But look, this post is called Untitled deliberately. Deliberately. I haven’t just spent six hours trying to come up with a title for a blog about titles. I have not.
It was five hours.
And 59 minutes.
Pound for pound, word for word, I have always spent far longer on titles for things than I have on things. And I was fine with that. I was fine because titles are that important and, oh, the pleasure one gets from reading a good ‘un is nothing compared to how fantastic you feel when you’ve written it. There were BBC Ceefax headline titles I was so pleased with that I remember them now, ten years or more later. That I was so pleased with that I’d tell you them now, except I’d have to show you the whole piece and I’d also have to explain all the topical references. But, still.
Six minutes ago, CD copies of Doctor Who: Scavenger arrived in the post. I wrote that two-hour drama about a year ago, it was formally released a couple of weeks back and I’ve had the download version, but here in my hand is the CD and that title, Scavenger. I am very pleased with it and I am enormously chuffed with the response it’s had, I’m beside myself with how great Big Finish made it sound.
But Scavenger was meant to be a temporary title. The script even says “Scavenger (working title)”.
I like it now and I think it works but maybe I and we just got used to it during the production. That happens: apparently nobody liked the title Star Trek: Deep Space Nine but nobody came up with a better one in time. Some people did like Scavenger, right from the start, so it’s not quite the same but I tried to find something else. The story involves all the junk and broken satellites in Earth orbit plus the story runs at a hell of a pace: it’s near-as-dammit realtime for the whole two hours. So junk plus speed, I have a draft of the script that I called Debris Encounter.
Literally nobody likes that. I did then, but now am wincing. So it’s 100% dislike for Debris Encounter.
My previous Doctor Who was called Spaceport Fear and was named by my wife, Angela Gallagher. One before that, still my favourite for how fantastic its sound design is, was going to be called The Prodigal Wirrn. The Wirrn are a famous Doctor Who monster so everybody buying the release would know what half of the title meant and they’d probably take five minutes to figure out how the rest worked and what that meant the story would become. Together director Nicholas Briggs and I renamed it Wirrn Isle. Which I like enormously.
But – have I told you all this before? I’m ringing bells here but I think about this stuff so much I lose track of what I blurt out to you and what I noodle about when people think I’m working for them. My least-favourite Doctor Who of mine has my absolute favourite title: it’s the prison drama called Doing Time. Jason Arnopp gave me that title.
I know I’m right that one gets used to titles. I remember being at a lightbox meeting at Radio Times when commissioning editor Anne Jowett was going through a list of dramas in production and for the first time I heard the title Life on Mars. There was something about that title that was just right. You get used to it, you get to say it without thinking, but in that opening moment, it was right and it was good and it got your attention. Titles are advertising and they are then encapsulating. They catch your eye but then they are summing up the entire thing.
I’ve had many projects that lurched forward with difficulty until I found the perfect title for them and then, wham, everything flies. The right title attracts the audience’s attention and makes them want to watch or listen or read, but the right title also sets the writer off on a roll.
You can have bad titles. You can have good titles that are bad for some people. Sports Night, for instance: I’d have bet money I would never notice a show called Sports Night let alone watch it. I have zero interest in sport, zero, so that title tells me unequivocally that this show is not for me. More than that, the title puts it outside my mind’s reach. I could read that somewhere and it would not register, I would not process the thought that it’s about sports, it would just be gone. You could argue that this is an efficient title, it communicates a lot to me. But as it happens, Sports Night is a treasure. It’s a comedy by Aaron Sorkin that’s done like The West Wing but in half the time and with twice the energy.
One advertising strapline for the show says: “Sports Night. It’s about sports. The same way Charlie’s Angels was about law enforcement.”
I do love that line and I do relish a great strapline. (I once watched a whole documentary about the people trying to write a strapline for the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I think it took six months and they came up with “Prepare to be shell-shocked”. Absolutely worth the whole time. Reminds me of The Lego Movie’s “The excitement is building.” But back to titles.)
I quoted David Lodge last week about names and his The Art of Fiction book has plenty to say about titles too, including this:
The title of a novel is part of the text – the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter – and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention. The titles of the earliest English novels were invariably the names of the central characters, Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Clarissa. Fiction was modelling itself on, and sometimes disguising itself as, biography and autobiography. Later novelists realized that titles could indicate a theme (Sense and Sensibility), suggest an intriguing mystery (The Woman in White),or promise a certain kind of setting and atmosphere (Wuthering Heights). At some point in the nineteenth century they began to hitch their stories to resonant literary quotations (Far From the Madding Crowd), a practice that persists throughout the twentieth (Where Angels Fear To Tread, A Handful of Dust, For Whom the Bell Tolls), though it is now perhaps regarded as a little corny.
There’s a wit to the best titles, I think. The sitcom Friends famously eschewed ‘proper’ titles and instead tried to name episodes the way that a viewer would, hence: “The One Where Everybody Finds Out”. Veronica Mars stole a title I have been longing to use since the first day I heard of the computer game Resident Evil: I wanted to and the show Mars did have a story called President Evil.
Veronica Mars had gorgeous episode titles like The Quick and the Wed or Hi, Infidelity that work before you know the story and even if you don’t know the series. But then it also had titles that earned attention. The second-season finale is called Not Pictured and it’s when you know why that it becomes this huge thing. That’s an earned title rather than a great pun, it’s a encapsulation of the story instead of an advertising line. I love that title.
But I do also love witty ones. I am a sucker for a great title and I wanted to bring you my favourite. I’m afraid I rejected all Shakespeare – though he did invent the numbered sequel, give him that – and I ran through all my favourite novelists, all my favourite writers of all descriptions. Found a million titles.
And I think this is the best. There was a 1970s detective series called Banacek – it was a locked-room kind of mystery, very much Jonathan Creek but years earlier and without the wit – and in one episode there a famous crucifix was stolen from a church under the most mysterious circumstances. It was stolen right in front of people who did not see it go and who could not find it afterwards.
The episode was called:
No Sign of the Cross.