If you’ve watched enough Doctor Who, you’ll spot patterns in everything. There’s the way stories are constructed. There’s the spacing between the in jokes. There’s the catchphrases-that-aren’t-quite-catchphrases. There’s the repetitive companion behaviour traits and obvious characters who won’t make it past the second reel. This is how drinking games are formed. Then, of course, there’s the episode titles.
Formulaic titles are the norm in many TV shows. In the late 1980s there was a sitcom over here called Watching, in which every episode title contained a present participle – ‘Pairing’, ‘Moving’, ‘Wrestling’, ‘Hiding’, ‘Shagging’ (OK, I made that last one up). The mercifully short-lived Ardl O’Hanlon vehicle Blessed featured song titles. And it seemed that about half the episodes of Bottom (‘Gas’, ‘Accident’, ”s Out’ were designed to be dropped in as a suffix to the show’s title, presumably before the writers got bored.
Across the pond, The Big Bang Theory melds scientific / mathematical terminology with something that’s discussed (however briefly) in that week’s episode: ‘The Jerusalem Duality’, ‘The Vengeance Formulation’ and ‘The Middle Earth Paradigm’ are but three of over a hundred. This sort of thing was also very popular in the 1990s with Friends, which spent years starting every episode with ‘The One With / Where / When’, or occasional variations thereon – the first two words were abbreviated, so all over the internet you can find lists of titles like ‘TOW Ross is increasingly whiny’, ‘TOW you can see Matthew Perry’s eating disorder’, ‘TOW the inappropriate product placement’ , or my personal favourite, ‘TOW Joey’s rampant stupidity devolves into an even bigger parody of itself’.
Other shows aren’t so lucky. 24, for example, has nothing but the hour as an identification marker, meaning episodes are titled ‘Day 7, 12:00-13:00’ and so on. This is fine if you possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show, or a smartphone with the Wiki page bookmarked, but unless you’re as obsessed as I was you’d have no way of knowing purely from the title that this was the episode where [CHRONIC SPOILER], [SPOILER] gets [SPOILER] by [SPOILER] just before revealing the location of the [SPOILER], or [SPOILER] suddenly reveals that they’ve really been [SPOILER].
But what about Doctor Who? Well, there are ways and means. A surefire way to get a Doctor Who title that sounds like a Doctor Who title is to call it ‘The adjective of villain’, or ‘The object of planet’. Or, if that sounds too much like hard work, you could start with ‘The object’, although that sounds a little less Who. But that’s how it’s done, or at least more often than not, and particularly during the Tom Baker run, where almost every story seemed to fit that criteria.
Some numbers will help here, and so I’ll reveal that I did a little counting. There have been 229 titled Doctor Who stories since 1963 (a healthy mixture of pre-2005 serials and post-2005 one-shots), including the five that are currently being broadcast. Of all these, 93 were prefixed with a ‘The’, and 75 used the ‘X of Y’ format. (I haven’t touched the BF stuff or the spin-off media; there’s just too much of it. In the meantime, I do the stats so you don’t have to. You may thank me later.)
Parodies of Who exist, of course – ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ is one of the more famous ones, although Big Finish have done some of their own – and they tend to stick to the formula. And a few years ago, a BBS bulletin board of which I am still a member hosted a user-generated discussion where members were invited to submit their own Doctor Who titles, the sillier the better, using words from existing Who titles as a starting point. Gareth kindly dragged out the file from the archives, and we can confirm the submissions ran as follows:
- The Of of the Of
- An Unearthly Earth
- The Daleks of the Daleks
- The Green Polo
- Mission to Time
- The Five Four Three Two Ones
- Revenge of Vengeance
- The Faceless Face
- The Tenth Greatest Seeds Meddler
- The Green Mutants Within the Daleks
- Happiness in Paradise
- Doom, Death and Destruction
- The Evil Face Operation
- Survival of the Monsters
- The Galaxy Galaxy
- Four of the Daleks
- The Horns of Smugglers
- Marco Trial
- The Evil Abominable Curse of Horror Death and Terror Doom
- The Greatest Snowman in Paradise
- From Genesis in Eden, to the Ark in the Sea, to Revelation in Armageddon
And then, only yesterday, the BBC added a new one: