Did Han Shoot First? The Question of Canon

Recently Harry Potter creator JK Rowling made big headlines in both the geek and mainstream press for this controversial statement:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron…I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility.”

Needless to say, Rowling’s remarks inspired rage, fury, and heartbreak in thousands of Harry Potter fans who believe that Ron and Hermione belong together, this blogger included. But on the other side of the coin, thousands of Harry/Hermione shippers have found themselves vindicated by the most authoritative voice in the Potter fandom — the creator herself.

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Which raises the question: who is right? Do the Ron/Hermione shippers win the fight because their version of events is printed in millions of books that will be read for generations, or are the Harry/Hermione shippers right because of the fact that the creator of these stories would change the outcome if she had it to do over?

Another Rowling revelation some years back created greater media frenzy, but was for the most part accepted as canon by the Potter fandom: Dumbledore is gay. This character detail, while never explicitly stated in the text, makes sense of Dumbledore’s complicated relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald. Since this extratextual detail complements the  existing canon, it was accepted as canon by the readers. So the authority to declare canonicity seems to rest not on the voice of the creator, but on the consensus of the fans.

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When the creation becomes bigger than the creator, the question of canonicity becomes complex. One fandom perfectly illustrates this complexity, and the push and pull between the authority of the creator and the authority of the fans can be succinctly summed up in three words:

Han shot first.

The abominable quality of the Star Wars prequels aside, George Lucas created rage and frustration by altering the content of the original trilogy. Like Rowling, he realized that if he had it to do again, there are things about his movies that he would change.  Unlike Rowling, he did go back and make those changes, and he refuses to release the original theatrical versions of the films, making dusty VHS copies of the original trilogy the only way for fans to enjoy the unaltered movies that they love.

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A new scene featuring a CGI Jabba the Hutt is one of the many alterations made to the “special edition” re-releases of Star Wars

In case this is your first day on the internet, the most controversial alteration in Lucas’ “Special Edition” re-releases of Star Wars happens in Han Solo’s introductory scene. He’s confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo, who makes it clear that he’s going to kill Han to redeem the price on his head. In the original version, Han shoots Greedo under the table and coolly walks away, establishing his character as a charming but cutthroat rogue. In the altered version, Greedo shoots at Han first, missing at close range, and Han immediately fires back, killing Greedo. Fans argue that this alteration completely ruins Han’s character arc. If he is not first established as something of a selfish cad who will do anything to protect his own hide, his growth into a hero who will risk his life to save his friends has no meaning. What on the surface appears to be a minor CGI alteration is in fact a major change to the story.

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Frame from the altered “Greedo shot first” version of Star Wars

Fans claim that the true canon of Star Wars is made up of the three original, unaltered films. But they concede that they have little power to wrest creative control from Lucas, even if he is violating the canon.

But sometimes fans do gain control.

Some stories in the nerdverse have long outlived their creators. The best examples are DC and Marvel superheroes. Since some of these characters have been around for close to a century, the people who now write their stories were once the fans who idolized the characters. The fans have literally taken over creative control of the canon.

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A character’s look and personality can change significantly as creative control changes hands over the years

And yet this doesn’t end fan dissatisfaction with new developments in the canon. The need to cater to these fans, along with the unwieldy nature of storylines that span multiple decades, have resulted in the ability to completely erase canon with the universe retcon.

A controversial universe retcon recently took place outside of comics in the world of another character who has been entrusted to multiple creators, Doctor Who.

Warning:

In the 21st century, the character of the Doctor has largely been defined by the fact that he is a remorseful war criminal, having been forced to destroy his homeworld of Gallifrey in order to save the rest of the universe. This was undone in the 50th anniversary special of the show, when the Doctor, with the help of his previous regenerations, is able to save Gallifrey. While the episode was a fun excuse to get David Tennant back on screen, fans argue that this retcon cheapens the Doctor’s character and robs the show of much of its philosophical depth. While they are willing to go along with new developments that new creators bring to the story, fans feel that the canon is insulted by creators who undo things.

