Da-da-da-dum, Da-da-da-dum, Da-da-da-dum, Da-da-da-dum, Da-da-da-dum, Da-da-da-dum, Da-da-da-dum, ooo-eee-oooo! Ooo-ee-ooh!
Doctor Who is the longest-running and most successful science-fiction television series that has ever been produced. The original series ran from 1963 to 1989 and the new series has been broadcast since 20051. The show tells the exploits of the Doctor2, his many companions and his space and time machine, the TARDIS. This has enthralled millions of viewers for over five decades and spawned legions of dedicated fans of all ages.
Since 1963 the show has naturally evolved and changed, yet part of the phenomenon that is Doctor Who is its opening and closing theme music, which is arguably one of the very best science-fiction musical themes that has ever been created. The howling, spooky music really epitomises what the series is all about, and it is hard to imagine Doctor Who with any other theme.
The Theme's Components
The Doctor Who theme consists of three main elements:
- The Bassline - This is the da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum rhythm that begins the theme and continues throughout. It has since been said to represent the Doctor's heartbeat, as Time Lords have two hearts, although the theme was composed long before the Doctor's anatomy was mentioned in the series.
- The Melody - This is the haunting section that begins ooo-eee-ooo (the ooo - eee is known as an augmented octave).
- The Middle-eight - For this section, the tune leaves the minor key for the major key's triumphal conclusion.
The Original Derbyshire Theme (1963-1979)
The music for the Doctor Who theme was written by Ivor Novello Award-winning composer Ron Grainer3 in 1963, the same year that Doctor Who arrived on our screens. Yet it was Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who transformed freelance composer Ron Grainer's basic tune into a timeless classic4. Derbyshire was a pioneer of electronic sound in Britain using musique concrète techniques. As synthesisers hadn't been invented she cut individual notes from recordings of sine tones and white noise, assembling them by hand on strips of magnetic tape to create the theme.
This version of the theme would remain until 1980, although not untouched. In 1967 from the series four Patrick Troughton story 'The Macra Terror' the theme was slightly tweaked. High-pitched, ascending twinkling notes were added in the background. In 1970, for Jon Pertwee's era, the opening theme had a repeat-fade at its conclusion to introduce the episode. A 'scream' at the episode's conclusion following a dramatic cliff-hanger announced the episode was over as the end credits rolled.
The original Derbyshire version returned to celebrate anniversary episodes, such as the 20th anniversary episode 'The Five Doctors' in 1983 (although slightly modified) and the 50th anniversary episode 'The Day of the Doctor' in 2013.
The Australian Delaware Version (1972)
There had been an attempt to update the theme in 1972. Delia Derbyshire was asked to use a synthesiser to create a more modern version, even though she disliked playing tunes on synthesisers, preferring to create each noise from scratch. This she did, using the room-sized Synthi 100 located at the Maida Vale Studios on Delaware Road. The resulting theme was not considered a success and was abandoned and replaced with the original, although it was accidentally left on two episodes of Doctor Who sent to Australia. This failed update attempt is usually called either the 'Delaware Version' or sometimes the 'Australian version'. It can be found as an extra on the 'Carnival of Monsters' DVD.
The Peter Howell Theme (1980-1986)
When new producer John-Nathan Turner took over in 1980, he was determined to modernise Doctor Who. Among his many changes was that of the theme. He challenged Peter Howell at the Radiophonic Workshop to create a new, electronic version that is arguably almost as good as the theme that existed from 1963 to 1980. It took Howell six weeks and 12 different sound sources to create his version, as he was determined that no-one else would be able to recreate what he had done. He began by recording the bassline on a Yamaha CS80 synthesiser in E minor to match Derbyshire's original, yet when he felt it was too slow he sped the tape up by 12.246%, which increased the pitch by two semitones to F# minor. To emphasise the bassline, Howell added a low-frequency pulse. The 'sting' that opens the theme was the 1970 Derbyshire scream ring-modulated. Other effects were recordings of a match being struck, slowed down and looped. The dramatic explosive boom at the end of the theme was a recording of a spinning metal plate, slowed down with extra effects added.
