Doctor Who@50: Musical Mysteries

An on-going Sci-Fi Bulletin series of thematic essays exploring the icons of Doctor Who during its 50th year…

Musical Mysteries: Regenerating the Theme Tune

To those who tuned in to the very first episode of Doctor Who on 23 November 1963 (following a news bulletin that delayed the start time by six minutes), the sights and sounds that greeted them must have been something of a shock.

The unearthly swirls of white clouds against a black background coupled with the strange wailing of the groundbreaking electronic theme tune were ideal to set the tone for this brand new series, but it must have looked and sounded immensely strange to unprepared viewers.

Who1The first discussions of the theme music for the series began in the spring of 1963 when Rex Tucker, a producer of classic serials and children’s shows, was in temporary charge of Doctor Who before the arrival of Verity Lambert. He’d worked on a version of Jane Eyre with composer Tristram Cary, and initially sounded him out about not only composing the incidental music for the first Doctor Who serial, but also the series’ theme tune. Cary was a pioneer of electronic music and an enthusiastic early adopter of magnetic tape as an experimental medium to record and edit music.

However, with the arrival of Lambert in June 1963, schedules changed. Waris Hussein (who’d been down for the second serial) replaced Tucker as director for the opening episodes of the series. As a result Cary was off the project, although he did provide an electronic score for the second serial, introducing Doctor Who’s most famous monsters, the Daleks (as well as for the Rex Tucker-directed The Gunfighters in 1966, and several other stories).

Lambert had a fresh start in terms of finding a theme tune for the show, and not long to do it in. Her first thought was to commission something from French avant-garde composers Les Structures Sonores (a group name used by Jacques Lasry and Bernard Baschet), but their failure to respond to queries quickly put paid to the idea (although their pre-existing music was used in part on The Web Planet and Galaxy 4).

The head of BBC Television Music, Lionel Salter, pointed Lambert in the direction of Desmond Briscoe and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Since 1958 the Workshop had been supplying music and effects for radio and television, notably for Quatermass and the Pit and A for Andromeda, and was staffed by creative enthusiasts who were determined to push the medium of modern music to its limits. As a result of Lambert’s inquiries, Workshop “assistant” Delia Derbyshire was appointed to look after the Doctor Who theme. She was to work with Lambert’s external composer in “realizing” the theme, and with the Workshop’s Brian Hodgson on providing regular ongoing sound effects for the series.

Who3GrainerLambert turned to a “safe” choice to compose the music. Ron Grainer had worked on many TV themes, Steptoe and Son and Maigret prime among them, so he was very much a known quantity at the BBC. He’d just completed work on the music for a documentary series about the railways called Giants of Steam that had involved much rhythmic music and “white noise” created from tape loops, as well as effects gathered by bashing a huge oil drum. Grainer had worked with Hodgson and Dick Mills on the series, and Lambert wanted something similar for Doctor Who.

Lambert’s brief to Grainer and Derbyshire was vague, but that probably gave them plenty of room to experiment. She asked for a musical sequence that would be “familiar yet different” and was rhythmically strong, like the Giants of Steam music. The series’ theme tune was to convey a sense of mystery and the idea of a journey. Grainer composed the tune in his home in Portugal and sent the single sheet of A4 containing the music to the Radiophonic Workshop, leaving them to do the rest. Some simple descriptions on the music such as “wind bubble” and “cloud” from Grainer were enough to set Derbyshire off on an experimental odyssey.

Derbyshire had been at the BBC since 1960 and had joined the Radiophonic Workshop at Maida Vale in 1962, remaining there for 11 years. It was her ideal environment, as she’d earned an MA in Music and Mathematics and the Workshop gave her access to the tools to experiment with music and the emerging technologies that were changing the way it was made and recorded. Without synthesisers (which would later make electronic music—including the Doctor Who theme—much simpler to produce), Derbyshire had to rely on purely electronically created sounds or the recording of real world noise to produce the effects she had in mind. All the elements that eventually made up the theme were individually realized and recorded before being combined together manually on multiple tape machines. Building on top of the driving rhythmic underpinning of Grainer’s theme, Derbyshire provided the sought after “whooshes”, “clouds”, “bubbles”, “hisses” and swooping sounds to bring the work to dynamic life.

