On July 16, 2016, a new trailer for Star Wars Rebels was released during the annual fan gathering Star Wars Celebration—and as I watched, I was flooded with emotion.
I knew that face. I knew that uniform. Bright blue skin, menacing red eyes, a clean white Imperial suit … but it couldn’t possibly be him. Hadn’t Disney/Lucasfilm deleted him out of canon?
For old-school Star Wars fans, Grand Admiral Thrawn represented something special: He was the big bad of the early ‘90s universe, a masterful villain of Moriarty cunning in Timothy Zahn’s books, a trilogy that essentially re-sparked interest in the Star Wars franchise. Following the announcement of his Star Wars Rebels appearance, Thrawn’s distinctive visage—familiar from the cover of Zahn’s landmark trilogy—began appearing all over geek websites, and I felt surprisingly validated.
What was this sense that something in the universe—or at least A Galaxy Far, Far Away—had been righted? Why did I care so much about the restoration of a seemingly minor character from an erased-from-canon Expanded Universe (EU)?
The EU was a massive catalog of books, comics, video games, and other media that continued the Star Wars universe outside of the six films and The Clone Wars TV show. For 30 years, it created an intricate and dense timeline of canon, or the official chronology of the franchise. There were mountains of standalone material, from books about individual Jedi Knights, to video games set thousands of years prior to the films.
The EU’s fanbase didn’t have the mainstream reach of the films, but it was a dedicated group, one that loved characters like Thrawn, Mara Jade, Starkiller, and Darth Tenebrous. And when Disney purchased Lucasfilm, they removed the EU from canon to make way for their own, new series of films, deeming all of those hours, all those stories, all those journeys unimportant.
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It felt like a loss, a death of characters and stories that built communities and created bonds. Many fans experienced the textbook stages of grief. Some still haven’t come to the Acceptance stage, even though beloved EU stories still live on in hard drives and on fans’ bookshelves around the world, ready to be revisited at any time.
This grief isn’t exclusive to Star Wars fans; in 2009, J. J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek with his standalone film that created a split timeline. Even having parallel universes didn’t sit quite right with all fans. In both cases, it felt like loyalty was being shoved aside for mainstream appeal and the bottom line.
Janina Scarlet, a licensed clinical psychologist who integrates geek-friendly iconography and stories into her practice in a model she calls Superhero Therapy, says the grief I experienced is common. “Some fans might regard certain characters almost as dear friends,” Scarlet says. “This is called parasocial relationships (PSRs). Recent research studies suggest that positive PSRs can help people improve their self-esteem, increase motivation, and improve own self-image. Hence, it might not be surprising that some fans might have a personal connection over their favorite franchise.”
This connection can live in the form of canon. So canon is not just a timeline of events, a list of details to keep straight. It forms layers and layers of a shared experience, with major events and minor skirmishes all detailed across various media. It becomes the backbone of a community and a universe.
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More than Just Entertainment
Changing canon comes with consequences. Chuck Wendig knows that well.
Wendig is the author of Star Wars: Aftermath, the first major novel launched in the new Lucasfilm canon. Not only did Wendig face the logistical challenge of tying together the previous events of six films and two TV shows into a new space, while adhering to the key guidelines established by the Lucasfilm Story Group, he also faced the ire of fans who were still in mourning for their favorite characters.
Defenders of the old EU have been very vocal about their disapproval of the new canon, going as far as to rent a billboard ad outside of the Lucasfilm office, and leave nasty reviews for recently released books. The Amazon review scores of Aftermath seem oddly skewed and are a mix of actual criticism and highly personal attacks on the author.
“I think it’s in much the same way we want to know what happened in history, or with gossip—we want a true account, and despite this being fiction, it feels more real and more effective if it’s ‘accurate,’” Wendig says of fan attachment to canon. “And it also makes us feel special, like we can know things, we can see a larger picture that just the movie-watchers don’t get to glimpse. Fans are collectors in a very real sense, and canon lets them be collectors of narrative data points.”
