Wednesday, January 26, 2011

So I was reading the Nerdist webpage


I am sooo happy.

There on the nerdist ( @nerdist on Twitter ) was an entire blog post devoted to the trouble with timelines in writing and just how important is it for a writer to be mindful of continuity.

I used to do Interactive Blog Stories on a pseudo diary type blog. It was actually a writer's journal in a way. I'd write about the current events in my life and the world that surrounded each day and then would write poetry and short stories and -


I started referring to past posts and then documenting that on the actual past post. It was interesting to study memory versus the "at the moment" posting. For me, it was like going back in time. Kind of -

Anyway again.


(next day. I was going to come right back but something came up. :D)

So about this blog. After a while of writing and referring back to older posts it got me to thinking about going back in time. Each time I referred back to the older posts, now this was from different points in time both before and after the date in question, I could note if there was something I'd do differently or note how going back might have changed the future. Then I would give the Gentle Readers who were reading it the option of going forward or backward by making choices. It was alot of fun. Kind of like a carnival ride throug someone's imagination. The thing was it also made me mindful of the importance of the job of what we like to call The Continuity Fairy. This is the imaginary or real folks who keep up with this type of thing. The ones who have a keen eye for detail or a remarkable memory. It's important and yes it's annoying when important elements, key elements, are forgotten. It can also create havoc in the story. Those unintended consequences and illogical posts like this one from last night:


Don't read the rest just yet. I have to go to the restroom. And this blog post isn't finished


This next part won't make sense without further explaination.

Baring unforeseen flood or famine, I should be back to finish within the next 15 minutes.



Now to answer the question posed on the Nerdist webpage,

Is continuity important in a long running play or television show (like Dr. Who).

To which I replied?

Absolutely not.

So much time devoted to this subject when actually the answer is clear to anyone who's watched a long running soap.

Things change.


Even the Continuity Fairies screw up from time to time.

It's a hard job being a Continuity Fairy. When you have a story line that's not just linear its also overlapping you can miss stuff. It's not like traveling back on Memory Lane is just well a memory.

Stuff happens.

You do your best to keep it all straight and then when someone points out a tiny little flaw you deny OR you make more stuff up to "patch up" the little riffle in the "space time continum " to fix it.

Easy peasy.

Hugs and kisses.


PS One should not confuse the Continuity Fairies with the Incontinent Fairies. The Continuity Fairies are the patron saints of writers. They are that loyal band of editors and fans who help writers keep on the straight and narrow of a story so that if they have a continuity accident, it can be fixed. This allows them, the writers, to keep their jobs and thus their kids in school or to make the car payments. The Incontinent Fairies are the patron saints of tiny old people and dogs. They watch after the tiny old people and dogs so that if they have and "accident" it will be out in the yard and not on the new couch.

Very important difference.

Both are very busy and have been known to become distracted by their real life and can miss things.



Does Continuity Interfere With Storytelling?
by Kyle Anderson on January 4, 2011

Any long running story — generally TV shows, but occasionally movie franchises — is bound to be steeped in a deep and rich continuity, stuff that has happened before affecting the current spate of stories. This is a phenomenon that’s bound to happen. Even shows that are particularly episodic, like the now-defunct Law & Order, would sometimes be forced to reference past events. They had to; the characters do not become clean slates every 49th minute.

Science Fiction series are especially mired down by continuity that their core of die-hard fans will defend to the end of time. It’s these fans who will go on message boards and complain until their fingers bleed that a new episode does something, no matter how minuscule, that disrupts the fabric of the past, or at the very least ignores something once thought sacred. But, is it sacred? Shouldn’t the most important part of storytelling be telling a good story?

As many of you will know, I watch an inordinate amount of Doctor Who, from all eras, and a show that’s been on for the better part of 50 years is bound to have a huge amount of continuity built up that the fans, some of the most fervent of the lot, accept as gospel.

In the 1972 story “Day of the Daleks,” a concept is offered up to explain why it’s a bad thing for a person (or object) to physically interact with itself should it travel in time and cross its own timeline. Should one do so, they would cause a paradox resulting in the destruction of the universe or the sudden death of puppies or something else awful. The fictional name for the concept the story’s writer gave is the now-famous “Blinovitch Limitation Effect.” For the purposes of the story at hand, it was a plot point to add an extra layer of tension as well as providing a quick explanation as to why the Doctor, or anyone for that matter, could not simply try again if he screwed something up the first time around. It’s a novel idea and, as time travel is largely speculative anyway, it seems just as plausible as anything else. It was a function of that story and for that story it worked.

