The Sounds of Time: 50 Years of Doctor Who’s influential music and SFX
Doctor Who first flickered to life on British television screens on Saturday November 23, 1963, just before teatime.
Only a day after the shocking assassination of U.S. President John F Kennedy, the light-hearted show was greeted with a sigh of relief as a welcome distraction from the po-faced news broadcasts that had made up the day’s programming. Televised science fiction was a new concept for the BBC, and it didn’t take long for what was originally intended as a children’s program to teach youngsters about history to worm its way into the hearts and minds of the British public, young and old.
Over the years actors came and went; The Doctor (the show’s vital title character) had the ability as an alien to regenerate his body in times of crisis, which handily allowed the BBC to replace him as they saw fit. One constant however was the series’ unmistakable theme, and when it was initially broadcast it was unlike anything most viewers had ever heard. Engineered by Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills, who were both technicians at the BBC’s in-house sound studio the Radiophonic Workshop, the theme was built around a simple composition from Aussie composer Ron Grainer and was worked laboriously by Derbyshire into something shocking, unique and incredibly modern.
The show’s plethora of sound effects were also far removed from anything else viewers were used to hearing. With a modest selection of tools and spool upon spool of tape, Derbyshire, Mills and others made the kind of clangs, whirrs and hums that these days remain as inalienably linked with science fiction as creaky doors and screams are with horror. The show’s innovation in this field was unparalleled, and for a long while Doctor Who’s aural element was just as much a draw as the fantastical storylines, serving as an early influence for young viewers such as myself who were fascinated by the possibilities that electronic music represented.
The musical shifts over the years, whether it was the unheralded BBC Radiophonic Workshop score to 1972 serial The Sea Devils or long-running composer Dudley Simpson’s unceremonious exit in 1980 help tell the tale of a show that was once thought to be dead and buried. Only a year after its 25th anniversary Doctor Who was cancelled and many fans, myself included, slowly but surely gave up hope that it would ever return. 1996’s ill-fated TV movie wasn’t enough to renew interest and hopes for another series were crushed as U.S. viewing figures failed to hit their targets.
It was a surprise then when in 2005, producer and writer Russell T. Davies revived the series from near certain death, and even more surprising that he managed to find a formula that would ensure its popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. The rebooted show is now one of the BBC’s most lucrative properties, but this success came at the expense of Doctor Who’s rich musical heritage. As we all know, experimental electronic music simply isn’t cool, and this was one element nixed in 2005 that has failed to re-appeared. While parts of Grainer and Derbyshire’s original theme remain tagged to the beginning and end of the show, Murray Gold’s straightforward cues belie Doctor Who’s musically innovative and often challenging past, but if that’s the cost to keep it on the air, then so be it.
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DELIA DERBYSHIRE / RON GRAINER (WITH DICK MILLS)
‘DOCTOR WHO THEME’
The credit for Doctor Who’s iconic theme, which first appeared at the end of 1963’s An Unearthly Child, reads “Title music by Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.” It’s disappointing that only in recent years has innovative electronic musician Delia Derbyshire’s handiwork really been subject to the praise it always should have received. Aussie composer Grainer really didn’t have a lot to do with it’s unique sound at all – he composed the notes, admittedly, but after Derbyshire’s pioneering treatment he famously asked, “did I write that?” to which Derbishire replied “most of it.”
It was the truth – Derbyshire, acting under the banner of the fledgling BBC Radiophonic Workshop had put Grainer’s initial composition through a painstaking process influenced by avant garde musique concrete techniques she had become fascinated with. This was 1963, and electronic music was still in its infancy, so Derbyshire improvised with what she had to hand at the Workshop to achieve the sounds she was desperate to create: tape loops, test tone oscillators, white noise generators and general studio junk. Depending on who you believe it was either a rubber band, a piece of wood with a bass string attached or a flicked jack-bay panel that was responsible for the theme’s iconic bass line, and each sound was put through such a time consuming process of re-recording, tape editing and looping that it would be hard to credit anyone else for the hours upon hours of work that Derbyshire and fellow Workshop technician Dick Mills put in to fashion such alien sounds.
The finished piece was so unique in fact that Grainer himself asked the BBC if Derbyshire could be credited as co-composer, sadly however, for whatever reason the BBC wished its in-house studio technicians to remain mysterious, so Derbyshire languished in anonymity for years afterwards. Her two slightly different arrangements served as the show’s themes for 17 years, and are still the blueprint for today’s treatment.
