Debate #1: Robert Mercer

December 27, 2001 (my first rebuttal):

What is sci-fi analysis?

Robert, I thought you were going to deal with generalized philosophical discussions of how to analyze canon evidence in sci-fi analyses and "versus" discussions, rather than using that pretext as an excuse to rehash old arguments about what is and isn't canon in the particular example of Star Trek. But since you didn't look at some obvious philosophical questions which must be resolved before delving into that well-worn subject, I will do it instead. First, we must ask: what is the purpose of sci-fi analysis?

First and foremost, we must recognize that you can choose to examine fiction in a rational, objective manner or an irrational, subjective manner if you wish, and neither manner is inherently superior (it all depends on whether you're seeking a rational, objective conclusion or an irrational, subjective conclusion). See WWWF Grudge Match for examples of the latter (that site is actually pretty damned funny and I like it a lot, but I digress). However, for the purposes of our discussion and my website, we are using the former. Think about it: when people claim to be objective and rational, and when they use the language of science (watts, joules, gravitons, electromagnetism, etc) in order to generate predictions about the behaviour of sci-fi technology (as opposed to sci-fi characters), what are they doing? Are they trying to determine what storytelling conventions might apply? Are they trying to determine what would happen according to Hollywood clichés or human nature? Absolutely not. Whether they are willing to admit it or not, they are trying to synthesize a self-consistent physical model of a fictional universe.

But what is a self-consistent physical model of a fictional universe? Guess what: it is a science! And how do we arrive at a science in real life? Through the scientific method! Even if a particular scientific principle does not appear to generate accurate predictions in a fictional universe (or the real one, for that matter), the scientific method still applies, and it is the most accurate method of generating the kind of models that we can use to generate reliable predictions (if you care to debate whether the scientific method works in real life, then feel free; your suffering would be legendary).

In short, I am pointing out that the purpose of what we refer to as "sci-fi analysis" on websites such as this one, the various tech newsgroups, or even the "vs" boards on is to determine the science of fictional universes, not to determine their storytelling conventions. Since science is defined by its method, the only legitimate way to accomplish this task is to employ the scientific method while suspending disbelief.


You said: "Authority flows from two sources: the creator of the representation; and the owner of the representation. In many cases, the creator and the owner are one and the same. In some cases, they are not. Legally, the owner of the representation (regardless of his role in its creation), has the sole power to determine the authority of the representation; and of additional representations that take place or are set within the same general representation of a fictional universe."

Plain English translation: "only Paramount can say what's canon in Star Trek.". This is an obvious attempt to have John Ordover's statement thrown out of court, since he works for Pocket Books rather than Paramount (it would be nice if you just came out and said that, instead of playing games like this).

I generally agree with the idea that the creator and owner of the representation are the best authorities who can tell us what is and isn't "real" in the fictional worlds of sci-fi. However, I take exception to the way you characterize this as "the authority of the representation". They have the authority to tell us what is and isn't "real" in their sci-fi franchise, but they are not dictating the "authority" of particular representations. The owners or creators tell us what is and isn't part of their fictional universes, but they don't tell us how to analyze any of it.

Remember that serious sci-fi analyses take place under a "suspension of disbelief" agreement. If we are suspending disbelief, we temporarily agree to pretend that these fictional universes are not fictional. We pretend that they are real, and once we are immersed in them, we have no way of knowing the wishes of their creators. The creator/owner's only input in this process (apart from making the films/TV shows, of course) is to tell us which pieces of information are genuine. For example, the creator/owner can say, in essence, "you should suspend disbelief for this, but not for that." That is what we mean by "canon".

This is also consistent with the religious origins of the word "canon". The Church tells you which texts are canon, but the definition of canon does not carry with it any preferences for methods of interpreting those texts (the right-wing fundamentalists would beg to differ, but I don't have time to debate their idiocy right now). Millions of Christians around the world have various opinions on how we should interpret "canon", without disagreeing on what it is. Some appeal to its authority, while others have a complete frontal lobe.

