Thursday, May 20, 2010

Where Have All the Titles Gone?

This post is to commemorate the series finale of LOST, and the unfortunate cancellation of both HEROES and FLASH FORWARD. They will be missed.

It is also to remember all the great shows of the past that led us to this point.

On with the Show(s)!

Say “City on the Edge of Forever” to folks of a certain persuasion (…the “persuasion” that would read this Blog, anyway), and they would immediately think of STAR TREK.

Ditto for “Amok Time”, “The Menagerie”, or any number of other Trek-titles ingrained in our collective memories.

Try some others: “Time Enough at Last” = TWILIGHT ZONE. “The Zanti Misfits” = THE OUTER LIMITS. And, for better or for worse, “The Great Vegetable Rebellion” = LOST IN SPACE.

Some series were better known for their “title format conceits” than for individual episode titles.

PERRY MASON = “The Case of the (Fill-In-The-Blank)”

BURKE’S LAW = “Who Killed (Fill-In-The-Blank)”

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. = “The (Fill-In-The-Blank) Affair

THE WILD WILD WEST = “The Night of the (Fill-In-The-Blank)”

BATMAN (1966) didn’t “fill in any blanks”, but the title of “Part Two” most often RHYMED with the title of “Part One”.

Mention one of these conventions and, chances are, someone will know which series you’re referencing. Okay, maybe not BURKE’S LAW… but you know what I mean!

Even 20 years after the fact, titles like “The Best of Both Worlds” or “The Inner Light” mean STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION.

As late as the early/mid 2000's, with STAR TREK ENTERPRISE, we've had titles. Though that may be more of a STAR TREK "tradition" than anything else.

The point of all this “Title Talk” is that TV episodes (for the most part) no longer display episode titles!

This seems particularly odd, given the proliferation of “fannish-types” who talk, text, tweet, and Blog about their favorite TV programs. We LIKE referring to episodes by title, don’t we? …Leastways, ‘round these parts we do, sure as shootin’!

Shows from my current list like LOST, FRINGE, FLASH FORWARD, and even THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY do not exhibit episode titles. A notable exception is HEROES, which always displays “Chapter Titles” (individual episode) or “Volume Titles”(overall arc) – but that’s probably a stylistic tribute to its “comic-book roots”.

These episode titles DO EXIST, of course. They can be found at network, series, or TV episode websites and the on-screen listings of your television provider. They form the contents listings of DVD sets, and identify episodes available to download. So why are they never seen as part of an episode?

Wouldn’t the fifth season premiere episode of LOST have an even greater impact if we all saw its title, “Because You Left”, on screen? Or, if you referred to the final episode of that season as “The Incident”, you might be firing-up a collective memory of what happened at the end of the show. (Hint – Something very big went Boom and everything turned white!) Then we waited for another season to tell us what, when, where, and how.

…Come to think of it, mere days before the series finale, we’re STILL trying to figure this out.

As a writer, as well as a fan, I like to give everything a title. It always helps “set things” in my mind. Also, creating humorous and appropriate titles is one of my favorite aspects of the Disney comic book scripting work I do.

It’s a funny thing… Because of this situation, I don’t find myself referring to episodes of LOST and its contemporaries by episode title, while I still do for their more classic counterparts.

Anyone see “The Trouble with Tribbles” or “Journey to Babel” lately? How ‘bout the one where Ben kills John Locke? …See what I mean?

It just seems as if we lost something when an hour-long, sci-fi or adventure based TV drama does not lead off with an episode title. Especially when said title appears everywhere except on the episode itself. (At Left: A title from HEROES!)

…Your thoughts? (…and I REALLY want them!)


Chris Barat said...


Remember the structure of Quinn Martin-produced cop shows? "Act I", "Act II", etc., ending in "Epilog"? And the opening titles would always end with "Tonight's Episode..." I don't want THAT much structure, but surely we could come to some sort of compromise on this issue. A simple one- or two-word title, at least.

One problem with shows with "hidden" titles, such as THE SIMPSONS and KING OF THE HILL, is that the titles are sometimes so gimmicky/smart-aleck that they tell you nothing about what is going on in the episode. The "classic" Disney Afternoon series represented a nice compromise in this respect: they often included puns, but the titles still told you something about the episode.

Joe Torcivia said...

I agree with you completely, Chris! Quinn Martin certainly offered a distinctive look and feel to his series – even with his sci-fi mini-classic THE INVADERS.

Titles come in all shapes and sizes. Consider my last post on The Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello. “Gents without Cents” could pretty much apply to most ANY Stooges short. And though the Abbott and Costello episode was merely titled “Jail”, only Act Two took place behind bars.