The term and concept are mentioned a few more times throughout the show’s long history, but I’ll just talk about two specifically. In the 1983 story “Mawdryn Undead,” the Doctor and his companion Turlough are in 1983, while his other two companions, Nyssa and Tegan, are in 1977, both groups encountering the Brigadier. Eventually, all of them end up in the same space ship at the same time, and it becomes imperative, along with the rest of the bad stuff happening in the story, that they have to keep the two Brigadiers away from each other, lest the universe implode.

Again, in the 2005 story “Father’s Day,” the Ninth Doctor takes Rose to witness her father’s death in a car accident (what a morbid person she is), and, instead, she decides to save him, thus creating a rift in space and time for big flying dinosaur-like beasts called Reapers, which feed off of time distortions. At one point, Rose actually physically touches her infant self and causes a whole other mess of crap to happen. Like “Day of the Daleks,” the Blinovitch Limitation Effect is used as a story modifier, a plot point that propels the action.

Two recent Doctor Who stories choose to ignore the BLE, despite it being part of the show’s continuity. In the series 5 finale, “The Big Bang,” the Doctor and Rory touch sonic screwdrivers and a big spark occurs, proving to the Doctor that they are indeed the same screwdriver at different points in its timeline, yet, later, adult Amy Pond pats child Amelia Pond on the head briefly. Nothing happens. Later still, the Doctor clutches his ten-minutes-earlier self and whispers a secret, again with no real detriment. In the context of this story, this can be explained away by saying the universe was in the middle of blowing up anyway and any paradoxical behavior would have no further influence on it. Kind of like shooting a dead body; what’s one more bullet hole if the guy’s already snuffed it?

Still, in the recent Christmas special, Kazran Sardick (played by Michael Gambon) physically interacts with himself as a child, and there’s absolutely no mention of it being a bad thing. This, too, can be explained away, which I won’t do for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but my question is: does it matter? To a lot of people, it did. Fan forums and podcasts have spoken in-depth about how it spits in the face of the show to do something like that. Part of me will always notice things like that and think, “Hey, wait a minute,” but the other part of me says, “Man, that’s a really great moment in that character’s arc.” It’s things like this that cause Kyle the fan and Kyle the writer come to blows. Obviously, in the course of hundreds of hours of adventures, story points will become part of that show’s lore, but should they stand in the way of someone telling a good story NOW?

In both cases, the writer Steven Moffat (who’s always played fast and loose with continuity) is telling a very particular fable using this long-established character and realm as his lead and both are exceedingly well-told. Neither story would be nearly as effective if they steadfastly adhered to a story point dreamt up almost 40 years ago. And, let us not forget, even the classic series chose to gloss over the esteemed Limitation Effect when it suited the storytelling. In the stories “The Three Doctors,” “The Five Doctors,” and “The Two Doctors,” the Doctor’s previous and current incarnations cross paths with each other and nothing is said about it and they all occurred post-Blinovitch.

It's My Party
What happens when people stick too closely to the more arbitrary parts of a series’ backlog of stuff is that it limits what you can and cannot do and, especially in sci-fi or fantasy, the only limits should be the writer’s imagination. For a moment, let’s leave the world of Who for the murkier waters of Star Wars. If I remember correctly, and countless frustrated fist-clenchings have proven I do, the sole purpose of the prequels was to further continuity. Remember how well those turned out? It seems the only thing George Lucas did, from a purely storytelling standpoint, was to take every reference to the past made in the original trilogy and visually depict it in the prequels. Some things have plot holes that need to be tied up, but I think I was pretty good without knowing that Darth Vader used to be a whiny, petulant cry-baby who murdered kids at the behest of a fairly unconvincing mentor. It somehow diminishes the effect of the original trilogy. Darth Vader was a blank slate when he appeared in 1977 and yet audiences still got the gist that he was the bad guy. And Lucas even went a step further by changing the ORIGINAL films to be perfectly aligned with the crap he made up in the prequels. Retconning is usual a function of making the past fit the story you’re now telling, but making stuff in the future fit the stuff in the past is proactive continuity, or Proconning. What a waste of energy. It’s much less important to me that Boba Fett have the voice of Jango Fett from Episode II than it is who the character is and what he represents. I can’t decide if it’s a fan-wank or just a Lucas-wank.

