August 7, 2013 at 3:40 pm
We often laugh about canon because we think of it as a game fans play or, at worst, a sort of cliquish concern, but I think the desire for canon in serialized fiction has honorable roots. When the serialized works of fiction are chapters in a book by a single author, we expect continuity because that’s how we regard the characters as fully imagined people. Without it, we have trouble following character development or theme. So the extent to which canon or continuity matters in Doctor Who matches the extent to which character development or theme matters in Doctor Who.
For example, we talk sometimes about how stoically Nyssa copes with the destruction of her planet by the Master. I can’t remember the first time there’s a plausible gap in the Davison era where you could, say, insert a series of missing adventures (novels, audios, etc.) in which she might have had more time than we see to come to terms with her grief. In theory, at least, we might interpret Nyssa’s future behavior and attitudes differently if we see her as someone who can either shake off or repress an enormous tragedy like that, vs. someone who even just in private has processed it. (Or someone who has actively participated in the murder of a vampire Time Lady, if you want to approach it from the other direction.)
As readers we have a bit more freedom, because we can decide for ourselves what connects the stories we see (as discussed in Stephanie’s comments about fanon) and it doesn’t really impact anyone except us. If we were fortunate enough to be writing for the show, though, in order to create a coherent narrative with more than a millimeter of depth, we would have to take some opinion regarding canon for at least the stories and events that impact the characters we’re going to be writing about. For example, if the Twelfth Doctor were to run into Romana, he’d really have to deal with her differently if he’d last said goodbye to her in "Warrior’s Gate" or in one of the novels where she’s become a ruthless member of the Gallifreyan High Council.
Which I guess is why there’s this opprobrium in conventional fan wisdom about "continuity-heavy" stories like "Attack of the Cybermen"; since canon is so difficult to determine with all the authors and media and years and contradictions, if you’re a Who writer it’s wisest to skirt around past events and relationships as much as possible, and work with characters whose growth depends only on near-term continuity. And even then you run into pitfalls like the famous "who cares about our baby?" problem from season 6 of the new series. The show just WANTS to be free, an anthology rather than a soap, with character development and themes local to the current story as much as possible. That doesn’t have to be shallow, but it doesn’t work so well with a focus on our main characters (as opposed to the guest cast, who are more the focus in an anthology format), and that’s the way the Doctor-centric new show is trying to operate. It’s therefore a very very lucky thing that we get to hit the reset button on the Doctor and his companions every couple of years, and start building character more or less anew every time.