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Retcons provide a “big friendly button” to creators who want to rewrite canon

Perhaps the best way to understand the slippery nature of canonicity is to look to a book that has generated a more hardcore fandom than Star Wars and Doctor Who combined: the Bible.

The Bible has dealt with all the canonicity issues at play here. 1 and 2 Chronicles are the “Special Edition Re-release” versions of 1 and 2 Kings, with alterations that seem to do nothing but make the story less interesting. The New Testament is to the Old Testament as new Doctor Who is to old Doctor Who; a fresh spin to an old franchise that messed with the original series but managed to attract a whole new group of fans. The Book of Revelation is the series finale that disappointed all of the fans, who have been writing re-interpretive fan fic ever since.

The lesson is that every fan creates their own canon. The original creators provide the material, but we pick which parts are most important to us. It’s what makes the geek community beautiful — we don’t just love a movie or book or TV series; we let our imaginations run wild in the playgrounds that the original creators provided for us. We’re not just observers; we’re participators, co-creators. Our passion gives the creation of one person a life far beyond what they intended. For better or worse, when Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and the Doctor first made their ways outside of their creator’s minds and into ours, their worlds became something that we all share ownership in. Hopefully, taking a cue from the Bible fandom canon wars, we will learn to play nice.

But seriously, Han shot first.  

In the Name of a Man Who Never Would

Here are two irreconcilable truths about Western society: 1. It has a violent history, and 2. it’s heavily influenced by a man who would never commit an act of violence.

Whether we are Christians or not (and most of us aren’t), in the Western world Christianity  informs everything from our languages to our art to our calendar. Christianity is based on Jesus, who pretty famously said things like, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” and “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

And yet countless wars have been waged by Christians — even more bizarrely, countless wars have been waged in the name of Christ.

Which makes me wonder what happened to the people of Messaline.  

Martha, Donna, and the Doctor arrive on Messaline

In Season 4 of Doctor Who, the Doctor, Martha, and Donna find themselves on the war torn planet of Messaline. Two species are stuck in an intractable conflict, and each side sees the elimination of the other species as the only way out. Naturally, the Doctor has a problem with this.  

Doctor: A second ago it was peace and harmony in our time; now you’re talking about genocide!

Commander: For us, that means the same thing.  

Doctor: Then you need to get yourself a better dictionary. When you do, look up genocide. You’ll see a little picture of me there, and the caption will read, “over my dead body.”

After a series of run-ins between the two sides, the Doctor and his companions discover that the two species initially came to Messaline as allies to colonize the planet together. The two peoples realize that they must cooperate in order to make the planet habitable, but in the midst of this revelation, Jenny, a newly-cloned human soldier, is killed by the human commander. The Doctor, who has formed a bond with Jenny, is furious, and points a gun to the commander’s head.

Just when we think he is going to avenge Jenny’s death, the Doctor casts the weapon aside and says:

I never would. Have you got that? I never would! When you start this new world, remember that! Make the foundation of this society a man who never would.  

It is a powerful moment; a moving example of radical nonviolence. The audience gets the idea that the peoples of Messaline are going to do just that: build a society around a man who never would.

Martha befriends a Hath soldier

But back in the real world, we know how that experiment went: Crusades, witch-burnings, pogroms, bombings, lynchings. All in the name of a man who never would.  

It’s clear that the name of Christ has meant different things at different times. The Prince of Peace evolved to become a man of war.

It happened to the Doctor, too.

The 11th Doctor finds himself conflicted in the midst of war

Turn to Season 6 of Doctor Who, an episode called “A Good Man Goes to War.” Here the Doctor has in many ways become the commander that he berated in Season 4. As River Song says, The Doctor has become

…the man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. Doctor. The word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forest, the word “Doctor” means mighty warrior.

