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Does Something Have to Be Canonical to Be Good?

Illustration for article titled Does Something Have to Be Canonical to Be Good?

Halloa and well met, people on my post-apocalyptic mail route! Not gonna lie, this week’s group of questions forced me to think extra hard about canon vs. quality, why America doesn’t care about Judge Dredd, if Back to the Future’s Doc Brown is a time-traveling hypocrite, and more. Hopefully it’s worth it! (For you, I mean. I have a big headache and need to lie down.)


Discovery Channeled


So another week has gone and another tidbit of Star Trek: Discovery news has caused the fandom to lose their shit. The same old comments get their airing (“I’m not paying CBS to watch this show - I *deserve* free Star Trek” etc.) but the latest image of what appears to be radically redesigned Klingons have caused yet more so-called fans to decry the new series. Some say it breaks canon, some say the whole thing will be a mess and a disaster.

Now, I know that bitching about stuff is a geek’s very lifeblood but it has surprised me how so few Trekkies appear to give this show the benefit of the doubt! We’re getting a new Star Trek TV show! This is literally what the fandom has been clamoring for ever since Enterprise came off the air. But because it’s not the exact same series many fans had in their heads they seem affronted by the very idea of Discovery.

I’m not sure I see the problem with bending or even breaking the canon if we get better Star Trek out of it. But I get the impression that the most vocal Trekkies are so beholden to the canon that they don’t care. Why is canon so canonized?


Hoo boy.

Okay. First, let’s posit that Star Trek fans are somewhat in a bit of a special position here. As you said, they’re getting their first, original universe Trek TV series since 2005, and arguably their first good TV series since Voyager went off the air in 2001. That’s a lot of time, which means a lot of anticipation. Because they don’t know when—or if—they’ll get another Trek series in the old universe, they desperately crave Discovery to be as “perfect” as possible. But really, what is a perfect Star Trek show? We barely know anything about it, so we can’t judge it on its own merits. The only real way to measure it, at the moment, is by how much it adheres to the Trek universe’s canon.

You are correct when you say that adhering to canon doesn’t equate a better show—that’s a false equivalency. I mean, remember how in the original Star Trek show, Klingons had smooth foreheads, but in The Next Generation, their foreheads were all ridgy? That is a major continuity error, canon-wise, and yet I think we can all agree that it didn’t affect TNG’s overall quality at all. But even TNG felt the need to address the Klingon Forehead Conundrum and explain the difference so it made sense—more or less—in the canon. (I’m not gonna get into it here, but it’s delightfully wacky.) The canon is very important to the vast majority of Trek fans, just like other canons are important to their fans, and there’s a reason most people think “canonical” equals “good.”

Think of it this way: By being an overall Star Trek fan, you are declaring yourself a fan of Star Trek as a singular entity. You might like certain shows and movies in there, you may hate others, but if you still call yourself a Trekkie at the end of the day it’s because you love the Star Trek universe setting and history and, well, the gestalt of it. What better represents the idea, the totality of Star Trek, other than its canon? If you’ve invested a great deal of time and emotion into a franchise over multiple TV shows and movies, some of which were actually pretty bad, and you still think of yourself as a Star Trek fan, what do you love but the canon?


There’s actually an answer to this, but it’s one for which fans often fail to see the distinction. As you’ve noted, fans complained about any deviation from the canon, but what they really want is good Star Trek. They just have the notion—and understandably so—that if Discovery adheres to canon, it will be good. They’re right to the degree that a Trek show that adheres to canon is an indication the staff respects the franchise and thus the fans, which is a good sign. Also, a respectful Trek show is the next best thing is to a good one.

Conversely, if the people making the show don’t adhere to canon, then it’s easy to presume that they don’t care enough about the franchise or its fans to bother to stick to it, and that’s a poor omen for the show. Sure, there are people who could change/ignore the canon and use it to tell an amazing Star Trek story. I believe former Discovery showrunner and huge Trek fan Bryan Fuller was absolutely one of those people, but CBS decided to move forward on Discovery without him. So now everything about the show is going to be scrutinized and possible difference taken as a sign Discovery is going to suck.


Again, this is a false equivalency, but these fans have a lot riding on this show. They’d be nervous even if it were still in Fuller’s hands—one of the greatest showrunners working today, in my opinion—and without him, everything that seems different from the canon seem a portent of doom. Hopefully when the series finally arrives, the characters and stories will be good enough that fans can accept what may be different, and enjoy what’s new.

Illustration for article titled Does Something Have to Be Canonical to Be Good?

Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal

Funky J:

Dear Mr Postman,

Will the trope of “hero becoming a villain” ever die?

The biggest one in comics at the moment is Steve Rogers, but it’s also in Legends of Tomorrow currently, and has been in The Flash, Agents of Shield, and so on.

It’s becoming tired and clichéd as hell.

I’ve got some bad news for you. It’s one of the oldest tropes in the book. It has some variations—good guy actually turns evil, good guy is forced to do evil by evil person, good guy pretends to be evil for unknown reason, evil person replaces good person and no one realizes—but it’s standard across the board. And I’m not just talking comics books; any long-running entertainment has busted this out one way or another, especially genre entertainment and soap operas. It happens all the time.


