How the best (and worst) sci-fi film titles were born

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

At a recent retreat for the staff of SCI FI Wire—memory is vague, but it was at some luxurious, exclusive resort where time is usually spent figuring out how to spend that Goldman Sachs bonus—we columnists received our marching orders, in this case to concentrate on the titles of sci-fi, fantasy and horror projects. Hence the recent "65 of sci-fi's most amusing 'one letter off' titles" and this month's contribution from sci-fi writer Cassutt.

Okay, I'm kidding. The similarity of subject is entirely coincidental.

But still important. The title is the audience's first contact with your book, movie, television series, game, even your blog. Successful titles range from made-up words (Neuromancer, Cryptonomicon) to well-known words in new contexts (Dune, Matrix, Terminator, Avatar) to mash-ups (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, FlashForward) to whole phrases from other words or usage (Stranger in a Strange Land, Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Your title can be a number (2012).

There is an art to this, and also a business. Star Trek and Star Wars come to mind, both short, evocative, unforgettable, and also pre-emptive ... although titles can't be copyrighted, they can be legally protected in other ways. Which means that you are unlikely to be able to use, say, "star" and "trek", in that order, without drawing considerable legal attention.

In fact, given the proliferation of space-related works in film, television and comic books in the past 30 years, it's become more difficult to create any new sci-fi title that uses "star" or "space."

So the difficulty is acknowledged. Lately, however, sci-fi titles have been taking some odd forms. I've always grudgingly accepted the use of numerals in sequel titles—Terminator 2, Star Trek III. (I await some illumination on the rationale for choosing Roman over Arabic, or vice versa.)

But now titles are going completely crazy. Take this summer's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

My first response on hearing this was, Why not call it Transformers II? ( Or 2?) Better yet, why not Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen?

Now, while I have a soft spot in my fingertips for the dash, I'm not judgmental about punctuation. Nevertheless, I am put off by these increasingly unwieldy titles. I fear they might collapse under their own typographical weight.

Use of the colon in sci-fi/fantasy titles goes back 40-plus years, to 2001: A Space Odyssey, where it made sense, and then to Colossus: The Forbin Project, where it didn't. (Colossus was a fine title, though it may have suggested a mythological fantasy rather than a giant mainframe computer run amok. Trust me, no one on this earth knew or cared what Forbin's project was.)

Since then we have had many, many additions to existing franchises, such as Star Trek IV: The Voyager Home (which manages to combine Roman numerals and the colon) and Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back.

You had Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (As if Terminator 2 alone would somehow fail to lure you to the theater.) Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Blade: Trinity. A veritable flood of wonky, colon-warped titles, culminating in oddities like Alien v. Predator: Requiem and my favorite, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Have we reached a turning point? Are sci-fi titles going to be increasingly long, twisted, over-punctuated?

And if so, is that necessarily bad?

Years ago I read a pretty good—not great—SF novel by F.M. Busby titled Rissa Kerguelen. Say what? The title was the lead character's name, just like Donnie Darko or maybe even Anna Karenina. Rissa was the story of a young woman raised in a repressive future society who, through intelligence and luck, escapes Earth and builds a space empire based on piracy and other fun stuff, all the while engaged in a torturous romance with handsome Bran Tregare, never forgetting the evil done to her by the Hulzein clan ...

It struck me then—and time has not diminished the feeling—that Rissa would be one terrific SF series. It's got elements of Trek ... its theme is revenge ... and the lead is a woman!

Why didn't it? Well, Rissa never became a best-seller, to begin with. Frankly, it's not that well written, though I think we all know that has rarely been a factor in keeping a good story from being mined for film or television.

No, what kept this promising book under the radar for 30 years—and still keeps it there—is the dang title. Even the publishing history confuses things. In its original 1976 appearance, Rissa Kerguelen was actually split into two books, part two being The Long View (bland, generic). For paperback reprint, Rissa became a single large volume titled Saga of Rissa—words better suited to a series of novels, like Anne of Green Gables.

There was a third iteration, with Saga of Rissa split into three smaller volumes, Young Rissa and Rissa and Tregare, along with The Long View.

Busby published several other novels in the same storyline, with titles like Star Rebel (not bad, this one) and Rebel's Quest.

When, with Busby's permission, I began talking up Rissa, I simply called it The Hulzein Saga, knowing that it was only a small improvement. ("What's a Hulzein?") The shorthand phrase I began to use was this: "Think of it as Lace in Space". (Lace was a notorious miniseries of years past, starring Phoebe Cates as a young woman bent on destroying those who wronged her as a child ...)

But, in all honesty, the project needed to be known as The Hulzein Saga: Young Rissa.

The title needed a colon.

Why is this important? There's artistic satisfaction, of course. But the real driver is ease of marketing. The amount of money spent to market a new sci-fi title—to produce those print ads, commercials, trailers and viral web dealies—is usually equal to the production costs. In television, those costs might be greater than what it costs to actually make the series.

Long, colon-encrusted titles are more difficult to sell. They don't fit on the sides of buses. They are smaller on billboards.

And they don't allow for easy abbreviation, for tagging or listing on Hulu or elsewhere. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem became AvP: R. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles became known as TSCC—fun for everyone who knows what they stand for, but what about the millions of potential viewers who don't?

I don't expect my protests hamper this trend ... all I can do is try to figure out a way to trademark the colon.

Michael Cassutt has published 11 books, both fiction and nonfiction, many with titles that are not unique (e.g. Missing Man). He has also published 30 short stories and a couple of hundred pieces of journalism and commentary, and is credited on 60 television episodes for series such as Twilight Zone and Farscape.