Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Retroactive continuity – commonly contracted to the portmanteau word retcon – refers to the act of changing previously established details of a fictional setting, often without providing an explanation for the changes within the context of that setting.
"Retroactive continuity" was coined by comic book writer Roy Thomas in his 1980s series All-Star Squadron, which concerned the DC Comics superheroes of the 1940s. The earliest known use of the term is from Thomas's letter column in All-Star Squadron #20 (April 1983). The term was shortened to "retcon" in 1988 on USENET.
Retconning is common in comic books, especially those of large publishing houses such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics, due to the lengthy history of many series and the number of independent authors contributing to their development. Retconning also occurs in television shows, radio series, series of novels and any other type of episodic fiction.
Some forms of retconning do not directly contradict previously established facts, but "fill in" missing background details necessary for current plot points, or reveal new information that radically changes the interpretation of old stories. The shortened form was coined in 1988 on Usenet to describe a development in the comic book Swamp Thing, in which Alan Moore revealed that the title character was not Alec Holland transformed into a monster, but instead a plant-monster infected with Alec Holland's memories and personality.
Related to this is the concept of shadow history or secret history, in which the events of a story occur within the bounds of already-established (especially real-world historical) events, but have been hitherto unrevealed.
Retroactive continuity is similar to, but not exactly the same as, plot inconsistencies introduced accidentally or through lack of concern for continuity; retconning is usually done deliberately. However, retcons are sometimes created after the fact to explain such mistakes. It is also generally distinct from replacing the actor who plays a part in an ongoing series, which is more properly an example of weak or loose continuity (i.e. the different appearance of the character is ignored), rather than retroactively changing past continuity.
Unpopular retcons are often unofficially combated through the judicious use of Krypto-revisionism, which is the phenomenon of a fan base deciding to ignore a particular retcon, itself a form of meta-retcon stating that "it was never published". Similarly, fans may invent unofficial explanations for inconsistencies. (See fanon, Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome).
Retconning is also distinct from direct revision; when George Lucas re-edited the original Star Wars trilogy , he was making changes directly to the source material, not introducing new source material that contradicted the contents of previous material. However, the current series of Star Wars prequels, do qualify as "new source material", and many fans have pointed out instances which they claim "retcon" elements of the original trilogy (see below).
While retconning is usually done without comment by the creators, DC Comics has on rare occasions promoted special events dedicated to retroactively rewriting the history of the DC Comics universe. The most important and well known such event was the mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths; this was a profound change that allowed for wholesale revisions of their characters. (It might be argued that these stories were not retcon, because the changes to the multiverse actually occurred within the story, similar to stories in which a time-traveler to the past changes history from how he remembered it.) A second major retcon in DC Comics was in a similar event called Zero Hour.
Retconning has occurred a number of times in the history of the Star Trek universe. The various Star Trek television series and movies were produced over several decades, with multiple writers and producers. In both cases significant amounts of time, effort, pages and film have been used by later writers to explain or qualify apparent inconsistencies from previous stories. In addition, Star Trek shares a problem with many works of future history in that historical events occurring in the future eventually become part of the past, and hence some effort is needed to make the story line consistent with actual history.
Retconning is also used in roleplaying. At the game master's discretion, events in a roleplay that have already happened can be changed after the fact to maintain consistency in the story or to fix significant mistakes that were missed during play.
Examples of retcons
- The deceased Phoenix was revealed not to be Jean Grey but an alien force masquerading as her, thus allowing other superheroes to discover her body and resurrect her.
- Many other popular comic book characters have been killed but later were retconned to still be alive, such as the Green Goblin, Nick Fury, The Punisher, Green Arrow, Colossus and Spider-Man's Aunt May. This form of retcon is so frequent that the term comic book death has been coined for it.
- Prior to Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics featured characters who lived on a variety of alternate versions of Earth; afterward, these characters were said to have always lived together on the same Earth. Also, some characters' origin stories were altered, such as the death of Clark Kent's parents being eliminated. (See above.)
- The symbiote Venom was originally said to have merged with Eddie Brock because he was suicidally despondent and resentful of Spider-Man. However, it was later presented that Eddie had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the symbiote had chosen him as a host because the cancer caused him to produce more of the adrenaline that it "feeds" on.