Batman and Superman have been brainwashed into being evil almost constantly. Susan Storm was possessed by a demon for a while and wore the world’s worst supervillain costume. Thor, Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Fist, pretty much every Horseman of Apocalypse… they’ve all been turned evil against their will. Hell, the cute dragon’s mind got taken over by the big dragon in How to Train Your Dragon 2. You know what? This goes all the way back to Hercules, when Hera made him crazy, and he went and murdered his wife (and his kids, sometimes). When he snapped out of it, he felt so terrible he performed his 12 Labors to make up for it.

It’s a tale as old as time, and when you need to pump out a new story every month (or week) seeing a hero be bad contains instant drama and shock-value. It’s been used forever, it’s being used constantly, and it will continue to be used regularly as long as serialized content exists. Sorry about that!


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What’s Up, Doc?

Ron M.:

Mr. Future Postman:

In the Back to the Future trilogy, we know Doc Brown had the DeLorean hover-converted on his first trip to the future. When Marty goes to 2015, he sees a digital billboard advertising hover-conversion for $39,999.95. Now, Doc mentioned that he’d spent his entire family fortune building the time machine, which is why we see him living in a garage at that point. So my question is: where did Doc get the $40K? He couldn’t have put it on his credit card, which would presumably have expired some 30 years earlier. Did he carry that much in cash with him into the future? (We do see him pull out a small briefcase filled with “emergency cash” from different decades later on, though that raises questions of its own.)

We know Doc isn’t above making some shady deals, since he also conned a group of terrorists out of their plutonium, so I’m wondering if there were some time-travel shenanigans going on here, despite Doc’s claim that he “didn’t invent the time machine for financial gain.” Any theories?


There’s no telling what a man who was willing to work with terrorists to fund his mad science would stoop to. At best I figure he grabbed whatever cash had had sitting around in 1985 and put it into a bank account, and then picked it up (with interest!) in 2015. But that probably still wouldn’t cover $40k.

I think it’s much more likely that Doc did more or less exactly what Biff did: he went to the future, got some relevant info—like game results he could go back to the past and bet on, or found out some hit stocks in 2015, and then bought shares in 1985—to make himself rich.


Now you may think this hypocritical of Doc to cheat his way into a fortune, or for risking altering the timeline by pulling effectively the same stunt Bill did. But really, Doc Brown really doesn’t give a shit about altering the timeline as long as it benefits himself or his friends (mostly himself). He had no problem saving his own life from those terrorists. He brought Marty specifically to 2015 to change the timeline in regards to his terrible kids. And then he decided to live the rest of his life in 1885, and perhaps it’s somewhat possible having a 20th-century genius in the Old West might have changed something in the future

However! If there’s a discrepancy here, it’s that Doc told Marty in 2015 not to bring back that sports almanac to the past, which would have obviously benefitted him. But I think Doc thinks he’s the only one who can pull this junk without majorly or negatively affecting the timeline. Certainly jerks like Biff can’t; he abused that sports almanac so much he basically became Trump and turned 1985 into a dystopia. This probably extended to Marty as well; sure, he’s a good kid, but if he was willing to ruin his life if someone called him a “chicken,” how could he be trusted with amassing a full fortune? Marty was trying to get rich behind Doc’s back, and almost certainly would have fucked something important up.


To Doc’s credit, he seems to have only made enough money so he could get cool upgrades for the DeLorean and amazingly terrible sunglasses. He doesn’t mind messing with things as long as it doesn’t affect the overall timeline. (Especially when it benefits himself.)

Honestly, Doc Brown may be a hypocrite, but the evidence bears him out. No one else can be trusted to mess with time other than himself. I think he and the Doctor would find they had a lot in common, assuming they didn’t instantly feel the need to destroy the other.


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Filled With Dredd

Isocube Fugitive:

Dear Mr. Postman,

Over here, the British SF adventure magazine 2000 A.D. Is throwing a big bash to celebrate 40 years of existence. The magazine’s signature character Judge Dredd is still immensely popular in the U.K. Yet in the U.S., not so much. Would you have any idea why this is? I mean current events with a mentally unhinged American President and an increasingly militarized police force would seem to make Dredd’s adventures especially on point nowadays. And the series is set in a future America. So what gives?


Well, for one thing I can tell you that at the moment I’m having a real tough time watching anything set in a dystopia. Just like I imagine if you were in prison, you probably wouldn’t be thrilled to watch Orange is the New Black. This sucks—on a lot of levels, of course—but I was only halfway through season two of The Man in the High Castle, the second-half of which is supposed to be especially great. But for some weird reason, watching a show about fascists ruling America doesn’t really appeal to me right now.

As for Judge Dredd, he is simply Un-American. He doesn’t fit into our narrative needs. American entertainment venerates cops for protecting the innocent, maintaining order, and catching bad guys. But often—in our pop culture fiction—our police/military/authority figures usually see the law as getting in the way of doing their jobs, so they take matters into their own hands. And we the audience just love the hell out of that. There’s an enormous discussion to be had about how America loves heroes but not the law, but we won’t get into it here.


