Doctor Who: An Overview

The music of Doctor WhoIt has gone through many phases of style, from electronic to acoustic and back again, with drastic changes occurring along with switches in producers and individual stories’ directors. It has been abstractly futuristic (beyond even Goldsmith’s bizarre music for Logan’s Run), strictly acoustic with a small chamber ensemble, and electronic-imitating-acoustic. But there’s little denying that the early days of incidental music for the BBC’s Doctor Who series introduced the public at large to some of Britain’s most inventive and prodigious electronic musical pioneers.

As producer Verity Lambert was guiding her new series toward actual broadcast, the question arose of how music would be handled in her new weekly children’s serial about a mysterious time traveler and his companions. The BBC’s own Radiophonic Workshop, already slated to provide the sound effects, was given the opportunity to provide the series’ theme music as well. Veteran composer Ron Grainer, who would also later pen the theme for The Prisoner, wrote an unusual and slightly menacing theme song which was to be brought to life entirely through unconventional means. Delia Debryshire, one of the Workshop’s junior members, did so by using precisely timed oscillator sweeps, feedback, and an astonishing amount of tape-splicing. The result was the Doctor Who theme, different edits of which were used from the series’ premiere in 1963 through the end of the 1979 season. Describing this signature theme is difficult since it uses almost no recognizable sounds, and yet it’s one of the most recognizable television themes in the world.

The first four-part story, An Unearthly Child, had its own sparing (and largely small-acoustic-ensemble) score by Norman Kay, but Doctor Who’s true legacy of electronic music kicked in forcefully with Tristram Cary’s eerie music for The Daleks. A futuristic seven-part serial which also secured the show’s future by introducing Terry Nation’s now-immortal metallic monsters, The Daleks had abstract, foreboding, echoplexed music that fit the Daleks so perfectly that it was “tracked” into the creatures’ recurring appearances for several years. Cary also supplied other scores during the show’s fledgling year, but perhaps the greatest sign of things to come arrived with Planet Of Giants, the first story of Doctor Who’s second season. Planet was scored by a prolific Australian composer named Dudley Simpson, who favored an approach that combined a small acoustic ensemble with a few tricks and twists added by the Radiophonic Workshop. Simpson would return to virtually take up the mantle of Doctor Who’s composer-in-residence for much of the 1970s.

Dudley Simpson And The 1970s
It was during the 70s that Doctor Who saw its biggest leaps in popularity with the two longest-service actors in the role, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. The vast majority of their episodes were scored by Simpson, who would also later provide music for all but two episodes of the BBC’s Blake’s 7. During the 70s, Simpson was encouraged by producer Barry Letts to experiment more with electronics, which led to the composer’s signature style of acoustic instruments for relatively normal scenes with the show’s recurring Earthbound characters, and unearthly synthesized sounds for the alien menaces which seemed to line up, one after the other, to take their shot at invading Earth every few weeks. Some of the most memorable music in the show’s history emerged from this period, including the eerie theme for a new recurring villain, the Master. There were only a few stories not to be scored by Dudley Simpson during this period, with Carey Blyton providing two stories with unusual instrumentation (processed saxophone for the Daleks in Death To The Daleks, for example) and the Radiophonic Workshop’s Malcolm Clarke bestowing truly abstract electronic sounds – some of which the public barely recognized as music – for The Sea Devils.

When the reins of the show were handed to young producer Philip Hinchcliffe upon the casting of Tom Baker in 1974, the show lefts its Earthly setting behind for a series of adventures in deep space or Earth in varying time periods. As this change in the series’ tone occurred, so too did Simpson’s style, falling back more and more (somewhat paradoxically) on small acoustic ensembles. Simpson also took the opportunity during this time to develop a slightly whimsical theme for the Doctor himself. Highlights of Simpson’s six years during the Tom Baker era included Genesis Of The Daleks, Robot and City Of Death. Carey Blyton scored one story in 1975, Revenge Of The Cybermen – the only adventure not to feature music by Simpson between 1975 and 1979.

