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Canon Fodder: UFO
Mar 6th, 2011 at 6:13pm
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Canon Fodder: UFO

How to stay true to the show without squelching your creativity.
By Matthew White

Any writer who pens derivative works (the legal term for Fan Fiction) is soon going to run across the term canon. The dictionary definition that deals closest with writing is as follows: the body of rules, principles, or standards accepted as axiomatic and universally binding in a field of study or art; the neoclassical canon.

Canon is what was actually shown or what was said in a book, movie or TV show. A true canon fact cannot be debated as there is no ambiguity. If it can be debated, it’s probably not canon. I’ll give some examples of this later. Discussions on canon in writer forums can be daunting to a new writer and getting involved in these debates can be intimidating to the uninitiated. These debates can range from open minded intelligent discussion, where all opinions are given valid consideration, to all out flame wars. (And everything in between.)

Some shows have a very well established canon. Shows like Star Trek, Babylon Five, JAG, Bonanza, and Dallas all ran three years or longer and have both good factual as well as character canon. It takes a good well knit group of writers at least two seasons to establish solid character canon for a series, an aspect that Babylon Five excelled with, having one of the best overarching themes that I have ever seen in a science fiction series.

Shows that ran only one or two seasons, or lacked an overarching theme, often suffered from having poor character continuity. Shows like Space 1999, The Starlost, and unfortunately UFO. The rest of my discussion will focus on UFO.

UFO, with all its flaws, was still one of the best speculative science fiction shows to ever grace the television screen. The fact that there are still diehard fans some forty years later proves that the show was years ahead of its time. With the movie coming out in 2011, new interest has been sparked in the series. Sadly the show suffered some of the common ailments of a low budget TV series. It’s hard to establish characterization when it changes from one episode to the next either due to poor direction, poor writing or both.

To start, let’s look at some examples of some unambiguous canon facts.

1.      Straker was an astronaut. (Established in The Man Who Came Back)
2.      Seagull X-ray flew at Mach 4. (Established in Identified)
3.      Virginia Lake had a romantic relationship with Paul Foster. (Established in The Man Who Came Back)

There is no ambiguity in these facts. They were very clearly stated or shown and they cannot be debated. Look at the four statements below.

1.      Lake and Foster were sleeping together in the episode The Man Who Came Back.
2.      Rutland was an abusive husband.
3.      Virginia Lake was romantically involved with Alec Freeman.
4.      Paul Foster was under hypnosis in the episode The Psychobombs.

In all of these cases you have subjective implication. An argument can be made for or against each statement, and it becomes a matter of opinion. And as our opinions are often formed by our own life experiences, no two opinions are going to be the same. This is one of the things that makes character canon so hard to nail down.

To further complicate matters, not all series guidebooks are created equal. The Complete Book of UFO written by Chris Bentley is a very good guide to the series and contains some interesting insight; however I found his description of Colonel Lake to be highly subjective. Bentley describes her as a passionate woman who actively seeks contact with the opposite sex, having been romantically involved with Freeman, Collins, and Foster. While canon does indicate that she was involved with Collins and Foster, there is nothing in canon to support the statement that she ever accepted the dinner date with Freeman in Identified. To quote from Top Gun, Freeman ‘crashed and burned, it wasn’t pretty.’ “Don’t you think you should get back to your little seat up front?” Virginia Lake said, putting an abrupt end to the conversation. And other than the episode The Man Who Came Back, we don’t see her involved with anyone -- although the last three episodes seem to suggest a connection between her and Straker, and according to Sylvia Anderson, this was something that many of the fans saw. Bentley also co-wrote The UFO Technical Manual along with Nick Foreman. In this book Seagull X-ray is described as having a maximum speed of Mach 2. Yet in Identified, Gay Ellis clearly stated, “An SST traveling at Mach 4 is a pretty tempting target.” She was of course referring to Seagull X-ray. To add to the confusion, Bentley’s first book contradicts the second one on several points including Seagull X-ray’s top speed.

