Today, I'm going to talk about the Doctor Who theme, and one version in particular. This is the obvious point of convergence between my love of science fiction and electronic music, and there's no denying the influence of Who's long history of electronic scores – both the theme tune and incidental soundtracks – in my own music.
One of my earliest musical memories is hearing the original Delia Derbyshire version of the Doctor Who theme, which my parents had on a record along with other popular television theme tunes.
I like all the versions of the Doctor Who theme tune. Each offers something different yet unique and relevant to the era it represented. But the version I'm going to talk about is the seriously underrated 1986 arrangement by composer Dominic Glynn. Out of all the different versions, this is the one that has perhaps influenced me the most, musically.
So, let's cast our minds back to 1986. I was an eight-year-old, with a serious Doctor Who obsession (not much has changed, I admit). So when the series was given an 18-month 'rest' in 1985, I had to endure a long and torturous wait for the return of the Doctor. It seemed like an eternity had passed when the Doctor (then played by Colin Baker) finally returned to our screens in late 1986. Except somehow, the news that the series was even coming back had passed me by! And I still remember the day and the moment, having no idea whatsoever that it was returning.
It was a Saturday tea time in early September, and I had just finished watching and recording Roland Rat: The Series (yes, really...). I was just about to eject my video tape when I suddenly realised that the familiar Doctor Who titles were glowing out of the screen towards me. I hadn't realised what was happening, because there was also something unfamiliar about it – the music.
Then it clicked. I almost combusted with excitement at the realisation that a new series was starting right then, as I quickly thrust the Play and Record buttons back in on the VHS machine, and sat back in amazement. But new Doctor Who AND new music?! This was a lot to comprehend in my post-Roland Rat haze!
The Trial of A Timelord season took the show in a very dark and unexpected direction. What was going on? How could my Doctor possibly be on trial? His own people turned against him? Almost everything about the new show felt different; new production values, new special effects, new ideas and most notably, new music, with composer Dominic Glynn handling the incidental music as well as the new theme tune.
This was perhaps the first time that the atmosphere and textures of the incidental music felt like a continuation of the actual title music. There was an icy edge to the music, an uneasiness and foreboding atmosphere, which accompanied the darker stories perfectly. Of course, as we all now know, Doctor Who was having troubles of its own behind the scenes at the time, but back then I was oblivious to all of that.
Glynn's arrangement perfectly matched not only this more menacing direction, but also the colourful, spacey aesthetic of the Sixth Doctor's title sequence itself. I also thought this new version of the theme music was an ideal match to Colin Baker's Doctor's often unpredictable persona – and it was great to see his Doctor finally get his own theme tune, rather than continuing with the hand-me-down version.
But after that first episode had aired, I distinctly remember talking to friends about the music more than the episode itself! It had evidently struck a chord with me.
Although it obviously had to follow the general arrangement of the classic Who theme, Glynn introduced drones, shimmers and various other nuances and atmospheres which gave his rendition a distinctive identity. It was very different to any version that had gone before, yet it was still very much the Doctor Who theme. What he achieved was a version that had the dynamic of the Peter Howell arrangement from 1980, combined with the haunting, unearthly atmosphere of the 1963 original. There's just something about Glynn's 1986 version, which still to this day, gives me goosebumps.
The "scream" or "sting" (the bit at the very beginning) is also the most dramatic and piercing that the show has had to date, tearing perfectly into the cliffhanger at the end of each episode. I was already obsessed with the various arrangements of the show's theme tune before then, so when faced with a new version to digest, one of the first things I did was stuck my cassette recorder in front of the TV and taped the new the music (intro and outro, of course!). Then to my utmost excitement, BBC Records released an LP containing the full-length version!
The LP came with an eighties-tastic holographic sleeve. And I vividly remember having a nasty head cold on the day it arrived, but that didn't stop me from hauling myself out of bed to get the thing on the record player. I remember sitting there with blocked ears, a blocked nose and a fuzzy, dizzy head, listening to the full-length arrangement of the new theme, not only in glorious stereo, but with all the exciting additional bits you didn't get to hear on TV!
This version of the theme music has also aged well, unlike Keff McCulloch's 1987 arrangement which followed. But in 2008 when the BBC finally released the whole Trial season on DVD, I was really impressed to find a brand new remix of the 1986 theme tune, sounding superb and bringing it bang up to date. I hadn't heard it in years, and I was instantly transported back to that exciting Saturday afternoon.
So while it may not be immediately obvious, the music of Doctor Who in all its forms has been a big influence on my own instrumental music. Maybe that's why there's nearly always a science fiction edge to it, somewhere along the way.
But needless to say, that whenever I use the pitch-shift slider on my midi-synth to bend a note, Mr Glynn's Doctor Who theme is lurking there, in my mind!
My new album Timeshift is available from:
...and Who, Where and When, my personal account of growing up with Doctor Who in the 1980s and beyond, is available for free download here.