Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Doctor Who Theme

[WARNING: I apparently suck at embedding videos, because they've all come out the wrong size and you can only see half of them. Sorry about that. Click on the videos themselves and they'll take you to the YouTube page. Enjoy.]

Let's talk about Doctor Who.

Doctor Who is one of those shows that really makes you wonder. It's currently the longest running science fiction show still on television, having been first aired in 1963, and despite a brief sixteen year gap in which all we saw was an American-made TV movie, it continues to have a strong fanbase and a modern popularity that continually breaks UK records. There's something about the show that is, quite simply, enduring. There's something about it that has managed to keep untold amounts of geeks, nerds, and even casual television viewers tuning in every time it's on. It is it's mysterious protagonist? It's imaginative plots? It's ability to change and adapt without becoming something unrecognizable? Is it really the addition of a robot dog?

The answer, like the show, isn't that simple. There are a lot of reasons why Doctor Who has managed to remain a staple of televised science fiction for so long. It would be impossible to try and list all the things the show has going for it, so for the moment, I won't. Right now, I'm going to focus on just one thing, one simple thing that has probably had ten times more impact on the longevity of the show than most people realize. The theme song.

The theme song to Doctor Who is one of the most easily recognizable themes in television history. It's widely regarded as an innovative and important piece in the history of electronic music, and most agree that it is incredibly impressive for it's time, having been created well before the invention of modern synthesizers. The score itself was written by Ron Grainer, but it was the efforts of Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that made it into the piece we all know and love. Utilizing a bizarre mix of techniques that included individually creating each note by cutting, splicing, speeding up, and slowing down segments of analogue tapes containing single recordings of plucked strings, white noise, and simple harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators, Delia Derbyshire and her team carefully crafted the haunting opening almost completely from scratch. When Ron Grainer finally heard the completed track, he was stunned and could only ask "Did I write that?" to which Derbyshire replied "Most of it."

Unfortunately for Derbyshire, the BBC's desire to keep the members of the Radiophonic Workshop anonymous kept her from getting a co-composer credit, as well as a share of the song's royalties. Good work, BBC.

The piece has been re-recorded and rearranged a number of times over the years, usually whenever a new Doctor takes over. The theme has been rearranged during a specific actor's tenure, particularly during the new series, but no matter how many times the theme is changed or adapted, just like the show, it has managed to remain the icon opening that has both fascinated and frightened Doctor Who fans for over forty-five years.

Let's take a look at these multiple themes, shall we?

The First Doctor's Theme: 1963-1966

This is the original. The theme is short and simple, but makes a clear impact, drawing you into the mystery of the show. This is probably the most enigmatic of the opening sequences, in that it tells you absolutely nothing about the show apart from it's name, not including the TARDIS, the Doctor's face, or even the time vortex. All we're given is a series of smoky white lines that move through each other, giving it all a very ghostly feel. Given the unbelievably shadowy origins of the Doctor at this point in the series - all we know about him is that he is an alien of indeterminate age who travels through time in a clunky old ship that looks like a police box. At this point we don't even know what planet he's from or what species he is - I think this theme really works. It's creepy, mysterious, and is like nothing you've ever seen before. If anything captures the Doctor during these beginning stages of the show, it's this theme.

The Second Doctor's Theme: 1966-1969

With the second Doctor, we're introduced for the first time to the concept of regeneration, that the Doctor has the ability to regenerate into a new body if he should ever get killed (ever equaling about twelve, depending on who you ask) It was a big step at this point in the show, and a risky one. Most shows who just randomly switch their lead actor would mostly likely never survive, but this show did. The title sequence, musically the same as the original, evokes both familiarity and mystery, maintaining the same ghostly feel to it, but with addition of the Doctor's face so you're aware who your protagonist is and which actor you're watching. The addition of the Doctor's face to the opening sequence stays with the series until the 1996 television movie, and remains an iconic way to establish the era of the series.

The Third Doctor's Theme #1: 1970-1973

Here we see the first theme in color, and probably the first one that can truly be described as "psychedelic" rather than "ghostly". Visually, we have the same style of mirrored lines moving in and out of each other, with the addition of a spiral effect towards the end once the Doctor's face disappears. This version also marks the first time the theme itself has been altered, with the disappearance of the melodic "middle eight" melody from the end of the theme, in favor of a repetition of an earlier portion of the piece. Also changed is the fade out at the end, being replaced with the repeated portion of the score.

The Third Doctor's Theme #2: 1973-1974

This is the theme that changed everything. Musically, it's the exact same as the previous theme, with the repeated end as opposed to a fade out and the deletion of the middle eight. Visually, however, we see the first theme to move away from it's previous established formula of ghostly moving lines, and instead employ a tunnel effect. The second half of the theme, in which the tunnel takes over the screen, will come to be probably the most iconic of the opening sequences during the Fourth Doctor's era. The interesting thing about this one, though, is that though it is at time identical to the theme coming up, it differs by using stars shooting towards the screen, and a full body shot of the Doctor as opposed to just his face. To be honest, this isn't my favorite sequence. I feel like this one's a bit busy and confusing, and lacks the simplicity of the ones I prefer, plus the full-body shot of the Doctor is a bit weird. The nice thing about it though, is that it led into...

The Fourth Doctor's Theme #1: 1974-1980

Nine times out of ten, when a person thinks about the classic series of Doctor Who, this is the theme they think about. This is the one most associated with the fourth Doctor, and with Doctor Who itself, and that is due to the simple fact that it is awesome. It's just awesome. The sequence begins with these two lines that look like walls, shooting downwards towards the center of the screen, which then suddenly expand and turn into the walls of a tunnel that surrounds the TARDIS. The TARDIS shoots towards us and dissolves into a circular tunnel that reveals the Doctor's face, which then dissolves into the now iconic diamond logo, which shoots down a now diamond shaped tunnel and reveals the title of the episode. The sequence flows really well, and while it's just as complicated as the previous sequence, it doesn't feel as disjointed or confusing. It was the longest running title sequence and is, in my opinion, the best.

The Fourth Doctor's Theme #2: 1980-1981

Wow. So, this sequence is by far the most radically different of every opening we've seen. This sequence debuts a brand new rearrangement of the song by Peter Howell, which was preformed on synthesizers and designed to sound less haunting. Personally, I think theres's something slightly more eerie about this theme, maybe it's because I've never been a huge fan of synthesizers. Visually the sequence has also been radically altered, choosing to go with a more distinct outer space motif as opposed to the previously more ambiguous series of visuals. The Doctor has been reduced to just a face shooting oddly towards us, and the logo has shifted to something decidedly more 80's. I don't particularly hate this theme, I just prefer the one before it. I associate it more with the fifth Doctor since it was used entirely through his tenure, and was only used for one season of the Fourth Doctor's.

The Fifth Doctor's Theme: 1981-1984

There's not much to say about this sequence, it's both visually and musically identical to the previous one. It's a shame, since the fifth Doctor was very, very different from the fourth Doctor, and really should have been given his own title sequence instead of a rehash of his predecessor's. But then, I don't work for the BBC.

The Sixth Doctor's Theme #1: 1984-1986

And here we go again, the same intro as the previous two but with the Sixth Doctor instead of the Fifth. This particular era in Doctor Who history is a controversial one, and is generally regarded as a low point in the quality of the show. It's actually somewhat fitting that the opening sequence is just a rehash of the previous two. However, as with the previous Doctor, I don't blame Colin Baker for this dark period of the show, his Doctor had a lot of potential, and really should have got his own damn sequence.

