Next Time, I Shall Not Be So Lenient!

Alex Wilcock writes a lot of words about Doctor Who. He’s followed DWM’s Time Team since 1999, and is now revealing everything he’s ever sent to them. Very gradually.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

But You Can’t Rewrite History – Naming Doctor Who

Names have often been a bit of a problem in Doctor Who. What’s Polly’s surname? Or Ace’s? Or Doctor Who’s (clue: not “Doctor Who”)? What does TARDIS stand for, or UNIT, suddenly? But the biggest, and the first one I had to think about once I’d decided on a name for this blog – and that was a surprisingly long story in itself – is about what some of the stories are supposed to be called.

For most Doctor Who stories, the name’s simple. The title appears on the screen, and there you go. That’s it. Except for the series’ first three years, when until the last few of Billy Hartnell’s stories there wasn’t a title for the whole story on screen. Instead, each episode had its own individual title, and any overall name only existed in BBC internal paperwork, or in magazines, or on the novels, videos and DVDs… And a lot of those overall titles don’t agree with each other. Some of the individual episode titles (like Inferno) are used later for the titles of whole stories. Some of the novels have different titles to the overall titles even when they do appear on screen. And, once the series returned to our screens in 2005, Billie Piper’s episodes echoed Billy Hartnell’s, so now any story with more than one episode has people arguing over which title to use all over again.

A Dashed Queer Story

On this day in 1973, the BBC transmitted the second episode of a story called Planet of the Daleks. That’s a nice easy one, surely? Well, yes, it is. Though some would say it was the eighth episode of a twelve-part story made up of Planet of the Daleks and the story before it, Frontier In Space, which I’d call The Master’s Dalek Plan but which will apparently be released on DVD later this year as Dalek War. And it’s not a story about the Daleks’ planet at all, anyway, but just one they’ve occupied; like calling a Second World War story set in Belgium Country of the Germans. But that’s not important right now.

I’ve actually picked out Planet of the Daleks to lead into those stories with titles that sounds confusingly like another. Not only was there 1974’s Planet of the Spiders, but those fans who refer to stories by acronym will be horribly discombobulated; that makes it rather difficult to distinguish from last Saturday’s Easter Special, Planet of the Dead. Which also sounds uncannily like the 1963 episode title The Dead Planet, the name of the episode to first introduce Skaro, the, er, planet of the Daleks.

As it happens, I’m in the middle of making notes to publish here on the second ever Doctor Who story. And guess what? That’s the one that, when I was growing up, was frequently named after its first episode – The Dead Planet. The other name we all knew it by was that of the book: Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks. Then, on video, it was given the title that had most frequently been used in the intervening years – simply The Daleks. The DVD’s taken the same title, and so will I. So that’s settled…

I’m Not Sure, But I Have Some Very Nasty Suspicions

…Except for some TV historians, who argue that, according to the most accurate internal BBC paperwork when The Daleks was first transmitted, it was called The Mutants. To which there are two answers. First, everyone now calls it The Daleks except for about three pedants who call it The Mutants, and as a fair portion of the point of a title is to communicate which story you’re talking about, The Daleks is a more helpful title. Second, also as a fair portion of the point of a title is to communicate which story you’re talking about, it’s not completely helpful that there was another Doctor Who story made in 1972 with the title The Mutants.

The same TV historians consulted the paperwork on a one-episode story – that’s a story made up of just one episode – which was broadcast with the on-screen title Mission To the Unknown, and tell us that it was really called Dalek Cutaway. Because an unambiguous title seen on screen by 8.3 million people is less valid than a description seen by a couple of dozen people on a BBC memo.

The moral of this cautionary tale is that historians who get too caught up in the minutiae can be very silly.

Despite this, for quite some years I stuck to the more accurate titles – excluding those two very silly ones above – that had been unearthed by such TV historians from the BBC archives. Even though people argued about them, and the books and the videos had had different titles, and the titles found in the original paperwork were always less popular, I reckoned, well, they were the titles that the people working on them at the time used, so I’ll go along with them. Never mind that 100,000 BC is almost certainly the wrong date for the story that most people knew as An Unearthly Child; never mind that Inside the Spaceship is a less exciting title than The Edge of Destruction; never mind that The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve would be better-titled The Massacre in the way most people referred to it, because the massacre actually didn’t take place on the eve, but St Bartholomew’s Day itself – I went with what people wanted at the time.

Now, there was a certain amount of sense to this. If you start saying Doctor Who titles don’t count because they’re historically misleading, or a bit dull, or a bit silly, where would you stop? But, eventually, I gave in and changed my mind. Even if these meticulously researched titles were more accurate, what did that actually mean? Even most of the people who worked on them referred to most of them by their individual episode titles, apparently, so a vanishingly small number of people knew these stories by the ‘correct’ title. Then, when the DVD box set Doctor Who – The Beginning came out in 2006, containing the stories An Unearthly Child, The Daleks and The Edge of Destruction, after a couple of weeks’ half-hearted resistance (including trying not to use titles in my review) I thought, oh bugger it, I admit defeat. That’s what those are always going to be called, and even I’m not enough of a pedant to go to the wall over it.

The current issue of Doctor Who Magazine – number 407 – takes the current ‘official’ view that Planet of the Dead is the 200th Doctor Who story (itself reliant on how you break up the stories, and therefore which titles you use; I make it 204 on TV), and asks you to cast a score for every single one. And even in there, some stories are given more than one title, some of them absurdly pedantic, because the pedants are hanging on to some “correct” titles for grim death while the non-pedants want the titles that people can actually find on shop shelves, and no compromise can be reached.

Thank You. That’s What I Wanted To Know

So here, then, are the titles I’m going to be using (very slowly) for the more disputed stories on here, and this is me getting my justification in first, because I know just how much people argue about them.
  • The story that introduces the Daleks is The Daleks, because anything else would be silly.
  • The little story set inside the Ship is The Edge of Destruction.
  • The one-episode story which had the title Mission To the Unknown blazoned across the screen is called Mission To the Unknown. If you say otherwise, you’ve got to be kidding, right?
  • The Massacre is just that.
  • Doctor Who and the Silurians is indeed called Doctor Who and the Silurians, because even though the “Doctor Who and the…” bit was a mistake, they still stuck it on the screen for seven weeks running, didn’t they?
  • The Trial of a Time Lord is just called The Trial of a Time Lord on screen, but if you want to describe each of the mini-stories that make up the whole, there are perfectly sensible ones to hand. Cornelltopppingday’s The Discontinuity Guide, despite claiming to use the “democratically elected” versions of all titles, not only failed to explain who voted in this election and who made sure it wasn’t rigged – yes, they just meant ‘most popular’ – but made themselves look utterly ridiculous by giving The Trial of a Time Lord just the one title, but counting it as four stories… Which meant they instructed us in po-faced seriousness that the “democratically elected” titles in common use were the atmospheric 144, the intriguing 145, the preposterously overblown 146 and the doom-laden 147. If you look at the books or the DVDs, The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, Terror of the Vervoids and (even though I used to prefer the more esoteric Time, Inc) The Ultimate Foe are the ones to go with.
  • The exception to my rule will be The Sensational TV Movie Starring Paul McGann, which some people call by that title because it was on all the publicity at the time, the posters, the video release, the novelisation, the god-awful script book and so on. On screen, it was simply called Doctor Who. But that’s open to confusion, to say the least. Most people call it by some variant of Doctor Who – The TV Movie, which is insufferably boring. The producer was asked a little after it aired what name to give it, and suggested Enemy Within off the cuff, which is so egregiously dreary that almost every series going has already used it. So, though no-one else in the world uses our title, Richard and I always refer to it as Time Waits for No Man, because that was on the posters too, can be claimed to be semi-official with a bit of hand-waving, and is faintly more amusing. On the other hand, Grace: 1999 is much more amusing, but sounds a lot less like a title.
  • Assuming I get as far as Season 2005 – oh, dear, even the season count gets contentious in the Twenty-First Century, but “Season 27” sounds wrong because there’s such a gap there, and besides, that’s surely the first series of the New Adventures, while “Series 1” is simply wrong, because there are at least 26 others to take into consideration, so despite not all the stories transmitted in a given year being in the same season I’m sticking to the year as the overarching title because it’s the least wrong – then, assuming no ‘settled view’ has broken out, I’ll just make them up as I go along. Calling a whole story by two or three episode titles stuck together would be very unwieldy, so it’ll just be one at a time, and probably the title of the first episode in each story. Except when it isn’t. But I wouldn’t hold your breath about that just yet…

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And You Said… (6)

Anonymous Anonymous said…

Makes sense to me. Assuming you're not writing just for the already-converted, using the names that are on the DVDs people can actually buy is the only sensible thing to do...