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So, Wendig has sympathy for fans who want more stories in the worlds they’ve been narratively living—to a point. “People who want more EU? I get it. I want you to have more of it. My sympathy starts to waver once you act like it’s a betrayal, and it goes away completely once that is used to justify harassment or any kind of jerky behavior.”
For better or for worse, the longer the stories we love sustain themselves, and the deeper their mythology goes, the more intense our emotional connection usually becomes. It’s a combination of familiarity, longevity, and detail, with the ultimate result being that you carry these stories and characters with you across time, through good times and bad.
In essence, they become part of who you are.
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The Devil’s in the Details
Look no further for an example than a franchise currently celebrating its golden anniversary. TrekMovie is one of the leading Star Trek fan websites, and site manager Kayla Iacovino oversees the lengthy comment threads that follow each post. Commenters represent all segments of Trek’s rich 50-year history, forming a large international community around the franchise’s canon. “A huge reason why Star Trek has been so successful is that every iteration of Trek is part of the same universe. The things that happened in The Original Series matter for the story lines constructed for everything that came after it,” she notes. “The more you watch, read, and play Star Trek, the more you learn about this universe and the more you feel a part of it.”
For her, canon is a mark of caliber, and a way of bonding with others who share her passion. “I admit that I am more likely to be drawn to a story if it is considered canon, but a non-canon story can be just as enjoyable (there are some great Star Trek novels out there). I think the ‘canon’ label implies a certain level of quality that is not guaranteed for non-canon works. Also, a canon work is more likely to have been seen by fellow Trekkies and so can easily be a conversation topic over drinks at the local con.”
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Doctor Who, another franchise with 50 years of history, has taken a very different approach to canon. The BBC show had been rewriting its own canon to adapt to circumstances since the very beginning, including a 1996 Fox/BBC co-production and a decade of “wilderness years”: audio-only adventures, books, and other non-traditional filler material. With such a wealth of material, current showrunner Steven Moffat—who helped canonize the audio dramas with the mini-episode The Night of the Doctor—has stated publicly several times that “it’s all canonical.” From a practical perspective, this was probably an approach to simplify and put an end to arguments (arguments that he freely admits partaking in prior to working on the modern show). But from an in-universe perspective, he explained, a time-travel show can easily write and rewrite history.
Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who: three huge sci-fi franchises, three different approaches to canon—but all of them controversial.
Gatekeepers and Keymasters
You’d think Doctor Who’s inclusive “everything is canon” approach would be cut and dry. But a quick Google search on Doctor Who canon will lead you down a wormhole of debates, arguments, and the occasional name-calling about what matters and why. This isn’t exclusive to the Who-niverse; rather, it’s an aspect of most geek culture.
Not all fans are gate-keepers; plenty will heartily debate points or commiserate on the finer details of a franchise’s history without things ever turning ugly. But there’s a segment of fandom that lords their knowledge and experience over others. In these instances, knowledge of canon isn’t just about greater enjoyment; it’s a wall built to keep so-called “lesser” or “fake” geeks out. How much canon do you know? Do you like the “old, true canon,” or the new business-driven one? This elitist, exclusionary behavior can be seen in many fandoms—but it’s by no means representative of all fans.
For example, the personal attacks Wendig endured following Aftermath were overshadowed by the support he received from most Star Wars fans: “All I know is, the book did really well, and overtime the response has become overwhelmingly positive. I get a lot more fanmail these days than hate mail, which was not necessarily true right at the beginning.”
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Jennifer Barnes is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Oklahoma, who teaches courses on fandom in addition to creating her own canon as a young adult author. She elaborated further, from a more clinical perspective. “The nature of fandom might also make people more prone to certain kinds of reactions. Fans are so used to imagining and debating what fictional characters are thinking and feeling that they may sometimes default to doing the same thing with the people behind the scenes. Psychologically, the way we form relationships with fictional characters tracks very closely with the way we form relationships with real people we don’t actually know, like celebrities, politicians, or social media stars. From this perspective, behavior directed toward real individuals, like a writer, might, in some ways, feel make-believe or harmless, even though it is very real.”