- Before the 1980s, Spider-Man writers stated that Peter Parker's love interest Mary Jane Watson did not know he was Spider-Man. It was later retconned that she had known of Peter's dual life since it began.
- The Batman origin story Batman: Year One stated that Police Commissioner James Gordon was childless, contradicting stories set in the present involving his daughter Barbara aka Batgirl. It was then retconned that Gordon was the uncle and adopted father of Barbara.
- In the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga, it is explained by Sugoroku Mutou in the first chapter that a team of British archaelogists took the Millennium Puzzle out of a pharaoh's crypt in the Valley of the Kings, and that they all died afterwards. In a later chapter, it is revealed that Sugoroku Mutou discovered the puzzle in 1960 in a tomb that had not been successfully breached by anyone else, including a team of British archaelogists.
- J. Michael Straczynski's run on Amazing Spider-Man has included several retcons, ranging from the mild (raising the possibility of a mystical/totemic origin for Spider-Man's powers) to the drastic (revealing that Gwen Stacy had given birth to Norman Osborn's children). The latter retcon, known as "Sins Past," was extremely controversial.
- The 2004 series Identity Crisis included a drastic retcon involving the rape of Sue Dibny (wife of The Elongated Man) and the brainwashing of several other characters, notably Batman.
- In the sitcom Cheers, Frasier Crane said that his father is a deceased research scientist. However, the spin-off Frasier featured Frasier's father Martin as an ex-cop living in Seattle. This was later explained as Frasier lying to his friends in Boston after having a huge argument with his father over the phone during the "Cheers years". He also never mentioned having a brother Niles in the earlier series.
- An entire season of the soap opera Dallas was later dismissed as one character's dream. Ironically, the spin-off series, Knots Landing continued as though the events of this season had occurred.
- The final episode of Newhart revealed that the entire show was merely a dream of the main character from an earlier show, The Bob Newhart Show. Unlike most other examples, this was intentionally done as a comedic effect, and possibly was inspired by Dallas.
- The introduction of other Gundam model mobile suits between Mobile Suit Gundam and Zeta Gundam in the Universal Century Gundam, particularly those models that are more technicially advanced than the Gundam MK2 prototype from Zeta, as well as stylistic changes to other mobile suits in Gundam 0080, Gundam 0083 and Gundam - The 08th MS Team.
- In the science fiction series Lexx, the key to the Lexx spacecraft is stored in the hand of the captain (episode 1.02 - Supernova) and is released as the captain dies (episode 1.01 - I Worship His Shadow). In later seasons, the key is stored in the captain's brain (episode 3.08 - The Key) and can be released even when the captain's life is merely threatened (episode 4.01 - Little Blue Planet).
- Retcon abounds in the British television series Red Dwarf - such matters as what century the characters originated from, how many people were on the ship and many others have been changed. Series co-creator Doug Naylor has gone on record saying that they have always had a very relaxed attitude to continuity, and if something could be changed for the better then they would change it.
- In the 1970s TV series Wonder Woman, the character's backstory was altered during the second season. During the first year, it was established that Wonder Woman had never left Paradise Island nor encountered men prior to travelling to the US to help fight World War II. In the second season, the character dropped numerous hints that not only did she encounter various men centuries ago (i.e. a Chinese acupressure specialist she met "centuries ago", and references to historical figures supposedly met) but that she may have been active as either Wonder Woman or in some other crime-fighting guise as early as the 19th century.
- The return of a previously deceased character is a common type of retcon in many genres of film, but is best known in horror films. Many films end with the death of the monster. But after the film becomes successful, the studio plans a sequel, revealing that the monster survived after all. Notable examples include James Whale's Frankenstein and the original 1954 Godzilla movie.
- At the end of The Pink Panther Strikes Again former Chief Inspector Dreyfus appears to vaporize himself with his own "doomsday weapon", but in the subsequent Revenge of the Pink Panther he is inexplicably back at his post at the Sureté.
- Some consider the revelation in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father to be a retcon, contradicting Obi Wan Kenobi's statement in A New Hope that Vader betrayed and killed Luke's father, although "Vader" means "father" in Dutch, so it is more likely that George Lucas merely planned this all along.
