As readers of With the DJ I assume you are people of great taste and therefore huge Doctor Who fans just like me. It’s clearly one of, if not the, greatest TV show of all time – over its 50 year run it’s reached the heights of comedy, drama, romance and, of course, sci-fi. It’s simply incredible and I love it. If you’re interested (and who wouldn’t be) my favourite Doctor is Matt Smith followed jointly by Tom Baker and David Tennant with a soft spot for Sylvester Mccoy. Whilst my favourite companions are Leela and Amy Pond, which probably says something about my taste in women but let’s move on from that.
As fellow Who fans (not “Whovians”, that is just so lame, I mean are football fans “Footballians”?) you’ll have been very aware that it was the show’s 50th anniversary back in November. I meant to do something here on the blog at the time to mark the event but I was all rather over excited and didn’t get around to it. So now with all the hullabaloo died down I thought it was now a good time to return to the topic and look at the music of Who. At first I thought I might look at some of the pop songs inspired by the show over the years but a quick review revealed that it’s all shit so instead let’s have a look at the music of the show itself.
Doctor Who & The Genesis of Genius
Where better to start that the iconic theme tune – widely regarded as the greatest TV theme of all time and by many as simply one of the finest pieces of music. It is instantly recognised by millions of people across the world, even those who’ve never actually watched the show – much like Daleks and the TARDIS it’s a part of the show that has become a cornerstone of pop culture. It’s a true work of genius and as you might be able to tell I’m something of a fan. Even though I’ve heard it a thousand times it still gives me a little buzz, causing me to smile and generally confirming that the universe isn’t all bad after all. So before we continue with the tune’s tale here it is in all it’s original sixties glory…
The score for the theme was originally written by Ron Grainer, a composer well known for this TV themes when the show debuted. Yet it gained its unique and memorable sound when that score was finally arranged and recorded by Delia Derbyshire, a pioneer of electronic instrumentation then working in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In arranging the tune she used all manner of clever tricks and edits on each and every note. She then blended into the mix what can only be described as weird noises pushing the tune beyond music into something new. The end product was unlike anything heard before and even Grainer was shocked when he heard the finished result, asking Derbyshire if he’d really written the tune – she was kind enough to suggest he’d written “most of it” but in fact she’d taken the original and twisted it into something totally different.
As this was the early 60s this transformation was a painstaking and complex process, using very primitive tools and attempting things no one had tried before just to get each part of the tune right. They then had to be mixed together and with multitrack recorders being rare and exotic beasts Derbyshire invented her own. Recall this was not some avant garde composer in Berlin pushing back the envelope of music or a pioneering Japanese electronics firm inventing new tools but someone “just” working on a new BBC TV show aimed at kids – all of it 11 years before Kraftwerk would release Autobahn and 20 years before Synth Pop made electronic music mainstream. The license fee really went to good use back then! However whilst the independence and lack of commercial pressure at the BBC meant someone like Derbyshire could spend time creating truly new and unique art, it’s byzantine rules also meant that as an arranger she didn’t receive credit on the tune and would never see a penny of royalties – something that seems tragically unfair.
Doctor Who & The Endless Versions
The theme remained unchanged for most of 60s and 70s aside from a few minor updates as the show slowly evolved. However as the 80s dawned the show’s producers felt it was time for change. The stories and style were remade and things got very serious, they included more “hard” sci-fi concepts, perhaps losing a little of the show’s charm in the process. The theme meanwhile was re-created from scratch with the ethereal weirdness of the original being replaced by very 80s synths. It’s not always been popular, in fact some hate it, but if nothing else it was well ahead of the rest of pop culture again. The Human League were still in the process of forming in Sheffield and New Order were just about to rise from the ashes of Joy Division – Who was ahead of all of them.