Back To The Workshop
As the show entered the 80s, though, great changes were afoot. John Nathan-Turner, who had been the show’s unit production manager throughout the late 1970s, stepped up to the plate to become the show-runner for the 1980 season, and he envisioned major changes in every part of the show. Three of the most visible were Tom Baker’s new costume (a less individualized version of his coat, hat and scarf ensemble now done entirely in maroons and burgundies), a new emphasis on special effects (especially electronic effects achieved with a new generation of early digital image manipulation gear), and a new title sequence which was accompanied by the first-ever new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme. (An even more visible change would soon occur as well, with Tom Baker decided to vacate the role after disagreeing with Nathan-Turner over its new, more serious tone.)

To be fair, it wasn’t the first time that the immortal Delia Derbyshire version of the theme was up for replacement; Malcolm Clarke had created a new synthesized version in 1972 which was intended to be used in 1973, Doctor Who’s tenth anniversary season, but at the time it was abandoned because it lacked the eerie, ominous feel of the Derbyshire arrangement. In 1979, however, as he began to formulate his plan to revitalize Doctor Who, Nathan-Turner wanted the Radiophonic Workshop to provide both a new version of the theme tune and to take over the full-time scoring duties from Dudley Simpson. Simpson continued his work on Blake’s 7 as Peter Howell toiled over what would become the first of several new versions of the main theme heard in the 1980s.

Howell also provided the first score for a full story, The Leisure Hive, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink in a sweeping electronic symphony which presaged some of later film scores by Vangelis (i.e. Blade Runner). Even in retrospect, Howell thought he had overdone it just a bit, but for the first entry in a new era of Doctor Who, it was perfect, including a new reliance on quoting the series’ theme music for the Doctor himself. As Tom Baker ceded the lead role to Peter Davison, Doctor Who went through an epoch of uniquely memorable music, seeing the return of Malcolm Clarke with his menacing Cybermen music in Earthshock, moody music by Roger Limb, and some almost hummable melodic contributions from former Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio composer Paddy Kingsland. Some of this era’s highlights include Logopolis, Mawdryn Undead and the 20th anniversary story, The Five Doctors.

Peter Davison spent only three years in the role of the Doctor, and when Colin Baker took over the part for what would be the show’s most tempestuous era, Nathan-Turner’s insistence on Radiophonic Workshop scores loosened somewhat. Peter Howell still turned in memorable music for the no-particular-anniversary-in-mind The Two Doctors, but other stories during the 22nd season were farmed out to freelancers. In 1985, when BBC1 Controller Michael Grade cancelled the series and then hastily gave it a reprieve in the face of a public backlash, the series was reassessed on many levels, including the music; John Nathan-Turner now decided to outsource all of the show’s music, including yet another arrangement of the theme tune by freelancer Dominic Glynn. Following the broadcast of season 23 (known collectively as The Trial Of A Time Lord), Michael Grade once again issued executive orders, removing Colin Baker as the star of Doctor Who and again making “suggestions” for the direction of the series.

Final Movement
When Doctor Who premiered its 24th season in late 1987, it entered a more contemporary musical era, with Keff McCulloch providing the decade’s third new take on Ron Grainer’s theme music, and scoring three of the season’s four stories with dance beat-influenced music. Dominic Glynn returned to score the season’s closing three-parter, Dragonfire, with orchestrally-based synth samples.

For the show’s silver anniversary season in 1988, McCulloch and Glynn returned (with Glynn providing a marvelously moody harmonica-based score for The Happiness Patrol), joined by newcomer Mark Ayres, who had provided the music for numerous fan-made videos.

