Doctor Who: The Best Title In The History Of Television?

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….

The Title: Doctor Who

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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Discussion About Doctor Who: The Best Title In The History Of Television?

  1. Jim Snell

    I thought Who played first base.

  2. Brian S.

    And here’s every Doctor Who theme ever…

  3. Paul Knauer

    Prison Break was a suspenseful title. Limiting, but suspenseful. If you turned on the show without knowing anything about it, first thing you saw was guys in prison. You knew what was going to happen, just not how. (You also knew that the show couldn’t last very long!)

  4. Joe Pino

    I’d put in a vote for Buffy The Vampire Slayer for exactly the same reasons you list for Dr. Who, though in Buffy it’s maybe less about the suspense and more about the dichotomy of the name Buffy with the occupation of Vampire Slayer which makes the audience wonder how that’s going to work.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Thanks, Joe. I agree there is great tension in “Buffy” vs. “Vampire Slayer.”

      • Steve Domier

        Ironically, when we first launched “Buffy” on The WB, we found the title worked against us, because it was associated with the campy film. We instead wanted to go with simply “Slayer,” and show Sarah Michelle Geller with stake in hand, to lead audiences into thinking, “This girl? A slayer?”
        The show was successful, regardless of title, thanks to the quality of the show.

      • Stephanie Palmer

        Wow. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing, Steve.

  5. Gabby

    Loved your make them hungry analogy. It really does simplify the task.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Appreciate it, Gabby.

      • Doc Pruyne

        The funniest title ever? Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death”.

        Another good title? “The Fugitive”.

      • Stephanie Palmer


  6. Mark Martino

    I’m glad you pointed out how important the title is to setting up the story and setting up a pitch for the story. It seems obvious, but there are so many pitches that stray from the title’s promise, ignore it, or even outright conflict with it.

  7. Liz

    When I was little (being British, I grew up on Doctor Who) I was pretty sure it wasn’t ‘Doctor Who?’ (As in the dialogue, ‘I’m the Doctor!’ ‘Doctor who?’)

    But the Doctor who… knows stuff. The Doctor who… has the Tardis. The Doctor who… saves us all. The Doctor who… I want to run away with!

  8. Troy Allen Dyer

    Every good screenplay is a mystery.
    Every good screenplay is a love story.
    Every good screenplay is a work of discovery.
    Every good screenplay is a inquiry into humankind.

  9. Mark Dark

    Justified qualifies as a multi-layered title. Who is justified? Is marshal Gibbons justified in hating his father and wanting him to die in prison? Is he justified in killing the fugitive he kills? But justified also has a religious theme running through the series and the title. Boyd has a Christian epiphany and believes he stands justified before God, his sins forgiven. In season 3 Ellie May is told by Eva, after her conversion, that there is no salvation (justification) for people (whores) like her. The title runs deep.

  10. John Arends

    Mission: Impossible. For the younger gen out there, the franchise began as a TV show, and made its plot-driven promise every week. Unlike the movie franchise, however, it was an ensemble show, not a character driven one (in the main). And even impossible plot tropes begin to feel “meh…” after a few seasons. Much better to invest your following in a flesh and blood reason to keep coming back, as Doctor Who fans have done for–48 years ?!?!? That’s just astonishing! Then again…from Anne of Green Gables to James Bond, the best characters are timeless.

  11. Lisa Potocar

    Great post, Stephanie! In fact, I wonder if you’re reading my mind–your last few posts have been concepts I’m grappling with in the writing of my historical novel, which I’ll sprinkle with some suspense. And I’m tucking this post into my treasure box of writing tips and calling upon it comes time to decide upon a title–I’m really not that good at this part of the job–and this might help to get me thinking out of the box.

    Actually, thanks to all who have commented here–the posts have been educational and helpful.


  12. Bonnie Russell

    What Troy Allen Dyer said.

    Off topic. Has anyone noticed the writing for this season’s NCIS is fabulously fresh?

  13. Fernando

    How I met your Mother!

  14. Geoff

    Actually, no, wrong. It has NOT been running for 50 years. It STARTED 50 years ago but it was axed in 1989, had a small, feeble attempt at a comeback in 1996 but then didn’t show up properly until 2005. That’s like a 15 year gap!

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Thanks for letting me know, Geoff. Yes, there was a significant gap, so the total duration of the show is closer to 35 years.