And it’s not just Star Wars. I know everyone bitches about the prequels, and have done in a far more detailed and articulate way (see: Red Letter Media), so let’s take something else. The tv show LOST was a twisty, turny, confusing mush of science, mysticism, and soap-opera. In the third season, the show introduced two characters, the hated Paulo and Nikki, who were supposed to have been there on the island for as long as everybody else. But why are we only now seeing them? The writers spent such a long time trying to explain where the two of them were during all the rest of the episodes we’ve already seen that they forsook (an actual word by the way) other, more interesting storylines. In the final season, the show had so many unanswered continuity questions that they couldn’t possibly attend to all of them, and thus didn’t. In this case, the lack of continuity got in the way of enjoying the story that was being presented.

I'll Do What I Want!
Part of the fun of watching series for many years is that you can see how action leads to reaction on a grander scale. It’s like pieces of a puzzle finally being put in the right order while finding new pieces you didn’t even know were there. Some things, though, are merely window dressing to help a particular story and should not be held up as truth spoken by the Lawgiver. Steven Moffat has been quoted as saying a show about time travel can never have an official continuity, which is a clever way of saying he’s going to write whatever the fuck he wants and that’s that, which I can really respect. Nothing was shaken up to the point of being unrecognizable, nor was anything about the core belief of the character changed or misrepresented. Where’s the harm, I ask you? There comes a point where the writer just needs to tell a story the best way he or she knows how and suffer through the handful of fans who’ll complain that it goes against everything the show represents. They’re still watching and will keep watching, and, really, that’s what it’s all about.

Share and Enjoy:


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

yogahz January 4, 2011 at 8:59 am
Thanks for this article Kyle.

I don’t mind when the writer changes the rules – in that I agree with Moffat, but it always takes me out of the story (Amy patting Amelia) until I’m drawn back in by the same story. It’s usually a moment that merits breaking the rules.

Themonk January 4, 2011 at 9:22 am
As a life-long fan of sci-fi I understand the frustration of continuity conflicts. I’ve witnessed them countless times, and have finally come to the conclusion that they are an inherent part of the beauty of the genre. Continuity conflicts will always be present in stories that cover long periods of time…period…just as no one is ever truly dead or destroyed in sci-fi because some writer will invariably invent some way to resurrect them if or when needed in later story lines.

Lisa G January 4, 2011 at 9:32 am
Rule #1:
“Never let the facts get in the way of telling a great story.”

As a writer as well as a geeky fangirl of every franchise you mentioned, neither part of my brain is bothered when something current appears to contradict something prior. Hell, even Shakespeare screwed with history and geography, knowing they weren’t as important to a story as character and relationships.

There will always be literal, linear people who get their undies in a bunch at the tiniest bit of untidiness, in stories or in life. The rest of us like to surf the chaos and enjoy the fun. As long as a story justifies itself within itself, it can tweak any history or cannon as much as it wants. I’ll suspend my disbelief and keep munching my popcorn.

Del Coro January 4, 2011 at 10:23 am
If Amy patting her younger self on the head “takes you out of the story,” you’re doing it wrong.

Joe January 4, 2011 at 10:30 am
I was just having a discussion on another site about how Dungeon Masters in D&D live in the worlds they create and players just visit them.

It is sort of the opposite with shows. The writers visit the shows for the episodes they write and the viewers live in and obsess over them.

The end result being that the visitors do not care about continuity or the long term story only about what is happening when they visit.

Chris W. January 4, 2011 at 11:00 am
I agree with all you wrote.

That said, there does rest on the writer a modicum of responsibility to the audience to regard continuity. The writer is hoping that the audience will invest time in a piece of work. Part of that investment is to take what has happened as either important or just part of the story. To then take that investment and say, “oh nevermind audience, forget what you saw, here’s something else…the real story I want to tell” is forsaking that responsibility.

