On the Passing of Torches

I’ve been thinking about matters of canon and continuity, in part how they relate to fandom complaints. And it occurred to me that Star Trek has probably done more “passing of the torch” stories than any other major franchise. And they’ve been doing it right from the beginning, starting with two-part TOS episode The Menagerie. I know that was not, specifically, a passing-of-the-torch episode. It was more about re-using footage, building a new episode on a budget, but: it firmly establishes the original pilot and its characters as canon. It firmly establishes that before Kirk, Christopher Pike commanded the Enterprise.

Encounter at Farpoint was the first real passing of the torch in Star Trek, of course. DeForest Kelley shows up in some heavy makeup to play an age-advanced version of Dr. McCoy, a role he would continue playing for several more years in the film series, to tour the newfangled Enterprise D. It was deemed important to make explicit that this new show, while incredibly different in its technology and (eventually, at least) storytelling, was firmly anchored to the same universe of the original series.

TNG also featured episodes guest starring Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and James Doohan’s Scotty, and while these were not torch passings, they were still – in part, at least – furthering the effort of cementing a solid internal consistency. Yesterday’s Enterprise is another example of a not-quite torch pass episode, and one of the best stories the series ever told.

Returning briefly to Encounter at Farpoint, the passing of torches in pilot episodes threatened to become tradition when Picard’s Enterprise spent a two-part premiere docked to Deep Space Nine. Moreover, you see Chief O’Brien transferring (unrelated, but I have always found it hilarious that more episodes of DS9 make explicit excuses for Keiko’s absence than she actually appears in, which has the completely unintentional consequence that I wonder if O’Brien is making excuses because Keiko left him). Later on, when TNG wraps up, Worf joins the junior show.

(DS9 also connected itself firmly to TOS, and was the first modern iteration to confirm that the universe of TNG and DS9 really did used to look like TOS. Trials and Tribble-ations was a stunt, and it annoyed me when first broadcast, but it’s one of the most essential pieces of Star Trek continuity to exist. I’ll come back to this.)

When the Next Gen cast got their chance at the big screen, Generations was one big torch-passing episode. If it had been part of the show’s run, it would have been three parts and driven the audience nuts.

It’s not generally remembered as one of the better film outings, but I recently re-watched it for the first time in years and … it’s good? The first act nails the atmosphere and tone of the original films. (It also manages to imply Kirk has finally learned that he needs to learn humility and how to step back. Watching Shatner struggle not to seize command of Enterprise B is interesting, and quite possibly the most brilliant of meta commentary.)

When Kirk and Picard meet in the final act, note how Kirk no longer struggles to call another man “captain of the Enterprise.” These moments are divided by a second act that perfectly captures the atmosphere and tone of the Next Generation series. That this isn’t considered the greatest example of torch-passing is largely due to the fact that the second half of the movie is full of nonsense, including the famous plot-hole of Guinan being both in and out of the Nexus simultaneously, rendering Kirk’s death meaningless and non-binding.

Voyager was a bit less direct, but placing members of the Maquis at the center of the show tied it to both DS9 and TNG. It expanded on a group that had been seen in the other shows, building up and fleshing out details of the shared universe before flinging the crew into completely new and uncharted space where they would repeatedly face the same enemies who’d given Picard his greatest challenge. (Voyager remains my least favorite of the series.)

Enterprise opens with Klingons on Earth, a hundred years before Kirk! Archer must journey to Q’onoS and stand in the same (strangely undersized) high council chamber where Picard will one day stand at Worf’s side. Several episodes connect diretly or indirectly to TOS, in particular the Mirror Universe two-parter (a highlight of the run) and that somewhat bizarre effort to provide an in-universe explanation for why Klingons look completely different in TOS from all other iterations of the franchise.

Having mostly skipped a torch-passing in its premiere – which makes sense, in that this is a prequel series – Enterprise chose to wrap its run with probably the worst version of torch-passing imaginable. We’ll speak no more of that here.

Let me get back to those Klingons for a second. After the franchise went to all that trouble to reconcile low-budget 60s TV makeup with 80s and 90s film and (relatively) bigger budget TV, Discovery kind of just said fuck it. Interestingly, though, much of what Discovery does with Klingons is based on an old novel in the Pocket Books line (The Final Reflection).

This, in particular, fascinates me. While the shows have made frequent efforts to confirm that this is all one, big, internally consistent continuity … the novels, eh, not so much. Rather, the TOS novels collectively expanded the original series in an internally consistent fashion that built heavily on the mythology of Klingons, Romulans, and the Federation founding races who weren’t human or Vulcan. It’s a large body of work, and impressive, and TNG and the films ignore it completely. So it’s fascinating to see it re-surface not only in Discovery but also more than a bit in Enterprise.

(Compare this to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, which received near identical treatment but with a striking difference in reception.)

The relegation of all those novels to non-canon status was deliberate and pre-ordained. For all the effort Star Trek has put into consistent continuity, it has also spent a lot of time saying, essentially, “fuck canon.” The books I mentioned above were not considered canon at any point. Roddenberry’s opinion of canon was cavalier at best. He explicitly declared anything not on screen as non-canon, specifically mentioning the novel tie-in for the first film which he himself wrote.