One major problem for UFO was during the break in filming several of the actors and actresses playing major characters left the show. Freeman, Ford, Ellis, Waterman, and Harrington were absent from the last eight episodes. Lake was added to replace Freeman, and the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with her. They seemed to have the same problem with Gay Ellis in Close Up as she seemed uncharacteristically insecure.

After reading this I could see a new writer saying, “Why would I want to write for a show with so many flaws?” I can only say that UFO had so much going for it that its flaws were overlooked by the fans. I write for it because even with its flaws, it was a great series, and it has limitless potential.

Many Fan Fiction writers have taken the show's flaws and written stories explaining why things happened as they did. By Invitation Only, written by Catherine Stewart, is one of my very favorite Ginny stories. The story explains how Virginia went from being the chief designer of the Utronic system to a Colonel in SHADO. I base my back story for Ginny on that work. My story Silver Star explains how Virginia and Paul ended up in a brief relationship. I went through great pains not to contradict anything that happened in the episode, yet shed it in a different light. That type of writing is difficult as you really have to pay attention to what was actually shown versus what was simply being implied.

Another thing to consider, when thinking about character canon, is character growth. We have to look at the characters as living, breathing people, with wants, needs and desires. Like real people, they become the sum of their life experiences. This becomes especially important for those who write beyond the last episode in a show. To say that Ed Straker would never change or mellow, or always stay single is an unrealistic viewpoint. This by no means indicates that these events will happen, but the possibilities are there. We as writers need to convey the things that have brought our characters to the place of change.

New writers will often be criticized for characterization, and it’s important to look at the critique objectively even if it seems subjective in nature. (You can even learn something from flames.) Constructive critique should always include suggestions to improve your story; how to fix what’s wrong. My friend Denise PM’d me on the forum once about a story I was writing, in regards to Ginny being out of character in that scene. Denise had told me that Ginny would not have gone into the ventilation shaft with her abductors. I reminded her that Ginny was pregnant, and she responded that I was right and Virginia would have been more careful. She then suggested that I add Ginny’s thoughts to help clear up the confusion. After looking at the scene again, I realized that Denise had been right all along. Ginny was a scrapper; she’d do something even being pregnant. I rewrote the scene, and we both liked it better. My point however, is that if you are going to have your character act seemingly OOC (out of character), you need to explain to the reader why this is happening.

Sometime in our writing career we will reach the point where we want or need to break from the bonds of canon. Is that a cardinal sin? Most certainly not, as many writers have done incredibly entertaining stories by loosening the canon, so to speak. If you are going to significantly deviate from canon, I would suggest a note at the beginning of the story, just so you don’t confuse your readers. By significant, I mean major changes in the character’s established back story or a complete rewrite of the premise. A sad but true fact is some readers will not read stories that deviate from canon, but a writer shouldn’t worry about that aspect. People who refuse to read non-canon stories often rob themselves of a great reading experience. Two stories come to mind: Looking Back by Dragon, and Denise Felt’s Artist’s Series, Face Off, About Face and Face Up.

Dragon’s story showed what could have happened if Mary had decided to stay with Ed after the baby was born. We know from the show that Mary and Ed separated soon after their son was born, so there is no question that this story does break canon in that respect. In one of the forums, one writer commented that Mary was also OOC, an opinion that I don’t share, as Dragon showed us how Mary had quite a bit of time in the hospital recovering and she spent that time considering her future. This is a classic case of character evolution. My point to all this is that this truly entertaining story would not have been possible without deviating from canon. I do hope that she finishes it as it looks like a smashing good read.

In Denise’s story Face Off, we find out that Ed has broken the mural behind his desk, a keepsake that he has had for almost thirteen years. In the story Ed breaks the piece during a mental breakdown caused by an event from the past. From the show we know that the mural was broken by Paul Foster in an escape attempt during the episode Court Martial. Denise stated to me once that she did violate canon writing this story. But I think the story can stand as it is without violating canon if you place it just before Court Martial and claim that as the last episode in the timeline. I have seen at least six different versions of episode order. Which one is canon? Who’s to say? Because Straker marries Cait in Face Up, some purists will argue that Straker wasn’t married in Court Martial. My question would be, “Does it state anywhere in the episode that he wasn’t married then?” Granted, it’s a fine line, but it does solve the canon issue. If Denise wanted to make that claim I would certainly defend her position.

