Star Wars (comic book cover)

Star Wars

The Science of Consistency

On fictional universes and the fans who rationalize them.

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As a writer/editor at the American Council on Science and Health, I often criticize “crank” scientists who cling to a faltering theory long after it has become plain to all sane observers that the pet idea just doesn’t hold together logically. They are pathetic, quixotic figures.

We science fiction fans are not so different, though, when we struggle to rationalize away the contradictions in our favorite fictional universes.

The fictional universes depicted in movies like the Star Wars or Star Trek series tend to get very complex (for beginners: the former features Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the latter Captain Kirk, the Enterprise, and a loyal crew made up of people like engineer Scotty; if you get them mixed up, you are worthless). That complexity means that—inevitably—the occasional “continuity error” occurs. In normal movie parlance, a continuity error means one of those embarrassing moments when, say, the bandage on an actor moves from the right hand to the left hand between scenes due to a mistake by the makeup department. For science fiction fans, though, continuity refers to the overall logical and historical coherence of our beloved fictional universes.

If Scotty witnesses Captain Kirk’s death at the beginning of Star Trek VII, it is extremely troubling to some of us—those who care, those who have intellectual integrity and the discipline of logic!—if Scotty is awakened from suspended animation approximately seventy years later in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and asks whether Captain Kirk is still alive. Scotty should know that Kirk isn’t! Something is wrong! It doesn’t add up—yet it must! It must!

For you see, any story must have a certain amount of internal coherence if we are to achieve suspension of disbelief. And we must achieve suspension of disbelief. For most people, that just means that a given fictional universe must hold together for the space of two hours: if the main character in a conventional romantic comedy, possibly some movie for girls featuring Meg Ryan or someone like that, says at the beginning that she is an only child, she should not have a sister present at her wedding at the end of the movie. Stories like that—about boring, conventional people with their petty love affairs and their tawdry sex antics, people whom one could not trust when the chips were down and an Imperial Battle Droid were attacking your spaceship!—are relatively easy to keep consistent. It is only the grandeur and majesty of a fictional universe the size and complexity of one like the Star Wars universe, the Star Trek universe, the DC Comics universe, or the Marvel Comics universe (and perhaps soap operas) that is truly difficult to maintain.

Yet sometimes the editors and writers responsible for such series barely care about maintaining continuity, so busy are they with more mundane tasks such as writing entertaining dialogue and coming up with interesting new characters. That is why such universes desperately need the obsessive, crank-like fan, the fan willing to concoct rationalizations that make sense of the apparent continuity errors. Indeed, without such fans, I question whether the continuity of these universes could be maintained at all. The fate of entire fictional worlds, the very cohesion of the space-time continuum, hinges on the selfless efforts of fans like myself to keep track of what the hell is going on and explain the slip-ups by the so-called “professionals”!

Scotty, for example, must have been so addled by his time in suspended animation that he temporarily forgot that Kirk was dead (that’s the explanation fans came up with, and it’s now accepted as canonical by the Trek staff themselves, I believe). Aaaah, that’s better. All is consistent. All is well. (Or at least, all is well with that particular slip-up—on the other hand, the latest Star Trek TV series, Enterprise, is in the middle of a two-part episode, even as I write these words, that is designed to explain once and for all why the Klingons in the 1960s Star Trek series are swarthier and have less-lumpy foreheads than the Klingons in the movies and the newer Trek TV shows. It is important that we know.)

The anxiety caused by such contradictions, when they are left unresolved, is not so different from the anxiety certain religious literalists inevitably feel when they start noticing little contradictions in their sacred texts (exactly how many people were crucified simultaneously with Christ?) or the anxiety some political ideologues feel when they first realize that their philosophies may not cover every imaginable contingency (how does one achieve equality in the workplace if none of the Inuit living in a given part of Alaska have the computer skills modern firms need?). Few people, it seems, are comfortable with a degree of uncertainty, with saying “On some details, we just don’t know, and the whole theory may even be in error.” In come the rationalizations to save the day, much like the crank scientist adding new mini-theories on top of his rickety old one, each less plausible than the last but all aiming toward the sacred goal of making it all hang together just a while longer.

