Hello! How are you? I was wondering: what exactly is the difference between a “plot twist” and a “retcon”? I don’t really understand it even after looking it up.Atlas
Hey Atlas, great to hear from you again!
In concept, the difference between a plot twist and a retcon is fairly simple. A plot twist is when something surprising happens in the story, whereas a retcon, or “retroactive continuity,” is when some element of the story is changed to be different than it was before.
For example: when Saruman is revealed as evil in Lord of the Rings, that’s a plot twist. Not the most shocking one of all time, but a twist nonetheless. It’s not a retcon because it wasn’t impossible for Saruman to be evil before; he just didn’t appear to be evil.
In contrast, the Klingons looking completely different between Star Trek: The Original Series and The Next Generation is a retcon. They looked one way before, and then they looked a different way because the newer show’s budget was high enough for better makeup.
Of course, it’s not always that clear-cut. Continuity is complicated, and people will often argue back and forth forever about whether certain reveals are retcons or not. Vader’s “I am your father” line in Empire Strikes Back is generally considered to be just a plot twist, but some people insist it’s a retcon since Lucas didn’t originally intend for Vader to be Luke’s father, and there’s little to indicate he is in A New Hope. I don’t subscribe to that view, but you can see how some people might.
The question can also change over time. As of Enterprise, Star Trek now has an explanation for why the Original Series Klingons don’t have the elaborate makeup used in other series: they were all infected with a weird virus to make them look human! So the change in appearance is technically explained now, but most people still consider it a retcon because that’s what it was at the time.
This debate can get especially heated because “retcon” has a pejorative connotation. And it’s true that retcons are often annoying. They can be a sign of contrived storytelling, and they often change aspects of a story that fans liked. But sometimes retcons are good, such as the aforementioned Klingon appearance change. Aliens just have a higher novelty value when they don’t look exactly like humans!
Retcons can also be the most efficient way to fix some problem a story has. In another Star Trek example, there’s an episode where Captain Kirk explains that women aren’t allowed to be captains in Starfleet. This is obviously antithetical to Star Trek’s optimistic message, and later writers did well by simply ignoring it. Trying to explain Kirk’s line away would have been more trouble than it was worth.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!
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Comments on What’s the Difference Between a Plot Twist and a Retcon?
That line about women not being allowed to be captains didn’t even fit well with what we’ve previously seen in TOS. We had seen female officers and even a female FIRST officer! Plus women in various other important jobs. So it was super weird.
For a long time, I thought there was some sort of Mandela Effect going on with this episode. There’s no way that line was actually in there, I thought. Then I rewatched the episode and there it is. I’m not sure why women couldn’t be starship captains – perhaps it had something to do with them being so “easily and deeply terrified”.
Star Trek was and is a great show but they really dropped the ball on a few occasions and it’s such a shame the series that brought us “Balance of Terror” and “City on the Edge of Forever” had to end with “Turnabout Intruder”.
Star Trek Continues did try to address the lack of female captains but mostly just ended up drawing more attention to the problem and reinforcing the idea that Starfleet was sexist. They’d have been better off including female captains like it was no big deal and pretending that “Turnabout Intruder” never happened.
Also, in TOS, Kirk has much more of a problem with male crewmembers (not the main cast though) getting scared, and doing stupid shit as a result! There are multiple times when the helmsman next to Sulu freaks out over something (not even the same guy, there are different easily-scared guys that poor Sulu must work with), and Sulu ends up stretching and working both their stations. And there was this time a dude shot a Klingon in a situation where they were supposed to hold their fire, because he got scared. The non-main-character men on the ship were pretty easily rattled, is what I’m saying!
The recurring issue that Kirk has with female crewmembers is rather that they tend to get infatuated by/horny for various superpowered beings. My conclusion is that the best officer in the TOS era should be an asexual and aromantic woman.
I think turnabout intruder could have been good if it had been about a personal vendetta, because I kind of like the bodyswapping idea and the actress who plays Lester does a great job. Lester could have looked like she had a great career ahead of her, but then she broke a rule, like, something serious and immoral. Kirk, her boyfriend at the time, ends up reporting her when she refuses to take responsibility and report herself. She’s kicked out of Star Fleet, and Kirk ends up in a position that everyone previously thought would go to Lester. She comes to think that Kirk stole a career that was rightfully hers. But she pretends she understands now, and is all friendly with Kirk, only so she’ll get a chance to execute her dastardly bodyswapping plan!
Most of the plot could remained the same, but without the stupid no-female-captains-rule.
Yep, that’s a much better idea for that episode. Quick slingshot around the sun and drop the teleplay into Rodenberry’s in-tray.
