In recent days, there has been a lot of hate spewed at canon, many saying it is a crutch to creativity. In my own opinion, I disagree with this assertion and believe that canon is a great creative source and I am here to explain my beliefs on why.
For those who don't know, canon is a term for what is considered what actually happens in a fictional universe, either its backstory, the events of an individual episode or movie etc, or just how the rules of the world work.
Canon is probably one of the best tools in your writing belt if you are willing to understand it and use it. Like any creative work you do, when working on a long standing franchise, its good to understand what your writing about and learn as much as you can so you can fully understand it. Not doing so is honestly lazy and will result in your work likely being sub-par and derided by fans.
Here are four reasons why canon is a good thing:
1. Canon can be a great source of creativity if you use it wisely.
I'll be using Star Trek as my main source for examples as it is one of the series mainly used by those who dislike canon.
Let's say you write an episode where the ship has been in prolonged combat and the ship is damaged. You can use that to make an episode about needing to repair the ship to have a character building episode, or have the ship docked for repairs and wacky hijinks happen or have the ship get attack by slavers and pirates who see the ship as easy pray. Hell, you can even have a godly being test the crew in their weakened position. By using canon, you've opened up your one story into multiple idea you can expand on your choosing. By not doing that, your wasting potential stories and being awfully lazy.
Using past continuity can also be useful and it doesn't have to be a, "slave to canon". Take the episode Sarek of TNG for instance. That episode is a sequel to the Original series episode Journey to Babel, continuing on many of the ideas from that one. However at no point does it become a slave to canon, the episode uses those events to make other creative ideas and at no point does the episode become inaccessible to new audience members.
It also helps create better characters and development for them. Let say one of your character loses a leg. With canon you can create character development by seeing how the character copes with this loss of his/her leg and the character grows because of it. Not only that but you can then do an episode about victims, or an anti-war episode because like before, canon opens up many new stores you can cover.
2. It is a great challenge.
Lets say you have your cast on an alien planet but are attacked. Canon says all they need to do is just beam up on to the ship so for you the writer, the challenge is to figure out a way around it, to be creative. Lets say they see an atrocity that they feel they can't leave the planet out of a sense of obligation to help them, they are stuck in a storm and can't beam up or a godly being is keeping them there. There are many clever and creative solutions that not only help improve as a writer, but show to the people above that your willing and committed.
However if you take the lazy solution and go, "canon is a burden to my creativity" and just ignore it, your disrespecting the work your on as well as not respecting the audience's intelligence, treating them like fools because of you just want to do your own story, to hell with everyone else.
This is not a good way of doing things and can easily kill a series if done really badly or done to frequently. This is what happened to Voyager as Winston O'Boogie of The Agony Booth said when discussing Voyager episode Alliances:
"So what happens at the end of "Alliances"? Voyager's potential allies end up backstabbing them. Janeway breaks off all negotiations, and makes a pointed speech to her crew about sticking to Starfleet principles, no matter what. And with that, the ship merrily cruised off into the status quo. In retrospect, that was probably the moment the Trek franchise died.
Oh sure, it continued on for nearly ten years after that. Two more seasons of Deep Space Nine, five more seasons of Voyager, four of Enterprise, and even two feature films with the TNG crew. But it was over. Because that speech was the signal that from here on out, no chances would ever be taken with the franchise. It was now Star Trek, Incorporated, and when you tuned into Voyager every week, you knew you were getting the same product, just in slightly different packaging. And no matter what events transpired over the course of the episode, you could rest assured that the ol' reset button would be pushed in the final five minutes, and everything would go back to the way it was."
This has also happened a lot in comics where writers, editors or marketing who have know idea how a character works decide willy nilly to change them, only to ruin them and make them reboot and retcon them to fix their dumb-arse mistakes like Spider-Man, Cassandra Cain, Donna Troy, Stephanie Brown, Hal Jordan and Miss Marvel.
3. It helps in creating a rich your world.
In my opinion, If you like a work of a long running franchise you've never seen/read before:
Many authors will write rich worlds and backstory, either for themselves or for the enjoyment of there fans. Some would argue too much but that is for each own opinion (I personally love deep rich works).
This is great for you as it is rich for you to tell stories and be creative and explore these concepts and places in further detail, subvert ideas to explore your characters or even use it as a way to make a counterpoint argument.
Just ignoring all the back story is again, rather disrespectful to the material and leads to the question of why are you not using your own world for your story? After all in your world you aren't bound by any rules except those you build yourself and will probably be able to go further then you could by staying in someone else's fiction.
4. It's shows great respect to your long standing audience
Using canon is a good way in showing that you not only care for them (because lets face it, many sci-fi properties wouldn't be popular without them) but understand what made it so special to them in the first place. Your fans are not your enemy, they love the work and express it in many numbers of way such as debates, art and fan fiction. There is nothing wrong with that.
What is not all right, is to then call fans out if you screw up with canon because lets be honest, it's your fault. You took the lazy option and treated the audience like sheep. Like any lecture will tell you, you have to learn to accept criticism and learn from your mistakes. Use the experience to grow as a writer.