Monday, February 22, 2016

On The Disney Channel Live-Action Universe, Canon, and Who the Heck Cares

So there is this thing called the Disney Channel Live-Action Universe (link) on this other thing called TVTropes. As the name implies it's the "universe" that all of the Disney Channel live-action shows take place in and, um, thensome apparently. It's a big friggin' giant mess. This blog entry is entirely about that big friggin' giant mess and the whole concept of "canon" that many people talk about when they talk about TV, movies or (comic) books (and how they can turn into big friggin' giant messes).

First an introduction to what "canon" is. No, I didn't misspell "cannon," this isn't about big shooty-thingies. "Canon" is a term derived from Christian (as in the religion, not the guy over at Girl Meets World Reviewed) Theology and refers to what specific teachings and writings are considered the actual, true words of God and Jesus in basically everything the church officially participates in and sanctions. As to why it's called "canon" specifically and why it's only one letter off from being a big shooty-thingie, I don't know, but as an aside it might interest you to know that some of the first cannon shooty-thingies were actually improvised from church bells so, uh, I guess that's a connection right there. But anyway, canon is both one of the most important and most controversial subjects in Christianity, as it concerns the agreement of what about Christianity should actually be considered true, especially regarding the Bible. There are entire sub-books that many people debate as to whether or not they should be recognized or considered nearly the same as heresy, referred to as Apocryphilia. You'll see all these terms again in about, oh, the next paragraph or the one after or so, but the big point is that "canon" concerns what events or stories are "real" and what isn't within the larger context of a religion, mythology, book series, TV show, or soulless multi-national multi-decade sci-fi franchise (yeah you know which one I'm talking about, and of course I'll address that too in about, oh, the next paragraph or the one after or so). 

Why "canon" (and therefore, the concept of what's "real" and "truth") is important when it comes to TV shows can differ from show to show, based on how much of its own act it can get together. Many, if not most shows show some form of internal consistency that satisfies the viewer enough such that the subject really doesn't come up. The Hunger Games, both the books and the movies, exist in a linear enough form that any apparent inconsistencies are chalked up to bad storytelling, not a failure of how the universe itself is put together. And since both the books and movies exist in parallel and tell the same story, there isn't really much of a conflict between which one is more "canon" - it just ends up boiling down to a debate over "well I liked the book better" vs. "stop being a pretentious douche trying to make that phrase lose all its meaning." Where the whole issue of "canon" crops up tends to be with franchises where you have multiple, branching storylines that aren't meant to exist in parallel or in some weird alternate universe, but actively co-existing at the same time. Think about how you and your friend might have a tennis match, and you and your friend tell different versions of it - verses how you're having a tennis match at the same time your friend is having a track meet. The two events don't somehow cancel each other out just because they're different events, they just take place in different places at the same time. Now imagine if you can't even get a straight story out of your friend as to who won the track meet that your friend was at and actively participating in - and that's pretty much why "canon" is problematic in a nutshell. And when you have multiple track meets, and everybody has their own version, and someone start shouting that aliens are involved, and someone keeps talking about how there aren't just track meets, but now you have to include basketball and soccer games, and you end up with messes like the DCLAU - and Star Trek.

Oh, I know what you're thinking, that there's just the TV show and the movies, and everything should be pretty clear-cut, and if there's any apparent inconsistency then it's just bad storytelling from a franchise that's for lamers anyway and you should get a life. But aside from that, shortly after the original series ran its end, Paramount commissioned a number of "continuation" novelizations that would continue the series right where it left off in novel form. I believe at least a few of these were even written by series creator Gene Roddenberry along with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (genuinely written no less, not ghostwritten as is often the case - both Shatner and Nimoy are/were accomplished writers in their own right). These were accepted as being as "true" as the TV show itself - until Paramount said, nuh-uh, not anymore. The reason why is because in the 70s Paramount was working on a new Star Trek TV show (that would eventually see light a decade later as Star Trek: The Next Generation - one of my favorite series of all-time BTW and yes I'm such a nerd) and the novels represented a bit of a problem. If the novels represented canon, then it would not only mean that the writers of TNG would be locked into what those novels said were true, but would also have to keep referring back to events that took place in the novels. The audience of TNG would likely be familiar enough with the original series, despite 20 years in between, to catch up on what was "canon" in the TV show, but statistically it's highly unlikely they would've bothered to read the novels by the show's premiere (the typical "audience" for any given novel is about 10% what a theoretical TV show based on that novel would be). The obvious solution would be to simply use those novels as the basis of episodes themselves, and indeed a few were recycled into scripts or at least borrowed ideas from them, but to adapt every novel into an episode is problematic due to rights issues - long story short, not every author really agreed to let their novel be adapted for one reason or another. So Paramount decided to go with the easiest solution of all - declare the novels "non-valid" and just start all over, giving the writers of TNG a completely fresh break aside from what was already laid out by the preceding series and movies. 

