Continuity Poison

The problem starts with Tolkien. I mean, I’m sure the impulse existed before him, but he legitimized it and made it the dominant approach of a particular school of writing. Tolkien referred to it as “secondary creation” or “sub-creation”; we call it worldbuilding.

It is not, in itself, necessarily a bad idea; in some ways it is a precursor to certain aspects of postmodernism. In essence, Tolkien’s idea (most clearly expressed in his “On Fairy Stories”) is that fictional worlds can in some sense be said to exist; that the setting of a fictional story (and in particular a fantastic story) can be at least metaphorically treated as having a material reality in some alternate plane, called into being by the author and then dutifully reported as events unfold.

In some ways, this may be a useful approach for some authors. It is not too dissimilar from the phenomenon some authors describe whereby they create characters, develop those characters’ motivations, and then let the characters “act out” the story while the author “watches.”  Really, of course, this is simply a mental exercise that produces character-driven stories–wherein lies the key difference between this and the “world building” approach, namely that a character-driven approach produces a story that emerges organically from the motivations and actions of the people in it, while building a world produces an empty stage set with no characters on it. (Notably, Tolkien’s fiction output does not arise directly from his world building, but rather uses his world as a backdrop to tell stories about people. Even then, the “guided tour” aspect of The Fellowship of the Ring in particular is difficult to dismiss.)

The real problem is when this “secondary creation” theory gets applied to criticism. The criteria which define a quality world quite simply have nothing to do with the criteria that define a quality work of fiction; for our purposes, the most important criterion to talk about is logical self-consistency. 
That this is not really a very important element of fiction should be obvious, but just in case it is not, consider this: Citizen Kane is rightly and widely known as a cinema classic, an extremely solid character study that is also a masterclass in cinematography. It represents one of those rare moments when the quality of an entire artform leaps forward. 
It also contains a glaring plot hole that renders the entire plot of the movie impossible, one which multiple viewers have commented on, but which nonetheless most viewers never notice.

Does that plot hole make it any less solid of a character study? No; Charles Foster Kane remains a fascinating character and the slow unspooling of his story a rich and rewarding experience. Does the plot hole make the movie’s cinematography any less massive of a leap forward? Again, no–the two have nothing to do with one another.

And yet, in the aesthetic that emphasizes continuity and consistency, such “errors” are seen as inherent flaws.

Nonetheless, this is the dominant aesthetic of geek communities. Most recently (at least that I’ve seen), there is the discussion surrounding the upcoming Doctor Who Christmas special. Rumor has it (and yes, I regard articles in Radio Times based on interviews with Stephen Moffat to be rumors) that the Doctor will regenerate in that story, and further that Moffat considers Tennant’s partial regeneration in “Journey’s End” to count as a Doctor, meaning that including John Hurt, Matt Smith was actually playing the Thirteenth Doctor all along, not the Eleventh. Why is that significant? Because a throwaway line in an episode aired thirty-five years ago (an episode which most fans of the current series have not seen) implied that there can only be thirteen Doctors, after which he dies for good.

Never mind that, in combination with the implication of eight Doctors prior to William Hartnell in “The Brain of Morbeus” (only a few episodes before, and written and produced by the same team as, “The Deadly Assassin,” the source of this throwaway line), the clear intent is that the Tom Baker Doctor was the Twelfth, not Fourth, and as such nearing the end of his life span. Never mind that there have been throwaway lines since that claim the Doctor has hundreds, thousands, or unlimited opportunities to regenerate. Never mind that “The Deadly Assassin” was itself attacked at time of airing for depicting Gallifrey and the Time Lords dramatically differently than past episodes. Never mind that the insistence on this nugget of pointless continuity creates a necessity to either retcon it away (which will upset continuity-obsessed fans) or put a time limit on a series that could otherwise run forever.

No, say supporters of this aesthetic. It is wrong, a mistake, to ignore a previously established continuity point. They demand that the future of any long-running work be a slave to its past. To them, it doesn’t matter that Kane dying entirely alone is thematically appropriate, it’s still a “mistake” that invalidates the otherwise excellent film that follows.

It’s understandable why this aesthetic has such a strong hold on geek culture. First of all, it requires only a very shallow understanding of any sort of critical theory, while rewarding attention to detail and an encyclopedic memory. For a variety of historical reasons, geek culture is dominated by fandoms, and social status within a fandom is established primarily by demonstrations of commitment to the object of that fandom, and the demonstration of arcane knowledge is one of the easiest ways to test that commitment. The ability to spot continuity errors even allows one to demonstrate arcane knowledge superior to that of the creators (who, for most work, just don’t care about niggling continuity details)–where normally the creators hold the highest position of honor in a fandom, nitpicking continuity allows a fan to temporarily elevate themselves above that position.

