Doctor Who Theme Tunes Retrospective

When last week I looked back at Doctor Who's various logos since 1963, someone asked if I could do the same with the theme tunes. Ask and you shall receive, LiamKav!

1963: It starts here

The Ron Grainer/Delia Derbyshire original (he wrote the music and she made it happen with primitive electronic equipment) must've been really strange when it premiered, because it's still strange today, and immediately recognizable. The creepy SHHHHHAA-SHHHHHA underscore... the driving bass chords... and then the eerie whistling WEEEE-OOOOO! This was something DIFFERENT. And the baseline for our little retrospective. Note the presence of the "middle 8", a bridge that feature a version of the theme in a major key that played even in the opening credits, unless they were faded out before then.

1967: The one Classic Whovians know best

The modified arrangement that followed lasted through to 1980! (There is a slight editing change in the way the music repeats from 1970, but this is a minor change.) In this version, while one "wave" sound is kept, it is supplemented by a variety of tinkly ethereal sounds that invoke the TARDIS flying through the vortex. The tempo is slightly faster and the the baseline gets some echo. For the first time, the end credits sequence ends with a drop out of the theme for a final undulating note instead of a fade out. The middle 8 is now part of the closing credits only.

1980: Synth-power!

The big SF theme that took us from the end of the 4th Doctor through the start of the 6th may just sound like the most SF of all. Peter Howell replaced primitive means of creating electronica (keys rubbed on piano wire and filtered through some distortion and such) with more recognizable sythclavier sounds. Gone are the wave sounds, and in there place stings that accompany the stars flying by in the credits sequences, plus various twinkly "outer space" sounds, and it all ends in an explosion. I have a lot of affection for this one, especially its TA-NA-NA-NA! sting in the end credits. It's certainly a more upbeat and less creepy arrangement.

1986: Trial of a Time Lord

A short-lived arrangement was created by Dominic Glyn for the Trial of a Time Lord season. It's similar to the previous one, but the synthesizer plays the middle 8 in a higher range which kind of sounds like trumpets that have breathed in helium. The driving bassline has more of drum beat sound and the stings are creepier. They don't invoke spaceships any more, but rather howling and cathedral organs. Like the previous version, it has its detuned moments, but here they are offputting instead of sounding like a spiraling ship.

1987: End of an era

Keff McCulloch's 7th Doctor version would take us to the end of the Classic era and featured a longer opening that actually included the middle 8. We're still in synth-land, of course, with the melody particularly high-pitched, except for the middle 8 which is made of of more traditional chords. Part of the middle 8 is also used as a second, contrasting melody. The stings and explosions are closer to the first 80s version, rather outer spacey.

1996: The TV Movie

A completely different take as the theme goes orchestral; John Debney is the man responsible. The 8th Doctor's theme (I'm sticking to televised Who so I won't talk about anything released on audio) introduces a number of new elements. There's the new piece of music that starts it off and builds to a crescendo, then veers immediately into the middle 8 before ever going to the actual melody. The melody also has an extra note, giving it more of a gallop as well as a sadness. The baseline now has the familiar "sound of drums" three-beat for the first time instead of its previous rise and fall. Various instruments also come in and out as exciting "stings".

2005: New Who - Enter Murray Gold

Gold's new orchestral arrangement also features samples from previous arrangements AND sound effects from the show. It starts with the iconic cliffhanger sting and towards the end uses both the TARDIS materialization sound and a Dalek gun SFX. The melody is definitely Derbyshire's electronic sound. I immediately loved this fast-paced rendition and its innovation: the strings' driving beat some call "the Chase". It captures well the spinning of the TARDIS through the vortex and more or less takes the place of the driving baseline (which still exists as more subtle drum beats). The middle 8 was not part of the theme until The Christmas Invasion when it was added to the end credits.

2008: Rocking out in the TARDIS

An even faster, more rockin' version of the theme premiered in Voyage of the Damned (actually Christmas 2007) in response to the BBC requiring shows to have shorter credits. It's much the same, again with the Derbyshire melody and a version of the Chase, but with up tempo, with even more instruments (including drums, piano and bass guitar). Aside from the sting, the sound effect samples are gone and the piano tries to gives a semblance of what used to be the middle 8. It's so fast, short and filled with instruments that I can't find it as interesting to listen to.

Now, we should expect a new theme for the 2010 series to go with the new logo and thus, opening sequence. What will the 11th Doctor's theme sound like? What SHOULD it sound like? You tell me. Could be anything:

9 comments:

LiamKav said...

I've loved them all!

It's odd. In some ways the Howell version is a bit obvious... Derbeyshire apparently went through hell to get the various sounds she did (apparently when it was played to Ron Granier, he said "who wrote that?" and tried to get Derbeyshire co writing credits), whereas the Howell version is stuff from big-standard synths. And yet... I love that version of the opening sting, and the big bassy drum line, and the glorious return of the middle-8, cruelly ignored for the previous 7 years.

I do remember sitting down to watch "Rose" and wondering what they were going to do with the theme tune. Was it going to be traditional, or all new. What I wasn't expecting was for it to be awesome. The only thing it was missing was the middle-8. Roll on another year, we've just been introduced to Tennant at his best, we've had one final "Fantastic", and then we get the theme tune with it added back in.

If I could get married to that version, I would.

LiamKav said...

Oh, and as for a new version, surely Bill Bailey is available?

Siskoid said...

He is: Right here.

LiamKav said...

I would so watch the adventures of Doctor Qui.

Jack Norris said...

I like them all except for the "end of an era" version (boring, cloying, and drained of character somehow, to me at least) and my most hated version, the TV movie let's-make-it-conform-to-the-martial-orchestral-sound-now-the-default-for-all-screen-SF/fantasy-ever-since-Star-Wars abomination. It clearly tries to put the middle 8 front and centre and orchestrate it in a way intended to be reminiscent of the ST:TNG theme, but sounds like some thing played over a department store PA at Christmastime.

Bill D. said...

The middle 8 has been my favorite part of the song ever since I was a kid, though I never actually knew it was called that until just now. I usually just referred to it as "that kinda fanfare-ish bridge part," or, when I was younger, "the part of the song that always seems to come around when they're doing the sound credits." And I'd watch the credits specifically for the "O.B. Sound" listing just to make sure I wouldn't miss the middle 8.

Jon H said...

"Doctoring The Tardis"

Siskoid said...

No. Don't. Don't. Don't do that.

Bébert said...

My favorite are the 80's theme and the Last one.

The 80's for the synths, the last one for the fast paced, epic feeling it gives.

 

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