And then you have that other Star movie franchise (hue hue how clever he thinks he is, the buttmunch is probably what you're thinking) that's even worse for reasons that alone could and have filled entire websites, message boards and blogs but boil down to extreme apathy for anything but the almighty dollar by everyone involved. As soon as it became clear that there wouldn't be any movies after Return of the Jedi Kenner/Playmates (they used to be a toy maker, for readers who aren't old enough to remember pre-9/11 life) went up to George Lucas and said, "hey, we want to make Star Wars toys" and old Georgey Boy said, "only if you pay me a butt-load of money" which took about two seconds to do. Of course Kenner/Playmates had been making Star Wars-themed toys since shortly after A New Hope - but with the end of RoTJ a new problem arose: how the hell were they going to sell Star Wars toys when every girl and boy in the country already has a Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Han and Chewbacca? Why would people keep buying Darth Vader, for that matter, when Darth Vader is now dead? The solution was the same one Paramount used when Star Trek ended: continue the story anyway, just this time with toys instead of books. Don't worry about Darth Vader being dead because we'll just create a new villain and make all the girls and boys buy this brand-new figure for Luke and Han to fight! Kenner/Playmates then promptly hired a bunch of writers to throw an extended universe together, in the process accrued a bunch of ancillary original property rights themselves, and got the Hell-proof Sisyphusian-snowball from Hell rolling. 

Kenner/Playmates weren't the only ones sorely missing new Star Wars stories, and George Lucas himself commissioned two projects that many readers might be very familiar with. The first is known as the Thrawn Trilogy, the exact titles being Heir to the Empire, Dark Forces Rising (not to be confused with the video game Dark Forces) and The Last Command. They were meant to continue on the storyline as left off by RoTJ, and look at what happened to the galaxy after the death of the Emperor and Darth Vader. They were more or less treated like movies but only in novel form - but that's not to say they were necessarily canon, though when published they were certainly treated like such. Moreover, they didn't necessarily follow what Kenner/Playmates had already pioneered - LucasFilm Licensing, the specific sub-branch that specifically dealt with commissioning new projects, hired a sci-fi writer named Timothy Zahn, and Zahn quite frankly had his own ideas (many, many of which LFL ended up turning down to ensure he never step on Big Boy Lucas' toes but nonetheless he was able to create whole swaths of Star Wars Universe out of his own imagination and dictates). George Lucas had no direct control over it other than handing out the dollar bills, and the guys and gals at LFL cared about the end narrative probably about as much as you'd care about how the final result of your 8-hour work day turned out as long as you got your paycheck. That's not to say they didn't care at all (they picked Zahn specifically because of his skill), and the Thrawn Trilogy is still regarded as some of the best Star Wars books ever written.But they probably didn't care about the ramifications and effects it would have on the rest of the franchise.

The second project commissioned by Lucas was a little thing called Shadows of the Empire, especially unique as it was to take place during the movies. It was intended to be a multi-media project that would encompass various things but it's mostly remembered for the novel and the Nintendo 64 game, both released around the time the first round of Special Editions were re-released in theaters. Again, they sought out and picked a writer (not Zahn, don't remember who) who again had his own ideas. Both the Thrawn Trilogy and Shadows of the Empire were runaway successes and at that point LFL pretty much had to churn out Star Wars novels, to which they did. And then things started to spiral quickly.

Two naturalistic laws came into effect. The first was a result of just the general apathy and problematic logistics of commissioning so many Star Wars novels with so many different authors in regards to how consistent they would all be. It would be inevitable that they would contradict, as not every author could simply keep up with what the other authors were doing, or were putting out so many novels that he or she couldn't even keep up with his or her own very work. Or other authors would simply just flat out not like what another author is doing and either undermine that other work or just ignore it. The second naturalistic law is actually a very specific one, Sturgeon's Law (yes just like the fish). Coined by someone with an extremely unfortunate last name, it's just the law of averages applied to fiction and narrative - that by mathematical and statistical certainty, you're going to end up with fiction that's going to be very great, fiction that's going to be very horrible, and most of it will just be, well, average. And even then, "average" is going to be a relative term - because books require a bigger personal time investment than other forms of rapid-fire media, people were just as hesitant to risk their time on a meh-tastic book then as they are now. The end result is that, I don't know, maybe 10% of the Star Wars "Expanded Universe" was considered great (like The Thrawn Trilogy), 10% was considered outright garbage (*cough Kevin J. Anderson cough*) and the remaining 80% was considered "better than garbage but still not really good enough to actually bother to read as opposed to watching yet more cat or fail videos on YouTube." 

