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December 01 2006

When is a retcon not a retcon? Screenwriter John August discovers the term "retcon" (where has he been living?) and wonders whether Dawn's introduction into "Buffy" was a retcon... or maybe something else. Discussion ensues.

Funny choice as an example, since it's not a retcon. Dawn's introduction does not change the fact that Buffy was an only child for the first four seasons, it just changes the characters' perception of those first four seasons. It's a shame they never really dealt with the new 'memories' the same way they did on Angel. Oh well.
Plus Dawn's coming was forshadowed a million times.

I think there were plenty of retcons in Buffy, but that's not one of them.
cough*AngelbeingSpike'ssire*cough
Personally, I think the idea of Dawn Summers being an example of retcon is not bad...but Monsieur August is missing the fact that Joss & co. took the comic book-centred premise of rebooting the backstory past the usual cliched changes and really did something with it: altered how the characters perceived their own memories. So suddenly the question of how we choose to recall the past is brought to the fore.

Also, if I was gonna give an example of retcon, I would cite Casino Royale as a really good example. James Bond is now a post-Cold War, post-9/11 figure immersed in a world of technological terror and 21st century politics, instead of a "sexist, misogynistic dinosaur...a relic of the Cold War"
Casino Royale is a reboot of the franchise, much in the same way that Batman Begins was, so I don't think that it can be counted as a retcon.

And, yeah, Rogue Slayer, changing Spike's sire from Angel to Drusilla always irritated me. The writers tried to say that the definition of "sire" extended to the maker of the vampire who made the vamp in question, and any previous makers, but I never bought it. They just screwed up.

But since Mutant Enemy brought in years' worth of brilliance, I can forgive a (relatively minor) lapse in continuity.
I'm not sure they made a mistake by changing Spike's sire to Drusilla, I think they just wanted it to be Dru, so they changed it for the purpose of storytelling.
Well, Mr August's post does actually suggest that Dawn's introduction was a meta-retcon... but it was just the first thing that came into his head. The changing of Spike's sire is definitely a retcon, though wonderfully fanwanked by Whedon into working - it's still a retcon.
I agree with fortunateizzi; perhaps Joss and co. decided to change their minds at some point and make Drusilla the one who turned William into Spike as they may have figured that certain thematic elements would have more weight as a result.
Maybe that's just another definition of "retcon" but I should also make clear that I started watching the show in mid-season 3 and it took me awhile to get fully caught up on all that preceeded "The Wish"; so about minor things like this I really don't care.
Though here's a thought: exactly when, prior to School Hard, do we first hear and learn about the concept of "sire"? Anyone know (I don't)?

Anyway, one of the posters on Mr. August's site, Carey Malloy, makes a good point here regarding Buffy's pre-season 1 institutionalization and Joyce's knowledge of the weird and supernatural going on around her. I admit, at the time I just swallowed that revelation without question. Now I find it a bit more suspect, especially considering Joyce and Buffy's kitchen argument in Becoming, Part 2 (and even Buffy's casual mention of "saving the world from vampires" in Bad Eggs, with little reaction from Joyce).

Nit, consider yourself picked!


I never saw Dawn as a retcon. I saw it as a play on the old "our show's ratings are dipping, let's have the parents adopt a cute new kid!" cliché that Joss turned on its ear. And as Spikeverse said, it was foreshadowed for ages.

The Spike sire thing always bugged me, but in the end it didn't affect that much. It bugged me more in a "I loves continuity like my mom" sort of way, not in any sort of storyline way.

Not to open a can of worms (but here I go), but I always thought of the way magic was dealt with in season 6 was a retcon. Before Willow's addiction storyline, magic was about balance and power. But then all of a sudden, magic = crack, and Willow could get a literal high off of it. Not trying to start up a season 6 debate (again), but that always stood out to me.
I'm not sure they made a mistake by changing Spike's sire to Drusilla, I think they just wanted it to be Dru, so they changed it for the purpose of storytelling.

No, I don't think it was a mistake(though I suppose it's possible they didn't remember they had mentioned Angel as Spike's sire when they were writing about Dru), but it was a retcon. To me, that epitomizes the word...changing existing continuity because of preference.
Yeah, the Spike Sire Swap was noticed, but forgiveable.

It wasn't at all unlike the spine implant Simon was given before Serenity: it wasn't THAT big of a deal, and it added interesting plot possibilities that didn't exist without the minor retconning.
But then all of a sudden, magic = crack, and Willow could get a literal high off of it. Not trying to start up a season 6 debate (again), but that always stood out to me.


