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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

13 Comments

  1. Rob
    March 18, 2011 @ 8:14 am

    The thing is, if you throw away realism, then canon has no meaning anyway correct? The only reason why the concept of canon exists is for fans to construct a consistent reality in which the characters operate. If the Web Planet is a theatrical representation of what 'really' happened (rather than a fly on the wall), then if he is called "Doctor Who" or not is merely a device to fit the presentation and may or may not represent reality.

    While I'm by no means an expert, I prefer to define canon as the largest possible set of literature that is consistent and includes every broadcast BBC show (with preference given to other things coming from the producers/writers/etc.). I think it's completely reasonable for writers to be inspired by non-canon sources. Thus Davies commissioning Human Nature as an episode does not canonize that series or even that book itself.

    Certainly Dr. Who runs into problems with the wikipedia definition of canon since the fan fiction writers became writers for the show. Of course the TV show isn't self-consistent anyways, so there's that.

    Incidentally, although I'm not much of a stickler for canon, I had skipped over "Dr. Who and the Daleks" on my first pass since it was non-canon in my view. I watched it before I read your previous post and what struck me was how content the Doctor was to dismiss the Thals' pacifist convictions as silly.

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  2. BatmanAoD
    April 5, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

    I'm new to Who, having only been introduced to the series last summer and so far not having had time to watch any of the episodes from the show's original run, so I'm really not in any position to make a truly well-informed opinion regarding the issue of canon in the show. That said, it seems to me that Doctor Who has less of a canon than a mythology: to ask whether a particular story is "canon" seems akin to asking whether various stories regarding the birth of Aphrodite are part of the "canon" of Greek mythology, or whether Tolkien's Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun should be canonized or considered "mythological fan fiction." The Doctor is the stuff of Legend, of Fairy Tale (River's "Aren't we all?" is remarkably telling); his history is not a coherent narrative, but a multi-faceted mythos.

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  3. SK
    August 22, 2011 @ 2:35 am

    The problem only comes when people confuse 'canon' and 'continuity'.

    Of course Doctor Who has a canon: it's all the things that are officially licensed by the BBC. That is the only way to take the concept of a 'canon' (in the senses it's used in 'The Shakespeare canon' or 'The canon of Romantic Poetry') and use it in the same sentence as Doctor Who.

    So yes, the books are clearly part of the Doctor Who canon.

    This is not problematic. It only becomes problematic when people expect 'canon' to mean 'the set of things which actually happened in the fictional universe'. But this is trying to take a non-diegetic concept and drag it into some kind of diegetic state, which is madness. Yes, the books are canon. Does this mean that the 'really happened' to the Doctor? Of course not, or no more than any of the many mutually contradictory versions of the twenty-first century 'really happened'.

    Doctor Who canon is established and simple. It's Doctor Who continuity that doesn't exist, and anyone who doesn't understand this — who thinks that, 'Is it canon?' is a question even tangentially related to what they really mean, which is, 'Did this really happen in the fictional history of the fictional character Doctor Who?' just doesn't understand what a canon is.

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  4. BatmanAoD
    August 22, 2011 @ 5:09 am

    On the contrary, canon is a pretty widely-used synonym for continuity in that sense. In my opinion, you're just nitpicking semantics without any real reason to do so.

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  5. SK
    August 22, 2011 @ 7:42 am

    It's a widely-used in that way by ignorant people. Are you ignorant, m'boy? Hm? Hm?

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  6. BatmanAoD
    August 22, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

    "M'boy"? Could you please refrain from mocking me with colloquial diminutives? In any case, denying the validity of a common usage by claiming that anyone who uses it is "ignorant," without any explanation (etymological, structural, or otherwise) of why your usage is more correct, is simply absurd.

    Suppose, however, that you're right, and that "canon" is the wrong word. Why does this matter? It is irrelevant whether we call it "canon" or "continuity;" it should be obvious that Mr. Sandifer's analysis of the subject is relevant regardless of terminology.

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  7. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 22, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    Not to weigh in onto an amusing argument, but I would point out that the "m'boy? Hm? Hm?" was almost certainly meant as a pastiche of William Hartnell dialogue and not as actual mockery, and that SK's comment seemed to me wholly in good humor. 🙂

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  8. BatmanAoD
    August 22, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    Oh. Well, that makes sense, then, and I am significantly less insulted. Still, unsupported accusations of ignorance are not typically something I take lightly.

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  9. SK
    August 23, 2011 @ 1:47 am

    Exactly, Batfield. I mean Chesterman. And it matters because whether his analysis of the subject is relevant depends on what the subject is. If the subject is continuity, the analysis is relevant. If the subject is canon, that analysis is not relevant at all.

    And that matters from both directions. It matters from the canon side because there is a canon and there is a difference in what you study. Note that this very website subscribes to the canon in that it considers only official Doctor Who stories. The author discusses TV stories, movies, novels, annuals, and may go on to discuss audio plays… but does not discuss fan fiction, whether on the internet or in print, and I assume that if, say, the Stranger or the Dominie are mentioned it will either be in passing or in as one of those 'also at the time' articles.