Regardless of whether you choose to falsely attribute it to the creator/owner, the concept of "authority" does not exist once we suspend disbelief. To suspend disbelief is to temporarily assume that Star Wars (for example) is not a fictional movie. To suspend disbelief is to temporarily assume that it is just as real as you or me, without question. If we are assuming that it is just as "real" as reality, then we should approach it the same way we would approach reality. In reality, no rational person argues that visual evidence (eg- a telescope picture) has more or less "authority" than a book or a person's words. Such forms of evidence represent scientifically useful observation, historical source, and hearsay respectively, and that is the way any scientist will treat them. They are different types of evidence which should be treated as such, and the concept of "authority" doesn't enter into it.

Star Trek's rules

In order to turn an ostensibly philosophical, generalized sci-fi debate into a debate about the particulars of Star Trek (as per standard Trekkie modus operandi), you quoted some passages from Paramount's website:

As a rule of thumb, the events that take place within the live action episodes and movies are canon, or official Star Trek facts. Story lines, characters, events, stardates, etc. that take place within the fictional novels, the Animated Adventures, and the various comic lines are not canon.

This is fairly unequivocal. They state quite clearly that the "live action episodes and movies" are canon. They do not make that statement for anything else.

Pocket Books have published several excellent reference guides, but due to the overwhelming nature of the Star Trek oeuvre, it's nearly impossible to create technical reference for every ship seen on the show. However, they have gone a long way to help those of you who are technically minded by publishing the following books: "Star Trek: The Next Generation - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-D Blueprints, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Technical Manual and the "Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual.

There have been earlier versions of technical manuals, including "Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise" (Shane Johnson) and the "Star Trek Starfleet Technical Manual" (Franz Joseph), but these books, although fun to read, were not written by production personnel and are not considered 'canon.'

You conclude that "These statements imply that the reference materials produced by members of the show's production staff also have canonical or quasi-canonical status," which I can only imagine is a desperate attempt to enforce your preferred conclusion upon the facts. At no point does this state or imply that the books are canon. In fact, it states very explicitly that certain books are not canon, and you take an enormous leap of faith to conclude that other books are therefore canon.

Suppose a scientist says something like: "religious books are handy for religious folks, but Christian books such as the Bible are not scientifically valid. They were not written by scientists, and they are basically useless." Would you look at this quote and conclude that therefore, any book written by a scientist is valid? Scientists make mistakes too, which is why even the greatest piece of scientific literature cannot contradict a legitimate observation. Suppose you saw a creationist book written by a scientist (yes, they exist; the power of childhood brainwashing is an impressive thing to behold); would you accept it, because it skirts by the semantics of the scientist's statement? Do you know what the "black and white fallacy" is? If A and B are opposites on a spectrum, you cannot show that A is true simply by showing that B is not true.

Worse yet, you seem to have "accidentally" forgotten that John Ordover, senior editor of Pocket Books (the publisher of the Technical Manuals) stated quite clearly that "Nothing is canon except what you see on screen" on October 5, 1998 (and don't tell me you've never seen this quote, because I know you have). I guess you figured that you didn't have to mention it because of your clever word-play earlier (if you're not in corporate law, you missed your true calling), as if Mr. Ordover would have any incentive to understate the importance of a product which he sells for money, or as if he never talked to Paramount about its canonicity. If the senior editor of the company which publishes the Technical Manuals states flat-out that they are not canon, what possible reason do you have to believe they're canon? Vague implication? Vague implications don't trump explicit statements, Robert. The TMs were only written to "help those of you who are technically minded" as they put it, ie- help Treknobabble fanatics get their "fix".

There are a couple of exceptions to this rule: the Jeri Taylor penned novels "Mosaic" and "Pathways." Many of the events in these two novels feature background details of the main Star Trek: Voyager characters. (Note: There are a few details from an episode of the Animated Adventures that have entered into the Star Trek canon. The episode "Yesteryear," written by D.C. Fontana, features some biographical background on Spock.)