Revenge of the Event Horizon

As I write these words in mid-2005, though, fans anxious about continuity are about to face a far more important hurdle than Scotty’s amnesia: the final Star Wars film is about to come out. As you should already know, this film is technically Episode III in a six-part series, with Episodes IV–VI having come out back in the 70s and 80s. So this movie (Episode III) takes place before the classic 1977 film (Episode IV) in which Luke Skywalker and Han Solo rescue Princess Leia from Darth Vader. Making a movie twenty-eight years after the original that nonetheless internally takes place before that original is risky (and we do seem to be living through a time of such “prequels”—from the aforementioned Enterprise series, which takes place before the 1960s Star Trek, to Batman Begins, the rumored Hobbit movie, and even the direct-to-video Muppet film Kermit’s Swamp Years). Can writer/director George Lucas pull it off without any continuity slip-ups?

Many of the necessary plot points of Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith have long been known by attentive fans, of course. Lucas sketched out his multi-film plan back in the 1970s, and all of us back then who were obsessive sci-fi nerd kids knew that on the distant day when Episode III came out, it would have to depict young Anakin Skywalker being transformed into the evil Darth Vader and losing custody of his twin children, Luke and Leia, with Luke ending up being raised by his (adoptive) Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

In fact, so many necessary plot details of Episode III are already known that the ticket-selling site Moviefone.com already has a lengthy summary of the film on its site, as if it had already come out and we all knew with encyclopedic certainty what it would contain. And indeed, barring a final, complete mental breakdown on Lucas’s part, we are reasonably assured that the film will not simply be a tangential, three-hour-long musical about Chewbacca (perversely, one can’t help thinking that it would still make hundreds of millions of dollars even if it were) as this would also require a simultaneous complete mental breakdown by Steven Spielberg as well, since he is rumored to be the uncredited (due to Director’s Guild restrictions) co-director of the film.

Still, some of the tinier details of the plot might easily enough lead to contradictions. Luke Skywalker’s mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, seemed unaware of the existence of Luke’s sister Leia in 1980’s Episode V. But Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor in Episodes I–III, is likely to be quite actively involved in the whole plot about Vader and his estranged children. Will Kenobi indeed be kept in the dark about Leia’s existence, or will a contradiction be introduced? Will the loyal droids C-3PO and R2-D2 witness all of these events unfolding—despite appearing to have no prior knowledge of Kenobi or Vader in Episodes IV–VI? Or, since 1999’s Episode I introduced the strange idea that C-3PO was actually built by the child Anakin Skywalker (long before he became the armored villain Vader), how can C-3PO be ignorant in Episodes IV–VI about Vader being Anakin and thus being Luke Skywalker’s father? (And will there be a moment of revelation in Episode III in which Vader tells C-3PO: “I created you—I am your father”?)

Much of this can be resolved by simply having the droids’ memories wiped at some point, perhaps for security reasons. But that leaves a vexing problem, not so central to the drama but still likely to keep continuity-watching fans in greater suspense: Will Lucas explain how it can be that Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, when they were young adults, met the robots in 2002’s Episode II but showed no sign in 1977’s Episode IV of remembering having seen them before—indeed, of having owned C-3PO before?

It begins to look as if the only surefire way to keep all the movies consistent is to have Kenobi, C-3PO, R2-D2, Uncle Owen, and Aunt Beru all suffer amnesia at the end of Episode III—but given the ease of reprogramming robots and altering human memories with the help of Jedi mind tricks, this scenario is not out of the question. (Fans can then get back to the thornier business of arguing in online chat rooms about the sequence of events that led to the creation of a Clone Army in Episode II—was Syfo-Dias really Chancellor Palpatine and Lord Tyrannus really his Sith apprentice over ten years ago, or would that contradict the rules stated in Episode I about how many Siths there can be at one time?)

It’s the end of the Universe. Again.

