"Retcon" is short for retroactive continuity, and creating retcons is a common literary technique for resolving gaps and discrepancies and contradictions in serial fictional works, like novels, comic books, movies, TV shows, computer games, etc. Though it is often their fans that produce retcons for them, their creators may also do so.
Types of retcon
There are three main types of retcon:
- Addition. Of features that clarify parts of the existing story world, usually without contradicting existing features. These may take the form of additional adventures that were only alluded to in the original works, like someone's novels about the Star Trek Eugenics Wars.
- Modification. Some of the features get revised to make continuity possible. A character who dies in one work and returns in a following work my have their death explained as only a seeming death, something common enough in some genres to be called a comic book death. Thus, Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock had died comic-book deaths. Likewise, some works may be explained as dreams of some of the characters, an alternate universe, etc. In Dallas, Pam Ewing dreamed an entire season of that series!
- Subtraction. Disliked works are ignored or written out, and they effectively no longer exist. Perhaps the ultimate form of subtraction is the reboot, that is, wiping the slate clean.
A good place to look for retcons is the Star Trek franchise. Its series and movies have been in production off-and-on for over 35 years. So it should not be surprising that many fans have come up with numerous retcons of it, like 'Contradictions' in Star Trek? That is not even counting the retcons in the Star Trek productions themselves; Nitpickers Central discusses some of them, and the most recent Star Trek movie is an outright reboot.
The theologians of long-running religious traditions sometimes invent retcons for the more problematic aspects of their sacred histories; retcons that may sometimes get included in those histories. Here are some notable ones:
The two Genesis creation stories are often retconned by supposing the second one to be what happened when humanity was created in the first one.
The Genesis snake's pre-crawling mode of motion and Cain's wife have been the subject of various retcons.
Jesus Christ's Matthew and Luke genealogies are often retconned in either of two ways:
- Only one of them is for Joseph; the other one is for Mary.
- Each one of them contains only some of the names of Jesus Christ's ancestors back to King David.
The writers of the Gospels had interpreted various Old Testament Messianic prophecies and the like as prophecies of Jesus Christ's features and activities, as opposed to whatever their authors originally had in mind. The virgin-birth prophecy in Isaiah originally referred to some young woman contemporary with Isaiah becoming pregnant, as is evident from reading the verses next to it. But the authors of the Gospels retconned it into a prophecy of Jesus Christ's virgin birth.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke make Jesus Christ's Temple temper tantrum late in his career as a religious leader, while John makes that temper tantrum early in his career. These occurrences are sometimes retconned by supposing them to be two temper tantrums, one early in Jesus Christ's career, and one late in it.
The details of Jesus Christ's resurrection appearances have been the subject of numerous retcon attempts. In fact, those details themselves may plausibly be interpreted as separately-invented retcons, derived from Paul's mentions of JC's resurrection and Mark's original ending with an empty tomb.
Jesus mythicists often argue that Paul had known little or nothing about JC's earthly life, and Jesus historicists often rebut that with the retcon that Paul did not go into those details because he expected his audience to know them.
Islam has some also.
Mohammed had many predecessor prophets who were proto-Muslims, but their teachings became corrupted by their followers.
Jesus Christ did not really die on that cross, but Allah lifted him up into heaven, and gave him the appearance of having died there (a Docetic belief; Koran 4:157-8).
To sum up, interpreting various theological arguments and apologetics as retcons often makes them more understandable. More broadly, Greta Christina has blogged on Why Religion Is Like Fanfic, though she does note some retcons.
Did Jesus Christ Die a Comic-Book Death?
Is it possible that Jesus Christ's crucifixion "death" had been a comic-book death? Strictly speaking, it is not, because if it was, then there would be one book that ends with him dying by crucifixion and everybody expecting him to stay dead, and a later book that features his resurrection.
Comic-book deaths got their name because they are almost absurdly common in that genre, but they are common elsewhere, like soap operas and monster movies. If a monster is very popular despite dying in one movie, then that movie's producers may resurrect it for another movie.
Sherlock Holmes died in The Adventure of the Final Problem and was resurrected in The Adventure of the Empty House. He had made it seem like he had died at Reichenbach Falls to fool Dr. Moriarty's associates.
Spock died in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and was resurrected in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. It seems rather contrived, it must be said: reassembling Spock from his Genesis-Machine-created body and his McCoy-carried soul.
Comic-book deaths are sometimes criticized as reducing the impact of a character's death by making it likely that that character will return in a later work. Some people had called The Search for Spock a cheat ("What's next? A sex change?"). It could be argued that Jesus Christ getting resurrected reduces some of the dramatic force of his crucifixion "death" in much the same manner. If he had superhuman powers, then his not really dying is more understandable, since he could have jumped off of that cross if he had wanted to.
This article was originally at the Beacon Library (now defunct).