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‘SPACE ADVENTURE (PARTS 1-3)’
While the BBC Radiophonic Workshop had the theme locked down, and were responsible for the majority of Doctor Who’s bizarre and brilliant sound effects (which were arguably more important than any ‘musical’ element, at least in the early days), stock music was often used flesh the episodes out. One such piece was ‘Space Adventure’ by TV music director and session player Martin Slavin. A delicious concoction of synthesizer, tape echoes, hiss and sparse instrumental hits ‘Space Adventure’ characterized the merciless and robotic Cybermen, who came to be among the show’s most recognizable foes.
Initially used in First Doctor William Hartnell’s final serial The Tenth Planet (which incidentally was the first to feature the Cybermen), Slavin’s trio of compositions were again used in The Moonbase (1967), Tomb of the Cybermen (1967) and recently re-discovered Yeti vehicle The Web of Fear (1968).
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THE WHEEL IN SPACE
Brian Hodgson’s contributions to the Doctor Who canon might be almost as important as his Radiophonic Workshop cohort Delia Derbyshire’s. He is most notorious for not only for using a ring modulator to create the voice of the Daleks (a metallic growl that still sends shivers down the spines of children today), but for coming up with the iconic TARDIS whoosh, which he apparently made by manipulating the sound of scraping a key across the bass string of a piano. Hodgson handled the BBC Radiophonic’s Whorkshop’s first full score when he composed incidental music for 1968’s The Wheel in Space, which featured Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor.
More oblique than the jaunty stock jingles that had fleshed out much of the series’ early run, Hodgson’s appreciation and deep understanding of electronic music helped him craft a score that was as alien to viewers as the far-fetched plot itself. While only fragments remain of The Wheel in Space, even forty-five years later the music sounds chilling and futuristic, and is a testament to Hodgson’s skill and willingness to experiment.
Hodgson left the Radiophonic Workshop in 1972, but returned shortly after in 1977 as its organizer, becoming the head of the department in 1983 and staying there until 1995.
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By 1972 we had another new Doctor in the flamboyant Jon Pertwee, and composer Dudley Simpson had assumed the role of incidental music composer for the majority of the episodes. The Sea Devils complicated things however, as the BBC needed to save money having spent most of their budget filming on location on the Isle of Wight. The cheaper option (as Simpson tended to use expensive real musicians) was to have the soundtrack composed in-house, so they lined up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s John Baker (who was responsible for the Tomorrow’s World theme). Baker sadly fell ill, and the job was passed on to Malcolm Clarke, who would go on to craft one of the entire series’ most unusual and highly-regarded scores.
The Sea Devils was only the second score the BBC Radiophonic Workshop had ever handled, and it was highly irregular for the job to be handed over to their most controversial member. Clarke maintained the view that the music they were creating was “fine art,” where most of his colleagues simply saw it as a functional necessity. Clarke used the Workshop’s legendary EMS Synthi 100 (nicknamed the ‘Delaware’) to produce the score, and its characteristic bleeps, stabs and groans make it totally unique, even now. Clarke’s themes and distinctive motifs were innovative and deeply unusual, and even though the Radiophonic Workshop would go on to produce many more full scores in the future, not a single one would ever approach The Sea Devils’ bizarre brilliance.
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Dudley Simpson could be seen as the classic series’ equivalent of modern-era Doctor Who composer Murray Gold. He handled the majority of the show’s incidental music up until 1980, and his dramatic cues characterized the run of Doctor Who’s most memorable star – Tom Baker.
Sadly, not much remains of Simpson’s estimable contribution to the show – an album was released bundling up some of his best loved themes (from Pyramids of Mars, Genesis of the Daleks, The Brain of Morbius and Planet of Evil) but due to the loss of the original tapes, it was re-performed by fan Heathcliff Blair leaving Doctor Who fans (myself included) feeling more than a little cheated. The lifeless, plastic-y synthesizer recordings aren’t a patch on the originals, and leave an unsettling gap in the Who chronology for anyone desperate to hear the long lost isolated scores.
Simpson’s work on Pyramids of Mars is probably his most iconic, mainly because the music was such an important part of the storyline. The organ that was used to herald the arrival of classic baddie Sutekh was the backbone of the compositions, and gave an eerie progressive rock bent to proceedings, putting it well in line with the Italian horror composers of the era. Simpson might not get the same respect as his BBC Radiophonic Workshop rivals, but his impact on the series is no less important.
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‘THE LEISURE HIVE’
Psychedelic folk musician Peter Howell joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1974 (“just when synthesizers were becoming available”), and was the first musician to have the opportunity to update Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer’s classic theme. Howell’s interpretation marked a new era of Doctor Who, one that allowed the Radiophonic Workshop far more freedom thanks to the involvement of producer John Nathan-Turner. The Workshop created scores to every episode of the series from 1980 to 1985, which understandably resulted in some classic productions, and The Leisure Hive is undoubtedly one of Howell’s most memorable.
