’s still canon. Everything is canon and nothing is canon in Doctor Who!"[26]

In DWM 585, released on 8 December 2022, in a review of the late 2022 Character Options' 5" action figures sets, reviewer Greg Martin states that "[David] Bradley's Doctor was granted canonical status in 2017's Twice Upon a Time."[27]

By 2023, Davies acknowledged that fans often wrote their own "personal canon";[28] in response to SFX magazine asking Davies if Tales of the TARDIS was canonical, he responded that it "absolutely" was, although stating that some fans would be justified in deeming it non-canonical as it wasn't broadcast on BBC One.[29] In the same issue, Davies addressed his unwillingness to ignore Chris Chibnall's The Timeless Children [+]Loading...["The Timeless Children (TV story)"], stating that, among other things, it was canonical.[30]

Footnotes[[edit]]

  1. Elizabeth Sandifer (16 March 2011). You Were Expecting Someone Else II (1966 Annual, The Dalek Book, Dalek World). Eruditorum Press. Retrieved on 17 July 2018.
  2. Jon Preddle (December 2000). Short Trips and Side Steps: A Collection of Short Stories - Book review. NZDWFC. Retrieved on 22nd October 2011.
  3. LOOKING FOR TELOS – “Dr. Who and the Daleks”. Downtime (May 2020). Retrieved on 15th December 2020.
  4. You Were Expecting Someone Else? (Dr. Who and the Daleks). TARDIS Eruditorum (March 2011). Retrieved on 15th December 2020.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Paul Cornell (10 February 2007). Canonicity in Doctor Who. PaulCornell.com. Retrieved on 17 July 2018.
  6. DWM 482
  7. BBC unveils Doctor Who – The Adventure Games. BBC - Press Office (08.04.2010). Retrieved on 22nd October 2011.
  8. Marie Dealessandri (July 2018). BBC new ‘Gaming First’ initiative to turn game IPs into ‘bigger franchises’. mcvuk.com. Future Publishing. Retrieved on July 17, 2018.
  9. Downtime – The Lost Years of Doctor Who'.
  10. BBCi's Ninth Doctor. BBC - News. bbc.co.uk (11 July 2003). Archived from the original on August 15 2006. Retrieved on 22nd October 2011.
  11. The Legend.
  12. Magrs, Paul, (2007), "Afterword - My Adventures", Time and Relative Dissertations in Space, Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK, &, Room 400, New York, USA, p.302
  13. Teatime Brutality (23 July 2009). Canon and Sheep Shit: Why We Fight.. Teatime Brutality. Retrieved on 17 July 2018.
  14. Nate Bumber (14 March 2019). Untitled essay. On the Fringes of War. Retrieved on 15 December 2020.
  15. Jayce Black (December 2019). The Book of the Ceasefire. Professional Canon Welder.
  16. Jayce Black (April 2020). What is "The Book of the Ceasefire"?. Professional Canon Welder.
  17. Ian Winterton (19 February 2021). We're Cutaway Comics - AMA!. /r/doctorwho. Retrieved on 19 February 2021.
  18. Big Finish (22 March 2021). tweet!. the Big Finish Twitter account. Retrieved on 22 March 2021.
  19. John Dorney (9 March 2019). tweet!. Retrieved on 22 March 2021.
  20. John Dorney (9 March 2019). tweet!. Retrieved on 22 March 2021.
  21. Nicholas Briggs (26 April 2021). tweet. Nicholas Briggs' Twitter account via the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 1p December 2021.
  22. Scott Gray on Twitter
  23. Chris Farnell on Twitter via the Wayback Machine (1)
  24. Chris Farnell on Twitter vis the Wayback Machine (2)
  25. Blair Bidmead on Twitter
  26. Cavan Scott (8 November 2021). Everything is canon and nothing is canon. Cavan Scott on Twitter. Archived from the original on 8 November 2022.
  27. DWM 585
  28. DWM 597 - Letter from the Showrunner, Page 13
  29. SFX 372 - History Repeating, Page 44
  30. SFX 372 - Spilling the T, Page 28