What is Canon?

Written: 1998-08-01
Last Revised: 2006-11-08

""Canon" is something that fans obsess on, but it's not something that the actual makers of the show care about that much." - Christopher Bennett, Star Trek writer.

What does "Canon" mean?

The term "canon" has religious roots; it refers to a body of rules or principles, and in the case of Christianity, it refers to "a list of books of the Bible officially accepted by the church or religious body as genuine", according to Webster's New World Dictionary. As with the Bible, the canon of Star Wars and Star Trek is crucial because it literally defines what is "real" in those fictional universes. Luckily, the Christian canon is a good model to use because it is universally agreed-upon, right? Well, actually ... no.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no universal consensus on the Christian canon. To make a long story short, the Catholic and Greek Orthodox canons contain more material than the Protestant one, and while Protestant scholars usually give the Catholic/Orthodox "extra canon" a secondary but still important status as "apocrypha", the more radical Protestant fundamentalists tend to insist on disregarding it completely. In fact, some fundamentalists feel so strongly about this that they regard the Catholics as blasphemers, and refer to the Catholic Church as "The Great Whore". And then there's the issue of recently unearthed material from that era such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which create even more controversy.

You may suspect that if we aspire to that as a model, we may have a bumpy road ahead. And you'd be right. As silly as this may seem to an outsider, there is heated controversy among sci-fi fans about what should be included in the canon. Yes, go ahead, make the "geek" jokes; if you were interested enough to get this far, you're one of us, so there!!! HA!!! Anyway, as with the Catholics and the Protestants, there are those who want more material included, and those who want less. And in the cases of both Star Wars and Star Trek, there is even a "God" of sorts, ie- a Creator for each sci-fi series.

To make another long story short, most fans agree to accept the decrees of the copyright holders (Lucasfilm and Paramount, respectively) when it comes to what is canon. This agreement is crucial if we are to discuss anything, because while no one can state that your personal definition of canon is "wrong" in any absolute sense (although many will try), you can't really debate the nature of a sci-fi universe based on the books, shows, and movies if you disagree on which books, shows, and movies are admissible.


Who cares what Canon is anyway?

Heh heh ... good question. The short answer is that hardcore geeks care, for the same reason that X-Men fans can get into heated arguments: we're weird. The long answer is that it's really not an issue for most people unless they disagree with someone else on what's canon. Joe Blow sitting in his living room watching Star Wars does not care about this issue, nor should he. He knows what he considers to be Star Wars, but he's also not getting into arguments about whether a turbolaser is more powerful than a phaser.

In the fan community, there are generally 4 approaches to a question like "how powerful is a turbolaser" or "how long is a Star Destroyer":

  1. Make up your own standard, based on what you personally consider valid.

  2. Ask Paramount and Lucasfilm what they consider "canon". This is technically the most legitimate method, since "canon" literally means that which is accepted by the ruling body, and Paramount and Lucasfilm are the ruling bodies.

  3. Only go with material which was personally produced by George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry.

  4. Write huge dissertations in which you painstakingly analyze the semantics of every quote ever made by any person working for Paramount or Lucasfilm in order to come up with a thesis about precisely what should or should not be considered canon. If necessary, argue with representatives of Paramount and Lucasfilm.

To be honest, I think the last option makes us look like a bunch of obsessive fanatics, but there is a sizable contingent of Trekkies who have made a career out of listing pages and pages worth of quotes from various individuals and then semantically analyzing them for meaning. And if you don't respond in kind, they start hurling all sorts of accusations about your honesty, intelligence, etc. If you would prefer option #2, just know that basically, Paramount considers the movies and TV shows to be canon and nothing else, while Lucasfilm considers material produced by George Lucas to be canon and everything else to occupy various levels of "quasi-canon". And both of them maintain a continuity which is not necessarily identical to the canon. Confused yet? Well, if you want to know more, read on:


Method #1: Make up your own rules

There's really not much to be said about this method. To be honest, most people go this way, and there's really nothing wrong with it, until they get involved in sci-fi debating. That's where you need to come to some sort of consensus about what is and isn't canon.


Method #2: Ask Paramount and Lucasfilm

The unspoken secret of "canon" is that Paramount and Lucasfilm are not like the Church. They don't particularly care to let the public know what is or isn't canon, because as far as they're concerned, "canon" only matters insofar as their staff writers know what they have to stay faithful to when they write new material. So why does the public even need to know about it? They don't even take the word "canon" that seriously, and some of them prefer the word "continuity". That's why there are only scattered and often conflicting statements about what is or isn't "canon"; the people in charge consider it an internal policy matter, not a publicity issue.

