Fantasy and science fiction is expected, and almost required, to possess an internal continuity, especially across some of the most extensive and multimedia stories. The idea of ‘canon’, elements of a franchise which are officially considered ‘true’ by the creators or publishers, is often hotly debated by fans. When a single writer or team has created the majority of a work, canon is fairly easy to define; a line can easily be drawn between what is true to their world and what is not. However, in especially long-running series, it can be argued that structured worldbuilding stifles creativity. In many cases, newer canon ends up treading on the toes of older pieces and necessitating ‘retcons’, or retroactive continuity, to explain the discrepancies. Sometimes this is a small thing, like the inconsistent age of the Doctor in Doctor Who, but at others far more sweeping changes are made, notably in the newest crop of Star Wars films.
That said, the alternative approach of ‘backfilling’ comes with its own problems. While certainly allowing more freedom than traditional worldbuilding to begin with, it can often cause conundrums later on once a significant body of material has been built up. This is especially evident in video game series like Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996), Metal Gear (Konami, 1987), and Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996). In each of these, the original instalments were self-contained, but they spawned numerous sequels which began to delve into the backgrounds of their worlds and characters. While inconsistencies and reboots exist within these series, their stories are still beloved by fans, and many can be enjoyed without needing the context of other games in the series.
J.R.R. Tolkien can easily be considered the quintessential worldbuilder due to how famously detailed and rich Middle Earth’s cultures were. Whether it be the proud Elvenking of Mirkwood in The Hobbit (1937) or the noble land of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings (1954–55), every place and character in Tolkien’s works has a deep history or lineage which can often be traced back hundreds or even thousands of years. Extensive family trees exist for the hobbits of the Shire, and timelines and maps of Middle Earth and the Undying Lands provide visual depictions of a fictional history as credible as those of reality. The Silmarillion (1977) allows readers a unique window into various stories and legends referenced throughout and influencing the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. All of these details served to make Tolkien’s works some of the most well-known and respected in the fantasy genre, and in literature generally.
This level of depth came from a very focused starting point. An avid philologist, Tolkien began developing the peoples and stories of Middle Earth from the languages he created for them. In his own words, “the ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” With complete histories and evolutions of Quenya, Sindarin, Westron, and many other languages, Middle Earth and the stories therein took shape. Language and culture are inextricably linked, so by creating languages, Tolkien was also creating cultures. From here, discovering how people from those cultures might interact would come naturally; and thus, stories were born. By starting with a core detail, Tolkien was able to build up his creations and work outwards, with the broader strokes of the world only coming later. The rock-solid construction of Middle Earth allowed Tolkien ample freedom to tell his stories, because Middle Earth was the story.
In contrast, the Cthulhu Mythos did not have such structured origins. While the main body of short stories from the Mythos were written by H.P. Lovecraft, the idea of the stories being part of a linked and cohesive universe was more the product of Lovecraft’s friend and protégé, August Derleth. The name ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ was also a product of Derleth’s development; the only name Lovecraft had given his fictional universe was the joking term ‘Yog Sothothery’. While a vague pantheon of Outer Ones and Great Old Ones was repeatedly referenced in Lovecraft’s works (notably in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’), any kind of underlying structure or intention behind them was absent. It was only after Lovecraft’s death following an unsuccessful career that Derleth founded the publisher Arkham House to make Lovecraft’s work more well-known.
The first publication from Arkham House was The Outsider and Others in 1939, an anthology of almost all of Lovecraft’s short stories. Following this, Derleth began writing his own stories based on Lovecraft’s notes, which introduced the ideas of Elder Gods. Derleth’s contributions helped to flesh out the Cthulhu Mythos, notably by adding a few more entities to the pantheon, including Hastur, a being in Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow which had inspired some of Lovecraft’s work. By taking the captivating ideas of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors and tying them to similar stories and producing a cohesive world for them, Derleth created a framework which many writers since have used to continue the Mythos. Fantasy Flight Games has a range of board and card games set in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos, while themes and characters from the Mythos appear across an array of video games too wide to list here. Even as recently as January 2020 ‘The Colour Out of Space’ was adapted into a film of the same name. Yet all of this came from a relatively disorganised collection of short stories about cosmic fish monsters.
Outside of prose literature, other long-running media have gathered inconsistencies and the necessity for retcons over their lifetimes. Comic books are notorious for their convoluted continuity, due in no small part to the incredibly long time some characters have been around; Action Comics#1 was published in 1938, with Batman #1 only two years later. The continuity of characters such as Superman or the Avengers is complicated further by the fact that many of them lacked any kind of origin story when they were first written, with such stories only being added later and often retold or altered, both within the plot (time manipulation or alternate dimensions being commonplace in such stories) and outside of it, where writers choose to ignore or retcon previously established stories. With the rise of film adaptations of classic comic book characters, many stories have been changed further or restarted altogether for the transition to a different medium.