And that's not even touching the video games, board games, freakin' Epcot Center at Disney World rides (yes, seriously, the frickin' amusement park rides had frickin' canon status, I'm not making this up - if you want proof, it's where the passenger transports from Star Wars: Rebels come from. Seriously. Not making this up. You can do a GIS right now if you don't believe me.) Those present all sorts of practical problems regarding canon integration. Video games have to make concessions to playability and gameplay mechanics. Board games have to make concessions to being flat pieces of cardboard. Epcot Center at Disney World rides have to make concessions to the fact that they're fucking amusement park rides. All of these can badly damage the internal consistency of a franchise if they're forced to have canon status, so it should be no surprised that the Star Wars "canon" was pretty much just a big giant tumor at one point.

Now the solution might seem pretty obvious - actually have a canon policy that cracks down on this nonsense - but don't underestimate the combined powers of marketing in pursuit of the almight dollar and...well. Sigh. 

Nerds.

And I don't mean that disparagingly - I'm a bigger nerd than anybody reading this blog, guaranteed - but there's a certain mob mentality that's exhibited with blind purchasing power when it comes to fandom and franchises that know how to coldly exploit that fandom. Blindly saying "hey, guess what, everything's canon" is just an end result of the belief that it will get people to buy more things.

Of course, it's also inevitable that there was a huge ball of chaff and dreck that was threatened by the prequel trilogy when Lucas finally got around to that. How did he solve that problem? With a solution that's both at once related to Paramount's solution with the Star Trek novels, and pretty much the exact opposite.

He simply pretended there was no problem to begin with, and just did his own thing. Meanwhile, all the other creatives involved in the Star Wars Expanded Universe - the authors, the game developers, the scriptwriters, the people who write the info on the packing cards for the action figures - were simultaneously allowed to also do their own thing without any regard or damn given to how this huge mess would mesh up. 

Ok, so that's not entirely the case, but to a casual observer it can sure seem like it. If nothing else, the sheer mass of the franchise made it so impossible it wasn't worth even starting to bother, as long as it didn't get in the way of the big money-makers, the movies themselves. And so it was for years and even decades with a canon policy that was an ungodly mess, with nerds debating and even getting into downright bitch-fights over what's "true" in the Star Wars universe or not. Entire websites and web communities were dedicated just to debating and bitch-fighting about what was "real" in Star Wars. I kid you not. I should know since this is pretty much how I pissed away high school (told you I was a bigger nerd than anybody reading this blog). 

Then Disney bought Star Wars. Spoiler alert: Disney cares as much about canon policy as George Lucas does, which is to say not at all except just scream everything is canon! because again they think it will make more money that way. There's only one big problem. Disney didn't just want to make Heir to the Empire into a movie. They wanted to control all the content and intellectual property rights themselves, much like the Evil Emperor. They wanted to call all the shots on the new movie and all merch stemming from that movie down to young adult novels. The current existing canon, with partial rights still held by their authors, was a massive roadblock. George Lucas didn't just hand them a franchise, but a massive tumor strangling that franchise slowly and insidiously.

So Disney had to do what anybody would do to a tumor: slowly rip it out.

And thus, eventually, Disney had to do the exact same thing Paramount had to do: declare nothing canon (but the movies) and start anew. All previously non-movie material was now Apocryphal. Except there wouldn't be any room for debate as handed down by "god" itself - the material still physically exists, and you can still go back and enjoy it as a creative work, but it no longer has any bearing whatsoever on the lives of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie. They exist as matter, but officially, they do not exist.

And now we come down to the canon of the Disney Channel Live-Action Universe, which as far as canon goes is the biggest clusterfuck I've ever seen in my goddamn life. And given that I pissed away the entirety of high school debating Star Wars canon, that says something.

As this blog post is becoming incredibly long-winded as it is, I better just link to the TVTropes page again explaining how the DCLAU formed in the first place and what kind of canon policy ended up naturalistically forming from there. Long story short, That's So Raven, Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody had a crossover. The crossover wasn't a dream sequence. Logically, therefore, these shows must co-exist. There was a crossover with Wizards of Waverly Place, Suite Life on Deck, and Hannah Montana. Logically, therefore, Raven Baxter can theoretically rock out in the Wizard World with Alex Russo. At the end of the day, it's theoretically possible for Perry the Platypus and Dr. Doofenshmirtz to throw a party and rock out with Jessie Prescott, Liv Rooney, Teddy Duncan, Bree Davenport and whatever other girls they want to rock out with while onboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier with Star-Lord and Tecton as DJs.