I did something similar when I wrote Soul Mates. I use the UFO Mega-set episode order for my timeline, stretching it over a four year period. The only caveat is I place the episode The Man Who Came Back before The Cat with Ten Lives. In my story Straker and Lake pursue the beginnings of a romantic relationship just after Timelash. This pairing slowly but surely grows through the episodes Mindbender and The Long Sleep. The relationship becomes intimate right after The Long Sleep. I chose to keep that moment at bay as while there was certainly happenings onscreen to indicate a connection between them, I didn’t think it would support the notion of an intimate relationship. The point here is that in no way did I violate events in the show, and I can call my work canonical.

In summary, the most important aspect to remember when discussing character canon is to keep an open mind, a writer’s best friend. Just because you may not see an aspect of a character’s personality, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. By the same token, seeing something that others may not see doesn’t make you wrong either. Remember that character canon can be highly subjective, and it’s all a matter of perception. As stated above, true canon facts are clear and spelled out; there is no ambiguity. Character bibles are not always gospel. While useful, they can contain highly subjective opinions. Evolving characters are not necessarily a violation of canon. And there is nothing wrong with breaking canon if the story calls for it, and in these cases creativity trumps canon.

My closing statement is aimed at new writers in regard to canon. When you receive your first piece of critical feedback, don’t let your feelings get hurt even if the critic was impolite. Look at it objectively and ask yourself, were they specific, did they cite examples; did they give advice on how to fix the problem? Even with canon issues, good critique is always constructive and balanced. A supportive critic will highlight what you did right as well as what they think you did wrong, and that is the key to a well balanced review. And just because someone tells you that you have something wrong doesn’t mean they are right. Don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion or several for that matter. Above all, if you’re like me, you started writing to share a vision. Never ever let anyone steal that dream.
« Last Edit: Jul 2nd, 2013 at 6:12pm by SHADO Librarian »  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #1 - Mar 6th, 2011 at 8:43pm
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Really, really, really nice. but out of line!  No, just teasing with Straker dialogue. That's something every writer and reader should read.  Smiley












  
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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #2 - Mar 6th, 2011 at 8:58pm
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Matthew, you have outdone yourself - a brilliantly thought out piece on the definition and application of canon, particularly in the UFO-verse. This should be required reading. Smiley
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #3 - Mar 6th, 2011 at 9:02pm
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Thanks Deb, I do hope that I came across as being objective, and supportive of everyone's view of the show. Wink

Quote:
No, just teasing with Straker dialogue.

Thank you as well Amelia, missed you the first time around. Straker teasing is the best. He certainly had some zingers. Cheesy
« Last Edit: Mar 7th, 2011 at 6:41am by Matt »  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #4 - Mar 7th, 2011 at 3:15am
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Wonderful revision, Matt!  Smiley  I'll replace the original on my website in the morning.
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #5 - Mar 7th, 2011 at 6:49am
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Thanks, Denise. Speaking if websites, I had a scare last night. All of my stories were missing. Shocked I use the embedded document feature and the Scribd service was down until this morning. Angry I thought I had done something wrong as I had just converted all my stories to the embedded format. It makes uploading corrections much easier than manual editing of the page. Wink
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #6 - Mar 8th, 2011 at 2:43am
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It's up on my site now, Matt, in place of the original.  Thanks for the revision!  Sorry it took all day to get it done.  As I told you on another forum, I'm babysitting my granddaughters and they have been keeping me entertained!!!  Cheesy
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #7 - Mar 8th, 2011 at 3:36am
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Thanks Denise. Are  you taking mother's revenge and spoiling them rotten? Cheesy (Mom always told me she was going to do that. *grin*)
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #8 - Mar 8th, 2011 at 3:42am
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Actually, I always spoil them when they visit!  Wink  My daughter is out of town for a few days, so Nana gets to have the girlies all to myself!  They couldn't wait to tell her tonight on the phone that they had doughnuts for dessert!  Grin  I have to make sure they have extra fun, so they don't miss Mama too much.  (At least, that's what I tell my daughter!)  Wink
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #9 - Mar 11th, 2011 at 4:41pm
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Say, Matt.  I was rereading your essay this morning and realized that you may have taken my canon comment about the mural in Straker's office too literally.  My story didn't follow canon, because the mural (that he supposedly bought at the art gallery) would have been broken in Court Martial by Foster.  But since the series ignored the fact that it was ever broken and went on as if nothing had ever happened, I followed their lead and ignored the incident for my storyline. 