An excellent example of this labyrinthine retconning is in the story of Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker. First appearing in Batman #1, the Joker was not given any kind of backstory until Detective Comics #168 (1951), over a decade later. In 1988, this origin story was retold by Alan Moore in The Killing Joke, with some significant changes, though the broad strokes remained the same. In his numerous film appearances, the Joker’s background has either been left absent (as in The Dark Knight, 2008), or been changed again (Batman, 1989). In Joker, 2019, his origin story is again retold, with The Killing Joke cited as inspiration, though not directly adapted.
But in the case of the Joker, this absence of a solid background has become part of the character. It cements his place as the enigmatic and eternal foe of Batman, with no need for a ‘why’ to his existence. Most comic book characters are treated in a similar way; there are generally agreed-upon events leading to their creation, such as Bruce Banner being exposed to gamma radiation and becoming the Hulk, but specific hows and whys are unnecessary. This leaves various possibilities open for writers to explore with these characters, which has no doubt contributed to their longevity, but also helps these stories to take their place as a form of modern mythology.
However, cross-media retconning and vagueness does not always work to the advantage of the material, as the history of Star Wars fiction shows. Prior to the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, material in books, comics, and games was expressly forbidden by Lucasfilm from developing or exploring the decades leading up to A New Hope (1977). This led to a significant number of novels set after Return of the Jedi (1983), continuing the stories of Luke Skywalker and the war with the Empire. Later books, starting with The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime (1999) introduced a new set of villains in the extragalactic Yuuzhan Vong, whose civilisation and history was greatly developed.
After the release of The Phantom Menace, the time of the Old Republic and before was free for writers to delve into. Perhaps the most famous story from this time was that of Darth Revan, told in BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic (2003) and its sequel games. As the player character, with a story shifting between the Light and Dark sides of the Force, Revan quickly became a fan favourite, and series continued exploring the Old Republic to general praise.
But problems arose following Disney’s announcement that all Star Wars media published before 25th April 2014, other than the (at the time) six live action films and The Clone Wars animated series and film, would be rebranded as ‘Legends’ and considered non-canon. This was done in preparation for the upcoming sequel trilogy of films, starting with The Force Awakens (2015), since they radically altered the stories of Luke, Han, and Leia, as well as the galaxy at large, from those told in previously published novels. This naturally displeased fans of the older material, but the retconning of Darth Revan’s story and Knights of the Old Republic was met with especially vigorous criticism, especially since the MMO continuation of it, Star Wars: The Old Republic (BioWare, 2011) was — and is — still active. With mixed responses to the newer films, many fans of Star Wars as a whole were greatly disappointed by the stories that replaced the ones they had known, loved, and in some cases, written.
Nevertheless, canonicity is not always so complex or controversial. Ever since the broadcast of its first episode in 1966, Star Trek television series and films have been in production, on and off, with the most prolific period spanning the late 1980s to early 2000s. Over this time, several casts have portrayed crews and events from various time periods and settings in the galaxy of Star Trek, from Shatner and Nimoy’s Kirk and Spock in The Original Series to Mulgrew and Ryan’s Janeway and Seven of Nine in Voyager. While the series as first envisioned by Gene Roddenberry had a few fixed elements, such as the hostility between the Klingon Empire and the Federation and the Federation’s general attempts to explore and negotiate peacefully, a lot was left open and unexplored. Over time, as different writers and different series were introduced, more of these elements were expanded upon, while new dynamics were also added (such as the introduction of the Cardassians as a major galactic player).
Inconsistencies arose due to the gradually expanding canon of Star Trek, most notably when series like Enterprise and Discovery began to explore the past of the galaxy’s timeline. Not all these inconsistencies are necessarily the fault of the writers; in many cases, the appearances of aliens such as the Klingons and Romulans changed with improving special effects technology, with in-universe reasons being cited as simply natural variations, or as being a product of genetic tampering. Minor specifics such as dates of events or names of small devices can be a little hazier, since some sources conflict (at times even within the same series). In general, however, Star Trek embraces the vast size and possibilities of the galaxy, allowing the series to continue exploring new elements without needing to worry too much about treading the same ground.
So, is any one of these methods better than another? It all depends on a creator’s preferred approach. Solid world-building like Tolkien’s or Star Wars’ provides plenty of depth from the outset but takes more time and effort to get started, and can be susceptible to limiting factors when trying to explore new story avenues. A looser, more improvised approach, such as Lovecraft’s or Star Trek’s, speeds up the process but can far more easily create inconsistencies and retcons. Of course, the negative aspects of both can be turned to advantages, such as the way vagueness is used to great effect in the background of the Joker; while a more restricted world like Middle Earth is used to show repeating cycles of hubris, evil, and heroism.
Ultimately, neither method seems to be better than the other. Rather, like any tool or technique, it’s about how they are used.