Man I wish I could draw as well as Sean over at Girl Meets World Reviewed.

It was a mess, but it was a (barely) manageable mess. 

Then Girl Meets World came.

Then Monstober 2015 came.

And now it's entirely within the realm of possibility for Perry the Platypus and Dr. Doofenshmirtz to throw a party and rock out with Jessie Prescott, Liv Rooney, Teddy Duncan, Bree Davenport and Sabrina Spellman and, uh, the girls from Step by Step and whatever other girls they want to rock out with while onboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier with Star-Lord and Tecton and Urkel as DJs.

Except it doesn't even fucking end there because there's this thing called the St. Elsewhere-verse. Which means exactly the same as that last scenario - except said S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier can now fly over Gilligan's Island, and Perry the Platypus and Dr. Doofenshmirtz can be like, hey guys, wanna get off this island and rock out with all these superheroes and  vaguely legal-aged girls? And then they can go and pick up the cast from virtually any TV show ever made from there. 

You can see this manifested in the long-ass list of TV shows "related" to the DCLAU, except they're not related to the DCLAU at all beyond in-jokes and marketing. 

This is further complicated in the same way the Star Wars canon got complicated by George Lucas - the people in charge flat out don't care. In fact, well...nobody cares. In fact I'm almost willing to make an actual bet that I might be the only one in the entire world who actually cares about the canon status of the Disney Channel Live-Action Universe. We do have lives we need to get to after all. Well, except me.

...actually, I would promptly lose that bet because there's an additional element in play here, and that is people do care, or at least someone else in the world besides me does. Someone, in fact, cares enough so much that he or she is willing to track and nail down every connecting instance between the DCLAU shows to each other and shows from completely foreign networks and production teams, shows that have been staggered in production by in some cases decades and entire lifespans. 

And while my inner nerd has to have complete admiration for his or her work...it's a bit of a clusterfuck, don't you think? I mean, you can see it there on the TVTropes page.

So I'm proposing a few ideas here to refine the make-up of the DCLAU and throw out some potential canon policies, since it's highly unlikely Disney Channel itself cares enough to ever, ever make an official statement either way. They don't even care to give Jessie an actual proper non-insulting finale not buried under Girl Meets Texas FFS.

So here we go:

Option 1: Two-Canon Policy

We split up the ungodly mess on TVTropes into two categories: one category will be naturally called "the DCLAU," and the other category will be naturally called "Into the trash it goes!" Or more specifically, we recognize that the DCLAU and TGIF/St. Elsewhere-verse are not connected canon universes and that any connection between them is invalid. I'll admit this is a tough sticking point because the bridge between them isn't just a single crossover or even a single TV show but two whole TV shows put together along with every episode ever cranked out between them - Boy Meets World and Girl Meets World (you know that show Christian and Sean review). You can't deny that Sabrina Spellman isn't a part of Cory Matthew's world any more than you can deny that Austin Moon is a part of Riley Matthew's world now. So here's my sub-proposal to this proposal:

Any instance that links TGIF to the DCLAU is valid in the DCLAU, but any instance that links the TGIF to St. Elsewhere is not valid to the DCLAU. It should just be considered an in-joke or a throwaway (which is exactly what the original authors intended in the first place, but I digress). However, since the St. Elsewhere-verse is more of an informal in-joke than an actual canon policy, it doesn't necessarily mean that the vice-versa is true. Which means if you somehow want canon justification that, uh, the guy who stars in Hangin' With Mr. Cooper - we'll call him Mr. Hangin' With Mr. Cooper - visits New York and has a steamy love affair with Christina and Morgan Ross' red-headed nanny, have at it. But if you want canon justification that it's possible for The Skipper from Gilligan's Island to have a hot steamy love affair with Sonny Monroe from the perspective of Sonny With a Chance canon - nuh-uh, ain't gonna happen. Or to put it in another, more clear and non-pervy way: Jessie Prescott exists as a character on this Hangin' With Mr. Cooper thingie, but Gilligan's Island is just a TV show Sonny would watch in her dressing room between takes of So Random! This would effectively reduce the St. Elsewhere-verse to status of "head-canon" (which it more or less officially is anyway). 