However, Judge Dredd is the law. (It’s true, I heard him say it once.) I know this has wavered in various 2000 AD stories and incarnations and so forth, but the essence of Dredd is that he follows and enforces the law, and nothing else. To put it in extremely nerdy D&D character alignment terms, U.S. heroes range from lawful good to chaotic good, but Dredd is lawful neutral. He cares only about order, and that just doesn’t hold as much appeal for Americans. We don’t like following the rules, and we often imagine rules are somehow bad and need to be broken.

And I think Dredd makes a lot of us uncomfortable, too, since his morality is such a question mark. We don’t really like examining our morality. We like assuming we’re doing the right thing all the time, even if civilization/the social contract/basic human decency says otherwise. That way we don’t have to think about the consequences of our actions.


Man, I keep bumming myself out in this mail column. Yeesh.

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Jedha Rock City

Tim C.:

Hello brave traveler and fighter of rabid techno-wombats,

Whilst watching Rogue One I was struck by a thought. The city of Jedha has a dirty great Star Destroyer parked above it at the start, yes? What the hell is keeping it hovering there? Big rockets would flame the town. Even some sort of anti-grav engines would produce enough opposite thrust to crush the city surely. Newton says so. Out in space I can buy any form of propulsion to be honest, but parked in the air about half a mile above a major population? How???


Let me give you two answers. The first is: Repulsorlifts. They let everything from speederbikes to landspeeders to crates to small ships like the Millennium Falcon to Star Destroyers hover. The technology hasn’t been detailed in the new canon, but since we know Jedha City wasn’t destroyed by the giant starship hovering above it, we can infer that however the hell they work they don’t emit any kind of downward thrust that crushes everything below them. We are seeing the effects; we know the cause; so whatever technology connects the two is clearly different from ones you can conventionally wrap your head around.

The second answer, and arguably the better answer, is that “all Star Wars technology works in the way that helps tell the best, coolest story.” It’s why starships basically don’t use fuel (it’s boring), why Death Star plans have to physically be carried across the galaxy from Scarif instead of being beamed directly to Yavin, and why there’s something that allows spaceships to have hangers that open directly into space but that ships can also fly into (dealing with the mechanics of depressurizing spacecraft is slow and boring) but spaceships still explode in the vacuum of space (it looks cool).


Unlike Star Trek and most other scifi, Star Wars doesn’t get bogged down in the science, which is what makes it so fun (for most people). Who gives a shit how lightsabers turn a laser into a blade? They’re awesome. If the cartoons and books and even Rogue One and so forth had never mentioned Kyber crystals, lightsabers would never have stopped being awesome. Sure, we could have gotten a one-minute explanation of how that Star Destroyer was looming over Jedha City, but that’s not enjoyable. Star Wars always gets to the interesting/cool/fun/important bits as soon as possible. Besides, if we’re adding extra minutes to Rogue One, I’d much rather have used them to learn more about the other heroes.

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Harvey D’ont

Burtonian Institute:

Dear Postman,

This isn’t really a question, but I was doing a Google Image search on the Jet Screamer episode of The Jetsons for reasons (oh, all right, I found out that The Violent Femmes did an awesome cover of “Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah”), and the title card for the episode came up, and, well, any thoughts on that by-line?


Thanks to the eternal time-shifting of comic books, which causes the years of characters’ births to keep rising so that their current characters can continually remain the same age in the comics, right now a 47-year-old Harvey Bullock would have been born in 1970. Now, despite the original Jetsons TV cartoon running from 1962-63—and this blew my mind—apparently new episodes were made from 1985-87, which means a preternaturally talented Bullock, dreaming of making it in Hollywood, could theoretically have mailed in and sold scripts to Hanna-Barbara.

Well, assuming this episode, “A Date With Jet Screamer,” hadn’t aired on September 30, 1962. So that’s a no-go.


However, thanks to the utterly insane 1940s/80s/00s nightmare mash-up timeframe that Gotham exists in, I think it’s entirely possible that Harvey Bullock was a former scriptwriter for The Jetsons, who possibly lost his job for selling erotic pictures of Judy Jetson on the side, and was forced to get work at a place where they would hire anybody, regardless of lack of commitment or talent, which of course would be the Gotham City Police Department. And to be fair, Bullock writing Hanna-Barbera cartoons wouldn’t even be in the top 30 most insane things that have happened on Gotham so far.

This week’s “Postal Apocalypse” was late again, because I keep answering too many questions, which means I’m also nearly out of mail! I beg of thee, send your queries, mysteries, disputes that need resolving, advice that needs to be given, etc. to, please! If “Postal” doesn’t run next week I blame you!


Rob Bricken was the Editor of io9 from 2016-18, the creator of the poorly named but fan-favorite news site Topless Robot, and now writes nerd stuff for many places, because it's all he's good at.

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Biff taking future knowledge to affect how much money he had in the past is off limits.

Doc Brown sinking away money in the past to affect how much money he has in the present is OK.

It’s a very clear distinction. I don’t see the problem.