In its final BBC-TV season, Doctor Who’s sound shifted more into an orchestral-synth vein under the direction of Ayres and Glynn; McCulloch returned to score one episode, Battlefield, combining the new approach with his now well-worn dance beats. But in the end, the show was quietly cancelled, and ratings had dropped enough in the ensuing four years that there was no outcry from the public. In the meantime, related fan-made videos filled the gap, featuring scores by Ayres, Alistair Lock, and other budding young film music composers who had been inspired to pursue their careers during Dudley Simpson’s heyday.

The TV Movie & Big Finish
When Doctor Who returned as a one-off TV movie in 1996, the Ron Grainer theme was used once again, but this time in a bombastic orchestral arrangement by veteran U.S. film/TV composer John Debney (who had also worked on seaQuest DSV and Star Trek: The Next Generation). Debney coined several unique themes for the movie, but left the bulk of that work up to John Sponsler and Louis Febre.

In 1999, Big Finish Productions, a small professional audio production outfit run by fans who had gotten their start doing unlicensed (and extremely unofficial) Doctor Who audio plays on cassette in the 1980s, approached the BBC about doing “real” Doctor Who on audio – an idea they had pitched for several years. But now they had a calling card: a successful series of audio dramas, both original and adapted from Virgin Publishing’s New Adventures novels, featuring Bernice Summerfield, a former companion of the Doctor from those books. The Bernice series not only sold well, but demonstrated Big Finish’s competence in creating an aural landscape – and finally, they got the nod from the BBC to revive Doctor Who.

The first production, a multi-Doctor extravaganza called The Sirens Of Time, was written, directed and scored by Nicholas Briggs, but the bulk of the Big Finish audio plays would soon be scored by Alistair Lock (and the music would prove to be popular enough with the fans to merit the release of a series of music CDs alongside the Doctor Who audio dramas). Briggs would return to provide the music for further adventures occasionally, though usually for stories featuring the dreaded Daleks (as well as a BBC-authorized series of Doctor-less spinoff audios, Dalek Empire). Russell Stone and David Darlington (who had provided much of the music for the Bernice Summerfield CDs, which were still in production) rounded out the lineup.

In 2001, a series of adventures featuring the eighth Doctor (Paul McGann, in his first return to the role since the 1996 movie) debuted, and for these releases Big Finish opted to take an approach not unlike that of the BBC, rotating several composers to give each story a unique sound. Lock, Stone and Briggs each did one of the four eighth Doctor stories, with William Allen’s atmospheric score for Minuet In Hell, featuring some unnervingly distorted guitar textures, brought the four-story cycle to a close. This concept would continue in 2002, with a six-story “season” of eighth Doctor adventures sporting music by Lock, Briggs, Stone, Darlington, Jim Mortimore and Jane Elphinstone. Even though the rest of the year’s monthly releases were comprised of fifth, sixth and seventh Doctor stories, the rotating-composer system continued – as did fan demand for more music releases.

New Adventures
In 2003, the show’s 40th anniversary year, the most surprising announcement of all came from the BBC: Doctor Who was returning to television as a new, modern series under the direction of writer/producer Russell T. Davies, who had most recently gained acclaim and some controversy for his 2002 miniseries The Second Coming. When the series premiered in March 2005 (after a grueling year of production that convinced Christopher Eccleston, the new Doctor, to bow out after only one season), the music – and a revamped version of the theme music – was provided by Murray Gold, who, like Eccleston, had worked with Davies on Second Coming. The new main theme was an interesting mix of old and new, as Gold worked samples of the original elements from Delia Derbyshire’s 1963 arrangement into an updated version with synthesized strings, brass and percussion; Gold also used the “cliffhanger howl” used in the 1970s to lead from each episode’s pre-credits teaser into the main titles. After two successful seasons on the air (during which fans begged the BBC endlessly for a soundtrack release), a new series soundtrack was finally announced, with a recent reorganization of the BBC’s merchandising arm bringing the music of Doctor Who back to the Silva Screen label.

The musical history of Doctor Who has put some of the most innovative sounds in British film and TV music on the screen – and now, with or without visuals, the adventure continues for both the Time Lord and a new generation of composers weaned on his travels.