Who2DeliaThe creation of the Doctor Who theme took many, many hours, huge amounts of tape and a great deal of patience as all the re-recording machines had to run in perfect synch every time a sub-mix was created. Even hearing it now, 50 years later, it is an amazing, atmospheric piece of work that has been redone and reinterpreted over the years but never bettered. When Ron Grainer heard the result, he barely recognized it asking “Did I write that?”, to which Derbyshire is reputed to have answered, “Most of it”.

That she was not fully credited with the work at the time is one of several minor injustices that accompany such creative work within a large institution (there’s still questions over who actually “created” the show, as well as with Terry Nation’s sole claim to credit for the Daleks, ignoring Ray Cusick’s design work). Grainer did push for Derbyshire to receive a co-composer credit on the piece, but the BBC declined to give it to her, preferring that the Radiophonic Workshop staff be seen as anonymous technicians rather than the creative individuals they so clearly were.

Derbyshire was still involved when the first significant change was made to the theme with the arrival of the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, in March 1967. Producer Innes Lloyd was the driving force behind the revision, and although the basic theme remained the same, it featured some newly added “electronic spangles” and a slight echo, putting additional emphasis on the bass line. With another change of lead actor in 1970—and the arrival of colour—the theme was revised once more: the major innovation this time was to introduce the “repeat to fade” motif that would lead into the episode’s opening theme and could be varied accordingly. According to Doctor Who music historian Mark Ayres this was “a big improvement on previous versions”, allowing greater flexibility in the use of the theme.

Who5AmbassadorsIn fact, this experimental vibe seems to have caught on, with Season 7 (Jon Pertwee’s first) featuring several different approaches to the show’s titles and theme combination. For The Ambassadors of Death, the titles were interrupted with a brief recap of the cliffhanger from the previous episode before resuming with a new electronic “sting” as the story title appeared (on the appearance of the words “of Death”). This story also introduced the innovation of the “electronic scream” at the cliffhanger, something that has continued through most versions of the theme since. The basic theme developed for the 1970 season continued in use, with minor variations on occasion (such as the notorious “Delaware” version accidentally broadcast in Australia, and a stereo remix prepared for commercial release) until 1980 when things changed radically.

By then much of the mystery of the series had dissipated, with major revelations about the Doctor, his world and his enemies having formed a significant canon. The arrival of new producer John Nathan-Turner in 1979, many things about the now 16-year-old show changed dramatically, not least of them being the titles and the music. Many of the changes were influenced by the continuing impact of Star Wars in 1977, and the perceived need for the BBC’s “flagship” sci-fi show to match the “glossy sheen” of imported American series running on ITV. To accompany the flashy new “starfield” titles, the Radiophonic Workshop’s Peter Howell was tasked with creating an all-new version of the Doctor Who theme, something more strident to match the new decade, evoking less mystery but demanding audience attention. Technology had changed dramatically in the decade since the last major revision, so Howell was able to use then-modern electronic synthesisers, surpassing the tape-editing and re-recording techniques used by Derbyshire. Although he still used elements of “found sound” (with a match flare reputed to have provided part of the opening “scream”), this new iteration of the theme was a far less “hand-crafted” affair.

Who81980The new theme/titles combo on 1980’s Season 18 may have been as much of a shock to regular viewers as the unsettling, mysterious original was 17 years before, but in a very different way. Brasher and more self-confident, the new theme was all-electronic and lacked the organic subtlety of Derbyshire’s original. However, Howell’s version had a few innovations of its own, emphasizing the bass line a lot more and opening with a version of the “electronic scream” that had only previously applied to cliffhangers. Apart from the odd sound effect added to match changes to the titles, this version of the theme lasted until 1986.

Returning after an enforced 18-month break, the 1986 season had an all-new version of the theme realised by Dominic Glynn, followed by another new take in 1987 (to go with new titles for incoming Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy) by Keff McCulloch. Both were required to signal important relaunches of the show, neither of which could save it from eventual cancellation. Neither version—largely put together using off-the-shelf kit—matched the magnificence and downright weirdness of the hand-crafted original by Delia Derbyshire using equipment that was barely fit for the purpose. The original and never bettered version of the theme simply shows how mysterious a process it can be attempting to capture the essence of Doctor Who in its theme music.

Next Time: Doctor Who’s title sequences

This essay now forms part of Who Beyond 50: Celebrating Five Decades of Doctor Who. Click here to order it from


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