Recently, news began to circulate that Disney had tasked Leland Chee and Pablo Hidalgo-the Lucasfilm employees who serve as the keepers of the Star Wars canon-to simplify and redefine that canon, meaning that a lot of the stuff in the licensed novels, comics, and video games would presumably cease to be part of the “official” Star Wars universe. Predictably, the Internet reacted to this as though it actually mattered. Well, guess what? It doesn’t.
I realize this may seem shocking. A sci-fi geek saying that the canon of a fictional universe doesn’t matter is a bit like a Supreme Court justice saying that the Constitution doesn’t need all those amendments. To illustrate where I’m coming from here, let’s take a look at the other most famous science fiction franchise: Star Trek.
After the release of the first Star Trek film in 1979, there was an explosion of officially licensed Star Trek novels, comics, roleplaying sourcebooks, and technical manuals. All of these things purported to define parts of the Star Trek universe that had never been seen on screen. But there was no official Star Trek Canon Policy from Paramount that explicitly said whether or not these things were a part of the “real” Star Trek universe. As long as the various licensed novels, comics, and other books didn’t try to make any wholesale changes to the Star Trek universe or directly contradict what had been seen on screen, they were free to do what they wanted. The result was a wonderful run of creativity. Novels like The Final Reflection, The Romulan Way, The Entropy Effect, and Strangers From The Sky really pushed the limits of what Star Trek could be and became bestsellers in the process.
Meanwhile, the people making the films mostly ignored the licensed material and did their own thing. Some of the pictures from the Star Fleet Technical Manual by Franz Joseph showed up as display graphics on the Enterprise bridge set, but that was as far as it went. So what happened to Star Trek without an Official Canon Policy? Chaos? Panic in the streets? Dogs and cats living together? Nope. Star Trek fans happily read their novels, comics, and technical manuals while waiting for the next movie to come out, and if that movie contradicted something they’d read in a piece of licensed fiction, they just rolled with it. Meanwhile, Star Trek’s popularity continued to grow. In fact, it was so successful that Paramount decided to create a new spinoff TV show to premiere in the fall of 1987 and guess who they hired to produce it?
Right around the time Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, Gene Roddenberry used his newfound authority over the franchise to impose Star Trek’s first-ever official canon policy. (Roddenberry was effectively fired by Paramount after the poor performance of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His return as showrunner for The Next Generation was the first time he’d had any control over Star Trek since 1979) Under Roddenberry’s decree, only live-action onscreen Star Trek productions could ever be considered “canon”. Everything else-the animated series, the novels, the various tech manuals and roleplaying sourcebooks-was not considered “real” Star Trek. Now, it’s one thing for the creator and executive producer of a TV show to impose guidelines on his writers. It’s part of his job, in fact. And Gene’s canon policy pretty much just codified what the guys who worked on the film series had been doing all along. But Roddenberry’s authority also extended to all licensed products, like novels and comic books, and here’s where it caused a problem.
You see, explosion of creativity in the Star Trek novels of the early-to-mid-1980s led to a deepening and enrichment of Star Trek lore. It also led to Gene Roddenberry getting questions at conventions about when various popular characters and elements from these novels might make it into onscreen productions. And this irked him. Ever since he started doing convention appearances in the 1970s, Roddenberry had been downplaying the contributions to the original Star Trek TV series by people like Gene Coon or D.C. Fontana and promoting the idea that he was the sole creator of Star Trek and all the good ideas came from him, and him alone. But it was harder for him to downplay the contributions of an author like Diane Duane when her name was on the books where those contributions appeared. And he really hated it when Duane was referred to as “creator of the Rihannsu”. In Gene Roddenberry’s mind, he was the One True God of Star Trek, and to call someone else the “creator” of some Star Trek-related thing was blasphemy.
My point here is that Roddenberry didn’t just impose an Official Star Trek Canon Policy to serve as a guideline for writers on his show. He did it to expunge from the Star Trek universe those elements that other people had created without his input. It was his way of hiking his leg and marking his territory, and it was ultimately counter-intuitive and bad for the franchise. Many of the best authors were driven away by the restrictive decrees that were enforced-often in the most dictatorial and counter-intuitive way imaginable- by Roddenberry’s manservant, Richard Arnold. (Do a Google search if you’re interested in the particulars) Sure, a few good books managed to make it through the canon minefield (Doctor’s Orders by Diane Duane, for example) but overall the quality of Star Trek novels took a sharp dive in the late 1980s and didn’t recover for about a decade.
Not only that, but the canon policy meant that this was a “real” part of Paramount Pictures’ most valuable tentpole franchise:
As was this:
But not these:
It would have been best if the studio had stayed away from trying to define and maintain an official Star Trek canon. The arrangement that prevailed throughout most of the 1980s, where the movie people did their own movie-specific thing, the novel people did their own book-specific thing, and the comics people did their own comics-specific thing, was perfectly fine.
And this is the same path I believe the folks in charge of Star Wars should take, as well. Rather than inserting themselves into silly debates about the “real” nature of a fictional universe, they should simply have smart, dedicated people in charge of the movies, TV shows, books, comics, video games, and so on, and let them do the best work they can in their chosen medium. The fans will pick and choose what they like and what they don’t.
Isn’t that what entertainment is all about?