Assuming the rumors are true, it’s fairly obvious to me what Moffat’s trying to do: retcon away the regeneration limit while he can, so that he doesn’t have to keep hearing about it from continuity-obsessed fans for the entire Capaldi run. Hopefully, he will accomplish this by doing away with regeneration limits altogether; the worst-case scenario is that the Doctor gets a new, specific, relatively small number of regenerations, because that will only serve to confirm the limit. (Ideally, the episode would simply ignore the limit, have the Capaldi Doctor refer to himself as the Fourteenth, then flip off some LINDA members who complain about it, but that scenario is sadly unlikely.)

Unfortunately, the underlying problem will remain: Geek culture is wedded to an unsophisticated and inflexible aesthetic that insists on treating fiction as a window into another world, as opposed to a deliberate construct assembled from multiple smaller constructs, each the product of specific authorial choices not necessarily bound by any prior choice. No matter how many creators tell them “Canon is not a word we use in the office” or “Starfuries travel at the speed of plot,” or “A wizard did it,” it seems they will continue to insist on nitpicking based on a simplistic “literalism” not that different from the hermeneutic employed by Christian fundamentalists. I honestly have no idea what the cure is, except perhaps better education.

11 thoughts on “Continuity Poison

  1. It seems to me probably a more likely and definitely a plausible and more charitable explanation for this aesthetic is from the connection of Geek culture to the physical sciences and engineering: since a lot of Geeks are interested in understanding the science of the real world, it makes sense that trying to undesrtand the science of fictional worlds has also become popular among Geeks looking at fiction, and they are annoyed when the author doesn't provide them with a consistent set of rules they are able to discern. Since in the real world the systems studied by science operate according to consistent rules and without regard for what makes a good story, people who study science encorporate this into the way they see the world, and thus when stories don't abide by this, they see the stories as being portraying the world as working in a way which is deeply and fundimentally different from how it actually is. And trying to come up with a consistent science for their world shows that an author has an interest in science, which Geek culture values. The last of these is an excuse on the part of Geeks to impose their values on authors, but it seems to me that the first is a legitimate way to enjoy fiction which is harmless and arguably even desirable in that it promotes an interest in science, and that the second, being an example of holding that certain aspects of reality which one considers important ought to be reflected in fiction, is similar to a lot of professional literary criticism.
    I've also once caught myself translating an objection to a story on the basis of values into one on the basis of inconsistency in order to argue with fans who I suspected didn't share my values, so that may also be part of it.
    Also, it seems to me that you're strawmaning the position you're arguing against somewhat by conflating the position that stories aught to be completely consistent with the position that internal consistency is the sole measure of a story's worth and any story with inconsistencies is worthless.

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  2. The trouble is, continuity is necessary for the purposes of foreshadowing and easter eggs… and also if you want to have any kind of mystery arc. Internal consistency becomes exponentially more important if you want any part of your answer to, “Why should I tune in again next week?” to be, “Find out the answer to this question!” And Doctor Who, particularly during Moffat's tenure, constantly uses such mystery arcs to hold the viewer's attention. Half the point of the fandom is dissecting trailers looking for clues as to what the season's arc will wind up heading towards.

    I don't care about plot holes in MLP, because MLP doesn't use mystery arcs to hold my attention (of course, that's why I'm a little nervous about their introduction of the Mystery Box… but even that seems more of an excuse for character adventures rather than a bait in and of itself), as it has the confidence to stand on the strength of its characterization and dialogue.

    DW, on the other hand… well, “The Wedding of River Song” was the worst episode in the history of anything. The ending wasn't just horrific because it was a total copout, not just because “Why didn't they do that from the start” or even “How does a cheap trick like that fool the space-time continuum?” I wouldn't have cared… except, the show had spent months deliberately and painstakingly building up my emotional and intellectual investment in the answer to the specific question that it blatantly copped out of. It didn't even make sense thematically or dramatically, let alone logically.

    So sadly, DW earned this continuity-policing, by deliberately making continuity-hounding part of the extra-viewing experience.

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  3. Well, I'm not saying any continuity is automatically a bad thing. However, “The Wedding of River Song” is a great example of what I'm talking about–the problem with it is not any violation of previously established continuity, but rather that the show blatantly and very heavily pointed to a specific question, and then gave an unsatisfying and confusing answer.

    I would argue that it is perfectly fine to depict something that makes no logical sense so long as it makes sense thematically and dramatically–that's not a bad definition of spectacle, actually. Of course you can't do it all the time–the point I'm making is that an aesthetic that values continuity for its own sake leads to a slavish adherence to bad continuity, which in turn leads to things like the regeneration limit or all of DC Comics.

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  4. FWIW, I've only noticed the DW fanbase growing angry over continuity gaffes (as opposed to just complaining about Rose and Tinkerbell Jesus Doctor) during Moffat's tenure, when he was already using easter-egg hunts to keep our attention during the off-seasons.

    Incidentally, having read the TARDIS Eruditorum's reviews of “Love and Monsters” and “Blink,” I don't think the LINDA members would complain about the regeneration limit (that was really the whole point of “Love and Monsters”)… Sally's boyfriend Larry would be outraged, though.

    (kind of prophetic that the former episode was written by Davies and the latter by Moffat, isn't it?)