As the dialogist of such Uncle Scrooge “classics” (Ahem!) as “Heads You Win, Tails You Bruise” and “A Game of One-Cupmanship”, you can easily determine when I stand on the matter of titles.

Give me the good old days when titles ranged from bombastically descriptive “The Day the World Ended” (VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA) to high-mindedly nebulous “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” (Third Season STAR TREK)

LOST actually has many SUPERB titles, with regard to what they signify in their respective episodes. Too bad they aren’t on display!


Chuck Munson said...

Joe, You do this to me constantly and it's totally off-topic. I now have "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" running through my head (only titles of course replaces flowers!).

Once again, you've hit on such a small thing that, while I have noticed it enough to comment upon it in conversation before, I have failed to expand it like you into thesis territory.

It is almost as if they are afraid that by giving the episode a title they are giving something away. That of course is a ludicrous notion as any TV trailer "these days" is more likely to give the whole entire show away in thirty seconds or less than any title ever would.

And you couldn't be more correct about the grounding effect of the title and how it anchors the story (can you imagine a novel with no title - because it gives the story away - LOL). Yes, you can look the ep title up, but how many of your co-workers are about to do that to reference the previous night's or weeks' episodes? Nooooo, we all have to, as stated, reference back stating,"Do you remember that episode a few weeks back, was it two or three?....."

Lastly, I still clearly remember the voice over at the end of the QM shows, strongly pronouncing it as a "Quinn Martin Production"!

Take care, guys. I'm working on my fifth almost all-nighter in a row. So if my writing is not making as much sense today, there *is* a reason.....

Joe Torcivia said...


Expanding small things into thesis territory is this Blog’s reason for being!

I’m not even sure how a title could “give things away”, unless you called your story “The Day the Butler Did It and Almost Got Away with It if not for Those Meddling Kids”!

Don’t laugh. It’s not that much longer and more awkward than “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky!”

No one has ever offered a satisfactory reason as to why episode titles have fallen out of favor (…not that ALL shows had them even in the “old days”).

Similarly, no one has ever explained to my satisfaction why “omniscient caption narration” and footnotes are no longer fashionable in comic books. With today’s near impenetrable continuity, you’d think such devices would be more important than ever.


Mark Lungo said...

Great topic, Joe! Where have all the titles gone, you ask? As you mention in your article, they've gone to the internet, DVD packages and other supplementary sources. The better question is why have all the titles gone (offscreen), and I think there are two reasons for that. (Warning: incoming rant!)

1. TV series have a lot more credits than they used to have. In the 60s, a TV episode would typically begin with the title, followed by three basic credits ("Produced by X", "Written by Y", and "Directed by Z"), and then bam! Right into the story. Today, every series seems to credit a small army of executive producers, associate producers, and various other movers and shakers at the beginning of each episode. Listing them all takes up so much time that something had to give, and the on-screen title was it.

2. On-screen titles have also been sacrificed on the altar of commercialism. For the last several years (if not decades), networks and local stations have been looking for any way possible to increase the amount of ad time. Showing a title takes up a few precious seconds that can be sold to some toilet paper company instead, and which do you think is more important to a TV executive? This is the same reason that episode running times have been decreasing for years. It's why closing credits have been squeezed into oblivion, and opening sequences are an endangered species. It's why animated promos that appear during episodes have become increasingly noticeable and obnoxious. All of this reminds me of what I was taught in communication class at college: We, the viewers, are the real product, and we are constantly being sold to advertisers, who are the only ones that networks and stations really care about.

Whew! Thanks for letting me get that off my chest, Joe! I'd love to hear your response.

Joe Torcivia said...

Always glad to assist a fellow ranter, Mark! My Blog is here to serve!

Absolutely true, about the “army” of front-loaded credits. As you rightly note, the standard once was title, guest star(s), writer, and director. Other than the producer and/or creator, the rest always came at the end.

But, with the scrunching, if not outright obliteration of end credits, it’s easy to understand why key production people wanted their credits up front. Now, you can be 10-12 minutes into an episode (that’s counting the time when watching DVDs without commercials) with credits still appearing.

However, I’d say more likely that would account for why there are no more THEME SONGS (Check LOST, HEROES, FLASH FORWARD, etc.), rather than titles. Themes take minutes, while titles take only seconds.

Combining your two points, as I’ve done here, adds still more validity to some already solid reasoning, but I still doubt it to be the main reason for the suppression of titles. So, as with LOST, much of the mystery still remains.