11 May 2005


Metaphilm has a witty article about continuity geekery.

If Scotty witnesses Captain Kirk’s death at the beginning of Star Trek VII, it is extremely troubling to some of us — those who care, those who have intellectual integrity and the discipline of logic! — if Scotty is awakened from suspended animation approximately seventy years later in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and asks whether Captain Kirk is still alive. Scotty should know that Kirk isn't! Something is wrong! It doesn't add up — yet it must! It must!

For you see, any story must have a certain amount of internal coherence if we are to achieve suspension of disbelief. And we must achieve suspension of disbelief. For most people, that just means that a given fictional universe must hold together for the space of two hours: if the main character in a conventional romantic comedy, possibly some movie for girls featuring Meg Ryan or someone like that, says at the beginning that she is an only child, she should not have a sister present at her wedding at the end of the movie. Stories like that — about boring, conventional people with their petty love affairs and their tawdry sex antics, people whom one could not trust when the chips were down and an Imperial Battle Droid were attacking your spaceship! — are relatively easy to keep consistent. It is only the grandeur and majesty of a fictional universe the size and complexity of one like the Star Wars universe, the Star Trek universe, the DC Comics universe, or the Marvel Comics universe (and perhaps soap operas) that is truly difficult to maintain.

Yet sometimes the editors and writers responsible for such series barely care about maintaining continuity, so busy are they with more mundane tasks such as writing entertaining dialogue and coming up with interesting new characters.

I confess that I'm a sucker for this kind of geekery myself. And I am convinced that the fascination of trying to rationalize these kinds of inconsistencies into perfect Continuity is the explanation for how the Catholic church held the attention of the most brilliant people in Europe for a thousand years — keeping Catholic dogma in a continuity is a fiendishly complex problem.

Of course, not only geeks need this set of intellectual tools.

Ali once said that he felt great pride, after years of telling his wife Michelle about DC Comics' system of parallel timelines (Earth-1, Earth-2, etc.), when the two of them watched an episode of The Odd Couple together and Michelle, on realizing that the episode contained an explanation for Oscar and Felix's first meeting that contradicted the explanation given in a previous episode, said that the newer episode must take place on “Earth-2.” Ali beamed, “My work here is done.”

So for those of you inspired by the article, let me also explain the useful concept of “retcon,” retroactive continuity, in which we create a midrash which explains how earlier events actually do correspond to later events. Reflect on the disappearance of Ritchie Cunningham's older brother “Chuck” on Happy Days and the mystery of Klingons' foreheads.

Then, for Real Ultimate Power, check out John Holbo's long and incredibly fascinating ruminations on myth and storytelling.

No comments: