Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Sharon Wildwind

We’ve had the Lord of the Rings prequel; a Star Trek reboot; Dallas: The Next Generation; and so many Sherlock Holmes wiggle-woggles I’d need a data base to keep them straight.

Movies and television are deep in retcon territory. Even though the word has been around for about twenty years, I heard it the first time last week.

Retcon (noun or verb): to retrospectively revise a work of fiction so that plot shifts dramatically, inconsistencies make sense, or a new world interpretation is created. It often upset fans/readers, causing them to take side or concoct elaborate explanations that cement their world back together. The original term was retroactive continuity, shortened to retcon.

The grandaddy of all retcons is, “Then I woke up and it was all a dream,” for which the Grand Chutzpah Award goes to Lorimar Television, which turned the entire ninth season of Dallas (the original one) into Pam Ewing’s dream. Everyone went back to where they had been at the end of season eight and started season ten.

Sometimes retcons were attempts to revive sagging story arcs. Two early TV shows, Maverick and Bonanza, played around with unexpected relatives. A third Maverick brother and a cousin showed up out of the blue. Little Joe Cartwright found out unexpectedly that he had a maternal half-brother. Neither of these surprise family extensions worked as well as the producers had hoped.

Television and movie retcons were often more about labor disputes than story line. Richard Thomas decided to leave the Waltons in the late 1970s. Fortunately there was a war on at the time: not Viet Nam, World War II. John-Boy Walton was badly burned and in a coma. When the bandages came off after he recovered consciousness and had plastic surgery, Robert Wrightman played the character.

Crispin Glover and the Back to the Future production company couldn’t come to a contract agreement, so in Parts II and III, the part of George McFly, Marty’s father, was played by Jeffrey Weismann. In Part II, the company went to great lengths not to alert the audience that a change had been made. Weismann wore prosthetic makeup and appeared only upside down, explained by a complicated plot where he had back trouble for which the treatment in 2015 was to be suspended upside down in an anti-gravity harness.

Glover sued, contending that his likeness had been used without permission. The Screen Actors Guild revised its collective bargaining agreement to prohibit producers and actors from reproducing an actor’s likeness.

In no particular order, here are some well-used retcons:
  • Illegitimate child or unknown twin: relatives characters never knew they had show up to complicate their lives
  • Never-recovered body: bet your boots the guy or gal is still alive and will eventually reappear
  • Misidentified body: ditto eventual reappearance
  • Error in medical diagnosis: a character comes to grips with dying, only to be told he is perfectly healthy
  • False arrest and imprisonment: takes a character neatly out of the way, but if the actor wants to sign a new contract after all, there’s a convenient release and pardon once the true perpetrator is known

Here’s my question: is a retcon playing fair with the viewer/reader?

Quote for the week
All the revision in the world will not save a bad first draft: for the architecture of the thing comes, or fails to come, in the first conception, and revision only affects the detail and ornament, alas!
~ Thomas Edward Lawrence, (1888–1935), British Army officer, archeologist, and author


Sheila Connolly said...

Bonanza's writers knew how to play the game. Slumping ratings (did they ever go down much?), no problem--throw in the unexpected relative (since none of the family looked like anyone else, it wasn't a problem), or do a flashback episode and throw in the demise of one or another son's mother, or shoot somebody. Can you say "formula"?

But I suppose you can't blame anyone if they have something that works and they want to milk it for all they can. How many of us watch all the Sherlock Holmes permutations, of only to scoff at how they've perverted the original?

Anonymous said...

Truth to tell, I like some of the SH permutations. Since the original work was serialized, Conan Doyle was writing on the fly, too. Possibly Mycroft Holmes was a ret con?

Pat Brown said...

I guess it's easier to recreate instead of creating new.

I do take exception to Thomas Edward Lawrence's quote. A bad first draft can't be fixed? How often do we tell new writers to get the words down and finish your novel, you can't fix an empty page? This guy seems to be saying if the first draft is bad, toss it.

Anonymous said...

Lots of people took exception to T.E. Lawrence. I thing what he was trying to say is that if the spirit is lacking in the first draft, if the writer's passion for the subject isn't evident, all the word tinkering in subsequent drafts won't create beautiful writing.