Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Doctor Who and The Case of the Right Way Retcon

Hey there, Meat-Heads!

So everyone's favorite wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, British, sci-fi import has started its 8th season in its modern incarnation, and I thought "hey, what a perfect time to talk about retconning!"

For those not in the know of nerdy writers terms, "retcon" is short for "retroactive continuity," which is when new, previously unknown details, events, or actions are added to events that have already happened in a character's life/story after the fact, in order to flesh out new story possibilities, or, in some cases, rewrite motivation and character history completely.

The casual viewer/reader/whathaveyou experiences retconning all the time, but probably just didn't know there was a term for it.  For instance, in Sam Raimi's Spider-man series, it is established in the first film that a robber kills Peter Parker's Uncle Ben due to Peter's failure to act and apprehend the robber when he had the chance.  Plain, simple, black and white.  However, in Spider-Man 3 (ugh), we find out that said robber didn't actually kill Uncle Ben, it was actually his partner, the man who would become Sandman, who fired the shots and got away!

(That's right, Bob, it IS quite the twist.)

Now, this may SEEM like just a revelation of new information that was pre-planned, but the fact is, the involvement of Sandman was just shoe-horned in for the third movie, in order to create a lame connection between him and Spider-Man. Retcons are usually used as ways to open up new story lines when the status quo is starting to get stale, and other times it's used to completely re-write entire sections of story history to justify a change in direction for the series.  This brings me to my next point:


Making large-scale changes to continuity and story can often feel lazy and hacky, as well as insulting to fans of your series or characters, especially when the changes make years of beloved history irrelevant, or are contradictory to the core of the characters your audience has come to love.

For instance, Marvel comics is constantly making large-scale retroactive continuity changes to their flagship character, Spider-Man, and really who can blame them? When you're writing a character for 50 years who doesn't really age, you're bound to hit some walls and need to take a new, radical tack every now and then...

The most recent and widely derided of these changes came when, feeling there were no more stories to tell with Peter Parker being happily married and in his mid-30's, a story was written where Peter must save his Aunt May's life by making a literal deal with the devil, which ends up wiping the previous 30 years of continuity and stories from existence, re-sets him as a young bachelor, and even brings back to life characters who had since died.

As you can imagine, with a character whose history is so beloved to fans around the world, this change wasn't welcomed with open arms.  So that poses the question: How do you tell your audience "EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW IS WRONG!" and implement mass changes without it feeling like a cop out?

The answer is to find a way to change everything, without changing anything.  And how does one do that?  Or should I say...WHO?

"You're going to need a big blue box.  And possibly a bow tie."
Since Doctor Who's revival in 2005, one of the main plot elements is that The Doctor was involved in something called The Time War, in which he was forced to make a horrible decision to eradicate his own planet, destroying his entire race in order to end the fighting.  As you can imagine, this decision has weighed heavily on the character for the last 7 seasons, and is a constant reminder of the lengths to which he'll go. It is a burden and his greatest failure, and added a great, much needed edge to a character bering re-introduced to a 21st century generation of viewers. As you can imagine, however, this idea eventually reached a point where it had run its course, and needed to be dealt with head on instead of being limited to subtext, and they decided to do just that last November when Doctor Who celebrated its 50th anniversary. The writers in charge decided to change one of his core character elements, and free him from the pain he felt over his horrible decision, but how? You'd have to some how allow him to go back and prevent the destruction of his home planet, but that would make all the preceding episodes and stories irrelevant because of the way time travel uh..."works," right?

Well, the 50th anniversary special showed us the time right before The Doctor decided to blow up his planet, as well as the thought that went in to that decision, but it also injected 2 other elements into the story: a sort of ripple in time that allowed The Doctor about to blow up his race to see the consequences of his actions by interacting with 2 other versions of himself from the future.  
They're all the same character. Just...hang with me here.
Together, the 3 of them figured out a way to save the planet and end the war by effectively making the planet disappear (short version), re-writing The Doctor's greatest failure into arguably his greatest triumph, but again, doesn't that make everything that'd happened on the show irrelevant now?

No.  The writers worked in a detail that because The Doctor was interacting with himself on his own timeline, in this sort of time-ripple, once the ripple was ironed out, his past incarnations would have no memory of anything that happened in it.  SO, to someone watching the first 7 seasons, everything still works because that character DOES BELIEVE he has blown up his own planet, but from the 50th anniversary special on, he knows he saved them all, and can grow as a character in that way, opening up the door to a whole new line of stories and ways to approach the character.

They changed everything, without changing anything.  Brilliant.

Fantastic, even.

I hope you enjoyed that nerdy breakdown of the do's don'ts of retconning. As long as you don't do what Donny Don't does, you'll be fine.

Until Next Time,

Eat Dead Meat!

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