- Also, the prequel The Phantom Menace reveals that C-3PO and R2-D2 knew of the Skywalker family before A New Hope, which contradicts events in that film. This can be viewed as a retcon, although the upcoming Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith may explain the discrepancy, and non-canonical explanations have been attempted.
- The basic premises of the Highlander series of films seem to shift from one to the next. In the second film it is revealed that the Immortals are aliens from the Planet Zeist, although no mention of this is made in the first film. Exposition in the second film as to the nature of "The Game" is inconsistent with the implications, if not actual events, of the first film. These plot developments are largely ignored in the subsequent films, as well as the television series.
- Sherlock Holmes's reappearance in "The Adventure of the Empty House" following Watson's report of his death in Arthur Conan Doyle's "last" Holmes story "The Adventure of the Final Problem"
- J.R.R. Tolkien rewrote the way Bilbo Baggins acquired his Ring in The Hobbit, to better suit the story he wanted to tell in The Lord of the Rings. Narratively this was explained by depicting the original version as a misrepresentation perpetuated by Bilbo—already under the Ring's influence—and only later corrected.
- In his sequels to the prose version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke made slight alterations to background history in order to keep each novel consistent with progressing developments in the real world. He also changed the location of the deep space monolith from Saturn to Jupiter to conform with the movie version of 2001 by Stanley Kubrick. Clarke has explained this away by stating that each sequel to 2001 exists in its own continuity and follows the film rather than the book.
- In the book Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm is said to have died at the end. However, in its sequel, The Lost World, Ian Malcolm's death turns out to be a mis-reporting of the incident.
- The Dragonlance series is notorious for retcons. Many fans simply ignored some of the Preludes and Meetings books, among others. In the book The Second Generation, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman introduced Steel Brightblade, son of Sturm and Kitiara. As one fan put it 'why didn't Sturm's moustaches fall off when he saw Tanis in Dragons of Autumn Twilight?' indicating this was somewhat out of character.
Star Trek in various media
- The Star Trek: The Original Series episode, "Space Seed" referred to the Eugenics Wars as a conflict taking place in the 1990s. Greg Cox 's series of Star Trek novels, written after the 1990s, attempted to retcon the wars into shadow affairs hidden by real-life major conflicts, but the producers of the TV series don't consider the novels to be canon. A 1996 episode of Star Trek: Voyager ("Future's End") was set in a year when the wars should have been raging or recently completed, yet no mention of them was made. A 1998 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ("Dr. Bashir I Presume?") contained a statement in the script that suggested the wars took place in the 22nd Century (although this has been acknowledged as an error). A 2004 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise stated that the Eugenics Wars were a wide conflict in which 30 million people died, but without identifying the timeframe; the producer of the series, however, stated that the Eugenics Wars as referenced in the episode still occurred in the 1990s.
- When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1980, Gene Roddenberry claimed that the radically different appearance of the Klingons in the film was how they were always supposed to have looked, but they didn't have the budget for it in the 1960s. In the 1990s, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured three Klingon characters from the original series, made up to fit the new look. However, the later episode "Trials and Tribble-ations", used footage from the original series with old-look Klingons; Commander Worf acknowledged their different appearance, adding that it was "a long story" that Klingons "do not discuss with outsiders". A two episode arc of Star Trek: Enterprise ("Affliction"/"Divergence") in 2005 indicated that Klingons resembling the 1960s portrayal were the product of genetic engineering using augmented human genes, essentially retconning the retcon.
- In Myst, the brothers were trapped in Trap Books, in the void between the Ages. If the player frees them, he is trapped himself. Originally, Atrus burned the books, thus trapping his sons forever. This was revised, to say that the brothers were not trapped in the void, but in desolate Ages.
- In Super Metroid, the player explores an area called the Wrecked Ship. The game's manual explains it as belonging to "astronauts from an ancient civilization" who allegedly crash landed on Zebes. However, in Metroid: Zero Mission it is possible that the ship belongs to Zebesian space pirates.
- Similar to Star Trek: The Motion Picture above, the Kilrathi of the Wing Commander movie were different in appearance to those in the Wing Commander games. Chris Roberts claimed that this was how they were always supposed to have looked, but they didn't come up with their definite appearance while making the games.
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