And then in season 7 it was no longer an addiction again. And it was never once mentioned that the real problem was that she was screwing with people.

There are plenty of retcons, like vampire skills they never had before. As in Spike able to track people by scent all over town in season 7, hours later even, yet he could never find Dawn in seasons 5 & 6. Although that is probably more the writers not really bothering to think about secondary characters and what they could and would do.
Having rewatched Firefly - all of it - recently, I actually think the Simon spine retcon actually isn't one at all. To me, the very proper, very reserved character he was in the pilot actually didn't last terribly long - and it makes a lot of sense that he'd not tell the whole story about River's rescue to the crew anyway. So the Serentiy flashback leading into the Firefly pilot actually works perfectly well for me... even though Joss himself considers it a retcon but fanwanks that Simon lied, "I'm just not sure why yet."

And then in season 7 it was no longer an addiction again. And it was never once mentioned that the real problem was that she was screwing with people.

It was made very clear in the Season 6 finale that there was a difference between the black magics that Rack dealt in and the good, pure witchy magic that Tara practiced.

And while the show didn't explicitly state "Will, your real problem is that you're screwing with people," it's basically the tipping point at which her friends realise she's addicted (crashing the car with Dawn in it) and that she's crossed the line (flaying Warren alive).

[ edited by crossoverman on 2006-12-01 01:59 ]
If Dawn was created to fix a specific problem which had occurred previously then she was a retcon, if she wasn’t she wasn’t.
Vampires actually existing, huge retcon. Otherwise *shrugs* I watched the show to be entertained. The nitpicking leaves me somewhat cold.
The only one that "bothered" me was Buffys Mom having her locked up because of all the vampire talk. We saw in the first two seasons Buffy make the odd crack about vampired and Joyce never showed the slightest sign of "Oh no not this crap again".

I thought The Prom dealt very well with explaning how everyone did actually know about Buffy, needed so that they'd follow her in Graduation Day, but then even though she stayed in town and went to the local Uni everyone just forgot and it was never mentioned again.

And, now that I'm on a roll and thinking about it, changing Hank from a loving and supporting father to a shiftless absentee who can't even be bothered to attend Joyces funeral or take care of Buffy is a big one. I totaly understand why it was done for the show but it went against everything that we saw about him.
Here I go again. :)

I think the reason season 6 is debated so hotly is because it depends of if you think the use of magic was retcon'd or not. Some see it as a natural progression of Willow's storyline; others (like myself), think the writers changed the meaning of magic to better fit Willow's storyline. Before season 6, you could see Willow was in for a fall; her fall was foreshadowed, and I never, ever had a problem with it. My problem (and I think this goes for most who disliked season 6), is that before season 6, there was a feeling that Willow was disrupting the balance of things by using magic with so little care, and that she was starting to get off on the power. To me, a more natural progression would've been for some balancing force to come looking for some sort of payback for her carelessness (I'm anthropomorphicing this up more then I mean).

Anyway, really not trying to turn this into a season 6 debate. I've just realized that how one perceives magic use to be a retcon or not in season 6 seems to be a key reason to either love it or dislike it.

So could it be a retcon to have seasons of Xander being a potentially abused child trashed when his family is turned into nothing more then comic relief in Hell's Bells?

And Simon, I'm mostly with you. I don't think most people let their nitpicks bug them so much they don't enjoy the show. For me, the only time retcons bug me is when it seriously affects the storylines or character motives. And it's blessedly rare in the Whedonverse.
And it's blessedly rare in the Whedonverse.

It's blessedly rare in Buffy. Angel suffered from it a lot.
I usually play the apologist side (years of training in Star Trek will toughen you up). I thought the introduction of Dawn was brilliant because it was so set up to suck (sudden siblings just don't work out on TV) ... and it succeeded so well. It became a major plotline, and Dawn became a pretty good character (to me, at least).

As to the much-bandied "sire" retcon, I took it in stride, because Spike says, "You were my sire, my Yoda." Clearly, Angel was not a little wrinkly dude with floppy years, Yoda was metaphorical. So was calling him sire. Drusilla clearly was not up to the task of anything but making a new vampire. She wasn't capable of training, teaching, leading ... or even coherent most of the time. Angel took the initiative and shaped Spike (as we saw later), not Dru.

Or so I like to tell myself, as I busily smooth over discontinuities.
Sire debate--not really that interesting. Probably a bigger gaffe is how often Spike's age changed throughout the series; first he was "barely 200," then "only 126!" and finally sired in 1880, which, er, would have made him 6 at the time he was sired, if you believe him in "The Initiative"....

There are other retcons, big and small, but there's good retconning and bad retconning. Dawn's introduction is not a retcon, but appears to be one. Good retconning is where a character's (understood) history is messed around with to make them more interesting, where there some small degree of inconsistency is made up for by the drama. My favourite piece of plot-retconning in the Buffyverse, actually, is probably Jasmine's statement in "Shiny Happy People" that Connor was the life won by Angel in "The Trial." I consider it a retcon because these two events had never been linked before, and from interviews I don't think that it occurred to them to. But it was used to take a huge loose end and tie it back to another defining moment in the series.

Best character retconning were definitely episodes like "Fool For Love," "Darla," "Selfless", Angel flashbacks etc., where our understanding of the characters were turned around. I think that "Fool For Love" is either a masterpiece of retconning or Spike's characterization up to "Fool for Love" was a masterpiece of deception, but that episode added on his obsession with Buffy back way before he (and we) saw it explicitly on screen, back when their sexual tension was so implicit that it's a little bit hard to say whether it was meant to be there or not. The poetic William heart? Brilliant.

"Selfless," on the other hand, retconned Anya as having always been strangely literal--which led to some hilarious scenes but seems to fly in the face of her natural ease at communication with Cordelia in "The Wish". It's a great episode, but I think that some of those decisions Ultimate Drew made don't quite add up. (Oh, and another great example? Is the voraciousness of Kaylee's sexuality on "Firefly"--which came up so suddenly in the flashback to "Out of Gas" but made a lot of sense.)

As far as the Willow magick addiction: why is it that I love and hate Willow's storyline so much? Willow going over to the Dark Side, and her grief mixing with her power desire and her feelings of inadequacy, first going after blood, then trying to fight her way up the food chain of the Scoobies, then finally deciding that a life with pain isn't worth living in when she's dosed with empathy...it's all so brilliant. And it's also mixed in with so many references to addiction as if that were *all* it was. I try to rationalize it that Willow's friends just didn't want to tell themselves that Willow could be so evil and want to violate the natural order so much, mostly of her own volition, and the fact that Giles never really buys into the addiction thing so much kind of makes me believe that it might just be true. Even so, it certainly short circuits some of the emotional power of the plotline.

One thing though: magic as drugs was not completely invented by season six. The dilating pupils had appeared before, as well as the magic/alcohol implicit comparison in "Something Blue" and Giles' description of his dealings with Eygon as "an incredible high." So it is retconning, but not total.

Oh, and I thought the fact that his parents were comically horrible in "Hell's Bells" doesn't mean that they weren't horrible. It may have been a mistake to show them that way in the episode, and probably was, but retconning? I don't think so.

As far as Angel, I felt characters stayed pretty consistent, though not always in obvious ways. My biggest regret is that we never really got to see Gunn's feelings about having to kill his sister, or even leaving his gang, after season two and "That Old Gang of Mine." And I guess the "Gunn is racist against vampires because of his sister!" was pretty retconny (and Tim Minear hated it) although you can see that pretty clearly in "The Shroud of Rahmon" too.
"Though here's a thought: exactly when, prior to School Hard, do we first hear and learn about the concept of "sire"? Anyone know (I don't)?"

All the way back in "Welcome to the Hellmouth" there's an oblique reference to the process in the form of Buffy's explanation of vampirism - "To become a vampire, they have to suck your blood and then you have to suck their blood; it's a whole big sucking thing."

After that, the concept that there was or could be a special bond between a vamp and the vamp that made them was fairly well established by the episode "Angel" - it was the whole point of it, really, that Angel proved himself by choosing Buffy over Darla, who was his vampiric 'mother' and lover for a hundred years.

For specifically the word 'Sire', though, I can't come up with any season one quotes off the top of my head. The earliest references I can think of are "School Hard" ("You were my sire, mate! My Yoda!") and "What's my Line" ("They need Drusilla's sire, right? You mean the vamp that made her?")
Hmm, I think some 'retcons' mentioned here are actually just character developments. Take Darla. As far as i'm aware we're never definitively told she wasn't a syphilitic prostitute in the early 1600s so seeing her as one isn't a retcon, it's just a character revelation.