Similarly, the meaning of the name Jesus Christ has been utterly transformed over the past couple millennia. Take this recent quote from celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll:

Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist; he’s patient. He has a long wick, but the anger of his wrath is burning. Once the wick is burned up, he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow.

This is certainly not the Jesus we find in the gospels.  There he is the ultimate pacifist, the ultimate “man who never would.” He goes to his death without a word of resistance, much less an action movie display of macho violence. What has the word Jesus come to mean?

In the world of Doctor Who, the Doctor is responsible for the damage he causes to his own name by straying from the path of pacifism. But Jesus hasn’t been around for a while. Any damage that has been done to his name has been done by his followers. And we’ve failed massively in making the foundation of this society “a man who never would.”

So are the people of Messaline set up for the same kind of failure?

Perhaps the fact that the people of that planet were born into war means that they learned a lesson we too often miss. To quote another great man who never would, Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of the world.

Dr. King observed the terrifying existence of nuclear weapons and realized that ending global war was the only way to ensure the survival of humanity. In a nuclear society, pacifism is practical.

There’s hope in this idea for the planet Messaline, and hopefully for us, too. We’ve made countless, terrible mistakes in the course of human history. But in the face of our own destruction — whether by nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, or violence against the environment — maybe we will turn back to the rare men and women throughout our history who “never would”, and will finally, belatedly, take a turn in the right direction.

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The Doctor isn’t God, but he might be the closest we’ve got.

Other potential deities in the nerd pantheon are either too distant – like big-headed Uatu the Watcher, “forbidden to interfere;” or they’re too human — “little-g” gods like Thor who are limited in power and knowledge and bound up in our petty human dramas.

The Doctor, on the other hand, comes pretty close to my idea of God — wise beyond human conception, unrestrained by human limitations like space and time, and yet deeply in love with the created universe, especially the brief and beautiful lives of human beings.

As a student of theology, this may be part of why I am so troubled by the Doctor Who fans who scoff at the idea of a female Doctor.

For the uninitiated (get ye to Netflix), when the Doctor “dies” he regenerates a new body, retaining his essential personality and memories but taking on a new physical form.  Eleven actors (all men) have portrayed the character thus far in different regenerations.

We now know that the next iteration of the Doctor will again be a man, but when the new Doctor’s identity was still up in the air, I participated in the wild speculation around who would be the next to pilot the TARDIS.

“Why not a woman?” I wondered along with other enthused fans.

In a great episode written by Neil Gaiman, “The Doctor’s Wife,” the Doctor mentions a Time Lord called The Corsair whose regeneration shifted from male to female. Clearly changing genders, just like changing hair, height, skin color, etc., is possible for Time Lords.

The eleventh Doctor wonders if his new regeneration is a girl when he feels his new hair

Yet some fans have a visceral, negative reaction to the idea of a female regeneration of the Doctor. Here’s a sampling of opinions culled from fan forums:

“Making the Doctor into a woman…would make nonsense of a character that has a long history. It would purely be pandering to the politically correct lobby whose sole aim seems to be to ruin everything for everyone. They should simply accept it – some characters are male and some are female and that’s just the way it is. Making the doctor female would be a sure fire way of making the show jump the shark.”

“You’re right, it would be stupid. I mean, River Song and the Doctor would turn into a gay couple. How would we explain that? It would just be weird. I would prefer the show be canceled than the show continue with a woman. By the way, I am NOT sexist.”

“Regenerating the Doctor into a female Doctor would absolutely ruin the show. I wouldn’t watch it, nobody I know would watch it. It’s just a terrible idea and would be the downfall of Doctor Who. As much as I like boobs as a guy, just keep the females as the non-doctor characters.”

To counter these incredibly convincing (“lolz, bewbs!”) points, I would argue that the character would not lose anything that makes the Doctor “the Doctor” if she regenerated as a woman.

As with every new individual who takes on the role, a woman would bring fresh nuances to how the Doctor is played, but in the hands of a capable actor, the core of the character we love would remain the same.