This electronic revamp of the theme music remained until 1986. Its popularity can be seen from how in 2000 it became the official menu theme heard on every classic Doctor Who DVD release.
The Dominic Glynn Theme (1986)
During the series' 23rd season, a collection of chronological stories called collectively 'The Trial of a Time Lord', the theme music was replaced by a more upbeat and whimsical version. Composed by Dominic Glynn, it was the first time the theme had been attempted by someone outside the Radiophonic Workshop. Glynn had been commissioned to write incidental music for the programme, but was later given a week to rearrange the theme too.
Glynn recorded his version of the theme at his home, aiming to create a spookier, more timeless version than Howell's. Alas, this theme music only lasted for the one 14-episode season before Sixth Doctor Colin Baker was replaced by Sylvester McCoy.
The Keff McCulloch Theme (1987-1989)
With the introduction of a new Doctor in 1987 came a new opening sequence which needed a new theme to accompany it. This theme tune was much faster than the two previous ones and was even more whimsical and upbeat than its immediate predecessor, with the familiar howling sounds from the theme tune of 1963 to 1980 brought back in an electronic style and new 'bird chattering' sounds added in for effectiveness.
McCulloch only listened to the original version when creating his theme, aiming to recapture the spirit of the original while using modern instruments and methods. Unfortunately for fans of this theme, it only lasted for three years before the BBC brought Doctor Who to an end in 1989, thanks to falling viewing figures - they used licence-fee money to fund flagship soap opera EastEnders instead.
The John Debney and John Sponsler Theme (1996)
In the mid-1990s a made-for-television Doctor Who co-production was commissioned with Universal Television. Entitled simply Doctor Who: The Movie, but also sometimes called Doctor Who: The Enemy Within, its producer Philip Segal announced in 1995 that he wanted a new version of the theme to be recorded by a British orchestra. Soon after, it was revealed that the BBC did not actually own the Doctor Who theme; as the theme tune was written by Ron Grainer as a freelance commission, Grainer had retained the copyright which was now owned by Warner Chappel Music.
Although Universal wanted to avoid the expense of paying the high fee that Warner Chappel were asking for, Segal felt that it would not feel like Doctor Who without its theme. Paying for the right to use the theme meant the budget could no longer afford the full orchestra that Segal had hoped for. Instead the theme tune was changed once again and was entirely synthesised electronically, although with a far more orchestral feel than had ever been heard before.
The new version was composed by John Debney5 and John Sponsler, with the aim of using orchestral sounds to give the theme a grand feel. Unfortunately this version of the theme did not prove popular with fans. It misses out the bassline in the introduction, briefly plays the melody and instead concentrates on the middle-eight section. Doctor Who is unusual in that most of its theme is played in a minor key, except for the middle-eight. By predominantly playing the middle-eight without the minor build-up, the unique theme was reduced to sounding similar to most other television themes. As most of the tune's major components were edited out, the opening theme is only about 1 minute 40 seconds long.
The David Arnold Theme (2001)
In 2001 a company called Big Finish Productions obtained a licence to produce Doctor Who audio plays. They approached Grammy Award winning composer David Arnold, who had composed music for James Bond films from Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) onwards, including co-writing the theme tunes for The World is Not Enough and Casino Royale, to make a new version purely for their audio adaptations. This was used by Big Finish Productions until 2008.
David Arnold would later compose music for Sherlock (2010+), a series created by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat.
Internet Theme (2003)
Fortunately, the theme music for the animated internet adventure 'Scream of the Shalka' in 2003 was a vast improvement on the theme for the 1996 movie. By Creation Music, the theme music for this one-off special is modern, fast-paced, edgy, and incorporates other elements such as the TARDIS materialising and electronic howling sounds like in the 1987 to 1989 theme tune. Also, in a welcome change from the 1996 version, it sounds like the music for a science-fiction series, not like the kind of music you'd hear at the circus, hurrah!