Slate-cleaning measures such as amnesia often become necessary in unwieldy fictional universes. DC Comics, the creators of Batman, literally blew up their fictional universe in a 1985 comic book series, starting over from scratch in hopes of making the whole thing more consistent and modern. Unfortunately, they introduced some new continuity errors in the process, and the whole universe had to be blown up again in 1994. Finally, in 1999 (by which time I was starting to write a few stories for DC Comics myself), the editors hit upon a brilliant solution to keep continuity-obsessed fans off their backs: Hypertime.

Hypertime is the imaginary system in which all possible universes exist, and in which different versions of reality can mix and match, altering each other temporarily or permanently, in a completely fluid fashion. Superman can be the sole survivor of the planet Krypton in one story and have a cousin named Supergirl in another story—and continuity-obsessed fans can’t do a damn thing about it now because an all-purpose, internal explanation for such contradictions has been given. The exhausted editors must have been high-fiving each other when they came up with Hypertime, convinced they’d gotten the fans off their backs once and for all. (Rumors are nonetheless afoot that DC Comics will blow up its universe again for good measure in 2005; there is a constant tension in comic books between the desire for the characters to accumulate interesting historical baggage and the desire to retell their basic, streamlined stories and this time get it right.)

The makers of the James Bond films are about to take a similar approach, apparently, restarting the Bond story (which currently spans a supposedly World War II-spawned villain in the form of Dr. No and twenty-first-century cybervillains in the more recent Pierce Brosnan films) with a younger actor, suitable for the current generation who know Bond more from the popular videogames than from books or films, introducing him in a film adaptation of one of Ian Fleming’s more realistic Bond novels, Casino Royale. This raises the question of whether the film is technically a remake, since two prior versions of Casino Royale were filmed: one for British television and one as a parody featuring David Niven and Woody Allen, the latter an ambitiously wacky but overblown film that inspired the Austin Powers movies—but as these are all clearly separate fictional universes, questions about the status of “remakes” are safely outside the scope of the current essay.

Of course there are easier ways of explaining away all possible continuity errors than resorting to the “nuclear option” of restarting the universe. The official Star Wars website touts an “opaque window” theory to explain why some versions of Star Wars reality, such as the spin-off comic books and videogames, do not seem to capture the main Star Wars reality as accurately as the films do. Star Trek, on the other hand, has introduced a timestream-altering “Temporal Cold War” that might well be used someday to explain away any continuity errors: just say the time travelers did it. (For the time being it appears that UPN has adopted an even easier way of preventing the latest Trek TV series from creating continuity errors: cancellation.)

The TV show Dallas famously erased an entire season by claiming it had all been a dream (though they neglected to make changes in the spin-off show Knot’s Landing, on which characters briefly mourned for a Dallas character killed off during the erased “dream season”). The British sci-fi TV series Doctor Who, judging by the official series chronology book, A History of the Universe, has taken a more relaxed approach to continuity matters, making no effort to reconcile contradictions (such as three unrelated explanations for the sinking of Atlantis) even when the errors could be rationalized with ease (as, for instance, when one of the Doctor’s time-traveling companions says she is from 1980 but is later depicted as a native of the 1970s, implying that an organization she works with may have been disbanded even before it was founded—if we stubbornly refuse to posit that she was rounding off when she said “1980,” that is).

And then, naturally, we have the highly efficient way that normal people reconcile continuity errors: ignoring them. I can see a certain sensibility in this approach, but somehow I have more admiration for people like my friend Ali Kokmen (who majored in Modern Culture and Media back in our Brown University days), who is so attentive to continuity issues that he once wrote a long, thoughtful e-mail to friends about apparent contradictions in a Muppet TV special featuring Elmo. (Elmo time-traveled into his own past yet did not encounter himself. Does that mean his past self was destroyed? Temporarily displaced? Fused with the Elmo from the present? Why do the writers seem unconcerned about the existential can of worms opened up by Elmo’s cavalier toying with the timestream?) Ali once said that he felt great pride, after years of telling his wife Michelle about DC Comics’ system of parallel timelines (Earth-1, Earth-2, etc.), when the two of them watched an episode of The Odd Couple together and Michelle, on realizing that the episode contained an explanation for Oscar and Felix’s first meeting that contradicted the explanation given in a previous episode, said that the newer episode must take place on “Earth-2.” Ali beamed, “My work here is done.”