7:40 pm, April 15, 2009  
Blogger Alex Wilcock said…

Thanks, Andrew!

That was my eventual thought... And the already-converted are always going to disagree with whatever I've put, anyway.

Now I just have to write the things ;-)

7:45 pm, April 18, 2009  
Anonymous David Golding said…

You can see me worrying about what to call Serial A. I think Inside the Spaceship is a rather splendid title actually, as is The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve, so I use them, and everyone knows what I'm talking about. I call Serial B The Daleks, though I prefer The Dead Planet.

The Davies Era does have the first series, because previously we had seasons. One can even justify that we used to have a season of serials (e.g. four to seven stories), but now we have a series of episodes (that builds a single story arc). Whatever: I also call it Season 2005, etc.

(On a related note, these days I get a bit weird about people referring to episodes of other TV shows by their production titles when there is no onscreen title (e.g. for Battlestar Galactica). It flies the uber-fan flag and makes it hard for people who aren't uber-fans to avoid spoilers---or simply know what you're talking about.)

3:24 am, May 18, 2009  
Blogger Alex Wilcock said…

Good piece - particularly the sub-heading! - and thanks for the link.

I'm still quite fond of Inside the Spaceship as a title, but aside from the reasons above, I do think The Edge of Destruction is more exciting. Besides, as I hint at in my recent review of the story but have just though of a better way to put it, it's the first story to move from the prosaic to the iconic style of title, from merely "The Description" to "The Melodrama of Melodramatism".

And, yes, I admit it. Inside my head, there'll always be the stately grandeur of The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve, but the historical inaccuracy of it finally gnawed away at me.

I smiled at your arguments about 21st Century Who before agreeing with me anyway - though I suspect part of my problem with "series" is that that's what I call the whole 46 years of Who on TV, and it just jars somewhere in my head to use it for a sub-division.

On your last note, I don't follow the modern Battlestar Galactica, but thinking of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is it more uber-fan to refer to a story by its production title than by its production number? I find names much easier to relate to.

Picking a number at random, if someone mentioned Doctor Who "3.7" to me, rather than knowing instantly what they were talking about, I'd have to sheepishly do some counting on my fingers and then ask, do you mean The Celestial Toymaker, 42 or Human Nature, depending on what you're counting? But if they did the same with Buffy (or almost any other series where, unlike Doctor Who, I can't reel off every episode in transmission order), I'd have to ask them what it was called or what happened in it. So I'd find "3.7" far more bafflingly fannish than if they'd said "Revelations" or "You know, that one with the glove that fires lightning bolts and Faith's unconvincing new Watcher with the unconvincing accent who helps send her off the rails" ;)

9:44 am, May 18, 2009  
Anonymous David Golding said…

The production number is actually 3ABB07 (and yes, I did at one point use production numbers to refer to Buffy episodes on my blog). As the show is first screening, 3.7 is pretty meaningful; it directly follows 3.6, etc. Subsequently, in conversation, I would say "that one with the glove..." None of my Buffy-loving friends know the episode titles, with a few exceptions, e.g. 'The Body'---and these are people who have watched them on DVD as well, and so have been exposed to the titles. Despite my fannishness, I don't know, say, half of the episode titles.

12:21 am, May 19, 2009  
Blogger Alex Wilcock said…

Gosh. Well, you're quite right that the order is pretty meaningful in Buffy, but it still doesn't mean I can remember it that easily!

I guess it all comes back to different people having different learning styles; except for Doctor Who, I'm not brilliant at remembering things in order, but - if I remember things at all - names will hang around my head.

So, are the uber-uber-fans the ones who can remember name, rank *and* serial number?

7:45 pm, May 19, 2009  

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