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For some fans of certain characters, stories or franchises, continuity and canon are everything; it’s not enough to watch/read/enjoy the adventures of favorite fictional heroes on a story-by-story basis, especially when there’s the wider question of when it takes place relative to everything else to be answered, and also how this affects that. But… how important is continuity, really?
I ask because I’ve been reading a couple of things lately that have made me realize that those who enjoy the various stories seem to care about the dual C words far more than those who build said fictional worlds; a book about Star Trek merchandise reveals that Gene Roddenberry’s attitude towards Trek canon was a perpetually evolving thing, and a somewhat fickle one that apparently worked on a basis of “If I liked it, it’s canon, and if I didn’t – or we could up with something contradictory that’s better – then it’s not” (The majority of the third season of the original Trek, apparently, wasn’t considered canon by Roddenberry because he thought it was silly, which – Hey! now we all have a reason to ignore “Spock’s Brain,” and that can only be a good thing, right?). The creators of Frasier, too, had a “It’s canon until we need something else” attitude according to Top of The Rock, the oral history of NBC’s Must-See TV; Frasier’s father died in an episode of Cheers, with that fact happily ignored for years after it was decided that he was needed for the spin-off to work successfully (It was eventually written off with the explanation that he hadn’t died; Frasier had lied when he’d told people that).
Reading those two anecdotes so close together really got me wondering whether continuity is an entirely overrated, anal concept. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the idea of “consistency, not continuity,” something I first heard in relationship to DC Comics’ willingness to fudge the details of history if it made for a better story, as long as the basic set-up isn’t too wildly contradicted. That’s pretty close to my own take on the subject, although I also find myself hewing close to the Roddenberry school of “If you like it, it counts, and if you don’t, well… That’s up to you. And yet… those two ideas feel especially alien to the direction in which popular genre storytelling is going, these days.
Perhaps we should blame it on Lost, the series that popularized an especially anal approach to storytelling (and viewing); details couldn’t really be fudged, there, because you could never tell what was a mistake and what a clue to be picked up on later. Lost pushed serial storytelling mainstream in a way that nothing had managed successfully since… Buffy, maybe? In the process, though, continuity became increasingly important with all the cross-time storytelling and the clues laid for fans to pick up on throughout the entire series. In movies, too, the success of the Marvel Studios pictures have created a cross-movie continuity akin to the comic continuity which is simultaneously impressive – You did it! It’s possible! – and depressing – You did it! Now more people can get really anal about Thor happening before The Incredible Hulk, for no immediately obvious reason!
Continuity, I suspect, is used these days as fan service; a way of rewarding those who are paying attention with “easter eggs” and in jokes and connections that other people can miss. When I put it like that, it seems harmless and fun, really; who wouldn’t want to leave some extra hidden value in these things for their audience? But even with the best of intentions, I worry that continuity will eventually become a straitjacket for creators, preventing the kinds of leaps of imagination and logic that have created some of our favorite moments in television, movies and elsewhere in the past; things will become off-limits because continuity demands it be so. If we as viewers can pretend that stories never happened, is it really that much to wish for a return to the days when creators ignored everything they’d done whenever the story called for it?