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Star Wars Canon: Boon Or Bane?

With the release of the Obi-Wan Kenobi series on Disney+ a new debate about canon has come to the forefront. Some fans feel Obi-Wan Kenobi violates and breaks canon too much, a young Leia meets Obi-Wan Kenobi while in A New Hope she acts as if she merely knows him as some Clone Wars general who served for Bail Organa. Darth Vader meets Obi-Wan in the flesh even though the dialogue in A New Hope heavily implies that the last time they met was on Mustafar. Other fans however just enjoy the ride and don’t bother too much with those details. So today I want to talk about canon, its importance, its limitations and whether or not canon should be the most important thing in a franchise. Click through for the discussion.

“We finally meet again….”

Let’s talk about what canon is first, since there are several elements to it.

First there is simple visual continuity. Fans usually want important props, locations or things like ships to look more or less the same across various movies or episodes of a series unless an in-universe reason is given for why the visual appearance changes.

Next, and more importantly, is narrative continuity, events that happen in one episode or movie should not be ignored or forgotten about in other movies or episodes. And many fans usually take offense when this narrative continuity is violated. You can still buy t-shirts with “Han shot first”. George Lucas is (in)famous for changing his mind about some pretty big things. So Han does shoot first in the original release of Star Wars. In later releases in the 1990s Lucas re-edited the scene and Greedo shot first. This was yet again changed years later and now Greedo and Han more or less shoot at the same time. Then we have the curious case of Darth Maul. He was cut in half and fell down a reactor shaft in The Phantom Menace. Most people would assume that’s pretty much it for Maul. But years later Lucas once again changed his mind and realized he had killed off an interesting villain much too soon and thus decided to revive Darth Maul for The Clone Wars.

And thus we encounter the dreaded “retcon”. When someone in control of the franchise changes their mind about a non trivial detail. Retcons have been hotly debated ever since.

Having a canon in your ever expanding franchise seems like a good idea, it makes things look and feel cohesive, so why would anyone in their right mind ever want to violate or twist canon?

As much of a great idea canon seems to be it also creates several huge issues though.

First, the entertainment industry has made huge advances in the past decades, your average series can now have quite impressive CGI and series often have much higher budgets than any tv show in previous decades. Something which results in higher production values and better looking series. Then there’s the simple fact that no franchise ever really has a plan for the far future. When George Lucas wrote Star Wars in the mid 1970s he didn’t know Vader was Leia’s and Luke’s father and he certainly never contemplated the idea of having a Star Wars series 45 years later about the adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

What I am trying to say is, technology progresses, things you never thought of or didn’t think possible may become quite attractive and very much feasible years or decades later. Should you still stick to canon then?

Let’s take a brief look at another very famous franchise: Star Trek. Now Star Trek fans are usually pretty much obsessed with canon but Star Trek, unlike Star Wars, has undergone drastic changes in the past few decades.

The original series was shot on a tight budget (especially in later seasons) in the 1960s. We currently have a brand new Star Trek show “Strange New Worlds” on Paramount+, which is, technically speaking, a prequel to TOS and the days of Captain Kirk, set roughly 10 years before the original series. Yet everything, and I mean virtually everything, not only looks different, but much more sophisticated and modern. And even some of the TOS characters that appear in the series feel different, Nurse Chapel from the original series suddenly has an actual personality and character, for example.,
However, the way Star Trek handles things is the only way to go really. The 1960s sets look mostly quaint and cheap these days, trying to adhere to visual continuity would be silly. Production tech has improved, we now have CGI, the series also has much more money at disposal. Even the iconic Enterprise received a redesign (whether or not also for licensing reasons should us not concern here) and looks much more detailed and, quite frankly, better than the 1960s original version.

Visbily different, but it feels the same. Star Trek in 2022.

Star Trek has various severe issues with canon, and the franchise had these issues long before Star Trek was rebooted in the early 2000s. An entire movie has been more or less struck from canon, the fifth movie with the original crew introduced a long lost half-brother of Spock for example, something which has been completely ignored ever since then. And the original series (and most movies) conveniently always forgot about time travel which would have solved many, many problems, even though time travel is proven to be quite easy in TOS.

Until recently Star Wars had relatively few issues with canon, we only had 6 major movies and a few animated series. Now we have 11 major movies and an ever growing list of new series that will add more and more content to Star Wars.

Star Trek has currently 13 movies and 846 episodes across 12 series. It will take a long time for Star Wars to reach these numbers, maybe never even, but still, canon issues will become more prevalent the more content the franchise gets. It’s inevitable. People come up with ideas for a new movie or show that have not been 100% accounted for in previous media or may even partially or wholly contradict previous content. Tech changes and the look of certain things will change. A 1977 lightsaber looks very different from a 2022 LED lightsaber used in Obi-Wan Kenobi.

