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This article is not about literary canons of influential works of fiction, but about the concept of a canon which defines the world of a particular fictional series or franchise.


A canon, in terms of a fictional universe, is a body of material that is considered to be "genuine" or "official", that can be directly referenced as, or as if it were, material produced by the original author or creator of a series. New works set within that universe are ostensibly constrained to be consistent with pre-existing canon, though the issue is somewhat complicated by several factors: pre-existing canon itself may also be subject to retcon, for instance, and some licensed works, such as movie or television novelizations or spin-off novels, may not be considered "canonical" by some. Additionally, adaptations of a work into other formats, such as feature film or television, may be considered either non-canonical, or forming a separate canon; and consistency with prior canon is not sufficient in and of itself to make a work "canonical" - fan fiction, for instance, often follows the original pre-existing canon but is not part of the canon.

Origins

The word "canon" originally referred to the books which the Church officially chose to be included in the Bible (see also: canon law); by extension, it can be taken as referring to the authoritative (albeit metaphorical) "holy writ" of a fictional universe. However, the practice of defining a "canon" in terms of a fictional world likely derived from the concept of a literary canon, a specified collection of works considered to be both representative and the best of a particular form, genre or culture. In that more common use of the word, works forming a canon do not have to bear any strong relation to each other, apart from their perceived high quality or historical influence.

The specific use of "canon" to describe the degree to which a given work adheres to the standards of its fictional world appears to have originated amongst devotees of the Sherlock Holmes stories, as a way to distinguish between the original works of Arthur Conan Doyle and adaptations of those works or original works by other writers utilizing related characters and settings. However, much of the interest in and controversy over issues of "canonicity" have appeared in recent decades in the fan followings of films and television shows, such as the science fiction franchises Star Wars and Star Trek.

When the body of work nominally set in the same fictional universe becomes large enough, it can happen that new material, such as might be found in spin-off television shows, prequels and books, contradicts earlier material. Such contradictions may be a result of poor research, or an attempt to revise, or correct a perceived error in, earlier material (see also: retcon). The question is which material to favor and which to ignore when attempting to resolve all the material into a consistent whole. Two simple approaches are the "principle of first mention" in which information in the original work provides a foundation which later material must respect, and the revisionist model in which the latest work always supersedes earlier material. However, the situation can be much more complicated.

Nature of fictional canons

The word canon can simultaneously refer to the considerations of the publishers of a fictional series as well as what the fanbase chooses to consider as authentic.

Generally, "Expanded Universes" are not considered canonical; by analogy with the idea of a canon of Scripture (see Biblical canon), such stories are considered "apocrypha". However, there are exceptions. In the case of the Star Wars canon, the Expanded Universe is canonical, though open to interpretation in a way which the "gospel" of the films is not. Doctor Who, which began life as a television series but has also been produced in prose, audio and graphical formats, has never had a single author or authority to pronounce on the issue of canon, and its fans run a spectrum between those who consider only some parts of the television series canonical and those who consider everything labeled as Doctor Who canonical.

In addition, a story can belong to two overlapping canons. One of the most obvious examples of this is Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton family. Some (but not all) of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Doc Savage, etc. are canonical in the Wold Newton setting. This does not mean that the events of Farmer's books are canonical from a Sherlockian perspective. Similarly, fans of Laurie R. King's novels of Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell consider all the Holmes stories to be canonical in King's setting.

The difference can be even less clear-cut than this. Current Star Trek novels maintain a tight continuity with each other, and avoid contradicting the television series. When a Lost Era novel set between the movies and The Next Generation features a younger version of a character introduced in a Deep Space Nine novel, it is obvious there is some sort of "canonical" novel-setting, even if the TV series is not obliged to conform to it. This is where "fanon" and canon often collide, especially when a TV series, movie or other officially canonical source contradicts it. An example is the Trek novel Starfleet: Year One, which appeared in print before the TV series Star Trek: Enterprise was announced, but was completely invalidated by the series. Generally, though, in the case of televised fiction, only facts which appear in the as-originally-aired version of a program are considered canonical (including scenes cut from re-runs, but not including such things as deleted scenes and scenes from unaired pilots and other such material that "leaks out" over the Internet).

Furthermore, the issue is also complicated when the definition of a canon changes well after the fictional universe is established. As an example, a number of reference works for Star Trek were published between 1970 and 1988 by Franz Joseph and FASA Corporation. These books were considered canonical at the time (some even made with the explicit approval of Gene Roddenberry), sanctioned by Paramount Pictures, and were used almost universally by novel and comic book authors, as well as the production staff of the earlier Star Trek movies (information from these manuals appeared as background dialogue in some scenes, and many diagrams were used as computer displays). However, in 1988, as part of the release of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry and Paramount Pictures changed their policies regarding canonicity and stripped these books of their canonical status, as the new series quickly made many changes and revelations which openly contradicted earlier canonical books. Thus a book that was considered completely canonical in 1985, such as The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual, would be considered non-canonical in 1995.

In recent years, complications have been created by the increasing popularity of supplemental web content appearing on network's show sites. Deleted scenes and webisode series, produced by the studio are often considered canon, while other materials, such as character profiles, stories, and games, often produced by the networks themselves, generally are not.

In some fictional universes, interviews and other communications from authors are also considered canonical—like the letters of J. R. R. Tolkien with relation to Middle-earth; also items such as interviews, Internet chat sessions, and websites (e.g., the website of J. K. Rowling in relation to the Harry Potter series). This usually only happens in cases where all works in the universe have the same author.

In almost all cases, fan fiction is not considered canonical, as fan fiction is usually produced by amateurs. Sometimes, however, events or characterizations portrayed in fan fiction can become so influential that they are respected in fiction written by many different authors, and may be mistaken for canonical facts by fans. This is referred to as "fanon". An intentional inversion of the exclusion of fan fiction came in Eric Flint's 1632 universe; in February 2000, fans and other established authors were invited on the Internet forum Baen's Bar to shape the multiverse, and the fan-fic, once vetted, is itself published in the various Grantville Gazettes, themselves under the direct editorial control of Flint and a 1632 editorial board. This is an ongoing process that apparently will continue indefinitely, as the series continues to enjoy burgeoning popularity.

Additionally, works of foreign origins (as is the case with most Japanesemarker-produced video games, manga or anime) may have certain details of the original plot changed or modified during the adaptation from one language to another. The person in charge of the adaptation may choose to write an adaptation canon in addition to the original canon to maintain consistency when adapting a possible later work such as a sequel or a spinoff, although this is not always the case. An adapted version of the same work can sometime deviate completely from its source material, resulting a separate franchise from the original, as is the case with the Macross and Robotech franchises.

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