Option 2: A complete severance

Same as above except it would sever any link between the TGIF, DCLAU, and St. Elsewhere-verses beyond what can't be undone. Boy Meets World would exist in the DCLAU and solely in the DCLAU; any connecting events between it and the rest of the TGIF lineup would be ruled invalid and not canon (based on my understanding, this actually isn't hard to consider anyway). Mr. Hangin' With Mr. Cooper can't have a hot steamy love affair with Jessie Prescott because Jessie exists solely on his TV screen, and vice-versa. 

Option 3: Scorch Earth-Everything!

Decompose the construct of the DCLAU completely as a canon entity. The crossovers would effectively exist as their own weird little sub-canon stuck in permanent limbo, or even completely disregarded as non-canon events (I'm sure we wish we can all do that with Monstober '15 anyway, especially the GMW fans). A bit hard to do with The Suite Life of Hannah Montana as that crossover had ramifications for the entire rest of the SLoD series, but fine then, HM and WoWP exists in the SLoD canon and only HM and WoWP (and Jessie too I guess). In this case, it's simply not possible for Perry the Platypus and Dr. Doofenshmirtz to throw a party on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier with Tecton and Star-Lord as DJs and rock out with Jessie, Liv, Teddy and Bree. The best that can happen is that you have an episode of Good Luck Charlie where Teddy watches an episode of Jessie where Jessie watches an episode of Liv and Maddie where Liv watches an episode of Mighty Med where Tecton watches an episode of Lab Rats where Bree watches an episode of Guardians fo the Galaxy where Star-Lord watches an episode of Phineas and Ferb where Perry and Dr. Doofenshmirtz watch an episode of Good Luck Charlie with Teddy watching...you get the point.

Option 4: Doing Things the Ally Paramount and George Lucas Way

That is, just not give a damn. Who cares anyway? The very people writing these shows, and the very network airing these shows, don't. Essentially, it's anything goes. It's canon that Liv and Maddie just exists as a TV inside the Girl Meets World universe. It's canon that Boy Meets World exists just as a TV show inside the Girl Meets World universe. Nevermind that it doesn't make any sense, anything goes! It's canon that Spider-Man has a steamy love affair with Batman. Let's not let licensure get in the way! It's entirely canon that after the events of Meets Texas, Riley and Lucas rode in a rocket together where they met Meep from Phineas and Ferb who then threw a wedding between Ferb Fletcher and Vanessa Doofenshmirtz on that asteroid they landed on in that one episode where they thought it was a star but it turns out the alien bar that was on that asteroid had its neon sign too bright. But they forgot someone to officiate the wedding, so they went back and got Emma Ross to do it, and in the meantime they also got Yogi to serve as the traditional sacrifice to be performed by Maya (of course).

And I know that sounds flippant (and, well, it kind of is) but it also illustrates that strictly speaking there's technically nothing stopping you from adopting your own canon outside of the events of the shows themselves. You can, for example, declare it canon that after the events of the crossover suddenly Maddie Rooney decided to be really into Jessie Prescott instead of Diggie, and while there are certainly legal complications if you keep incessantly sending this "proof of canon" off to Debby and Dove (don't ask me how I know) there's nothing preventing you from formulating it in your own mind.

And that's my presentation on canon and the DCLAU. The eight of you who have read this can no go back to your lives. 

3 comments:

  1. I've always enjoyed the concept of the shows sharing a world, it's amusing and fun to dissect. But it does get odd when you have "relastic" shows like Good Luck Charlie sharing a space with Wizards.

    And i'm not sure how disney xd fits it. Is it it's own world, or what? I'm in the band is in it the DLAu, but that's all we know.

    We know Pair of kings, zeke and luthor, and kickin' it it share a space, as well as kirby buckets and mighty med, and of course the latter exists with lab rats. I'm going to assume disney xd it's own world purley because the lab rats being known to the whole world would open open problems with it being in the big dclau.

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    1. Oh, as described in the TVTropes page Disney XD and Disney Channel mainline exist in the same universe, including the single-cam shows as you mentioned.

      Yes this means according to Disney Channel there are three different presidents of the United States at the exact same time.

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    2. Also this is why I sometimes lean towards the "scorched earth" policy of just de-canonizing everything, since it's pretty clear that aside from in-jokes and when the network tells them they have to have a crossover, the writers themselves really don't give a damn about what goes on in another show. This was pretty evident during Monstober '15 when you had some shows (like Liv and Maddie and Best Friends Whenever) who actually tried to have Cyd and Shelby and Riley and Lucas be a part of the plot, and shows like Austin & Ally and I Didn't Do It where it seemed like the writers actively hated the idea of other people from other shows being forced into they're shows.

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