So should fans demand more caution and more adherence to continuity and canon? Is it bad when canon is violated?

As always it depends. Should the major events of the original trilogy (we have a rebellion, the rebels blow up two Death Stars and defeat the Empire) ever been retconned? Certainly not. But everything else? Maybe that is fair game and it doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

I haven’t touched on a third part of canon yet, we covered visual and narrative continuity but there is one more level of canon, less tangible though, it’s the philosophical and “spiritual” canon. In short, does something feel like it’s part of the same universe, does it have the same underlying philosphy and approach to things?

Let me briefly return to Star Trek, while – in my opinion – the new Star Trek series had severe issues with this part of canon with Discovery and Picard the animated series Lower Decks and much more prominently the brand new series Strange New Worlds have not. In fact, Strange New Worlds is 100% and without a doubt adhering to the philosophical Star Trek canon. Everything may look very different, more sophisticated and advanced, but it very much feels like Star Trek.

And in my opinion this third part of canon is the one that really matters. Narrative continuity as well as visual continuity are not unimportant, but I believe that these two parts of canon should never ever shoot down the idea for a new movie or show and should only be adhered to when they don’t prevent a new idea from happening.

I think that some fans treat canon too much like a kind of scripture, written down on stone tablets and passed down to us by the ancients. However, we talk about entertainment franchises which are, as the name suggests, meant to entertain (and to make money). That does not mean everything should be arbitrary, but as long as philosophical and spiritual canon are adhered to visual and narrative continuity are not that important.

We can take a quick look at the comic book industry. Reboots, retcons and universe spanning crises are a common occurence in comics. The Superman or Batman we have today are very different from previous versions, yet the core of the characters has always stayed intact. So even though many, many details and even plot details or character backgrounds have changed over the decades the characters still feel the same.

Also, as I said before, it’s virtually impossible to map out the narrative of a franchise years or decades in advance. Sometimes you may even write yourself into a corner and you only realize later you should have done things differently and that your original decision was a mistake.
So George Lucas one day decided Darth Maul should not be dead after all. And thus he was brought back to life. There are good reasons to say it’s ridiculous, the man was cut in half and fell down a bottomless shaft. Who can survive that? But then again, Maul has added so much to Clone Wars and was a fantastic villain. The show was better with him.

To come to a conclusion: I feel fans should try to have a more relaxed approach to canon. Canon is not nothing, some continuity is needed, but as I tried to explain I believe that the philosophical and spiritual canon, the “core” of the franchise, is the one aspect of canon that really matters. Movies and tv shows are not scripture. They are entertainment. And George Lucas himself, when we talk more specifically about Star Wars, was never a slave to canon, that man changed his mind about things all the time. When he first started with Star Wars he didn’t even know Vader was the father of Leia and Luke, that detail was added later.

Star Wars, Star Trek, any other franchise with lots and lots of content, are not monoliths, the scripts are not written on stone tablets, these are organic franchises that will, inevitably, change over time as the people in charge get replaced, technology progresses and someone comes up with a fun idea no one thought about before and which was not accounted for. Or maybe they realize a previous decision in a movie or show was bad and thus retcon it.

So while Obi-Wan Kenobi, for example, does have issues (mostly regarding the writing and production quality) and absolutely does twist and maybe even contradict established canon it 100% looks and feels like Star Wars. It *IS* Star Wars and I feel that’s the one thing that really matters. Even an iconic movie like A New Hope is still just that: a movie. Entertainment. A diversion meant to bring you joy and fun. And George Lucas changed, re-edited and tweaked the movie throughout the decades, something some fans cannot accept to this day.

I think it would be a healthier and more reasonable approach to consider franchises like Star Wars (or Star Trek) more like your typical comic book franchise, something that will, inevitably, evolve and change over the years and decades but will always try to keep the very basic core intact. Enjoy the ride, have fun, and while it can also be fun to obsess over small details or continuity in general – and while these things are not nothing – it shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of something if a new movie or show doesn’t really adhere to some aspects of canon. Strict adherence to narrative canon is a bad idea, it will limit creativity and prevent new things from happening.

But what do you think? Do you more or less agree with me or do you think canon is indeed scripture and that violating it should be avoided at all costs? Even if that means we won’t get the “rematch of the century” between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader or a Star Trek show that is very much a product of the 21st century and would instead look like 1960s Star Trek? Leave your own thoughts in the comments!

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