The problem starts with Tolkien. I mean, I’m sure the impulse existed before him, but he legitimized it and made it the dominant approach of a particular school of writing. Tolkien referred to it as “secondary creation” or “sub-creation”; we call it worldbuilding.
It is not, in itself, necessarily a bad idea; in some ways it is a precursor to certain aspects of postmodernism. In essence, Tolkien’s idea (most clearly expressed in his “On Fairy Stories”) is that fictional worlds can in some sense be said to exist; that the setting of a fictional story (and in particular a fantastic story) can be at least metaphorically treated as having a material reality in some alternate plane, called into being by the author and then dutifully reported as events unfold.
In some ways, this may be a useful approach for some authors. It is not too dissimilar from the phenomenon some authors describe whereby they create characters, develop those characters’ motivations, and then let the characters “act out” the story while the author “watches.” Really, of course, this is simply a mental exercise that produces character-driven stories–wherein lies the key difference between this and the “world building” approach, namely that a character-driven approach produces a story that emerges organically from the motivations and actions of the people in it, while building a world produces an empty stage set with no characters on it. (Notably, Tolkien’s fiction output does not arise directly from his world building, but rather uses his world as a backdrop to tell stories about people. Even then, the “guided tour” aspect of The Fellowship of the Ring in particular is difficult to dismiss.)
The real problem is when this “secondary creation” theory gets applied to criticism. The criteria which define a quality world quite simply have nothing to do with the criteria that define a quality work of fiction; for our purposes, the most important criterion to talk about is logical self-consistency.
That this is not really a very important element of fiction should be obvious, but just in case it is not, consider this: Citizen Kane is rightly and widely known as a cinema classic, an extremely solid character study that is also a masterclass in cinematography. It represents one of those rare moments when the quality of an entire artform leaps forward.
It also contains a glaring plot hole that renders the entire plot of the movie impossible, one which multiple viewers have commented on, but which nonetheless most viewers never notice.
Does that plot hole make it any less solid of a character study? No; Charles Foster Kane remains a fascinating character and the slow unspooling of his story a rich and rewarding experience. Does the plot hole make the movie’s cinematography any less massive of a leap forward? Again, no–the two have nothing to do with one another.
And yet, in the aesthetic that emphasizes continuity and consistency, such “errors” are seen as inherent flaws.
Nonetheless, this is the dominant aesthetic of geek communities. Most recently (at least that I’ve seen), there is the discussion surrounding the upcoming Doctor Who Christmas special. Rumor has it (and yes, I regard articles in Radio Times based on interviews with Stephen Moffat to be rumors) that the Doctor will regenerate in that story, and further that Moffat considers Tennant’s partial regeneration in “Journey’s End” to count as a Doctor, meaning that including John Hurt, Matt Smith was actually playing the Thirteenth Doctor all along, not the Eleventh. Why is that significant? Because a throwaway line in an episode aired thirty-five years ago (an episode which most fans of the current series have not seen) implied that there can only be thirteen Doctors, after which he dies for good.
Never mind that, in combination with the implication of eight Doctors prior to William Hartnell in “The Brain of Morbeus” (only a few episodes before, and written and produced by the same team as, “The Deadly Assassin,” the source of this throwaway line), the clear intent is that the Tom Baker Doctor was the Twelfth, not Fourth, and as such nearing the end of his life span. Never mind that there have been throwaway lines since that claim the Doctor has hundreds, thousands, or unlimited opportunities to regenerate. Never mind that “The Deadly Assassin” was itself attacked at time of airing for depicting Gallifrey and the Time Lords dramatically differently than past episodes. Never mind that the insistence on this nugget of pointless continuity creates a necessity to either retcon it away (which will upset continuity-obsessed fans) or put a time limit on a series that could otherwise run forever.
No, say supporters of this aesthetic. It is wrong, a mistake, to ignore a previously established continuity point. They demand that the future of any long-running work be a slave to its past. To them, it doesn’t matter that Kane dying entirely alone is thematically appropriate, it’s still a “mistake” that invalidates the otherwise excellent film that follows.
It’s understandable why this aesthetic has such a strong hold on geek culture. First of all, it requires only a very shallow understanding of any sort of critical theory, while rewarding attention to detail and an encyclopedic memory. For a variety of historical reasons, geek culture is dominated by fandoms, and social status within a fandom is established primarily by demonstrations of commitment to the object of that fandom, and the demonstration of arcane knowledge is one of the easiest ways to test that commitment. The ability to spot continuity errors even allows one to demonstrate arcane knowledge superior to that of the creators (who, for most work, just don’t care about niggling continuity details)–where normally the creators hold the highest position of honor in a fandom, nitpicking continuity allows a fan to temporarily elevate themselves above that position.
Assuming the rumors are true, it’s fairly obvious to me what Moffat’s trying to do: retcon away the regeneration limit while he can, so that he doesn’t have to keep hearing about it from continuity-obsessed fans for the entire Capaldi run. Hopefully, he will accomplish this by doing away with regeneration limits altogether; the worst-case scenario is that the Doctor gets a new, specific, relatively small number of regenerations, because that will only serve to confirm the limit. (Ideally, the episode would simply ignore the limit, have the Capaldi Doctor refer to himself as the Fourteenth, then flip off some LINDA members who complain about it, but that scenario is sadly unlikely.)
Unfortunately, the underlying problem will remain: Geek culture is wedded to an unsophisticated and inflexible aesthetic that insists on treating fiction as a window into another world, as opposed to a deliberate construct assembled from multiple smaller constructs, each the product of specific authorial choices not necessarily bound by any prior choice. No matter how many creators tell them “Canon is not a word we use in the office” or “Starfuries travel at the speed of plot,” or “A wizard did it,” it seems they will continue to insist on nitpicking based on a simplistic “literalism” not that different from the hermeneutic employed by Christian fundamentalists. I honestly have no idea what the cure is, except perhaps better education.