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.
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 GM'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
- 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 Spider-Man villain Venom Symbiote 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.
- The deceased Phoenix was revealed not to be Jean Grey but an alien force masquerading her, thus allowing other superheroes to discover her body and resurrect her; the facts of the older story where she sacrificed herself remained, but the emotional resonance was lost. Many other popular comic book characters have been killed but later retconned to still being alive, such as the Green Goblin, Nick Fury, The Punisher, Green Arrow, Colossus and Spider-Man’s Aunt May.
- 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 succesfully breached by anyone else.
- In the sitcom Cheers, Frasier Crane said that his father is a deceased research scientist. However, the spin-off Frasier featured Crane's father as ex-cop living in Seattle. This was explained as Frasier lying to his friends in Boston in order to look better. He also never mentioned having a brother Niles in the earlier series.
- Erasing an entire season of the soap opera Dallas as one character's dream.
- 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.
- The replacement of the actor playing Dr. Rudy Wells on The Six Million Dollar Man with another dissimilar-looking actor, with no acknowlegement of the change, implying that he had always looked that way.
- 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.
- 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.
- Also, the prequel The Phantom Menace reveals that C-3P0 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.
- 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 novel 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.
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 an statement in the script that suggested the wars took place in the 22nd Century. 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.
- When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released, 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. Years later, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured 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 is "a long story" that Klingons "do not discuss with outsiders". It is now rumored that an upcoming episode of Star Trek Enterprise will provide an explanation for the difference in Klingon appearance.