Texts of the Theories?

One can, almost by design, theorize until the end of time about how fictional universes fit together. The universes themselves are, after all, like theories: theories about how certain characters would act in certain situations, theories about how their various magical or superscientific abilities can be logically reconciled with one another, and theories about which fictional systems will best keep fans addicted. Star Wars may be the most effective science-fictional theory yet posited, but even the best theory sometimes turns out to have cracks that necessitate its abandonment, its obsolescence.

Even a crank scientist knows that at some point a theory must be subjected to experimental confirmation or falsification. Without that, the theory remains no more than a fanciful notion, and clearly Star Wars is more than a fanciful notion. I was pleased, then, that my friend David Whitney (a talented Boston-area architect and a pillar of his community) decided to subject his older son, a youngster named Charlie, to an experiment that might conclusively prove, in a way that my theorizing never could, whether the whole Star Wars saga logically holds together.

It is well known that children pay far more attention to the details of these stories than adults do (due to advancing age even a nerd like me has trouble following who’s shooting at what in the midst of Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones). Still, even an alert child might well become confused watching Lucas’s films in the order of their release, due to the chronological hijinks inherent in having Episodes IV–VI come out two decades before Episodes I–III. Ah! but here was the genius in Dave’s proposed Fiendish Star Wars Experiment: he would show the films to Charlie in numerical order (and thus fictional-chronological order) rather than in the order that they were released. Charlie would meet Vader as a child before the character becomes an evil adult.

It would not be easy keeping an energetic youngster from clamoring to see the 1970s and 1980s films while waiting for the prequel trilogy to be completed in May 2005 with the release of Episode III. The impatient child might at times suffer, but Dave had a mission, and though he was primarily concerned with the happiness of his son, wanting to give Charlie a coherent entertainment experience without giving away later developments in the Star Wars saga (such as, pivotally, the revelation that Vader is the father of Luke and Leia), I had an ulterior motive for egging Dave on. Getting the child to watch the series with fresh eyes from Episode I through VI in order, in a way that we Generation Xers never can, would enable us to watch the child for signs of confusion: the child might spot contradictions that our chronology-skewed brains never would. Other obvious research questions suggest themselves: When would Charlie first notice that Senator Palpatine is a bad man who wants to become Emperor, for example? When would he first have doubts about Anakin? Would Charlie be saddened that in Episode IV Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru don’t remember their old friends C-3PO and R2-D2? (Note: I do not have children of my own and do not intend to have any, so it is only natural that I experiment on children from other families.)

Tragically, the entire investigation—upon which so much theorizing rested—was cut short when Charlie’s mother, Sharon, in a misguided attempt to please the child, rented Return of the Jedi (which is Episode VI, not even Episode IV or V!) before Episode III came out in theatres. How much psychological damage the child will suffer from this chronological whipsaw has yet to be determined, but one conclusion is unavoidable: due to contamination by girl, the experiment is now invalidated and must be abandoned.

Of course, I won’t let this ruin my own enjoyment of Episode III when it hits theatres. I vow to have fun even if no amnesia explanation is offered for the behavior of C-3PO and his companions. And if the film turns out to be awful, there may still be a Star Wars TV series in the future to watch and enjoy instead—though it is rumored that its events will take place after Return of the Jedi, in which case one can only hope it will not contradict the New Jedi Academy novels. :::

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) is Director of Publications at the American Council on Science and Health (HealthFactsAndFears.com), runs live monthly debates for JinxMagazine.com, and has written for New York Press, Reason, New York Post, People, ABC News’s John Stossel, DC Comics, National Review, Spy, Chronicles, Liberty, American Enterprise, New York Sun, TechCentralStation, and of course Metaphilm. He is writing a book called Conservatism for Punks.
posted by editor ::: May 02, 2005 ::: pheatures ::: (21) Comments