In a large franchise with many works and contributors, how do you determine what is canon?
Usually, fans rely on the creator or publisher of the work to directly state what is part of the official continuity. Often there becomes a defined hierarchy of canonicity designed to resolve contradictions between works - i.e. one work is "more official" than another and will always supersede another.
But what happens when the owner of the work embraces the contradictions? What if the line between canon and Apocrypha is deliberately blurred in order to make a statement about relativism?
Some universes eschew the concept of a "definitive" continuity. After all, the real world is full of vagueness, bias, and conflicting accounts. It can be a real puzzle for fans to try to piece together a picture of "true events," and of course no one's guess is actually wrong.
In short, Unreliable Canon is when the creators of a franchise encourage their audience to call the truthfulness or authority of so-called official canon into question, while allowing less official parts of the verse to enjoy equal or near-equal status.
This type of franchise usually combines some of the following situations to create deliberate vagueness:
- The owner of The 'Verse avoids any Word of God regarding official continuity.
- Frequent Retconning, leading fans to distrust everything that is presented to them.
- The work contains several conflicting accounts of events, leaving the audience to decide which is true (if any).
- The work contains a Featureless Protagonist who remains genderless/raceless/nameless even when referenced by subsequent titles. Especially in a roleplaying game, where the actions/decisions of this character will be left vague in sequels, and any hints about what happened will be presented as wild rumors.
- Major elements of the story only make sense in the context of unpublished or unofficial material, or even well-known fan-works. This creates conflict among fans as to whether said work is now "official".
- In a work with Multiple Endings, no one conclusion is ever canonized. In videogames, this may be achieved with an Old Save Bonus.
- All historical accounts in-verse are recounted by people who are biased, uninformed, or do not have complete information, and the audience must think critically about everything they hear.
- Contradicting pieces of information are embraced as interesting paradoxes and all versions are considered true.
- Writers or developers communicate directly through informal channels such as blogs or online forums, leading to debate about the canon status of the information they reveal.
- The 'Verse does not have any central authority and everyone's contributions have equal merit.
Compare with Broad Strokes, where chunks of a previous work are ignored in the sequel, Armed with Canon, when multiple authors try to undo one another's work, and Shrug of God, where an author gives up trying to explain how things work.
Compare Negative Continuity, where there's no pretension about canonicity at all.
- The extended Disney Mouse and Duck Comics universe is simply too vast in scope and number of authors to be entirely self-consistent; it's generally assumed that any story the reader's read are canon, in a Broad Strokes sort of way, if you really want to. (An exception to this are the comics of Don Rosa, as Rosa has personally taken the stance that only Barks's stories are canon to his. But, of course, his comics have been referenced by other authors whom he doesn't consider canon, so this exception is more cosmetic than anything else.) The great choice of stories and characters fans can choose from to create their own Head Canon version of Duckburg is generally considered one of Disney comics' greatest strengths by fans. And worry not, a few expert Fan Wank-crafters have tried at Universe Concordances that fit in (almost) everything, come hail or storm.
- The DC Universe suffers from this after each and every major reboot, from Crisis on Infinite Earths, to Zero Hour!, to Infinite Crisis, to Final Crisis, to Flashpoint, to Rebirth, to Doomsday Clock. Each time the past is rewritten, the question of what is and isn't in continuity comes up again, inevitably leading to Broad Strokes at best, Unreliable Canon (especially if there's a Writer on Board or two) and the odd irredeemable Continuity Snarl at worst. These reboots, whether whole or partial, are almost inevitably the result of Executive Meddling rather than being something the fans (or the majority of creators) want.
- Star Wars:
- The Star Wars Expanded Universe was official canon (conflicts are decided case by case, but generally novels are ranked highest, comics next, then video games, then RPG sourcebooks). But yeah, Lucas doesn't care about it, causing no end of problems in retconning the EU to match up with G-canon (the movies and any materials directly connected, such as the novelizations, Visual Dictionaries, and Incredible Cross-Sections). The continuity problems are one reason Karen Traviss quit (Mandalorians with a completely different culture than had been shown before appearing on the animated show rendered her series non-canonical when she was several books in for one thing).
- After the buyout by Disney, all old material besides the films and cartoons was declared non-canon to make way for a whole new set of canon spin-off material, which this time is more closely controlled.
