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No-one Plays Alone (DiGRA/FDG 2016)

Corporate Megatexts (2): Canonicity

Star Fleet Technical ManualThe reboot of a franchise has become so commonplace that seldom a second thought goes into pushing the button and burning continuity to the ground. However, for fans and lovers of any given megatext (i.e. fictional world with many contributing works) there is always an expectation of some degree of authenticity to each new addition. In science fiction and fantasy, genres where geeks form the bedrock of support, there is one particular ‘game’ that dominates questions of what is authentic: canonicity.

There is an inherent tension between the commercial viability of a franchise (the value of custodianship) and the demand for authenticity in the adaptation and extension of fictional worlds (last week’s theme). This aesthetic and moral conflict structures the growth and development of all the contemporary megatexts. In cases where nerd culture has a foothold (or indeed, a stranglehold), the question of what is canonical – of which works constitute the canon, or official components – is both fraught and crucial to understanding how nerds approach authenticity. The underlying process of defending canonicity against the impossibility of ever integrating disparate fictional works as if they were referring to a single universe is something I touched upon in Imaginary Games, but in the context of authenticity and megatextual networks it is worth reconsidering the rules of this game.

Last week, I suggested that it was possible to trace the networks for megatexts, and also to detect different games being played with them via disagreements. When it comes to authenticity, the networks foreground the relationship between fictional works and their creators, with the specific practices also varying to some degree depending upon the relevant medium. It is worth starting in books, where the situation is simplest. For any written story, the presence of a clearly identifiable sole author gives that person unprecedented power to establish or deny the authentic, authorised ‘games’ that can be played in our imagination. J.K. Rowling, for instance, is the final arbiter of any question about the Harry Potter universe as long as she lives. This power can be transmitted down the family line – from Frank to Brian Herbert, for instance, or from J.R.R. to Christopher Tolkien – although in such cases the ‘player’ of the megatext can choose to seal the canon, and treat the continuations as apocrypha or secondary texts.

Films, however, are conceptualised somewhat differently. Perhaps because they are inevitably produced by large teams, the mantle of arbiter of canon rarely falls onto an individual’s shoulders. The same pattern applies to TV shows, which are similarly the product of collaboration. In these cases, a ‘claim to the throne’ lies with a number of different people, depending on quite different circumstances. Directors, writers, and especially actors, all have a capacity to assert a claim to authenticity, even though the audience is not bound to accept it. Highlander 2, for instance, has clear continuity of cast but was outright rejected by fans like a failed organ transplant. There was simply too thin a claim to authenticity.

Star Trek is a particularly interesting case, one where multiple competing claims for creative inheritance lead to many available ‘games’, each with their own canon. There are fans for whom only the classic show ‘counts’, and others for whom the five live action TV series form a single megatext, with the animated series as apocrypha. Gene Roddenberry still held the crown during production of Star Trek: The Next Generation, passing it down to Rick Berman in 1989, who lost the throne with the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005.

It’s interesting to ponder what might have happened had Roddenberry died in the 1970s. Would Dorothy Fontana have become ‘Queen of Trek’ by the implied line of succession? It is notable that she is the only writer on the animated show whose work is given merit in canon discussions. She was also the only classic writer brought back to work on the Next Generation. The claims to the throne of canon arbiter become stronger the longer someone has been involved with the megatext in question.

The oddest branch in canon also relates to Star Trek. The technical artist Franz Joseph created blueprints for the USS Enterprise and other starships from the classic show, which were blessed as ‘official’ by Roddenberry. But in the 60s, megatexts were peripheral to media production and corporations were lax about subsidiary rights until Astroboy and Star Wars made it clear that successful monetisation of franchises was about more than the core product. Joseph licensed his drawings to Task Force Games, who then made the seminal tabletop wargame Star Fleet Battles. Canonicity forks here: the Star Fleet universe has all the races and ships of the Star Trek universe (the legal case TSR vs. Tolkien having established that races could not be copyrighted), but this secondary megatext clearly isn’t part of any of the Star Trek canons. Joseph had a disputable claim to the throne, but it remained securely with Roddenberry and Paramount, who became more vigilant about potential usurpation in the future.

When we come to the post-Berman resurrection of the Star Trek franchise, J.J. Abrams did not hesitate to cry “Code zero zero zero destruct zero” and detonate the existing continuity. But of course, this created a gap in the claim to authenticity, a problem pragmatically hurdled by having Leonard Nimoy bless the new movie by appearing in it as Spock. This act did not bridge the canons of the Star Trek megatext, which were irrevocably forked, but it met the minimum requirements for authenticity. In this regard, it is worth comparing William Shatner’s presence in Star Trek: Generations. Fans of the new TV shows were already on board, of course, but the majority of the cinematic audience weren’t necessarily in the same boat. Once again, a bridge to secure authenticity was required – and once again, it was an actor that did it.

