Watsonian vs. Doylist

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See also: fanwank, OOC, retcon
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Watsonian and Doylist describe two ways to engage with canon. The terms arise (obviously) from Sherlock Holmes fandom, where the Holmes stories are presented as if they were actually written by Dr. John Watson, the fictional character. However, from the standpoint of history, it is more or less incontestable that they were written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

A Watsonian perspective tries to interpret the text from the standpoint of the text. This is sometimes called an in-universe perspective.

A Doylist perspective stands outside the text, and is sometimes called a real world perspective. Things that happen in canon happen because of decisions made by the author or TPTB; inconsistencies are probably authorial error. [1] [2] These explanations will sometimes be written right into the canon.[3]

Origin

Some have theorized that the terms "Watsonian" and "Doylist" originated with the Holmesian fan club, the Baker Street Irregulars. [4] It was being used in online, non-Holmesian fandom discussions on Usenet as early as the year 2000. [5]

The terms were further spread throughout fandom by the Lois McMaster Bujold mailing list-- see 8. What is meant by "Watsonian" and "Doylist"? from the Lois McMaster Bujold List FAQ; the question regarding those terms was added in 2002. They were brought to wider attention in livejournal-based media fandom in a 2005 post by Fairestcat. [1]

Appeal

Both approaches have their appeal; a fan may enjoy analyzing the text from either perspective, or both, at different times. One fan, rm, stated: Fanfiction is, arguably, largely a Watsonian pursuit. That is, we commit fic, often and in part, to solve issues within the canon as if they are true things within the canon (not a matter of writer error or external interpretation). [6]

Another fan, fairestcat, described a Doylist perspective as follows, while describing her reaction to an episode of Stargate: Atlantis: And sometimes, a Doylist perspective is necessary simply as a fannish coping mechanism. For myself and only for myself, the only way I can reconcile the characters of Critical Mass with the characters I love -- particularly Elizabeth and John -- is to say "ok, the writers were smoking crack this week and there must have been a hell of a lot going on off screen that we weren't privy to." Because if I try a Watsonian explanation I end up with characters I really don't like, and I'm not ready to reach that conclusion on the basis of this one ep. [7]

When canon is particularly contradictory, attempting to devise a Watsonian explanation can lead to theories so elaborate they become fanwank.

Examples

In the pilot of Starsky & Hutch, Hutch mentions his ex-wife, Nancy. In a later episode, her name is Vanessa. The Doylist explanation is that this is a continuity error. One early S&H fic writer wrote a story in which she advanced the following Watsonian explanation: Hutch's ex-wife's name was actually Nancy, but Hutch was in the habit of calling her Vanessa when she was acting a certain way. [8][9]

In Doctor Who fandom, see the UNIT Dating Controversy, which attempts to pin down the exact years in which the Third Doctor worked with UNIT. [10] [11]

For more examples, see Watsonian Versus Doylist on TVTropes. (See also Series Continuity Error for the types of continuity errors that prompt many fans to devise Watsonian explanations.)

A Third Perspective

In a gently satirical post titled Doylist or Watsonian?, damned_colonial proposed a third way of engaging with Sherlock Holmes canon, which she called Forsythian analysis, after Sherlock Holmes fic writer Katie Forsythe: A Forsythian perspective interprets the text from the standpoint of the text as written by Watson while trying to divert attention from his and Holmes's homosexual relationship. Any discrepancies, such as jumps in time, gaping plot holes, or bizarre non-sequiturs (as, for instance, Holmes's musings on a rose during The Naval Treaty) are due to this attempt to rewrite history. The more irreconcilable the discrepancy, the hotter the sex being covered up. [12]

References

  1. Sharyn McCrumb, Bimbos of the Death Sun. Some post-teen English major enslaved to the publisher to proof copy could go through and make sure that Runewind's horse was not black on one page and brown on another. Really, he didn't know why they bothered. The demented fans who read the series had hours of fun devising plausible explanations for his sloppiest screwups. They would churn out endless articles in their unreadable mimeographed excrescences trying to explain why Runewind's sword changed lengths or why his mother was known by two different names. So far, the two likeliest explanations -- apathy and Chivas Regal -- had not been suggested.
  2. For instance, in the second half of season two of Leverage, the character of Sophie (played by actress Gina Bellman) is in very few episodes. The Watsonian explanation is that Sophie, the character, went away on a personal soul-searching journey. The Doylist explanation is that Gina Bellman, the actress, was pregnant and went on maternity leave.
  3. Jane Leeves, who played Daphne Moon on Frasier, became pregnant in real life just at the point in the series where Daphne and Niles Crane began a relationship. A previous episode had established Daphne as eating compulsively when nervous and being mistaken for pregnant by family members. Leeves went through a brief episode arc in a fat suit, in an unlikely plot line about Daphne binge eating and gaining 60 lbs. Her departure for a "fat farm" coincided with Leeves' maternity leave, and in a subsequent episode Niles said "She's already lost nine pounds, four ounces".
  4. Anon, http://fail-fandomanon.livejournal.com/ thread One anon commenter here says I'm pretty sure that I remember seeing some variant of Watsonian/Doylist used in the Baker Street Irregulars zine back in the 80s, and the zines I was reading dated back a lot further than that. Originally posted April 27, 2012. Last accessed April 27, 2012.
  5. Post by Rob Wynne in alt.fan.blakes-7, regarding a possible continuity glitch in Blake's 7: If Feddie personnel used the word later, there's a couple of possible explainations. (Ignoring, of course, the Doylist answer that "the writers screwed up"). One might be that they picked it up from transmissions from the Liberator crew, or perhaps from people who came in contact with them. (Ok, so they aren't GOOD explainations, but I'll always *try* to come up with a Watsonian dodge. *grin*). Originally posted March 21, 2000. Last accessed April 27, 2012.
  6. rm, sundries, totally personal edition Posted January 31st, 2010. Last accessed October 31, 2010
  7. fairestcat, OK, now that I've explained the terms Doylist and Watsonian, anyone want to talk SGA?? Posted December 14, 2005. Last accessed October 31, 2010
  8. I don't remember the title of this, but I'll see if I can find it again.
  9. Her name was McGill, she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy.
  10. The UNIT Dating Controversy on Wikipedia
  11. The UNIT Dating Controversy on TARDIS Wikia
  12. damned_colonial, Doylist or Watsonian? Posted April 22, 2010. Last accessed October 31, 2010
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