The Sixth Doctor's Theme #2: 1986

I suppose this is a clear case of "be careful what you wish for". This sequence was only used for one season, the 12-part epic "Trial of a Timelord" serial that turned out to be Colin Baker's last. The theme has once again been drastically rearranged, this time by Dominic Glynn, and was an attempt to bring some "mystery" back into the sequence, and to the show itself. The piece certainly does sound a bit, obvious, if only because I can't quite figure out what it's going for. This was reportedly performed on three different synthesizers, which probably explains why I don't care for it very much. Visually, the sequence is about the same as the previous three but with slightly updated graphics. I'm really starting to get bored of this opening sequence recap.

The Seventh Doctor's Theme: 1987-1989

Whoa...what? Just...ok. So, where do I start with this one? The theme has once again been rearranged, this time by Keff McCulloch using a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer. The piece reintroduces the middle eight into the song, but does replace it's opening sting with some sort of electronic explosion. Visually the sequence is...weird. And that's saying something for this series. We're in space, and there's a purple galaxy, and there's these poorly rendered astroids going after them, and then the TARDIS is in this blue bubble thing, which is then on top of the galaxy, which then vanishes to reveal the Doctor's sort of creepy moving face, which winks at you and then explodes only to reveal the really stupid looking late 80's's just weird. The producers of the show at the time apparently stated that the sequence was supposed to breath new life into the show and give it a fresh start, just looks like they're trying a bit too hard to be epic. The best opening sequences of the series have been simple, the simple but haunting theme, the creepy, mysterious visuals, and the fluidity of the sequence has a whole. This one just looks...bizarre. It's overblown and dated and doesn't do the seventh Doctor any justice at all.

The Eight Doctor's Theme: 1996

This isn't really an opening sequence, exactly, it's the title sequence to the 1996 TV movie, and it's really a shame it's not usually considered a complete sequence, because it's really awesome. The theme is fully orchestrated by John Debney, and despite the fact that it lacks the creepy electronic stuff that makes the theme infamous, it still manages to sound just as exciting. The music starts off slow, underscoring the Eight Doctor's narration, and then builds to a crescendo before suddenly hitting you with the middle eight, which then majestically segues into the main theme. It's interesting to note the this is the only time the middle eight is ever performed before the main theme, and for some reason, it works flawlessly here. The visuals of the sequence are simple and epic, shooting the opening credits at you in perfect time with the music, and manage to really get you pumped for this movie. It's a shame the Master sucked so much here, as both this sequence, and the Eight Doctor himself proved to actually be surprisingly awesome.

The Ninth Doctor's Theme: 2005

And now we enter the modern era. Yes, the 2005 reboot of the series (and by reboot, I mean continuation of the classic series despite what some crazed old school fans will tell you) was exciting in a number of ways, once of which was the decidedly kick ass opening theme. This theme is awesome. Arranged by Murry Gold, it manages to combine both the electronic feel of the original theme and the fully orchestrated excitement of the movie's theme. The theme lacks the middle eight, but that's alright, because it gets added later. The theme introduces a completely new composition in the form of a rising and falling string melody, which I think adds a sense of urgency to it, keeping with the new series more fast paced tone. The theme does lack some of the mysterious quality of the original theme, which is a bit disappointing, especially since this first new series spent a lot of time trying to build up the Doctor's mystique again, but it's a thousand times better than the Sixth or Seventh Doctor's theme, and for that I am eternally gratefully to Mr. Murry Gold. Also of note, the visuals are simple and colorful, combining the circular tunnel motif of the Fourth Doctor's era with the outer space motif of later eras, and as with the music, managing to merge the two extremely well. It's not a perfect sequence, but it's a very good start to what is, in fact, an extremely good continuation of the series.

The Tenth Doctor's Theme #1: 2006-2007

This theme is basically the same as the Ninth Doctor's theme except that we now get to see David Tennant's name instead of Christopher Eccelston's. The middle eight is still absent from the opening, but has been restored to the closing credits at the request of David Tennant (who is himself a die-hard Whovian). Not much else to say.