- Pacific Rim so far encompasses a movie, a novel, and a prequel comic, with other details found on places like the tumblrs of the writers, DVD extras or the official website. Travis Beacham, who co-wrote the movie script and wrote the novelisation, many of the details he gives out conflicts with the events of the movie, details given in other places, and even things that the actors say about their characters. Guillermo Del Toro rarely addresses any of these inconsistencies, and now that Travis Beacham has left the franchise, it's unknown how much of the novel is still canon.
- George Miller has explicitly said that he approaches the Mad Max series as individual far-future folk tales about a hero known as "Max", with no rigid continuity between them. This manifests, for example, in Max's iconic Interceptor being destroyed in both The Road Warrior and Fury Road.
- Early Discworld novels often contained contradictory elements, because Pratchett was more concerned with the quality of the story than with consistency, citing the famous Emerson quote. Later, he adopted a more consistent canon, but those early stories have still have a hard time fitting with it. Thief of Time hinted that there has been at least one full-scale Cosmic Retcon event as a Noodle Incident (the first time a Glass Clock was built, time got broken so badly that the History Monks had to rebuild the entire universe), which can be used to explain any and all inconsistencies.
- The novels in John Varley's Eight Worlds series frequently contradict each other when it comes to matters that could be called canon. Varley has admitted that he doesn't like going back to re-read his old works, and doesn't really care about the overall canon.
- The Cthulhu Mythos can have this problem given hundreds of writers have contributed to it.
- Doctor Who. Even before the cancellation of the original series in 1989, the series showed all the effects of being run by a succession of different production teams and writers, many of whom simply saw the series as a succession of barely-connected serials and had absolutely no interest in creating or maintaining a coherent "universe". This led to casual Retcon at the slightest provocation, several notorious Continuity Snarls, and large doses of Depending on the Writer at best. Then add a decade-and-a-half of multiple unconnected Expanded Universe series in different media, some of whose creators openly and aggressively disagreed on the basic nature (and, especially, tone) of the franchise and deliberately made their works Spiritual Antitheses to one another. Now add another decade of new TV show, created by two successive showrunners who have both openly declared that they only treat past material as "canon" if it works with what they want to do at that precise moment, and a horde of Promoted Fanboy (and Fangirl) creators in both the main series and Expanded Universe who love throwing in references to the past stories they like (even if they come from incompatible subcontinuities) and trying to contradict or Fix Fic the ones they don't. Anybody who seriously wants to try to make everything fit together has either stormed off in a rage or embraced insanity as the path to wisdom.
- The Muppets could very well fall into this trope, whatever "canon" there might be for the characters has always been rather vague and up for discussion for fans, for a variety of different reasons, including the fact that sometimes different shows and movies aren't necessarily within the same continuity. It also doesn't help that Jim Henson himself never considered the Muppet characters actual characters, but rather, a troupe of actors that just happen to be puppets (hence such movies as The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island).
- This is often done deliberately in Tabletop Games, both as bait to get people to buy supplemental rulebooks, and to offer individual GMs maximum freedom in constructing their own campaign storylines.
- In Nomine went so far as to document areas of "Canon Doubt and Uncertainty" which would never be resolved by supplements.
- Both In-Universe and out in Warhammer 40,000, where misinformation and plain lack of information is visible at all levels of classification. For example, in order to avoid lowering morale anymore than it already is, the Imperial Guardsman's Uplifting Primer states that orks are cowards who will flee at the first opportunity and whose teeth can be yanked out (orks are eight-foot-tall killing machines who embody Attack! Attack! Attack!) or that the Tau (the army dedicated to ranged firepower) have bad eyesight and can't see things that don't move. And as most of the information on other races comes from a xenophobic human point of view, what information is canon may not necessarily be true. Out of universe, you can create your own highly specific army with its own backstory and design (most popularly, Space Marines) precisely because of this loose canon. A much-repeated explanation is "everything is canon, not everything is true".
- Shadowrun. Most early edition supplements had a statement like this in their introduction. Like previous Shadowrun sourcebooks, this supplement is formatted as an electronic document from that fictional world. Scattered throughout the document are comments and additions from readers who seek to correct, expand, corroborate or contradict the information it presents. Because this "black" information comes from characters within the game universe, players or characters cannot safely assume that these comments are truthful, accurate, considered or clearly thought out (though they may be all those things). The material in this supplement comes from a variety of sources, most unofficial and all with their own biases built in. These different points of view give gamemasters greater scope to decide how much of the information presented is accurate, misleading or false in their own games.
- Trying to decipher LEGO canon (outside of its more story-oriented themes such as BIONICLE) can be a real mess, though it hasn't stopped many from trying. Perhaps the greatest unreliability is the LEGO timeline and universe.
- Some sources state that each theme takes place in its respective era. For example, LEGO Pirates takes place in the 1700s during the Golden Age of Piracy. LEGOLAND, the first LEGO Racers, and LEGO Time Cruisers LEGO Mania comics apply Time Travel as a Hand Wave for crossovers.
- On the other hand, there are so many crossovers between LEGO themes (such as LEGO Island 2, LEGO Universe, Soccer Mania, and countless LEGO magazine comics) without the Time Travel Hand Wave that it would seem that most LEGO themes take place concurrently. For example, this means LEGO Pirates would take place in 1989, simultaneously with LEGO Space Police.
- Other sources (such as LEGO Universe, LEGO: The Adventures of Clutch Powers, and one UFO/Fright Knights commercial) imply that all themes take place concurrently, but each on their own separate planet. For example, the 2007 LEGO Castle theme would take place in 2007 but on the castle-themed planet Ashlar.
- The LEGO Time Cruisers comics from World Club Magazine which interprets the many LEGO themes as The Multiverse, but even within certain universes there are unexpected crossovers. For example, there's one universe which has UFO and Fright Knights interacting on Castle Planet (tying into the previously-mentioned commercial), and another universe which has Wild West, Extreme Team, Res-Q, and Adventurers all taking place simultaneously.
- The LEGO Movie depicts all themes as taking place concurrently. They are all part of the same planet but were separated into separate theme-based zones under the rule of President Business, with the setting of Classic LEGO Space literally being a brick wall away from the settings of the Wild West and LEGO Castle themes. In reality, the entire LEGO world is the basement of "The Man Upstairs", with each zone represented by a different table. This may imply that LEGO's canon is all based on how each LEGO builder perceives it, and thus its inherent subjectivity explains why the canon is so unreliable.
- When Everyone Is Related, things become even more unreliable. For instance, Evil Ogel is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Lord Vladek, implying that the two themes take place seven generations apart. But wait, there's more! The Evil Knight served under both Lord Vladek and Cedric the Bull, who has interacted with the casts of LEGO Island and Soccer Mania, both of which had a crossover with Alpha Team in one of the LEGO Magazine comics... which would imply that Alpha Team and the second Knights' Kingdom themes take place around the same time, not seven generations apart. And let's not get started on Johnny Thunder's family tree...
- BIONICLE's in no position to brag either. Making sense of the early year's stories can be a pain, especially since the first official novel decided to blatantly contradict much of the story material released priorly. The brand also suffers from multiple cases of Advertising-Only Continuity, tons of ads, animations, mini-comics and games are non-canon, and there are just plain old continuity issues. You can only get a decent sense of a consistent storyline by reading the Wiki's summaries.
- Invoked in The Elder Scrolls series. To note:
- In-universe, Bethesda refuses to invalidate your choices about who your character is and what he/she does. Therefore, there is no definitive version of the Nerevarine/Champion/Dragonborn, etc. and very few canonized events (the main quest line usually being an exception.) Additionally, lore is generally not clear-cut. Reasons for this range from biased in-universe sources intentionally only giving you only one side of a story, to in-universe sources lacking critical information or working from false information, to the implication that All Myths Are True, despite the contradictions, or that at least all myths are Metaphorically True. Out-of-game developer supplemental texts (frequently referred to as "Obscure Texts" by the lore community) are more trustworthy, but are frequently left unofficial and sometimes later contradicted. Because of this, it is entirely possible for two contradictory statements in the lore to both be true. (And due to frequent events in-universe that alter the timeline, both may become literally be true in-universe.)
