Saturday, December 07, 2013

Doctor Who: 2009

Episode 754: The Waters of Mars
First broadcast 7 pm on Sunday, 15 November 2009
<< back to 2008

"What do I know?"
The Doctor and Adelaide, The Waters of Mars
First, a little etymological history.

The word cane - as in sugar cane - gets its name from the Greek kanon, a reed. These reeds grew straight, and one theory is that, in ancient times, they were used to measure stuff. As a result, they were associated with standards or ways of doing things properly. A 'canon' meant a kind of rule.

Nowadays, generally, 'canon' refers to the rules of a religion, and specifically Christian religion. It's used to define the books of the Bible that make up the official scripture, as opposed to the Apocrypha which - according to those that make the rules - don't carry the same weight. In the early Christian Church, there seems to have been a distinction made between canons - the rules of the Church - and legislation enacted by the state. Today, canon law is decided on and enforced by church authorities (here's a handy link to Wikipedia: Canon law (Catholic Church) if you'd like to know more).

How is this relevant to Doctor Who, you ask. Well, it isn't really.

But in 1911, as the Doctor battled Sutekh, the Catholic priest Monsignor Knox gave a paper called "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes", which attempted to devise biographies of Holmes and Watson as if they were real people. In doing so, it sought to explain the inconsistencies in the various Holmes stories written by Arthur Conan-Doyle. Wikipedia says Knox used the word "canon" to differentiate the Holmes stories by Doyle from those written by anyone else, though I can't see that in the text of his paper. But the "canon" came to mean those stories Doyle himself wrote.

This distinction didn't help with the inconsistencies: in the 40 years that Doyle wrote his four novels and 56 stories about Holmes, he forgot Watson's first name, what part of his body was wounded and even the details of who he was married to. There are also a number of Holmes stories by Doyle that are not considered part of the canon - largely, it seems, because they don't take Holmes very seriously.

So the distinction of canon is not about quality so much as agreeing the boundaries for the game of treating the stories as real and dealing with the inconsistencies. But the effect is to suggest that Doyle's stories matter more than anyone else's. It gives him, as creator, authority.

The same value judgement exists in efforts to compile a canon of Western culture - which has often proved controversial because of that question of authority. Who determines which books and artworks matter more than others? It's useful having a reading list for students, but a canon is likely to show the prejudice and preference of whoever compiles it.

Where there is a clear authority to rule on the matter, things ought to be easier. The official Star Trek website explained in 2003:
"As a rule of thumb, the events that take place within the live-action episodes and movies are canon, or official Star Trek facts. Story lines, characters, events, stardates, etc. that take place within the fictional novels, video games, the Animated Series, and the various comic lines have traditionally not been considered part of the canon. But canon is not something set in stone; even events in some of the movies have been called into question as to whether they should be considered canon! Ultimately, the fans, the writers and the producers may all differ on what is considered canon and the very idea of what is canon has become more fluid, especially as there isn't a single voice or arbiter to decide. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was accustomed to making statements about canon, but even he was known to change his mind."
That's still a lot of wiggle room, but the website has also changed its mind: that answer has been removed, and those in charge of Star Trek seem less keen to dictate what does and doesn't count. That may be something to do with the recent Star Trek movies, which have seemingly rewritten history so that all the previous films and TV shows (except one) never happened. I can understand why fans, devoted to those films and TV shows, might not like that.

Instead, the trend seems to be more and more for what's called, not very elegantly, "head canon" - that everyone's free to decide on their own canon of what does and doesn't count in a franchise. Hmm.

Which brings me to Doctor Who. I have a vested interest here because I write Doctor Who books, comics and audio plays but have not written for the TV show. As a result, I'm haunted by the words that someone's spent an awful lot of time applying throughout Wikipedia:
"As with all spin-off media, the canonical status is debatable".
The thing is, there's never been a canon of Doctor Who. No one in authority has made a definitive statement on what does and doesn't count. It would be hard to work out who would be in authority over Doctor Who anyway - does a current head writer or producer get to dictate the terms of use over previous eras of the show? Does the BBC today get to make a rule that Peter Cushing doesn't count as the Doctor when, in the mid-1960s, it was happy to license those films?

In fact, those in charge of making the show seem keen not to make any rules about what does and doesn't count. As I observed about Rose, the interior doors of the TARDIS since 2005 seem to steal from the Cushing films, just as the TV show has mined the books, audio plays and comics - and vice versa.

There are those who claim this is the TV show superseding the spin-off media, but there are times when what's done in the spin-offs is carried through to the TV show. (I gave the erstwhile Brigadier a knighthood in spin-off story The Coup; he was still Sir Alistair when he returned to TV.)

I particularly like a moment from the brilliant The Waters of Mars, where outgoing head writer Russell T Davies is careful not to bind the hands of his successor. The story hinges on the Doctor not being able to change the events of a key moment in history - what he calls a "fixed point in time". We're quickly and inexpensively shown history being rewritten as if it were a page on Wikipedia.

But look how, a few scenes before that, the Doctor undercuts his own authority:
"This moment, this precise moment in time, it's like. I mean, it's only a theory, what do I know, but I think certain moments in time are fixed. Tiny, precious moments. Everything else is in flux, anything can happen, but those certain moments, they have to stand. This base on Mars with you, Adelaide Brooke, this is one vital moment. What happens here must always happen."
The Doctor, in The Waters of Mars by Russell T Davies and Phil Ford (2009).
It's what he believes, it's what matters for this story but it isn't necessarily a rule.

I think the same is true of The Day of the Doctor. Steven Moffat reveals that the Doctor never destroyed Gallifrey but, as far as the Ninth and Tenth Doctors are concerned, they did. All the effect on the character, all that emotional punch, remains and yet history is changed.

I'd argue that that is the opposite of what the new Star Trek films have done, and is all the better for it. That ending feels especially clever because it retains the past it rewrites. It's both having the cake and eating it.

If those in charge don't dictate a canon, then there isn't a canon at all. You might want a canon of your own, but you lack the authority to impose it on anyone else - and if that's the case, is there any point in having it in the first place?

Besides, Doctor Who is better when none of us own it - even the people making it do so on trust - and we have to share.

Next episode: 2010


Tony said...


Nice piece which I have cited over on mine own blog:

There I wonder if the open source model for software might be analogous to a world where ownership of Doctor Who is with the community


Alec Brownie said...

"That may be something to do with the recent Star Trek movies, which have seemingly rewritten history so that all the previous films and TV shows (except one) never happened."

No, the newer films take place in a parallel universe created by time travel. The original timeline still exists separately. This was stated pretty definitively in the 2009 film. The problem is that fans don't like this new timeline nearly as much, so the franchise went back to the original one with "Discovery" and "Picard". But the divergent universe still exists as well.