It is thus clear that the defuse nature of the manifold of ‘games’ played with corporate megatexts permits extension only by the simultaneous risk of an ‘orthodox’ counter-fan base that rejects the new works and remains faithful to the originals (a theme I shall pick up in the final part of this seial, next week). Tactics to suppress or placate such resistance then becomes part of the corporate task of brand management. Yet it seems as if the role of actors as props in these imaginary games might outrank creators in establishing film canonicity, perhaps because by being on screen they are more prominently associated with the relevant fictional world. That’s why Nimoy had to bless Abram’s all-action, hollowed-out version of Star Trek (which could still be judged inauthentic against any and all prior games of canon up to that point, despite the legal authority of the owning corporation).

When Abrams was also tasked with continuing the Star Wars megatext in the cinema, the mighty G-canon (as LucasArts termed George Lucas’ primary continuity during his reign) represented a cult of resistance that needed to be addressed. In this case, on top of the claim of authenticity granted by securing the original cast (which was vital but not decisive) was the added power of Lawrence Kasdan – Star Wars’ very own Dorothy Fontana, since he co-wrote the latter two parts of the original trilogy. Since fans rate The Empire Strikes Back as the best of the movies, this play was both shrewd and effective. Avoiding the necessity of a reboot, Abrams used the heir apparent to secure his title as pretender to the throne long enough to validate his movie – yet had no interest in claiming the crown. Abrams role was as kingmaker in the consolidation of authority for Disney, whose acquisition of LucasFilm had set up the conditions for a potential ‘Star Wars of the Roses’. It is to the impact of this situation that the final part of this serial is addressed.

Next week: Faithfulness


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It's interesting to look at this megatext canon as a reflection of Biblical canonicity. (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/canon-scripture-wayne-grudem has a summary).

The New Testament canon was either written by, or affirmed by, one of the apostles. Other books (the apocrypha, for instance) could be considered worth reading, but weren't considered to have divine authorship. They also had to not contradict earlier writings that were already considered canon. I wonder how that contrasts here. George Lucas seems to have been considered anathema by many Star Wars fans after he started making modifications to his original films, changing (rather than just enhancing) the content.

Of further consideration is that the New Testament canon, while being generally accepted very early on, wasn't formalised for another few hundred years. Maybe our great-great-grandchildren can know for sure whether Han really did shoot first...

Hi Ian,
You slightly jumped the gun here... I was saving the parallels between contemporary megatexts and religious megatexts (like the Bible) for next week! :) I don't go into the detail you do here about the process of establishing the canon for the Bible, which has always fascinated me - especially because some of the books that were excluded held that Jesus advocated a disorganised religion, not an organised one (something close to my heart).

It's interesting to place the animosity towards Lucas in the context of the remastered original trilogy and not the prequels too... I have to say, I was extremely happy to get copies of the original movie prints on DVD. I'm not wildly hostile to the remastered versions, which I enjoyed watching at the time, and which restored Biggs' role in Star Wars and removed the awful Ewok symphony from the end of Return of the Jedi. But it was all mixed blessings throughout. As I mention next week, my relationship with Lucas has always been love-hate.

Cheers for the comment!


I loved the Ewok symphony :)

I don't think it was those bits that raised hackles, so much as making Greedo shoot first, which completely changes the character of Han Solo.

Stuff like that is annoying :)

In regards to your comment on some books being excluded from the Biblical canon - from all the accounts I can find, there wasn't much of a discussion as to what shouldn't be included, but it was much more a discussion on what was already being treated as scripture, and on collating those books and letters together. Definitely an interesting topic though.

Have a great week!

There's an interesting note regarding the Franz Joseph Star Fleet Technical Manual (which I bought new when it was first published ;) ) and canonicity.

Bernd Schneider at Ex Astris Scientia co-wrote an article showing how the plans for the non-Constellation-class ships drawn in the SFTM appeared on ship monitors in Star Trek II and Star Trek III: http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org/articles/sftm.htm . So did that use make these ships canonical?

To your larger point, does saying "yes, that made them canonical" set a kind of precedent that, with enough creativity and salesmanship, it's possible for fans to get their creations declared part of canon, thus encouraging others to attempt this odd sort of "ownership" themselves? What does it mean when a lot of people think this is the norm?

Hey Bart,
I too am a proud owner of a first edition Star Fleet Technical Manual, although I was only three when it was published and am pretty sure I got mine second hand when I was about nine. I did not know about the other Franz Joseph ships appearing on monitors in the second and third movie - that's a really interesting oddity in itself!

As for getting fan creations made into canon, something similar has happened with Doctor Who whereby secondary texts (primarily licensed books and audio plays) have gradually been incorporated into the megatext through inclusion or allusion, largely through the efforts of Russell Davies and Stephen Moffat (Davies, in fact, contributed a secondary text before becoming showrunner). So, for instance, "Night of the Doctor" made all of the Paul McGann audio plays canonical by name-checking all of his companions from the plays on-screen. The same can be said of the appearance of Absalom Daak: Dalek Killer (a personal favourite of mine from the Doctor Who comics) in "Time Heist". I find all of this movement towards conglomeration and incorporation particularly interesting because it is such a new phenomena.

So we are indeed in a weird new situation whereby 'unofficial' contributions to a megatext can later be incorporated. But then, wasn't this always the way? That's how the Greek myths grew, and that's how the Arthurian mythos expanded. The media may change, but the methods remain the same!

Thanks for a really interesting comment!


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