Mystery Music March

The Doctor Who Theme – David Arnold

Ron Grainer’s theme to Doctor Who originally appeared in an arrangement by BBC Radiophonic Workshop stalwart Delia Derbyshire when the programme launched in the early 60s. Her version was groundbreaking, knocked together using sounds recorded on tape played repeatedly and in consort, the monotonous thumping of the baseline counterpointed by the melody of real world instruments distorted into sounds which truly sound as though they’ve come from the stars. A massive later influence on electronic artists, ironically produced analogically.

The theme has since then been twisted and reshaped dozens of times and everyone, well at least everyone whose a fan, has their favourite arrangement or at least their favourite arrangement that isn’t by Derbyshire. The Peter Howell synthesiser which heralded the eighties and I grew up with; the experimental Delaware from the 1970s, produced for but not used on screen because its just too strange; the plonky Dominic Glynn which is equally strange and actually was used for a whole year before being replaced; Keff McCulloch bringing in the nineties three years too early before people knew what they’d sound like (it’s this one that could be found on the show when it was canceled).

And not just from those broadcast on television. How about the mayhem of Don Harper's Homo Electronicus? Or Eric Winstone and his Orchestra attempting to reproduce the sound using conventional instruments whilst still retaining its otherworldliness and not straying in the march unbeloved from the mid-90s TV movie. Or how about the Belgian Jazz version by comedian Bill Bailey? There have been rock and jazz versions, bangra and classical. This website [via] has hundreds of amateur interpretations including one which preys upon the fact that the legendary middle Eighth sections sounds almost but not exactly like Do They Know It’s Christmas (which was the reason it was left off the titles for the whole of the first new series).

Relatively few people have heard my favourite version even though it has been broadcast on the BBC, or at least the digital BBC7. At the turn of the millennium, five years before the programme returned to television, Big Finish Productions who had already been producing audio cd adventures with the original Doctors, signed Paul McGann to appear. Released as seasons, and carrying on from where the TV Movie left off, this was at the time as close to a new series as most fans could hope for (the spin-off novels and comic strips accepted) and sitting down one rainy afternoon in January to listen to the first, Storm Warning was as emotional experience as five years later to see Christopher Eccleston’s debut.

Rightly, because this was such an event, Big Finish were keen to produce their own new take on the theme and were able, because he was a friend of a friend to secure the help of composer David Arnold, best known for composing and co-ordinating the music for the James Bond films since Goldeneye. As well as producing big orchestral scores, Arnold's also indulged in dance and electronica and it was going to be intriguing to see what he’d produce for this commission. Budget suggested that full orchestra was right out, but was anyone prepared for what emerged from the speakers at the opening of the story?

There’s a brief excerpt of the new mix at the opening of the teaser (in which the Doctor rifles through his library before the TARDIS is attacked by dinosaurs living in the time vortex) the full version appears at the close of the first track of the cd and it’s breathtaking. At time of release, Doctor Who Magazine described how he was influenced by the machinery of a time machine, how he wanted the theme to evoke the cranking of its engines and that is exactly what it sounds, the baseline revolving like the pistons of a steam engine crossed with the materialisation sound effect. The melody, almost subliminal in this version produced via what sound like pan pipes, but could as well be the solar winds.

What I admire about Arnold’s work is that unlike the new Murray Gold mix which is essentially the original Derbyshire arrangement overlaid with the passion of a full orchestra, this is something totally new, but not in the same way as the 80s versions deliberately tried to update the sound. They all now sound terribly dated, whereas this is almost ageless, and would have fitted the series in any era. Except perhaps when Colin Baker was the Doctor. Or Sylv. Like the Derbyshire version, it retains a freshness which is probably why when Big Finish relaunched the McGann stories recently, they firstly kept it intact (so you may have heard it on BBC7) and then simply remixed it. I’m yet to hear that rejig, but I can’t imagine it’ll be an improvement. You can only ruin perfection.


That Neil Guy said...

Amen, brother. I love the David Arnold version and have proselytized for it on the Podshock forum to deafening silence. It's got a feeling of mystery within it that really speaks to the heart of Doctor Who. It's brilliant.

Jonathan said...

Mmm... I have to admit I was unmoved by this, and remain so. But in the interests of giving things another go, I'll give this another go...

Personally, I love the Mexican hat dance in the middle of Glynn's version ;-)