The Tenth Doctor's Theme #2: 2008-2009

This theme is basically just a rearrangement of the previous theme, with some added strings and percussion. The logo has changed color slightly, but other than that, the sequence remains virtually unchanged. The new series under the charge of Russel T. Davies seemed all about making the series "bigger and better" to the point where occasionally it started to get obnoxious. This sequence and arrangement isn't obnoxious, it's just...big. Maybe it's just me.

The Eleventh Doctor's Theme: 2010-present

Ok, now we've reached it, the newest opening sequence to come out of the show. I have to tell you, I absolutely love it, and I have no idea why. Once again we have a new rearrangement by Murry Gold, with an even more intense orchestral intro before we hit the electronic melody. There's a part of me that's saying that this is too overblown again, that despite the fact that they've clearly used the original masters from Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire's recording back in the 60's, that the whole thing is just too big and over the top, but for some reason, I just don't care. This sequence is awesome, easily the best of the new series sequences so far. I love the visuals, the blue, smoky tunnel and the lightening that heralds the appearance of the actor's names and I love the TARDIS falling into the fire and finding the logo. I think the new logo looks sleek without trying to be, and I think the sequence as a whole, against all logic, flows really well. The feel of it suits the excellent tone of the Eleventh Doctor's series, and really gets you pumped for Doctor Who.

But wait! I'm not done yet. Oh no. These were the main themes, but there were a few other arrangements that a lot of people don't realize ever existed.

The Delaware Theme: 1971

In 1971 there was an attempt by the Radiophonic Workshop to modernize the theme using the new Delaware synthesizer. The remix was done by Brian Hodgson and Paddy Kingsland, and was produced by Delia Derbyshire herself. The peice was not well received by the BBC, and despite the fact that they had already mixed the theme into the episodes, the BBC rejected it. Most of the copies of the episodes were edited to remove the Delaware theme and replace it with the previously used theme from the 1960's, but a few episodes were accidentally sent out to Australia with the Delaware theme still completely intact. To be honest, I can sort of see why the BBC didn't really like it. It's interesting, sure, but it doesn't sound like the Doctor Who theme I know and love, it doesn't even really sound like another version of it, it's almost a different piece entirely. Plus, as I previously established, I'm really not big on synthesizers.

The Big Finish Audio Theme: 2001-2008

This was the theme used for a series of Doctor Who audio dramas produced by Big Finish (which if you're a Doctor Who fan, you should really track down) The arrangement was done by David Arnold, and to be honest, I like it a lot. As much as I love the fully orchestrated version from 1996, or the newest one that combines the orchestrated version with the original version, I love the simplicity of this one. It's spooky, but still has a very modern sound, matching original show producer Verity Lambert's original request that the music be "familiar yet different." I like the tone of it, I like the simplicity of it, and I'm really sad there were never any visuals to accompany it.

Dimentions in Time Theme: 1993

Oh Dear God. There's a reason people like to forget about "Dimentions in Time" the 1993 charity special that combined Doctor Who with a British soap opera. I know it's not supposed to be cannon or anything, and it's all just in fun...but God, this theme sounds like it's on speed. About three minutes in you start hearing ominous voices in the background of the piece, under this terrible synthesized drum beat that just doesn't sound anything like Doctor Who. God, as weird as I thought the Seventh Doctor's theme was, this was decidedly weirder.

Scream of the Shalka Theme: 2003

This was the theme from an animated webcast that the BBC attempted to proclaim was the newest canon incarnation of the Doctor. Yeah. Needless to say, once the new series came along the BBC was like "Nope! Never mind, he's totally non-canon after all, you can forget all about this!" and the world of Doctor Who moved on. The webcast wasn't particularly bad, if you can stand the limited flash animation, it just wasn't amazing. The theme is...well, pretty straight forward. It's small, but not really in a way that stands out, and it's really just not that interesting.

And so there you have it, the Doctor Who theme through it's many incarnations. To this day it remains one of the most enduring and well remembered themes in television history. As the new series continues, who know what they'll do to it next, but hopefully they'll always manage to capture the spirit of original, even if only a little.