(I don’t want any trouble, but since I already brought up the Star Wars EU, it should be remembered that when Lucas okayed the original Thrawn trilogy, he made it a point to say he would not be bound by anything in print should he produce another film. The EU’s cononicity was, from the start and by design, provisional at best.)

Roddenberry also allowed that some of the things that happened on screen were themselves not canon, since they didn’t fit in well with other things on screen and he didn’t feel like taking the time to figure out a retcon. Which seems to indicate he would have hated the Klingon appearance discrepancy explanation from Enterprise. Unless he liked it instead, then it’s canon.

With TNG up and running, and while he still had control of it, Roddenberry even indicated the original series was no longer canon. This is why I said Trials and Tribble-ations is so important. It is the final, irrevocable ousting of Roddenberry’s version of canon and establishes that yes, the 80s/90s flavored future really did spring from that trippy 60s shit. It’s all true. It’s not the moment the fans-grown-up-to-be-writers-and-showrunners took control away from him – but it is the moment they declared themselves the undisputed Keepers of the Canon. And these new Keepers take their Canon seriously indeed.

Behold, when the Kelvin timeline began in 2009, Leonard Nimoy returned as Spock to pass the torch. Even in discarding all previous canon and explicitly starting over, it was important to declare that previous canon was still there, still real.

Now, all this may be only mildly interesting; especially if you’re not a huge Star Trek nerd. But if you’re still with me this far, hang about just a little longer and consider the other big franchises that have been around long enough to have also wrestled with the issue of torches.

We have Doctor Who, which replaces its main character with the same main character but different every few years. In almost every case, the Doctor’s regeneration is an integral part of the story in which it takes place. (Not so much One-to-Two or Six-to-Seven, but so what?) Perplexed companions must be explained to. Jumbled memories must be sorted. Sometimes, faces of previous Doctors must be superimposed over the new one in a rapid montage of inspiring clips (Eleven), or a previous Doctor must posthumously anoint their successor (Eleven again, when Clara doesn’t like Twelve. Also, every multi-Doctor story they’ve done.)

What fascinates me most about Doctor Who is the built-in reset button regeneration implies. The First Doctor travels through a spacetime in which no subsequent Doctors have yet existed. The Thirteenth travels a spacetime in which all previous Dotors have already existed.

Think about that. Everything Two ever did has already happened where- and whenever Three goes. When Three is in the distant past, the changes Two made in the distant future have still already happened. In a sense, this means that each Doctor inhabits their own unique universe. Take that, canonistas!

(But the multi-Doctor stories! Which are, without exception, violations of the Laws of Time and really not supposed to happen, as in that’s totally not technically possible. There’s an explicit “mitigating circumstance” each time which allows the meeting to take place. My favorite of these was the novel Cold Fusion.)

I feel like the writers have known this for a very long time, whether they’ve consciously considered it or not. And the result is this: Doctor Who (which has its own version of the only-what’s-on-screen rule) makes many efforts to connect dots and establish consistency, except when it doesn’t bother to do so. And the result is occasionally messy and often seems to upset the fans, but can you imagine the reaction of Trek fandom if – oh, I don’t know – an entire founding race of the Federation was retconned out of existence? Ha ha, just kidding.

But my underlying point stands: some people got very upset about Discovery’s Klingons. And while nobody liked those new Daleks that looked like they should be being driven by hamsters in commercials, you just don’t get the same slavishness to the past with Who. And that makes perfect sense in a show predicated on constantly altering the timeline.

But what about non-SF franchises? Consider, now, the conundrum that is Bond. James Bond.

In the main film series (excluding the first Casino Royale and the second Thunderball), six men have played 007 to date.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service set the tone most of the following handovers would take: don’t worry about it, here’s an action scene. Lazenby’s single fourth wall violation in the cold open notwithstanding, OHMSS does not acknowledge the existence of “the other guy.” The preceding films remain canon, except now James looked like this all along.

The first exception is Connery’s return, which follows the practice of Halloween or Terminator films: that last one didn’t happen, but the earlier ones did. Selective canon. (I am honestly and unashamedly a huge fan of selective canon, and have Thoughts about the various possible viewing orders of the Halloween series.)

But from there until the hard reboot of Casino Royale, there’s just no acknowledging canon. It surely must shift over all those years but one thing remains true: whichever of the preceding stories are or are not canon, this man right here is James Bond, has always been James Bond, we don’t know what you’re talking about. See? Same old Moneypenny, same old M, same old Q. Until, one by one, they too were quietly replaced.

And you know what? Bond canon is an extraordinary mess, made worse by the legal disputes over Blofeld and SPECTRE, and for the most part nobody in the audience cares. But what’s amazing about that is that the films tried from the very beginning and continue to this day trying to establish continuity and an ongoing storyline — a goal the earliest Who writers probably gave little if any consideration, and which Gene Roddenberry rejected outright.

Ironic, isn’t it?

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