Why would an audience invest time in a serialized show if the writer doesn’t feel beholden to the universe of their story? I wouldn’t waste my time if I knew that the next season the writer was just going to ignore all the things from the previous season.

yogahz January 4, 2011 at 11:07 am
@ Del Coro
All I meant was that in that gesture I thought of the “Blinovitch Limitation Effect” even though it had no role. I easily and quickly moved on.

So what’s the right way?

Stacy January 4, 2011 at 11:21 am
As far as the paradox in the Big Bang story, I assumed it didn’t create a paradox because that was how the original events played out. Amy makes a comment about remembering being there when she was a child. And the paradox didn’t happen when the Doctor whispered something to himself, because that’s what originally happened. I can’t explain the sonic screw driver thing though.

After watching the Three Doctor’s, the paradox thing did cross my mind, but I filled it in with the story like above… maybe the Doctor’s did all this in their own time lines, and off camera each of the older Doctor’s were saying “Ah, yeah… I remember this – well, let’s get on with it.” And the Doctor just had amnesia about his recorder each time…

I enjoyed Steven Moffat’s writing on Coupling and on the other Doctor Who stories he’s done in the past. I probably get more excited seeing Moffat’s name fly across the screen than seeing Davies’.

I’m with Lisa on this one – and I hope she will kindly pass the popcorn

Mammaklehm January 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm
I think as long as a writer is mostly respectful of the past small mis-steps are fine. Better not to complain too much and make a beloved writer want to quit the series!

Plus, a lot of pointing out errors is more the fans proving they know the series than anything else.

Doc January 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm
There’s a certain amount of nerd-foam that appears whenever these sorts of discussions, eh, erupt. I’d like to pretend I don’t care, but I don’t. Which is to say, I do, but only to the degree when the entire thing becomes a distraction. It’s interesting that the Amy/Amelia point was raised. I thought, “Whoa,” when I saw that, but it didn’t raise any alarms. Moffat is very good at retrofitting tiny points into larger storyline arcs, where what seems to be incidental kicks off sequence of events that ends up with… well… who knows? There may indeed be a problem that arises from that contact… but it hasn’t materialized yet. Since we’ve never actually experienced “the end of everything”, nobody knows what it looks like.

Dalek January 4, 2011 at 5:14 pm
Continuity is what makes a story. Things happen and then things happen based on those events. Consequences are what make a long story interesting. What interferes with storytelling is bad storytelling.

A good example is STTNG: Forces of Nature. Someone thought it would be cool to do an episode where warp drive was discovered to have harmful effects on space. They put a limit on it at the end of the story and then have to mention permission to exceed it in a few episodes down the line. Then they just stop mentioning it all together. Any time someone asks, they mumble something about how “it must have been solved off camera”

It’s not a very good story and it creates a lot of unnecessary work later on down the line so that they can ignore the consequences of the story. Then they just get rid of the consequences entirely. Maybe it just shouldn’t have been written at all.

PapaFrita January 4, 2011 at 5:31 pm
Continuity is a powerful tool when you’ve got a whole story planned out. That way little things from earlier in the series can become big deals later and feel like good storytelling. It works well for comedic effect as well (Arrested Development, The Venture Bros). On a show like Dr. Who, though, trying to work continuity across decades and different writers/directors/producers is impossible. Moffit is right to do whatever he likes.

Charles January 4, 2011 at 5:46 pm
Large long-running universes get complex and missing some bit of continuity can be expected and mostly ignored. But, as a fan, what gets to me is that much of it is just plain stupid. The Star Trek franchise was loaded with them, with Brannon Braga often making fun of the fans for their notices of continuity problems. Some would say that this arrogance ran the franchise into the ground. One problem in STTNG has already been pointed out. In another episode they beamed through shields, even though it’s always been canon that you can’t beam through shields. Why did they do that? I think they just didn’t care. It would have take a tiny bit of extra thought to make the same story just as good and exciting without this stupid mistake and they would not have the wrath of fans like myself to deal with. Instead, they were lazy.