The theme changed a couple more times during the 80s, it was a turbulent time for the show and regular adjustments to it’s format affected the tune as much as anything else until eventually the end came and Who entered the wilderness years in 1989 when the BBC stopped producing new episodes. Everyone thought it was the end for both a great show and it’s amazing theme tune. But then in 1996 some Americans had a go at making the show. It didn’t really work out that well (though the single story made isn’t half as bad as some maintain it is) and it’s possible the rather ominous, overblown and not-quite-right version of the theme was part of the reason. In any case things went dark again, there was no more Who and the end really was here.
Thankfully all the little boys who loved the show in it’s heyday had all grown up to become actors, producers and writers and finally managed to convince the BBC it was time to start making Who again, only this time they should have a real budget to do it properly. Of course the theme was resurrected too, coming back as a version arranged by Murray Gold that was more orchestral, more bombastic and somehow even more epic than the original. Gold also added a new element for first time, some rapidly raising and failing strings that became known as “the chase”. This version hung around with some minor changes through the noughties until the show went through another of its regular regenerations with a new producer, star (Matt Smith) and version of the theme tune in 2010. This arrangement sounded even less like the original and many fans, including myself, think it may have changed a little too much but it’s undeniably still Who and still a great piece of music. I’d now strongly recommend having a listen to all the versions to hear its evolution – and as I’m just too kind here’s a video with them all in for you:
I’m sure that you’ll have your own favourite from that selection. Personally, I don’t think you can beat the original, though just like his Doctor I do have a soft spot for McCoy’s version used at the end of the classic era. But Colin Baker’s one is just as rubbish as he was as the Doc. Sorry Colin, you seem a lovely man, but your Doctor was just mean spirited.
Anyway as you’d imagine for such a well loved and iconic tune, there are loads and loads of cover versions, indeed there are whole websites dedicated to them. The very best however is Orbital’s version, it was a long time part of their live set and eventually released on their 2001 album ‘The Altogether’. It became something of a totem for them and continues to be part of their live set. So to close our look at the theme here is the Hartnoll’s reworking:
Doctor Who & The Background Music of Madness
The theme rightfully dominates any discussion of the Doctor’s music it’s not all about that one piece, there are a number of other interesting bits of music used during the show. Whilst it’s fair to say the quality of the background music varies over the years there are some real gems and interesting experiments in there. Forever linked with that music of the classic era is Dudley Simpson, the most prolific composer on Who, writing the music for 62 stories from 1964 to 1980, when the reinvention of the show saw him pushed out. He has a unique style, instantly recognisable, despite the way he tries lots of different ideas in differing stories, usually trying to link the style of music to the story’s setting. You can still tell the epic, almost over the top music is his in a second. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but often he (and his fellow Who composers) would be just as experimental as the theme with regular use of early electronic sounds mixed in with more traditional instrumentation.
At times it got really experimental, more so than any contemporary mainstream music at the time. Even to the point that it can annoy some viewers, perhaps most famously in 1972’s classic story, The Sea Devils. The almost too crazy score was by Malcolm Clarke and is mostly made up of weird electronic noise. If it were an album released at the time it would probably have been considered as important and artistic (if just as unlistenable to) as Tangerine Dream, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or any other electronic pioneer of the 70s. Once again, this demonstrates that even if you don’t like sci-fi or Who this was a worthwhile show, trying things that anything but a sci-fi show aimed at families would be stopped at doing. To get a taste of the weirdness here’s an edited collection of the The Sea Devils soundtrack:
Things got rather less experimental and avant garde after the 2005 revival. Murray Gold became the new Dudley Simpson and composed most of it. It’s more standard orchestral stuff but far better than pretty much any other TV show. It even regularly has it’s own prom, partly as an attempt to get kids into classical music but still I don’t see any other show doing the same thing. My personal favourite is the Eleventh Doc’s signature tune, (by the way that’s Matt Smith for non-fans and the foolish pendants that claim John Hurt’s War Doctor changes the numbering). The tune just screams that adventure and excitement is on its way, and it gets me almost as excited as the theme tune itself – let’s then finish with that as we ponder what twist filled jaunt With the DJ will head off on next…