Nevertheless, certain enterprising (some would say disturbingly obsessed) individuals have actually accosted Paramount and Lucasfilm representatives in the past, seeking official clarification on what is or isn't canon. In the first case, someone asked Paula Block (head of Star Trek licensing at Paramount) for a statement, and she responded with:

Frankly, I don't really understand why there's so much confusion between continuity and canon. I started working at Paramount while Gene Roddenberry was still alive, so you might say I got canon from the horse's- er, Great Bird's—mouth. Canon is what's produced for the TV and Movie screens. Books aren't. End of story. It's my job to hold licensees like Pocket to that standard. Which is not to say that there haven't been times when canon has contradicted itself—those darn producers and scriptwriters don't always keep track of/remember/care about what's come before. So things can get confusing. But books are never considered part of canon. The only reason Jeri Taylor's books were considered quasi-canon for a while was because licensees really wanted some sort of background structure they could utilize for the Voyager characters (they find it hard to accept statements like "Well, they haven't established that on the show yet .."). So we (by this I mean VCP and folks in Rick Berman's office, whom I consulted with) let them consider Jeri's stuff quasi-canon. It didn't seem to hurt anything.

Another thing that makes canon a little confusing. Gene R. himself had a habit of decanonizing things. He didn't like the way the animated series turned out, so he proclaimed that it was NOT CANON. He also didn't like a lot of the movies. So he didn't much consider them canon either. And—okay, I'm really going to scare you with this one-after he got TNG going, he .. well .. he sort of decided that some of the Original Series wasn't canon either. I had a discussion with him once, where I cited a couple things that were very clearly canon in the Original Series, and he told me that he didn't think that way anymore, and that he now thought of TNG as canon wherever there was conflict between the two. He admitted it was revisionist thinking, but so be it.

That's kind of like God telling you the stuff in that old bible .. well, he's just not in to it anymore. (And please don't take that as an invitation to starting a thread about the merits of the old testament vs. the new. Do that on another bbs.) Anyway, you can see why canon is such a difficult concept. But I always fall back on the first and original rule (call me a traditionalist)--what you see on the big and small screens is canon. Nothing else.

In short, nothing is canon in Star Trek but the TV shows and movies, and even some of the material in the TV shows and movies might not be considered canon. It's a fairly definitive statement (although I should note that there are those who contest her authority to speak on behalf of Paramount even though she's the head of Paramount licensing and gets to determine what is or isn't accepted for publication, she worked directly with Rick Berman and Gene Roddenberry, etc).

As for Star Wars, the same individual asked similar questions of Leland Chee (maintainer of the Star Wars Holocron, which is an internal continuity database which is kept secret from the public and which informs Star Wars authors what they must stay consistent to), and he responded with this:

The database does indeed have a canon field. Anything in the films and from George Lucas (including unpublished internal notes that we might receive from him or from the film production department) is considered "G" canon. Next we have what we call continuity "C" canon which is pretty much everything else. There is secondary "S" continuity canon which we use for some older published materials and things that may or may not fit just right. But, if it is referenced in something else it becomes "C". Similarly, any "C" canon item that makes it into the films can become "G" canon. Lastly, there is non-continuity "N" which we rarely use except in the case of a blatant contradiction or for things that have been cut.

I will not go into specifics as to what is considered "S" canon or what items that are seemingly "C" canon are actually "G" canon.

When challenged by certain agenda-driven individuals who claimed that they studied George Lucas' public interviews and therefore knew his intentions better than people who worked with him professionally, Mr. Chee further clarified with this:

All contradictions are dealt with case-by-case ... Does LucasFilm Ltd. itself actually have a Canon Policy? No.
...
The quote you provide makes it sound like the EU is separate from George's vision of the Star Wars universe. It is not.

So in summary, the policy of Lucasfilm is that the books count, although not as highly as the movies. The policy of Paramount is that the books don't count at all, and amazingly enough, some of the TV shows and movies don't count either. The two companies have taken different approaches; Lucasfilm has gone the route of inclusiveness in order to weld things into a single continuity, while Paramount went the route of minimizing that which is canon so that authors would have more freedom to work independently of one another.


Method #3: Only Use Lucas/Roddenberry-produced Material

While this method deviates from the proper definition of "canon", it's quite popular and not unreasonable. After all, if a sci-fi universe can be said to be the creation of a single man, then it makes sense that his own produced works will be most consistent with his vision. It is also at least partially consistent with certain public statements from both Mr. Lucas and Mr. Roddenberry, although the usual caution applies against reading too much into statements or taking them too literally.