It's one of the many instances where the show doesn't keep to its own continuity (and it did this a lot!), so I felt completely at liberty to write my story the way I did.  Of course, canon or non-canon never even concerns me, since the show ignored their own established character patterns as well.  UFO is one of the few fandoms that you can write pretty much any way you want, since that's how Gerry Anderson did it during filming. 

It's a good fandom to cut your teeth on as a beginner for this very reason, before graduating to more difficult work with shows that have characters with well-established back stories (i.e. NCIS, ST:TNG, or Babylon 5.)  And eventually, to your own original works with characters that you have created in your own world.

In fact, the more I rewatch the episodes of UFO, the more I'm convinced that Anderson never expected the show to go into reruns at all.  That's the only reason I can find for his refusal to keep to the established patterns for his characters (such as when he showed the teetotaler Straker drinking in a few episodes.)  I know that the break in filming didn't help, since they lost key members of the group during the lull.  But even then, you'd expect the first set of episodes to hold together -- and they don't. 

Anyway, I just thought I'd clear up that misunderstanding.  When I told you my story broke canon with the mural, it wasn't a serious issue.  I was just taking a leaf from Anderson's book and ignoring past incidents.  Cool
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #10 - Mar 11th, 2011 at 7:02pm
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No problem Denise, the example I gave of how you could get around the canon issue still works well and that is the point I was trying to bring forward. Wink And you are absolutely right, it was a minor detail. Cheesy

I've always felt that it is best to leave the declaration of canon or non-canon to the writer. Personally, I would never have the boldness Embarrassed to pass that kind of judgment on another writer's work. And in most cases, no declaration is needed. Smiley In my humble opinion.
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #11 - Mar 11th, 2011 at 7:22pm
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Matt wrote on Mar 11th, 2011 at 7:02pm:
And in most cases, no declaration is needed. Smiley In my humble opinion.


You are so right!  Good for you, Matt!  Smiley
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #12 - Mar 11th, 2011 at 7:22pm
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Neesierie: as you indicated - even Anderson didn't have his stable of writers keep track of things. And if we all stuck strictly to 'canon' nothing would ever get written except for re-hashes of the episodes or having the aliens blow everything up at the end.

How boring.

U.F.O.'s beauty was that despite the continuity issues and internal contradictions, the overall theme held and the actors brought the characters to life in a very vibrant way. While watching the show you want the world protected by someone like Straker. Freeman being there is natural along with Foster who seemed many times to ask what the audience was asking.

And with the exception of Identified and Exposed - there's not even a consistent order for the episodes.

As someone wrote many many years ago concerning UFO canon - it's pretty loose. But portraying Straker as having red hair is absolutely NOT canon. Wink

But Straker as an alien ...  Shocked Smiley
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #13 - Mar 11th, 2011 at 7:27pm
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Red hair?????  Shocked  OMG!  I'm going to have a heart attack at the mere thought of anything changing that gorgeous blonde wig!  Cheesy  *giggle*

I quite agree, Deb, that the show was awesome enough to surpass even its sad continuity problems.  Which is why we still love it today!  Wink

Of course, there are a few of us writers who enjoy making Straker an alien, just to give him something else to get over! *snicker*  Cheesy
  

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Re: Canon Fodder: UFO
Reply #14 - Mar 11th, 2011 at 7:29pm
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Quote:
And if we all stuck strictly to 'canon' nothing would ever get written except for re-hashes of the episodes or having the aliens blow everything up at the end.


Good point Deb!

I don't think canon should ever be so restrictive that you violate it everytime you put pen to paper. Where is the fun in that?

Quote:
But Straker as an alien ...

I wondered how he always knew what they were up to. Wink

  

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