Doctor Who debuted in 1963 and is still going! Rebooted 11 times. Distributed in 48 countries. The show has won multiple awards, generated several spin-offs, and is listed in Guinness World Records as the most successful science fiction series of all-time.
What makes Doctor Who so successful? Of course, the vast majority of credit is due to the people involved—the writers, directors, producers, actors, and crew who did (and continue to do) such high-quality work.
But there’s one particular ingredient that deserves special attention….
To see why the title is so incredibly great, we need to learn something about suspense. A recent NY Times article by best-selling novelist Lee Child (The Jack Reacher series) explains:
How do you create suspense?
Every novel needs a reason for people to keep reading to the end, whatever the subject, style, genre or approach.
But [how do you create suspense?] is a bad question. Its very form misleads writers and pushes them onto an unhelpful and overcomplicated track.
Because “How do you create suspense?” has the same interrogatory shape as “How do you bake a cake?” And we all know — in theory or practice — how to bake a cake. We need ingredients, and we infer that the better quality those ingredients are, the better quality the cake will be.
So writers are taught to focus on ingredients and their combination. They’re told they should create attractive, sympathetic characters, so that readers will care about them deeply, and then to plunge those characters into situations of continuing peril, the descent into which is the mixing and stirring, and the duration and horrors of which are the timing and temperature.
But it’s really much simpler than that. “How do you bake a cake?” has the wrong structure. It’s too indirect. The right structure and the right question is: “How do you make your family hungry?”
And the answer is: You make them wait four hours for dinner.
As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer….
Humans are hard-wired. They need to know.
Someone killed someone else: who? You’ll find out at the end. Something weird is happening: what? You’ll find out at the end. Something has to be stopped: how? You’ll find out at the end.
Like the old cartoon of the big fish eating a smaller fish eating a very small fish, you’ll find out the big answer after a string of smaller drip-drip-drip answers. The big answer is parceled out slowly and parsimoniously….
Of course, attractive and sympathetic characters are nice to have; and elaborate and sinister entanglements are satisfying; and impossible-to-escape pits of despair are great. But they’re all luxuries. The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer.
So don’t bake cakes. Make your family hungry instead.”
The Title Creates Suspense
Who is Doctor Who? We still don’t know.
We don’t even know the Doctor’s real name. Though the implication was made—in 2011—that he has one.
That means that 48 years after the debut of the show, we learned—finally—that the hero actually does have a name that isn’t the “Doctor.”
That’s the gift of the title that keeps on giving.
The Best Title Ever?
The title does so much:
- It introduces the main character.
- It acts as a short pitch with a hook.
- It builds suspense immediately.
For these reasons, I believe that Doctor Who may be the best title in the history of television. Because after 50 years, we’re still hungry.
Can you think of any other titles that build suspense in this way? Other titles that should be considered for “best TV show title ever?” Let me know in the comments.
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