If she'd been portrayed as a Countess pre-vamping and then the creators decided she should actually have been a 'lady of the night' of the non-vampiric kind instead that's a retcon.

Anya's strange literalism is a genuine retcon i'd say (though minor) and i'd probably say Spike's sire is too (Dawn definitely isn't though it's very possibly a comment on retcons and so could qualify as a meta-retcon as mentioned).

To me a retcon is such a fundamental change that it can't legitimately be fan-wanked around (the various Superman origins have retcons aplenty for instance or the way that Batman has at times known it was Joe Chill that killed his parents, not known at others, caught him in some and not others, in some versions it's not even him etc.).
A lot of this discussion depends on how you define "retcon". The Wikipedia article explains that the original meaning was simply a development that adds unanticipated additional information about past events, usually to support current plot developments. With that definition much of the material in Buffyverse flashbacks can be considered retconning. However, for many people the word has come to mean more specifically a development that contradicts what has already been established. This is a very different use of the term.

On another point, I'm interested that some people in the linked page (and here) have brought up the episode "Normal Again". It seems to me that the events occurring in the mental hospital in that episode can have three possible interpretations:
1) They are a hallucination, though this interpretation seems to be contradicted by the final scene in the asylum which is shown after Buffy has apparently stopped hallucinating.
2) They occur in a parallel reality, with our Buffy's mind switching between her own body and the body of the alternate-reality Buffy.
3) They are the true reality, and all the other events we have seen in the TV series are just Buffy's hallucinations!
The first two interpretations would not constitute a retcon, because they do not add to or alter our knowledge of past events in the reality we've been watching. The third interpreation arguably could be considered a retcon, because it changes the status of what we've been watching from real events (real within a fictional story, that is) to mere hallucinations.
When I first saw FFL, after about two seconds of surprise, I realized Spike's past made perfect sense and fit in with what we knew about his character.

I just rewatched season 2 and that feeling was only reinforced. I first fell in love with Spike in Lie To Me, where he chose having Dru live over killing Buffy. It intrigued then that for all of his big talk about being the Big Bad, when push came to shove he put love before hate. When he hurt Dru's feelings, he immediately begged for forgiveness. There are tears in his eyes in What's My Line2 after Angel taunts him about pleasing Dru and he's reminded of the deep connection between Angelus and Dru.

And the retcon about Spike leaving Sunnydale in love with Buffy is believable to me.
1) They are a hallucination, though this interpretation seems to be contradicted by the final scene in the asylum which is shown after Buffy has apparently stopped hallucinating.

At that point Buffy had chosen to stay in this world and was fighting that reality. Willow hadn't made more of the potion yet so Buffy was still having the hallucinations.

Whether Buffy chose the real reality...

Anya's strange literalism is a genuine retcon i'd say (though minor)


That's the absolute worst of the lot for me. Nails + chalkboard = retconned Anya ;)

But like many have said, most BtVS/Angel retcons have been relatively minor, generally to the point of being invisibile to anyone but us diehards ;)
I've never let any of the inconsistencies in the Buffyverse bother me much, but Angel's backstory, post-soul, is a HUGE and undeniable retcon in my book (in the inconsistent sense, not the way described in Wikipedia). 'Becoming' shows Angel living on the streets, disheveled and unknowledgable about where to get good blood -- for all intents and purposes, he's been wandering aimlessly, homeless, for a hundred years, and knows very little about maneuvering in the world. Then through a series of Angel shows, we learn that he still tried to remain part of his gang for awhile after getting his soul, he's lived in a hotel, been 'recruited' by the government to save officers trapped in a sub, and fed from a clerk killed in a late-night donut shop holdup. And that's just what we've seen. I personally loved that the writers actually came up with more of a backstory than 'he basically just wandered in a stupor of grief for 100 years', but it was also *amazingly* inconsistent with what we'd previously learned about him.

And don't even get me started on the retconning involved in calculating both Spike's AND Angel's ages. Oy.
Dawn wasn't a retcon as they didn't continue the ploy of saying she'd been there all along, but revealed the deception. Personally that is one of the touches of brilliance on the show I liked.

Spike actually being a shy, romantic poet was a reveal that was suprising given the image he at that time portrayed. But it made perfect sense, as the episode showed how one by one the aspects of "Spike" were adopted by William to hide who he really was. The accent, the scar, the hair, the coat.

In that regard, and in how Spike interacts with women, it does make sense for Dru to be his Sire. But that is still a massive retcon. It's one that works well when coupled with the reveal of FFL, but it's still pretty huge.

Don't forget that Spike not only called Angel his Sire in School Hard, but also as late in the game as In The Dark (S1 Ats/S4 Btvs). The explanation of calling anyone in your line a sire is okay I suppose, a stretch but okay. But then why since FFL has Spike only ever referred to Angel as his GrandSire or Gramps?

I heard at the time of FFL that at least part of the reason was due to pressure not to show a man being sired by another man and enjoying it. FFL is the first time we saw a bite being first painfull and then pleasurable. (GD's bite was metaphorically pleasurable, she sure didn't look like she was enjoying it.) The homoerotic overtones would have been obvious and the impression I got at the time was that the powers that be didn't want to show that on primetime network telly.

Also, something I think must be a retcon is the way in which the Scoobies started out as the outsiders, but then around S4 became the insiders and forgot how it felt to be on the outs. It is the only explanation I can think of to explain their collective treatment of the new outsiders: Spike, Tara, Anya and Dawn.
Also, something I think must be a retcon is the way in which the Scoobies started out as the outsiders, but then around S4 became the insiders and forgot how it felt to be on the outs. It is the only explanation I can think of to explain their collective treatment of the new outsiders: Spike, Tara, Anya and Dawn.

To be honest, this could just be human nature. Not everyone who has been a former outsider who has now found a group is all-welcoming to other outsiders. People don't always remember how it feels. And there are countless examples of the oppressed becoming oppressers when they get a chance(weird example, I know). But I've seen plenty of examples in 'real life' where outsiders really want to find a group to affiliate with, and then they become as elitest and ugly as any other insider. (Not saying the Buffy crew was ugly, but you get my drift.)

And well...Spike was evil for quite a while, so not an easy sell. Accepting Tara meant accepting that Willow was gay, and while they didn't have a problem with it, it was kind of a big shock to the group. Anya, god love her, was odd. People tend to not be as accepting of those who are quirky(especially those who are blunt). And heck, Xander was one of her bigger detractors for most of the show, so I'm sure the group didn't feel too compelled to always treat her well. And Dawn was...well, to be honest, I think Dawn got treated the best of all the 'outsiders' from the get-go. She got treated like a little sister, but that's normal.
ariana75 - I've never let any of the inconsistencies in the Buffyverse bother me much, but Angel's backstory, post-soul, is a HUGE and undeniable retcon in my book (in the inconsistent sense, not the way described in Wikipedia). 'Becoming' shows Angel living on the streets, disheveled and unknowledgable about where to get good blood -- for all intents and purposes, he's been wandering aimlessly, homeless, for a hundred years, and knows very little about maneuvering in the world. Then through a series of Angel shows, we learn that he still tried to remain part of his gang for awhile after getting his soul, he's lived in a hotel, been 'recruited' by the government to save officers trapped in a sub, and fed from a clerk killed in a late-night donut shop holdup. And that's just what we've seen. I personally loved that the writers actually came up with more of a backstory than 'he basically just wandered in a stupor of grief for 100 years', but it was also *amazingly* inconsistent with what we'd previously learned about him.

I'm not so convinced about that. It's true that our first impression of Angel's life after regaining his soul was from where Whistler meets him for the first time but the fact is that we actually knew very little about why he was living on the streets, eating rats and smelling like garbage at that point.

It always seemed strange to me that Angel would go from being one of the most evil vampires to exist to street dwelling bum with no transition in between. It made a lot more sense to me when we found out that initially he tried to continue his life with Darla but was eventually unable to ignore the soul within. After that he chose to go off and live alone, avoiding both humans and other demons, which is basically how we saw him through the 40's and 50's.

Apparently by the 70's Angel has learned to exist within the human world enough to be out and about, maybe even letting himself forget what he really is. Certainly enough to slip up and in a weak moment feed off the clerk in the diner. It seems to me that it was this act that led to Angel finally running away from society altogether and choose to live on the streets like the animal he believed himself to be. It wasn't that he didn't know about the butcher shop blood, just that he was unwilling to ask for it because he would rather torture himself by feeding off rats.

Altogether I tend to think that Angel's backstory is extremely consistent. Well, maybe except the age thing. :)
You should try being a Doctor Who fan. Retcon city, especially when you include the spin-offs (which we generally do) -- four or five reasons for the Marie Celeste being sunk or Atlantis being destroyed etc. I don't lets get started on UNIT dating.

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