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About The C Word (No, The Other C Word)

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?


  • UbiquitousKyte
  • MichaelSacal

    it was important enough for you to write an article about it.

    The principal opponents of it are writers who cannot be bothered with it that campaign against it, as if their repulsion for it were enough to turn readers off to it.

    In the 13 years I’ve been online that has not worked, and it probably never will.

  • Rock69

    Graeme your world is so black and white is uncanny. It seems all said was “Continuity is good but it’s really bad”. What is the point of this? Continuity has never prevented reboots has it? Look at Amazing Spider-Man and First Class.

    Another pointless article.

  • Jodum

    I’m glad “the other C word” wasn’t “colostomy.” I didn’t want to read about that.

  • ATK

    It really boils down to quality. If something is entertaining and is done right I can over look a lack of continuity. For example I don’t hear a lot of people conplaining about the Dark Knight Rises, as far as continuity goes between comic characters and what was on screen there is a hugh difference but they made it fun, entertaining and left us wanting more, so who the hell cares. I do apparantly because that wasn’t Bane or Robin. I enjoyed the film but I did walk out going “wow that was good but could they not break Christain Bale out of his ‘flowers of war’ character or what?”

    It also depends on the show. If the show is story driven then continuity is important, or if a show is doing a multi episode arc. But take Community, I could care less for continuity and would love more meta. I’m pretty sure they mention Jeff being fired from his lawyer job twice a season just so the Continuity fanatics (mainly you Graeme) feel the story is progressing. I really want the show to go past 4 seasons just to see if they try and justify the reason for more than 4 years in a Community college or if they will would just gloss over it and have fun with the show.

  • Ziggy Blumenthal

    An someone give me a single example of a good story made even better by ignoring or contradicting continuity?

    And I don’t mean fans thinking “character A would never act like that!” That’s just an opinion. I mean a noticeable act of disregard for what’s happened in previous story to make a better story. Or a worse story for that matter. To be honest, whether it TV or comics, as much as this is talked about I rarely, if ever, see it actually happen. At worst all I’ve ever seen is small continuity glitches that seem more the result of a writer not remembered the events exactly than actively throwing them out.

    I really don’t think this is as big a problem as its sometimes made out to be.