Notice once again that they do not explicitly state that these novels are canon. They state only that certain novels should not be completely ignored (by virtue of having particular story elements verified in televised episodes), and that certain things have "entered into the Star Trek canon", by way of being seen on a TV episode. Why is it so hard to admit that something must be in a TV episode in order to be canon?

You are desperately treading water, by pitting vague implications against explicit statements. While you struggle to make people believe that a statement "implies" that books can be canon, I have senior executives from both the TV show and the book publisher stating in plain English that they are not! Not only is there the Ordover statement, but Ron D. Moore also piped up:

"Actually, NONE of the books are considered canon. We consider only the filmed episodes (and movies) to be canon for our purposes. We do use things like the Encyclopedia, the Chronology, the Technical Manual etc. for reference, but unless it was explicitly mentioned on screen, we won't feel bound by anything stated even in those books."- Ron D. Moore, executive co-producer of Star Trek, quoted by Graham Kennedy.

And in case you need repetition:

"None of the the books should be considered canon"- quoted from a archive of one of Ron D' Moore's AOL chats from October 1, 1998.

Game, set, and match. I'll be signing autographs in the lobby.

Analysis of Evidence

After that completely unnecessary side-track, you went on to the real subject of this debate:

"Since the depictions that we are dealing with are neither religious scriptures nor great works of literature, the question then arises as to how the term "canon" is being applied here. Note that canonical status appears to be tied primarily to events and matters of fact, not the actual phenomenological details of the representations."

Plain English translation: "visuals are not canon.". Didn't you say you would try to avoid this long-winded legalese? Don't try to sell me that line about how you're trying to be "precise"; that's the same excuse lawyers use, and they're lying. This kind of language is about covering your ass and trying to make yourself look smart, not about precision. Scientific papers have greater precision than any literary or legal work, and they don't use this kind of language.

Anyway, could you beg the question any harder? You said you would argue that visual representations are poor sources of information. How can you simply state your conclusion as a premise? If this statement goes unchallenged, your logic is entirely circular: "visual effects should not be treated as canon because I declare that they are not canon"! You continue:

"in other words, it is stated that, "the events that take place within the live action episodes and movies are canon, or official Star Trek facts." In other words, an event (the birth or death of a character, for example; or the presence of the USS Enterprise in a particular location at a particular time) has canonical status; while a strong argument can be made that the visual (VFX, for example) details do not enjoy "canonical status" that is, that the dramatic elements are separate considerations from the content."

Plain English translation: "the Paramount website uses the word "events", and I interpret "events" to mean everything but visuals".

If "a strong argument can be made" that visuals are not included in the definition of "events", then go ahead and make it. It's bad enough that you base your entire argument on this kind of nitpicky semantics nonsense, but you're still begging the question. First you defined canon as "everything but visuals". Then, you defined "events" as "everything but visuals". Sorry, but those are not the proper definitions of those words! An "event" is merely an "occurrence", and the definition does not in any way exclude the appearance of that occurrence! In real life, do we say that an "event" like the explosion of the Space Shuttle is defined only as the commentators' words, and not the visuals? You're trying to define your conclusion as a premise, and sneak it in on the coattails of some other idea, like canonicity or "events".

This particular conception of canon flows from the nature of the representations in question and the role of "canonicity" in continuity considerations. In order to maintain continuity over the run of a series (or over several series and movies, etc.), it is necessary to designate, through some means, events and facts that cannot (or should not) be altered. Thus the designation of events as canonical; meaning nothing more than that this event is an established part of the continuity of Star Trek and should not be ignored or discarded without cause or explanation. This internal, continuity-based designation, has been extended, by the audience, to encompass all aspects of an episode or movie (including the VFX).

Plain English translation: "(repeating yourself) canon events don't include visuals, blah blah blah, lots of unnecessary words."

You are committing the "complex question" fallacy, by packaging your definition of "canon" and your preferred method of analyzing canon together as one conjoined idea. The producers merely tell us what is and isn't canon. They do not tell us how to analyze it! They do not tell us whether we should differentiate between visual effects and other onscreen information, and I strongly object to your obvious attempt to make it seem as if the objective analysis of visual effects would somehow violate the producers' wishes. You are merely trying to reserve the right to pick and choose which portions of a canon film or TV show you will accept, and that is not permissible if you are suspending disbelief.