    The one exception to this, the article on Campaign, goes out of its way to establish that though it was published unofficially, its official credentials are such that it really counts. Kinda. What is that but tacit acknowledgement of the different status of official and non-official media?Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non
    exceptis
    .

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  10. SK
    August 23, 2011 @ 1:48 am

    And from the continuity side, every time someone tries to claim that there is no continuity in Doctor Who because there is no agreement over which stories over 'canonical', they implicitly are saying that if there were a canon then we could make a single consistent history of the Doctor and the Universe. In other words by making the terms interchangeable, they imply that the two problems, of continuity and canonicity, are identical.

    But this is a simplistic and utterly wrong view. It rests on the premise that a canon cannot contradict itself, so if Doctor Who contradicts itself, it cannot have a canon. But in fact Doctor Who has a canon — that canon contradicts itself. And as this website continually points out, to miss this point is to misunderstand the nature of a weekly serial from the sixties where no one would remember than the year before they had visited this same year and it looked totally different. The simplistic view that equates canon and continuity (and that using the terms interchangeably implicitly supports) says that if two stories contradict each other, it must be because one, or both, are 'not canonical' (and the 'canon doesn't exist' solution is to say that the solution is that both are not canonical because nothing is canonical).

    But this is fundamentally indicative of a mindset that flees contradiction — that sees paradox as something to be avoided. That says that if you can't make two things consistent within the same system, the thing to do is abandon the idea of the system.
    Whereas the correct thing to do is not abandon the system, but revise your idea of the system to be one that can incorporate contradiction. Six irreconcilable versions of the twenty-first century? Saying 'oh well then there must be no canon' is the reaction of a mind that can't cope with just saying 'okay, so the canon contains contradictions, and that's okay'.

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  11. SK
    August 23, 2011 @ 1:48 am

    Moffat's reaction particularly annoys me: to blame it all on time travel is again buying into the idea that the diegetic universe should be consistent, unless there's a diegetic reason why it isn't. Which again is the same lack of simply accepting that the diegetic universe contains contradictions. (Now, Moffat's smart, especially about stories, and I know that when he says this he knows he's pandering — he might even be sniggering behind his hand at the kind of people who need this diegetic mental crutch. But I wish he wouldn't, because it makes him seem either a panderer or a supercilious panderer.)

    So, yes, canon and continuity are different things, and it matters that they are different things and it matters why they are different things, because otherwise we don't understand Doctor Who.

    (Though I guess you could ask how much, in the wider scheme of things, it matters that we understand Doctor Who. But that's a question I try to stay away from, for I fear the answer is not one that would make my life seem terribly worthwhile.)

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  12. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 27, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    Moffat's answer doesn't bother me in that it is not like he actually thinks they should go back and make episodes to show the Doctor fiddling those bits. So I take it as "a fictional universe can either embrace coherence or time travel, and Doctor Who made its choice in November of 1963." Which is basically accurate.

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  13. SK
    August 28, 2011 @ 8:53 am

    (I was beginning to think the internet wasn't working right! Four days without anyone arguing with me is not natural.)

    No, because again, that sees coherence and time travel as related — whereas in fact they are totally separate. A series can embrace coherence or not embrace coherence totally apart from whether it contains time travel: there are any number of series not involving time travel at all which have contradicted themselves perfectly willingly on the grounds that nobody will remember the previous story well enough, or will care if they do.

    And similarly a series can embrace time travel and still be coherent: Babylon 5 manages it. It takes a lot of planning, but it's perfectly possible.

    The fundamental problem is that still this is buying into the idea that a fictional universe ought to be coherent — that any inconsistency is a flaw, unless explained diegetically (and the invocation of time travel counts as such a diegetic explanation, whether or not it's ever seen). But in fact there is no moral or aesthetic reason that this is so, in the general case (obviously certain styles of storytelling work better with a consistent universe, while certain ones don't).

    We laugh at the cartoon fans who are told that, 'A wizard did it,' is the answer to all their questions — not because that's a reasonable answer, but because we realise that they are asking the wrong questions, and to even try to answer diegetically is to buy into their delusion that consistency and coherence is even what the series in question might have been aiming for.

    Doctor Who actually made its choice in November of 1964, when it was decided that the Daleks were coming back, regardless of the fact that it made no sense in the context of a coherent fictional universe. At that point it was decided that telling the story of the moment was more important than consistency. That had nothing to do with time travel, and everything to do with extra-diegetic decisions about priorities.

    To try to insist that the diegetic universe of Doctor Who should be consistent (and the invocation of time travel is a concession to such an insistence, by blaming any inconsistencies on a diegetic factor) is to miss what Doctor Who is trying to be. Consistency and coherence were never the aim. The diegetic universe is inconsistent, and it would have been just as inconsistent if Doctor Who had been an adventure serial with no time travel — the production team of a time-travel-less Doctor Who in 1968 would certainly not have considered themselves bound by what had been on screen five years previously — and, crucially, that would not have been a flaw but simply a consequence of the mode of storytelling adopted.

    Basically: even to admit that the inconsistency needs an explanation, and especially a diegetic one, is to admit that there is a problem that needs to be solved. There isn't a problem, so no solution should be offered.

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