In sharp contrast to the Workshop’s early days, Howell now had a plethora of synthesizers to work with: the Yamaha CS-80 (which Vangelis famously used to craft the score to Blade Runner), the ARP Odyssey MK3 and the Roland Jupiter-5 and others (including later, a Fairlight CMI and a PPG Wave 2.2). This arsenal gave his scores (and those from subsequent Radiophonic Workshop composers) a very distinctive feel, and though they weren’t anywhere near as exploratory and experimental as The Sea Devils for example (Howell was a musician, not a technician), the compositions were still rewarding and influential. ‘The Leisure Hive’ is particularly representative of this era – eerie and brittle, there’s an enjoyable musicality to Howell’s compositions which eschewed the Workshop’s roots, yet he never loses the crucial sense of mystery.
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Paddy Kingsland, like Peter Howell and Roger Limb was a ‘proper’ musician and had been a guitarist in a number of bands before ending up at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This meant he shared a certain musicality with his cohorts, and led to Limb explaining in a Sound on Sound interview that during this era the Workshop became “more of a music-making factory” than the experimental sound hotbed it had been in the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. Kingsland is best known for his soundtrack for the BBC’s incredibly successful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but his handful of contributions to Doctor Who are equally as enjoyable, and are well-remembered by fans.
With Logopolis Kingsland was faced with an almost impossible task. This was the point in which long-running star Tom Baker was to leave the series for good, and somehow Kingsland’s melancholy electronic cues manage to convey this with a great deal of levity and a surprising amount of restraint. The haunting, glassy tones are mournful but not manipulative, and the soundtrack treats Baker’s regeneration and transformation into Fifth Doctor Peter Davison absolutely without triumph or bombast, something that would seem almost unimaginable in 2013.
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REVELATION OF THE DALEKS
For Brits of a certain age, Roger Limb’s most recognizable contribution to music will no doubt be Look and Read’s ‘Magic E’, the educational song that had us singing about the joys of ‘E’ long before The Shamen introduced us to ‘Ebeneezer Goode’. He did however have quite the tenure on Doctor Who, writing a number of complete scores between 1981 and 1985. Revelation of the Daleks was his final contribution to the series, and probably his best.
By this time Colin Baker had assumed the role of The Doctor, and the show was deep into what many fans regard as its darkest period. It’s not so surprising that the series went on an 18-month hiatus immediately after Revelation of the Daleks aired (the ending even had to be amended in lieu of this fact) but the break sadly brought an end to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s regular involvement. Still, what a way to go out – Limb’s score is creative and hugely enjoyable as he trawls through the Workshop’s museum of synthesizers utilizing everything but the kitchen sink.
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REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS
Keff McCulloch was the poor soul drafted in to resurrect Doctor Who at a time when all but wide-eyed youngsters like myself had given up. In 1988 Sylvester McCoy had assumed the role of the Seventh Doctor, and though the series was celebrating its 25th Anniversary, you’d hardly have noticed. Years of dwindling budgets and shaky storylines had put one too many nails in the coffin and it didn’t take a genius to work out that Doctor Who was on its way out.
Remembrance of the Daleks is probably the most fondly remembered serial of McCoy’s run and deservedly so. It’s an action packed caper that’s helped along by the inclusion of everyone’s favourite baddies the Daleks. Keff McCulloch does his best with very little, and while it’s far from inspiring, with a few memorable themes and some nice nods to the show’s past, it manages to wrench itself from the bargain basement admirably. The canned strings and awkward presets won’t be for everyone, but every once in a while there’s a hint of synth-drenched goodness that’s hard to argue with.
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‘DOCTOR WHO THEME’
When Doctor Who returned in 2005 it had received a much-needed facelift. I remember the creeping sadness that had taken hold when I realized that my favourite TV show was ‘never’ coming back, so sitting watching the first episode of the series’ return was emotional to say the least. It was Murray Gold’s score that hit me first, and my reactions were hardly positive. Gone were the glorious sounds that introduced me to a world of electronic music, and in their place was the kind of soundtrack that you would hear on, well, pretty much any TV drama, anywhere in the world.
My depression was only cured by the fact that the rebooted show itself was actually quite good, but despite praying year after year that the Beeb would pull their socks up and employ someone capable of doing interesting things with the music, Gold’s orchestral treatments have been an irritating constant. The one saving grace is that despite the bombast and manipulative bullshit he thrusts down our throats week-by-week, the opening theme itself does give more than just a nod to Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer’s fantastic original. Gold’s first attempt used the classic bassline almost in its original form and kept many of Derbyshire’s signature synth treatments, and while he did dip into embarrassing theatrics in the late David Tennant era, in 2012 he reintroduced a theme that once again tips its hat to Derbyshire’s flawless original.
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