For these discussions to occur, the audience agrees to suspend disbelief. If you suspend disbelief while watching a movie or TV show, you assume it is genuine footage. You are not permitted to differentiate between "visual effects" and "events". Everything is simply happening before your eyes, and you are not permitted to question it. If you refuse to suspend disbelief, then simply admit it and move on, instead of straddling the fence. Every conclusion on my website is made under the premise that we are suspending disbelief when watching the TV shows or movies that make up Star Wars or Star Trek. If you reject "suspension of disbelief", then do not participate in discussions where it is accepted by all the participants.

If this were a correct application of the term, then it would be "canon" that there is a medium in Star Trek space to carry the sounds of the ships to the listener's ears and that background music plays out of nowhere during especially dramatic moments. These particular examples are somewhat extreme, but serve to point out the essentially arbitrary nature of what we decide to include/not include under the umbrella of canon within the context of a particular representation. These things (the sound and background music) are done no less for dramatic purposes than are aspects of the visual representation (VFX).

How is it "arbitrary" to disregard a musical score or sound effects? A piece of WW1 war footage or space shuttle footage often has sound effects and music superimposed on it in real life when it is packaged for public viewing, and we do not summarily declare that it would be "arbitrary" to take its visual evidence at face value. All that matters is whether the footage is genuine or faked, and that's where the concept of "canon" comes into play. To be "canon" simply means that the footage is indeed genuine, so we suspend disbelief and treat it as we would any other piece of authentic footage in real life. There is nothing "arbitrary" about it.

There is, however, something rather arbitrary about the viewer refusing to accept what he sees on screen based on a stubborn refusal to suspend disbelief, while simultaneously accepting the existence of (and certain theories of operation for) things like transporters, instead of admitting that they were merely invented by the VFX department because they couldn't afford shuttle landing shots. I grow tired of saying this, and you're not the first person who has forced me to make this statement: there is no such thing as "visual effects" if we suspend disbelief!

I suspect that you will need some examples to clarify this situation, so I am providing two:

  1. The following link is to a very small page from which you can view footage of an astronaut talking about his experiences in space. You will hear a commentator, and you will also hear the astronaut himself talking. By your strange logic, we must discard the "visual effects" of this footage, because we can hear sound in space! Anything else would be "arbitrary!" So why don't we discard the visuals? Because we know that it is genuine footage, ie- "canon" in a sci-fi universe. The addition of audio commentary does not in any way suggest that the visuals have been altered or fabricated.
  2. When Osama Bin Laden's video tape was released, we accepted that English subtitles were added to the picture rather than assuming that there were glowing yellow letters floating in the room with him. The existence of the subtitles did not invalidate the footage! Is that "arbitrary" too?

You draw a false dilemma between mindless interpretation of visual footage and a refusal to suspend disbelief, quietly ignoring the option of intelligent, objective analysis of that footage. Then, you falsely characterize my approach as "arbitrary" without giving any reasons that would even remotely hold up in reality. In reality, there are perfectly good, non-arbitrary reasons to disregard a movie's music track, just as there are for pieces of real-life footage. The only way out is to claim that the footage is faked, ie- generated in a special effects lab, which (for the umpteenth time) is not possible if you suspend disbelief! Unless you're willing to preface all of your arguments with a disclaimer that you refuse to suspend disbelief, then stop butting into a debate where the viewer's suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite for participation.

Your entire discussion of Star Trek books was a useless red herring, and it only occurred because you followed standard Trekkie modus operandi ("all sci-fi discussions should revolve around Star Trek"). You said you wanted to debate the general philosophy of sci-fi analysis. I say: "Fine. Do it.". Because up till now, all you've done is to fallaciously bundle your conclusion as a premise, play games with semantics, and drag this debate into your vortex of Trek obsession.

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