I agree about the male crew members freaking out, too – it’s so unprofessional and it seems unlikely. Unless all those documentaries about the Apollo program were lying to me.
It’s hard to disagree that asexual and aromantic female officers would improve efficiency no end but I think we could achieve at least a 50% improvement by having an asexual and aromantic Kirk. Of course, if we did that, there wouldn’t be much of a show left.
“It’s an M-class planet, so it should at least have Rodenberries.”
Technically, one might also distinguish between in-universe explained retcons – like when DC does a “crisis event” and there’s a story about how all of spacetime changed, people ended up with different backgrounds etc – and, so to speak, pure retcons, where things are different now with no explanation, just roll with it.
I think a truer version of the Klingon on retcon is them changing from Space Communist menace in the TOG, but with no ideology beyond conquest, to Space Samurai in the TNG. Its also more interesting because we can see this slow change being written in during the movie series.
Another kind of time where the difference gets blurry is disingenuous reveals! Like in House of Earth and Blood (I’m never going to shut up about this book am I?) When they reveal several big important things about the characters that they’ve supposedly known about through all their viewpoint chapters! Where it was relevant to what was happening but they somehow didn’t mention it inside their own heads! It FEELS like a retcon even though it’s meant to be a reveal because it isn’t supported by the earlier chapters!
Hunt was in an entirely separate book this whole time! That book was better but it’s over now.
The thing about Obi-Wan telling Luke that Vader betrayed and killed Anakin and then having them turn out to be the same person does feel a bit retconny. But they did fully lean into the idea of “killing one’s past self”, with even Kylo Ren later stating that he had killed Ben Solo, so it ultimately worked.
Lucas did do a little retcon there – when A New Hope was filmed, he’d still planned for Anakin and Vader to be two different characters. Later on, he thought that it would have more impact if Vader and Luke were father and son. Yet, Obi-Wan later on saying that it depended on ‘a certain point of view’ worked well. As you say, ‘killing one’s past self’ is a thing – and recently, the whole ‘you didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker … I did’ line just cemented that.
And luckily, there was no flashback of proto-Anakin being killed by Vader, so there was not too many contradictions and is a passable retcon, unlike Sidious being alive somehow.
Also, Darth Maul turning out to be alive…
I’m two minds about that, to be honest. On one hand, I always felt that Maul was too interesting to kill off right away. I’ve also played Dark Forces 2 where one of the Dark Jedi you fight has no lower body, but some kind of hover-thingy. Yet, having him die and resurrecting him ages later – that is weird, if nothing else. Gave us an amazing last duel between him and Obi-Wan, of course (yes, amazing because of its brevity), but still…
The Extended Universe (now Legends) was guilty of bringing back Palpatine, too. I dare say the “Dark Empire” comic did it better and clone technology exists in the Star Wars universe (see Clone Wars), but it’s definitely a pretty hard thing to pull off.
Yes, just having Obi-Wan say ‘he killed your father’ isn’t that much of a contradiction. People lie – presumably even the Jedi.
Yeah, but I just find it weird for them to make his death look final, but no, he has survived, which I felt was a bit cheap and tells me that they had no confidence in Kylo as a villain, even though he worked for me.
A better idea would have been had the trilogy actually have the granddaughter of Palatine be the new Emperor and have her be the sister of Rey or even rewrite the story and have a different protagonist other than Rey, if she has to be Palpatine’s grandchild.
It worked wonders with Stormhawks having the main villain be as young as the cast of teens and she is the granddaughter of the previous ruler of the evil emperor. I recommend Stormhawks as someone who loves the Cartoons decades ago, it’s even on Youtube. Just search for Storm Hawks and you have it!
“Dark Empire” was set ten years after the battle of Yavin, if I remember the timeline right. So Luke was about thirty then and Leia had her second son around that time. After the end of the comic, the Emperor didn’t appear again as far as I know. Palpatine does have a few children and grandchildren in the Legends continuity, but none of them takes after him in lust for power or love of the Dark Side.
There is another Sith Lord (or rather a Lady…) later in the timeline who apparently is much more powerful than Palpatine was. Heck, Leia’s older son Jacen (aka Darth Caedus) is more powerful than Palpatine, too, after fully becoming a Sith (not to mention that his deeds once he falls to the Dark Side make Kylo Ren look like a toddler on a tantrum).
I think they (or more likely J.J. Adams) brought the Emperor in for “Rise of Skywalker” because he wanted to deny the ‘Rey is a nobody’ from “The Last Jedi” and because he wanted to redeem Kylo. If Kylo had taken the ‘master’ position after Snoke’s end and ruled over the First Order, he would have been unredeemable, after all. Putting the Emperor back in was ‘fan recognition’ and also a way to give Kylo a way to redeem himself before dying (like Vader…).