Thursday, December 26, 2019


Happy midwinter holidays! I hope everybody who celebrates Christmas had a merry one. One of my most thrilling gifts was a DVD set of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, which isn't available on Netflix or Hulu, so I had long since given up on being able to re-watch the series.

Having just finished watching the first season of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, I've noticed several continuity discrepancies with the original series. (It seems clear that DISCOVERY takes place in the universe of the original series, not that of the reboot.) Uniforms and the interior design of the starship differ drastically from those on Kirk's ENTERPRISE. More glaring, the Klingons have been re-imagined to look very different from Klingons in any other iteration of STAR TREK. Assuming these stories occur in the same universe as the original STAR TREK, the only way viewers can take these changes in stride is to accept them as elements in a retcon, a pretense that it's always looked like this. DISCOVERY also includes a major, worldbuilding-impact continuity problem, however: The spore drive. Its existence revolutionizes the speed of interstellar travel. If the spore drive had existed in the original series, the outcomes of many episodes would have been affected, and the day-to-day operation of the starship would have been noticeably different. To reconcile DISCOVERY with STAR TREK as we know it, at some point before the end of the series any use of the spore drive in the near future must be somehow rendered impossible.

The original series itself has continuity problems with Spock's backstory. It seems blatantly clear that the characters' personal histories weren't planned in advance but constructed ad hoc as the series progressed, particularly with Spock. In the premiere episode, he says one of his ancestors—not his own mother—was a human female. In a later episode, when Captain Kirk deliberately provokes him into a rage to negate the effects of the happiness-drug flowers, Spock says, "My mother was a teacher, my father an ambassador," implying that his parents are deceased. Only with "Journey to Babel" do we learn what then became canon, that his parents are alive but he's had a long-term estrangement from his father. That discontinuity can be justified, if tenuously, by postulating that in the earlier episodes Spock didn't know his fellow crew members well enough to speak frankly about his family background. A continuity glitch among the original series and its various spin-offs concerns money. Does the Federation use it or not? In some episodes, currency clearly exists, yet at least once it's explicitly stated that they don't need money. We can speculate on complicated explanations for this apparent contradiction, but on a metafictional level it seems likely that the writers didn't think through the implications, instead doing whatever worked for any given episode.

The vampire detective series FOREVER KNIGHT took a cavalier approach to its vampire mythology. The traits of vampires seemed to vary according to the whims of individual writers. For instance, by sifting all the evidence from various episodes, one couldn't definitively state whether holy symbols do objective harm to vampires or hurt a vampire only if the vampire believes in the item's potency.

Marion Zimmer Bradley famously disregarded continuity when the narrative requirements of a story demanded ignoring a precedent set in an older book. Of course, when she started writing about the world of Darkover, she didn't expect the fiction in that setting to become a series. It's understandable that she refused to be tied down by creative decisions made early in her career. At one point, she retconned the discrepancies by attributing them to the unreliability of in-universe narrators.

Arthur Conan Doyle, producing a huge number of quickly-written Sherlock Holmes stories over a period of many years, generated ambiguities concerning what part of Watson's body had been wounded and how many times he was married. Organizations such as the Baker Street Irregulars have fun trying to reconcile those ambiguities and weave them into a coherent narrative.

How much discontinuity can a creator get away with before the reader's suspension of disbelief ends up hanged, drawn, and quartered?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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