The irony here is that geeks often discover their passions while searching for some form of acceptance. With geek culture exploding into the mainstream over the past decade, it often becomes less about “are you a fan?” and more about “how much of a fan are you?” But fandom—the enjoyment of creativity and art—shouldn’t be placed on some finite metric to be analyzed and judged, as long as it’s being expressed positively.
Not Necessarily the Dark Side
Just as segments of fandom can be toxic gatekeepers, other times it can be powerful tools for change. When fandom voices offer criticism in a loud and constructive way, sometimes they can impact the direction of a franchise. Fan protests have led to better representation of marginalized communities in media, a greater variety of content, and, in some instances, even resuscitated beloved series and characters.
With Star Trek, the J. J. Abrams-produced reboot films were commercial and critical successes that brought Trek to the true mainstream. But some fans wanted a return to the proper timeline—and the proper venue: television. The result? CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery.
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With Star Trek: Discovery, some anxieties about the future of the franchise have been calmed, and you can be sure that CBS heard the opinions of their longest supporters. Without them, after all, Star Trek wouldn’t have ever been brought back from cancellation, spun off a film franchise, and launched a TV empire spanning five series. The fans’ voices mattered.
But ultimately, for Iacovino, canon is less important than preserving Star Trek’s ideal: “In my opinion, there is someone who is going to love every incarnation of Star Trek, and that’s what’s important. Star Trek doesn’t owe me anything, and I don’t expect Star Trek to be tailor made to my liking. All I ask is that new Star Trek uphold the ideals of The Original Series, which can be summed up in one acronym: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations
We’re All Stories
In the Star Wars universe, EU fans—myself included—rejoiced at the return of Grand Admiral Thrawn. Our passion was palpable, and in the end, it appears Lucasfilm kept an open mind to elements of the EU. Or as Rebels showrunner Dave Filoni put it prior to debuting the season’s trailer, “Let’s take a moment and expand the universe a little .”
“It was pretty amazing,” Filoni later said regarding the fan reaction to bringing Thrawn back. “I know how much people like the character, but I think when it’s not from one of the films, you can always easily underestimate how much it means to somebody.”
Fandom ultimately holds the final say by making something commercially successful. So when a group is large enough and vocal enough, the smart thing for franchise runners to do is keep an open mind. “I’m not sure if [fan outcry helps the cause], but we have seen that when fans are vocal enough—for example about the lack of diversity in media—changes can happen,” says Scarlet. “I think that for the fans who connect with that aspect of the fandom it may be validating to have their favorite books reinstated into canon.”
At the same time, not every battle will be won, nor does it necessarily need to be fought. Such attrition winds up losing sight of the very nature of fandom. For many geeks, the reason why we obsess over a franchise’s canonical details is immersion. The richer the history, the more alive it feels, and it becomes a secret language shared by fans. It’s only when people start caring more about the details than the actual experience that canon arguments become toxic and fans start losing the ability to enjoy things for what they are.
So how can we sensibly enjoy a canon-rich franchise circa 2016?“
You can share your opinion and make your voice heard, but ultimately you have to let go of the outcome and the direction of a story that’s not yours” says Kathleen Smith, licensed therapist and author of The Fangirl Life. “If your grip is too tight, you’ll just get dragged through a lot of emotions and resentment. What you do have control over is how you choose to let a story influence your own life. If it gives you joy, and jumpstarts your imagination, introduces you to a wonderful fan community, and makes you take big, bold moves in your own life, then it’s served its purpose. Nobody can take that from you.”
This article was originally published on November 17th, 2016. It has been republished here with updated information about Star Trek: Discovery.
Featured photo via Lucasfilm