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  5. Oh, believe me, fans have been kvetching about continuity discrepancies (I prefer the term over “gaffe” or “error” because sometimes discrepancies are deliberate) for DECADES prior to Moffat.

    And they definitely came up in the Davies era, too–I remember quite a bit of complaining over the changes to the Macra in “Gridlock,” for example.

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  6. Well, at least they're not complaining about “The Gay Agenda™” anymore.

    IIRC, the Macra thing wasn't a continuity discrepancy, since there were in-universe reasons given for it… it was a disappointment in the actual content of the changes, which isn't quite the same phenomena (it's still rather silly, but at least it's judging on the content rather than the consistency).

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  7. My favourite example of when continuity-geeks (of which I'm one, but I try to keep it under control) have a point is a short story in an X-Men anthology series, in which Emma Frost angsts about the fact she trusted her sister around Generation X after said sister killed the Hellions.

    Now, the only way this story matters at all is if you know Emma, you know her sister and you care about their rivalry. If you don't know all that it's just “Here is a character who's upset about a thing.” If you do know that, though, it's hard not to think “But hang on, Adrienne Frost didn't kill the Hellions. Trevor Fitzroy did.” And if the story is about the continuity, I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing to think.

    (But then, I liked “The Wedding of River Song”, so what do I know?)

    On the subject of Tolkien's worldbuilding, I was listening to a radio play recently that fictionalised his friendship with C. S. Lewis, and had him actually take Lewis into Middle-Earth, to show him the Misty Mountains and explain the history of the place. And Lewis is suitably impressed.

    But when Jack returns the compliment by taking Tollers to his world, Tollers is all “You can't have a lamp-post if you don't have a reason for there to be a lamp-post.” Lewis isn't doing what he's doing, therefore he's Not Doing It Right.

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  8. Nonetheless, this is the dominant aesthetic of geek communities.

    Interesting that you see it that way. I generally hide the fact that I enjoy worldbuilding more than plot or characters because I know people will give me shit for it, especially Doctor Who fans. (You're at least doing better than the last post I read that contained the terms “Doctor Who” and “continuity”, which used “person who considers worldbuilding the most important aspect of a story” and “misogynist asshole who lives in his parents' basement*” interchangeably.)

    I'm not saying a story can't be good on the strength of plot/characters alone, despite bad or nonexistent worldbuilding. I'm not even saying I can't enjoy a story on the strength of plot/characters alone. (Though it is significantly harder, especially if it's not a mystery either.) Views that consider worldbuilding to be of little or no importance are not bad; I just don't think mine is either.

    *In the old-fashioned “failure at life” sense, not the current “acknowledgment of bad economy” sense.

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  9. I'm not even saying I can't enjoy a story on the strength of plot/characters alone. (Though it is significantly harder, especially if it's not a mystery either.)

    Well, I think that right there is the issue–the worldbuilding aesthetic, as a critical approach, treats a work of fiction as a puzzle to be solved, either in the sense of solving a mystery presented by the work or by examining the work in an attempt to extract and construct information about its “world.” That's tremendously limiting for the reader, as it means that nothing can be enjoyed except for its puzzle elements.

    Aesthetics are not innate, but rather learned; trying other approaches to media, looking actively for other things that are done well and can be enjoyed, increases the amount of good art in the world.

    Again, my issue is not with employing the aesthetic. Good worldbuilding is good and should be acknowledged and celebrated. However, treating worldbuilding as the primary function of storytelling is spectacularly missing the point, and leads directly to nitpicking and ridiculous flamewars over whether Balrogs have wings.

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  10. That's tremendously limiting for the reader
    […]
    Aesthetics are not innate, but rather learned; trying other approaches to media, looking actively for other things that are done well and can be enjoyed, increases the amount of good art in the world.

    Would you say the same to someone who primarily enjoyed stories for their characters? (Is “finding out about who these people are and how they interact” even a less puzzle-like way of looking at things? Or is there some completely different way of enjoying characters and this is me being horribly limited again?) At what point can one be content with having tastes rather than always being pushed to expand one's horizons?

    (That's ignoring the issue that pretty much no matter how strictly one filters it, there is already enough good art to drown in, and a broadened enjoyment would presumably make things worse.)

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  11. Well, it's that function vs. purpose thing. You can use fiction for whatever purpose pleases you, and if that's worldbuilding, cool. However, fiction isn't fundamentally well-suited to that function–you're going to get more worldbuilding more efficiently out of something like the Discontinuity Guide or the Doctor Who Encyclopedia (if there is such a thing) than out of watching a bunch of Doctor Who episodes. Whereas a story fundamentally *is* characters doing things for reasons, so watching for what they do or why are functions fiction serves well.

    Consuming fiction for the worldbuilding is like using a screwdriver to hammer nails. You *can* do it, and if it's what you want to do, more power to you, but if you declare that a particular screwdriver is a bad screwdriver because it doesn't hammer nails well, you should expect to get some funny looks.

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