FEATURE: Universe Expansion Dissonance

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UNIVERSE EXPANSION DISSONANCE

As Television viewers, comic book readers and video game players we are used to experiencing a final product. We all know that a telecomicgame can go through thousands of iterations before being released, but largely once you hold a piece of media in your hands you know that it has been finalized.

However, successful properties often continue to grow; spawning sequels, spin-offs and adaptations. When this happens the themes of the franchise may begin to shift, causing design elements to transform to match the expanding medium. At this stage the creators cannot go back to the drawing board, as the original work is already in the hands of the public. The creator has to choose which elements need to shift along with the expanding canon, and which elements should be kept. When the elements retained begin to clash with the rest of the universe it leads to a phenomenon I call Universe Expansion Dissonance.

WHAT IS IT?

This is the simplest definition of Universe Expansion Dissonance (UED):

A type of cognitive dissonance that happens when the expansion of a work of fiction creates tension with an existing and continuing theme, motif, or design aspect that was previously innocuous.

UED is NOT a plot hole, it is not concerned with plot at all, except when said plot introduces an element that clashes with some design aspect.

UED is NOT the changing themes themselves, so even though Wapsi Square goes from a sitcom to a paranormal epic it is not the shift itself that is Universe Expansion Disonance. Now, if elements from its earlier life are retained and they seem out of place each of those individual elements would be an example of UED.

Lastly UED represents current ongoing elements. So watching old episodes of Family Guy in which Brian sat like an actual dog and Lois didn’t have her accent would not be examples of Universe Expansion Disonance since those elements have been changed in more current shows. Essentially, UED has to happen within the context of a single “serving” of the medium in question.

Here are some examples:

  • In The Simpsons, the three Simpson children (and one other kid) are the only characters without an interface between their head and their hair.
  • In the animated Clifford, The Big Red Dog show Clifford is the only creature that has whites in his eyes, every other character has dots for eyes. This is further stressed in the prequel spinoff Clifford’s Puppy Days where even puppy Clifford has dots for eyes.
  • In the Berenstein Bears animated series, the titular characters are the only ones that live in a tree. Also the only ones whose names are relationships (Ma, Pa, Brother and Sister) Other bears have normal american names and live in houses.

Why use these examples? Well, for one I watch a lot of cartoons, so these were easy to come up with, But they all have something in common. Clifford and the Berenstain bears come from children’s books, and were originally meant to be very simple, but as they expanded both in their original medium and into other media changes had to be made. The Simpsons, apocryphally have a similar origin as Matt Groenning sketched out the characters right before a pitch meeting, probably never expecting that quick sketch to become a worldwide cultural phenomenon.

BUT WHY?

Why does Universe Expansion Dissonance happen? As it turns out a very specific set of factors needs to happen:

  1. As the text of a body of work expands, the creators often find that some aspect of their design is restrictive or problematic, so going forward they decide to change it or abandon it.
  2. Although the design of (now current) aspects of the work is different, some of the original elements which have specifically been discarded are retained. This can happen for any number of reasons, the most common being that said elements are present in the main characters.
  3. Somebody notices and is all like “wha?”

But really the main ‘Why” of UED is the balancing act that writers and artists have to do in order to both expand their work, while keeping it familiar enough so that audiences don’t reject it. Too much adherence to the old ways causes so much UED that a new reader or viewer may be taken out of the experience (see our Courtney Crumrin discussion for a prime example). And total commitment to the new style will cause fans of the franchise to reconsider THEIR commitment, perhaps best exemplified in the phrase “That’s not my___” (Doctor, Batman, She-Ra, Krypto).

Is there a way to keep UED from happening? Not really, for those of us who notice things like that it will always be around. But on the plus side UED can be taken as a sign of the health of a franchise, in a lot of ways Universe Expansion Dissonance is the hallmark of unexpected success.