DeFlip Side #163: The Continuity Vortex

DeFlip Side #163: The Continuity Vortex.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

The new season of Doctor Who premiered earlier this week, and as The Doctor confronted the Daleks, yet again, and invoked visages of Doctors past, yet again, I started to ask myself, how much continuity is too much continuity?

Because I fear Doctor Who has been irrevocably sucked into a continuity vortex. No matter how many times he defeats them, The Doctor seems forever beset by the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master (or more recently, The Mistress), rehashing character and story beats that I’ve seen over and over again–and I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until the 2005 reboot. So I can imagine how tiring it must be for fans who’ve been with the Doctor for 50 years.

The Doctor has so often fallen down the well of his own self-referential history that it begs the question: Is there a tipping point at which continuity becomes a liability?

It’s that very quandry that ultimately drove Star Trek off of television.

On one side, you had show runners like Ronald D. Moore and Ira Stephen Behr who embraced Trek continuity through Deep Space Nine. Replete with references to TOS-era characters and events, DS9 did more than any other Trek spinoff to broaden and solidify the Star Trek universe with a sense of scope and history.

Which put it at odds with franchise bosses Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, who were running Voyager at the time. They openly eschewed the original series and did everything they could to distance themselves from it. That included an increasing aversion to continuity. As Ron Moore said in an online interview:

Voyager doesn’t really believe in anything. The show doesn’t have a point of view that I can discern. The continuity of the show is completely haphazard. They don’t care, and they’ll tell you flat out that they don’t care.”

Braga even went so far as to brand the fans who did care as “continuity pornographers.”

Look, I can see how it may have been frustrating to have been creatively beholden to an outdated 60s television series. But for decades, Trek fans had nothing but the original 79 episodes to obsess over, and the adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy became sacrosanct, relics that had informed conventions and fanfictions and the ultimate triumph of the Gospel of Roddenberry. And, suddenly, the people entrusted with safeguarding that Gospel say screw it. Let’s toss it. Cue the fireworks.

J.J. Abrams was so cognizant of this continuity conflict that it informed his entire approach to the Star Trek reboot. And while I have a lot of problems with the new films, at least the alternate timeline conceit respects and preserves Trek canon while allowing the filmmakers to take the franchise in any direction they choose.

Yet, as DS9 proved, there was nothing inherently constraining about Trek continuity. The real cause of Star Trek’s long demise is that it lost focus and couldn’t decide what it wanted to be about. And in the absence of a guiding principal, the franchise sputtered and died.

But Doctor Who is proving that a relentlessly myopic focus on continuity is just as bad. And it’s a lesson I hope the folks at Marvel heed, because the success of their sprawling, shared cinematic universe threatens to be its own undoing.

As Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron showed, the stories are getting so overblown, and the screen so crowded with heroes, that the films are in danger of sinking under their own weight. And the upcoming Captain America: Civil War features even more characters. The more it becomes about perfunctory fan spectacle and continuity bulking the less I’m enjoying it.

Marvel need only look to DC to see the dangers of continuity obsession, with DC’s on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, on-again multiverse fiasco. Talk about ridiculous.

So where’s the sweet spot? How much continuity is enough, and how can you service core fans without drowning in the very thing that made you successful in the first place?

The answer lies in a couple of unlikely sets of television brothers.

First up are monster-hunting siblings Sam and Dean Winchester from the enduring CW staple Supernatural. Heading into an unlikely 11th season, Supernatural remains largely unhindered by its own continuity, but still manages to please a fanbase every bit as rabid and devoted as Star Trek’s. And I think it’s because the show has remained true to it premise while continuously redefining itself.

The nexus of the series is the relationship between brothers Sam and Dean. And that through-line has allowed it to evolve from monster-of-the-week anthology series to world-ending apocalyptic saga and beyond. And because it always remembers where it came from, never, ever pulls any punches, and takes every chance it can to poke fun at its own sometimes absurd mythology, it hasn’t yet worn out its welcome.

The other brothers who have this whole continuity thing well in hand are Hank and Dean Venture.

The Venture Bros. began in 2003 as a Johnny Quest parody in the nascent years of Adult Swim, and in the intervening decade plus it has logged five seasons with a sixth on the way. And though its seasons are far shorter than a regular network series, The Venture Bros. has crammed more continuity into its 68 episodes than any three TV series combined. The show is now so laden with mythology that almost every story beat springs organically out of seeds that have often been planted for years.

And show creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer are ever conscious of pruning and cultivating that continuity. In an interview with Wired Magazine earlier this year, Hammer outlined their delicate approach to crafting the upcoming sixth season. He said:

“We have a lot of movement, and sometimes it’s nice to take all the furniture, stack it up in a corner, and light a fire, which we do.”

Publick responds:

“And clearing things and starting anew then gives you a new problem—having too many directions to go in. Honing in on what we wanted to do is tricky.”

And Hammer wraps up:

“Because if there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s making a universe you can’t stop with. This thing can break off into so many pieces, be so many things. I don’t think we did it intentionally, but it is the most fruitful place to write.”

Fruitful is an understatement. There’s always so much going on in every Venture Bros. episode that repeated viewings are pretty much mandatory. And the show’s practical approach to continuity prevents it from growing stale, or ever getting in its own way.

So getting back to my initial question of how much continuity is too much, both The Venture Bros. and Supernatural prove that you can never have too much. The key is using it as a launch pad for evolution.

It’s a lesson that Science Fiction fans should take to heart. Because, let’s face it, we live for this crap. There are few bigger fandom thrills than geeking out over continuity. But we need to temper our obsessions. Otherwise we’ll wind up like our favorite Time Lord, treading and retreading the same mythology over and over and over again, singularities at the center of our own continuity vortices.