To state otherwise implies that a woman could not be what the Doctor is; that a woman could not be brilliant and arrogant and courageous and charismatic and compassionate and broken and vulnerable and powerful and awe-inspiring. That’s sexist nonsense — we have seen all these characteristics in the women on the show, and, more to the point, in the women in our own lives.

River Song and Amy Pond are just two of the great number of diverse and well-rounded women on Doctor Who

Turning back to the metaphor of the Doctor as God, we can gain insight into what’s behind this reservoir of fanboy freak-out from Elizabeth Johnson’s seminal theological work, She Who Is. In her book, Johnson critiques the historical use of exclusively male pronouns for God and constructs a feminist theology that images the Divine as She.

While the idea of a female Doctor may seem “stupid” to some Whovians, the idea of a female God seems outright heretical to many Christians. But the knee-jerk revulsion for the feminine comes from the same source: the androcentrism of patriarchy.

God is depicted as exclusively male in many of the most influential images produced by Western culture

As Johnson writes, “Feminist theology exposes the ruling-male-centered partiality of what has been taken as universal and the interests served by what has seemed disinterested.”

In patriarchal cultures,  male is seen as “neutral,” while female is seen as “other.”  So while God as male is normalized, God as female is seen as an example of “the politically correct lobby whose sole aim seems to be to ruin everything for everyone.”  Within a patriarchal framework, God as female is seen as transgressive because women’s experiences are not seen as normative human (read: male) experiences.

Which make sense of the fact that, within the Christian tradition, the aspect of God that has been most frequently associated with the feminine is the Holy Spirit, which is not personified as a human, but most commonly depicted as a dove. Similarly, the TARDIS, a genderless object, is also associated with the feminine. In the (arguably sexist) nautical tradition, the Doctor refers to the TARDIS with feminine pronouns, and in the aforementioned episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” the TARDIS appears as a woman when it takes human form. Women cosplaying as the TARDIS is a pretty common sight at conventions.

The TARDIS in human form

I’m not saying that these costumes aren’t super cool, but it is problematic that we see hundreds of women TARDIS costumes for every one worn by a man – it’s taken for granted that women are more suited to portraying an object. This is an admittedly minor, but obvious example of the way in which the feminine is marginalized through our use of language.

As Elizabeth Johnson points out, the language, symbols, and imagery that we use in daily life have the power to shape our reality. Speaking of God exclusively as He “serves in manifold ways to support an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women. Wittingly or not, it undermines women’s human dignity as equally created in the image of God.”

The exclusion of women from ordination is one glaring example of how this subordination has functioned in many Christian communities. More violent examples include medieval “witch burning,” as well as the minimization and denial of domestic abuse and sexual violence within modern churches. The list, unfortunately, goes on.

Illustration from a later edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, a medieval witch hunting handbook

While the message board users quoted above, along with religious fundamentalists, may disclaim that they are “not sexist” when they cling to symbols that are exclusively masculine, their insistence that women are unfit to be reflected in the face of a beloved figure perpetuates the sexist ideal that women are inherently less-than and intrinsically other. By clinging to “tradition,” they create communities that exclude and devalue women, both implicitly and explicitly.

Defining our most important cultural symbols as exclusively male is a crucial pillar of patriarchy. Geek culture has done a lot better than the Christian Church in this regard — Superman is not threatened by the existence of Wonder Woman; there is enough room for both Aang and Korra; Buffy kills a vampire as effectively as Blade. Nevertheless, like Christianity, the geek community has sacred cows of androcentrism that reveal the ways in which women are still marginalized within our subculture.

It’s long past time to move forward. If Doctor Who teaches us anything, it’s that thinking inside the limited confines of black and white boxes holds us back from experiencing a universe that is infinitely variable and endlessly surprising, full of mystery and joy and new discoveries. Letting the Doctor try on a pair of XX chromosomes would not be the end of the world. It would be different, and unpredictable, and exciting — which sounds a lot  like the Doctor we know today. So what are we waiting for?  Allons-y!