- For a specific example, there are seven mutually-exclusive endings to Daggerfall; not only are all of them canon, but the resulting Continuity Snarl has been noticed in-universe (where it's known as the Warp in the West), a Time Crash with a dose of Reality Is Out to Lunch, and caused considerable confusion to all involved before settling and balancing out.
- Mario doesn't technically have a canon, but it can be very confusing to try and chart out a map of Mario's world when the games can't agree with each other.
- The background lore of World of Warcraft has grown quite complicated. Different races tend to tell conflicting stories about such details as their races origins or past history and Word of God says that they are suppose to be conflicting; every race has a biased/distorted view and so none one race's myths are completely accurate. Then there is the ambiguity of major plot events, such as rather a certain Naaru may have intentionally let itself be captured as a ploy to help blood elves find redemption. And all of this is before you count the numerous actual retcons.
- The Touhou series has problems with this. It's not clear if the first few games are canon, the ones we're sure about are still vague on which route is canon, and all the Universe Compendiums are written from the point of view of openly biased sources. And that's ignoring the things that just plain contradict each other.
- Valve Software once stated that 'canon is uncanonical' to reserve creative freedom for the Half-Life series of video games.
- Sonic the Hedgehog: In the early days, the in-game stories are simple Excuse Plots about Dr. Eggman trying to rule the world through robots, with Sonic stopping him. SEGA encouraged production of alternate storytelling media, resulting in at least six groups of people working independently on their own interpretation of the franchise, each with their own continuity totally separated from the video games. With the exception of Sonic X, which came later, most kids in the 90s accepted at least one of these adaptations as canon with the video games, a precursor of the franchise's infamous Broken Base today.
- Homestuck, specifically the Word of God coming from its Trolling Creator. Andrew Hussie frequently answers fan questions with blatant nonsense and a sarcastic tone—but sometimes that "nonsense" actually turns out to be true. For example, after Tavros and Vriska died, Hussie jokingly confessed that he was planning to bring both of them back to life—then, months later, they actually did come back (albeit in the form of Tavrisprite, who only lasted a few panels before exploding). Which leaves the fandom unsure of how to take his other claims, like "Sollux's full name is Solluxander" or "All fantrolls are canon"...
- This is the general idea behind The Fear Mythos and the only way to be a fan of every version of every Slenderman webisode series without discontinuity derailing your enjoyment of each. It helps that each monster is an Eldritch Abomination and the bending of reality isn't hard to believe, but when everyone is going a different way with the interpretations, you just have to let some things slide.
- Done deliberately in the SCP Foundation, since it's built on a crowdsourcing model, and allows for multiple interpretations (i.e. Dr. Clef as an abrasive researcher / a Reality Warper / Satan himself or the Foundation as a Men in Black organization trying to save the world or control it). It doesn't help that the site is occasionally subject to large-scale edits and one of the more prolific early writers took all his stories with him when he was banned, shattering what little consistency there had been. The site actually provides a section just for keeping the multiple possible canons straight.
- The Game Grumps are known for this. JonTron and Egoraptor have said that Arin's "suicide" at the end of their Rugrats in Paris: The Movie episode is canon in the game grumps canon and Arin is now a ghost. This is especially confusing since Arin has killed himself in other videos since including Telletubbies and 2 episodes of Table Flip.
- Due to frequent retconning to tie in with the movies, the Marvel Animated Universe is looking rather weird. Avengers, Assemble! is a reboot of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes!, yet is also its sequel as evidenced in a flashback in the former depicting the characters in the artstyle of the latter. The Guardians of the Galaxy were later introduced, though their depiction was contradictory to their appearance in Earth's Mightiest Heroes (most notably, the line-up; Assemble and Ultimate Spider-Man replaced Quasar and Adam Warlock with Gamora and Drax to fit in with the then-upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie). And then the Guardians were retconned again to be carbon-copies of their film versions so that their own show would act like a sequel to the first film. Ultimate Spider-Man would also be replaced by Marvel's Spider-Man, said to take place in a different continuity... and then the Spider-Man from the latter series crosses over with the Guardians from the new series, meaning that it really is in the same continuity? But Marvel's Spider-Man would also have Peter meet Miles for the first time despite meeting him for the first time in Ultimate, and then Iron Man shows up in Marvel's Spider-Man? Also, Wolverine and the X-Men takes place in the same universe as Earth's Mightiest Heroes.