Using Retrospective Continuity

This blog does not normally include spoilers. However, don’t read this if you intend to watch Dallas (seasons 9 and 10), Star Wars (1977), and/or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

Last week, we touched upon the concept of retrospective continuity, where facts established in the plot of a fictional work are adjusted, ignored or contradicted by what comes later.

The term only appeared in the 1970s, and its common abbreviation ‘retcon’ is only 30 years old. Yet the actual device has been used for as long as there have been stories. Arthur Conan Doyle used it with Sherlock Holmes, as have major publishers like DC Comics and Marvel Comics.

In my experience, retconning works best when the change in question:

  • is small rather than sweeping
  • adds to existing canon rather than negates it

Let’s look at when it was done well in mainstream culture, and when it was handled badly.

Season 9 of Dallas was broadcast in 1986, and a major plot point was the aftermath of the death of Bobby Ewing, who had been killed by a car. At the end of the season, however, he appeared again, and the entire season was written off as the vivid dream of Pam Ewing.

This instance was a big change rather than a small one, and took away existing canon instead of adding to it, so many viewers were unhappy with how it was handled. That said, the show continued until 1991.

Now let’s look at Star Wars, the original from 1977. It had been a point of contention among fans that the Death Star had a weak point, namely an exhaust port, that could destroy the whole behemoth.

In Rogue One, however, that weakness is revealed to have been deliberately placed by Galen Erso, so anyone who knew about it could easily destroy the behemoth. Vulture.com explains it in much more detail than I do. Here, it was a lelatively small detail that became important later in the story, and it added to what was shown in Star Wars rather than negating it.

Unlike the Dallas retconning, this move went down well with fans, even impressing the folks at ScreenRant.

The Double Act

One style that’s common to all genres is the double-act. From comedy to fantasy to police dramas, having two main characters is a powerful tool for increasing the tension and driving forward the plot.

One type of double-act takes two characters who are fundamentally different and observes what happens between them. In the 1987 film Lethal Weapon, the veteran Murtagh sees the world very differently from the trigger-happy Riggs, and they often fall out over each other’s actions.

However, a double-act doesn’t necessarily need to argue all the time. In Good Omens, Aziraphale and Crowley represent good and evil respectively, but they have a longstanding agreement to let the other do his job without interference. I find it interesting that the novel was written by a duo, but because Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett write in a similar style, I think that accounts for the consistent quality of the writing.

But even a duo needs support from time to time, and that’s where a supporting character can be useful.

In the Channel 4 comedy Peep Show, the duo comprises the serious Mark and the laid-back Jez. Two of their constant supports are Mark’s love interest Sophie and Jez’s acquaintance Super-Hans. Their actions can affect the two main characters, and drive forward the plot, in ways that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

The Linehan Problem

For a long time now, I’ve been a fan of Graham Linehan’s TV shows, including Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd.

Over the last couple of years, however, it’s emerged that he holds views that I disagree with, explored in an opinion piece from 2016, while this and other matters are still debated on his own Twitter account.

This entry is not to discuss the views themselves, but to question how to react to his writing in their wake. Can I still rate Moss playing Countdown as one of my top sitcom moments? Am I allowed to imitate Mrs Doyle offering a cup of tea?

I accept that some artistic expression can change from from acceptable to offensive in as little as a decade or two. Last week, I saw John Cooper Clarke on stage. He included a poem from 1993 about a person he described as a ‘disgruntled transsexual’, containing outdated stereotypes, as did the introductory patter.

In Clarke’s case, only that poem was problematic, and he at least acknowledged how much controversy it causes today. For this reason, I don’t have the same problem enjoying his work as I do with that of Linehan, whose opinions I’m far less willing to accept.

An odd disconnect struck me while writing this. I’m also a fan of the musician Peter Doherty, who has a long criminal record, yet this doesn’t seem to factor into whether or not I can appreciate his work.

Perhaps the passage of time will determine whether a given person’s personal life overshadows their artisic work.

That said, a journalist friend has stopped using the Gill Sans font in her zine. Even though he died in 1940, she has an ethical problem with its inventor Eric Gill who was accused of abusing his own daughters.

An article in The Guardian from last year asks similar questions about Gill as I ask about Graham Linehan.