In the case of Mr. Roddenberry, his famous line on Star Trek authenticity was: "It isn't Star Trek until I say it's Star Trek". That famous quote came from The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry (quoted on his website), and he was known for saying it not once, but many times, and to many people. The quote is fairly unequivocal, and states simply that unless he personally approves it, then it doesn't count. This creates quite a problem for a lot of Trek fans, for the simple reason that he's been dead since 1991, and he never approved most of DS9 (never mind Voyager or Enterprise). It is particularly troublesome when Roddenberry is known to have said that TOS did not really follow his vision closely enough, which means that of all the Star Trek series and spin-offs, TNG is the only really reliable one. Nevertheless, if one wants to go with authentic Roddenberry-approved Star Trek, that's what you have to do. I hope you're a big fan of TNG.

In the case of Mr. Lucas, he has made it clear on many occasions that Star Wars is bigger than just the movies. One well-known quote comes from Star Wars Insider #45 where he says "Part of the job of the director is to sort of keep everything in line, and I can do that in the movies - but I can't do it on the whole Star Wars universe." Another one comes from Cinescape #62 where he says "There are two worlds here ... There's my world, which is the movies, and there's this other world that has been created, which I say is the parallel universe - the licensing world of the books, games and comic books. They don't intrude on my world, which is a select period of time, [but] they do intrude in between the movies. I don't get too involved in the parallel universe." Taken in conjunction, these two quotes clearly mean that Star Wars is bigger than just the movies, but they also indicate that Mr. Lucas does not personally participate too much in the production of materials other than his movies, so they're more likely to deviate from his vision than the movies do (just as the darker, worn-torn DS9 spin-off deviated considerably from Roddenberry's vision).

As an aside, some fans interpret George Lucas' second quote to mean that the Star Wars movies and Star Wars books actually occupy parallel universes in the literal sense, ie- the way Star Trek onscreen characters use the phrase ("a transporter accident shifted us into a parallel universe") rather than the way normal people use it ("religious fundamentalists live in their own parallel universe" or "he's off in a world of his own"). All I can say is that they've obviously watched far too much Star Trek.


Method #4: Write Huge Dissertations and Argue with Paramount and Lucasfilm

To be honest, there is only one person out there who is known to do this. His name is Robert Scott Anderson or RSA, and his adventures in canon (including the creation of an entire website at canonwars.com, dedicated to the "analysis" of "The Canon Policy") have been something of an ode to his own stubbornness. Click here to learn more.


Conclusion

Given the definition of what "canon" is, the only valid approach is to ask Paramount and Lucasfilm. Someone did precisely that, and we have their answers. Star Trek's continuity policy is very narrow, encompassing only the TV shows and movies (and not even all of those), while Lucasfilm's continuity policy is fairly broad, encompassing all of the movies and most of the other licensed material as well.

Alternatively, you could ignore the definition of "canon" (this is sci-fi after all, not a religion), and create a continuity policy based on the creator's direct participation, which would guarantee consistency with his vision. However, that narrows the field considerably. In Star Trek, you would have to drop everything made since 1991, and you would have to take TNG over TOS wherever there is a conflict. In Star Wars, you would have to drop everything that doesn't have George Lucas' name on it as producer or author.

And of course, if you find both of these two options unpalatable, you are always free to make up your own policy or do as the author of canonwars.com did, and turn the quest for "canon" into a huge personal obsession, even going so far as to argue with Paramount and Lucasfilm employees that they don't know their own companys' internal policies as well as you do because you have armloads of quotes you've "analyzed". Personally, I think that if pressed, the average person would probably concede that the most reasonable option is to simply accept whatever Lucasfilm and Paramount say on this matter. "Canon", after all, literally means that which is approved by the ruling body. That's not to say that you can't argue with Lucasfilm or Paramount about anything; the best-known case of a fan dispute with Lucasfilm was a clearly erroneous claim on certain printed sources that the Super Star Destroyer "Executor" in ROTJ was only 5 times bigger than a regular Star Destroyer even though anyone could watch the movies and see that it's obviously much bigger than that. But that's a matter of pointing out a measurement error, not disputing a company's own internal policies.


Addendum

This page has changed several times over the years. The reason is that new information comes to light, and sometimes this new information forces us to change our conclusions. The most recent clarifications from Paramount and Lucasfilm occurred only in the last year. Meanwhile, many of the pages on this site are as much as 8 years old, so they will often reflect a now obsolete way of approaching continuity (for example, many of the pages treat the Star Trek Technical Manuals as if they were canon). Unfortunately, I don't have the time to update all of my pages, but I hope to do so one day.



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