Art is always straining against boundaries. Often it is those boundaries that make art great. Pushing the boundaries is fine, but ignoring them is dumb. Would you be okay if Dr. Who suddenly turned out to be a Dalek in disguise for one episode because some writer wrote a great “Dr. Who is really a Dalek” episode? (“It’s a twist,” as they say on Robot Chicken). Too many writers like to claim they are better than continuity, but are really just too lazy to come up with a story just as good, but without the disruptive elements that make anyone who knows the universe cringe.

Please consider also, even in your editorial, your engagement in a story was temporarily interrupted as you thought of how a basic idea has been disregarded. Interestingly, the part of you that considered this okay is the part (the writer) that is not in the vast majority of the viewing public. Is this distraction a good idea?

Gabriel January 4, 2011 at 7:30 pm
I think the most convoluted continuity problems I have seen were in DC comics. I remember the Crisis on Infinite Earths series from the 80′s when I was a kid. They tried to clean up all the continuity problems so the fanboys would quit their bitching. In the end this is all made up. The story you are telling is more important that some other story. If you can reference in a way that is good for your story great. If not don’t worry about it.

Zil January 4, 2011 at 9:32 pm
I hafta say I agree with Stacy–it might be because things are supposed to happen this way in certain instances.

Galadriel January 4, 2011 at 11:32 pm
Great piece, Kyle! I suspect you’ve been hanging out at DoctorWhoTV, reading our discussions… or perhaps participating in them? Anyway, I absolutely agree with Chris W. and Charles and have more to add:

There’s a fine line to walk here. Writers with high positions and power–just like powerful people in government and business–believe they can do whatever they want, and they often get away with it. The results usually range from disappointing to disastrous. The Star Wars prequels are good examples: moneymakers without great storytelling. I’m keeping my hopes up re: Steven Moffat, but he’s starting to trend toward Lucas-ness. We writers trying to break in are the ones forced to attend to every detail in our work, which means our writing often has much better continuity than the stuff from those guys already sittin’ pretty. We must have ultimate respect for our audience/readers; they are the ones who make or break us, whether they are agents, editors, fans, producers, etc.

So my point (and I do have one!) is that blatantly thumbing your nose at established rules of beloved stories–and at their fans–just because you can is bad storytelling in itself. If a writer thinks his story must bend the rules to be its best, then he should do it in a respectful, briefly explanatory way, as we aspiring writers must do to gain our place in the world. (Of course, then our bosses get to mess up all that work to make it “marketable”… but then it’s not the writer’s fault!)

Sometimes all it takes to keep (most) fans happy is a line like, “We don’t talk about that” (Worf?) when the issue of Klingons looking different through the years came up in ST:DS9. Ignoring the issue would have been lazy and ridiculous; attending to it was entertaining… while leaving open fan speculation on genetic engineering, etc.

So yes, bend the rules if your story demands it… but do it with grace and care and respect, and you’ll retain the respect of your audience.

Eric January 6, 2011 at 1:26 pm
But but but… what about those two Cybermen wandering the TARDIS???!?!

PapaFrita January 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm
Can you really base the continuity of Dr. Who based on the idea that it’s all one continuous story? It’d be different if there was an intended ending to the grand story, but it’s not that kind of show. The character of the Doctor continues, but as he changes his face and personality, so does the tone and style of each season. It’s more like a reboot, really, than the next chapter in a continuing series. Moffat is writing about his own Doctor in a similar way that Christopher Nolan is writing about his own Batman.

Daniel January 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm
I didn’t think there was any ridiculous turn of Dr Who that could get to me since it’s such a ball of nonsense anyway, and I have great affection for it, flying sharks and all. So I was surprised when the travel in your own timeline aspect really bothered me. Two big reasons: first, an entire, memorable episode of the new series devoted to why this can never happen (giant bat monsters come and eat you), and second, and this is obvious, to avoid the Bill & Ted problem: any problem could just be solved via time travel – and you have unlimited chances to get things right. So to me this limitation is an essential part of how the show works, as much as the Doctor not shooting people. The christmas carol time travelling was moving but just not right for Dr Who. I am definitely enjoying Steven Moffatt’s version overall, but I regard this as a major mistake and I hope it never happens again. (somehow Blink gets by with me…)

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1 comment:

  1. One of my very first emails (before tweets) to the email segment of The LLS with Tv's CF.

    "If you could travel back in time and see yourself coming? Where would you tell yourself to be going."