Alas, as with many a great Doctor Who theme tune, it only lasted for a short time - just for the 'Scream of the Shalka' - but there was hope in store for the fans yet, as...
Golden Years (2005+)
In March 2005 Doctor Who came bursting back onto our screens as a proper television series, once again managed by the wonderful people at the BBC. Finally, after 16 years' absence, the Doctor was back in our living rooms. The new version of the theme would be composed by Murray Gold.
The Series 1 theme tune, based on the 1963 original but logically updated once again, included orchestral horns, strings and percussion as well as TARDIS sounds. It was extremely effective and stands up to the 1980 to 1986 one as being an outstanding theme tune. This one, however, is faster, more exciting, with a great beat in the background and new howling sounds added in to make it even better. Truly this marked the return of Doctor Who as we know and love it, although it did not include the middle-eight section. The missing middle-eight was restored for David Tennant's introduction in the 2005 Christmas special 'The Christmas Invasion' and although the opening theme for Series 2 was the same as in Series 1, the closing credits now featured a longer version of the theme including the middle-eight.
Christmas 2008 – 2009
Murray Gold updated his theme for the 2008 Christmas Special 'Voyage of the Damned', with a pacier beat and stronger string sound. Again this came in a shorter opening version and a longer end title sequence including the middle-eight.
A more electronic version of the theme was created for Matt Smith's Doctor, with Gold including lightning-strike sound effects and creating a new counter-melody he called 'The Chase'.
Gold tweaked the theme again for his fifth arrangement with different drums and without the 'Chase' counter-melody for the 2012 Christmas special 'The Snowmen'. This was tweaked slightly for the start of the 2013 episodes. A slightly different theme was used for the 50th Anniversary Special.
A new version was used when Peter Capaldi was cast as the Doctor in 2014. It had less of a fanfare sound than the previous Gold version and again the middle-eight is missing. As the title sequence shows the TARDIS travelling through a clock, bells, clockwork chimes and gears are incorporated into the theme, which has a very prominent bassline. In the episode 'Before the Flood', the Doctor plays Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on his electric guitar in the opening sequence, which then segues into his playing the Doctor Who theme.
Other Notable Mentions
Of course, the Doctor Who theme has enjoyed a life outside the confines of the television programme and inspired many other composers and arrangers to try their own take on the song. Since the very first cover version of the theme, released in February 1964, within three months of the first episode's broadcast6, many have tried to capture their own version of this theme's unique sound.
Geoff Love and his Orchestra (1978)
In 1977 Meco had enjoyed surprising success with their disco interpretation of John Williams' Star Wars theme, which became a US number one and UK number seven. EMI wanted to cash in on the act and commissioned their regular arranger-composer Geoff Love to create two albums of disco science-fiction. Love, who preferred to compose easy-listening orchestral music and was busy working for the Max Bygraves Show, commissioned Nick Ingman to be his 'ghostwriter', arranging and adapting other composers' music for these science-fiction albums in exchange for including some of Ingman's compositions on the albums. The first album, Star Wars and other space themes, included a new version of the Doctor Who theme with huge orchestration and Mike Vickers on the synthesiser. It comes across as almost a cross between the 1996 theme and a disco that is sadly running out of energy.
The Timelords: Doctorin' The Tardis (1988)
In 1972 Gary Glitter's 'Rock and Roll (Parts One and Two)' stalled at number two in the chart. Although it was obvious the song had potential, it lacked a certain something which meant it wasn't quite number one material. In 1988 the Timelords realised that what was needed to transform Glitter's song into a chart-topping hit were snatches of the Doctor Who theme combined with lyrics consisting of the words 'Doctor Who', 'Hey!' and 'The TARDIS', and occasional samples of other songs, such as Sweet's 'Block Buster!'. Naturally the regenerated song became a number one hit.
There was a rather bizarre music video accompanying the song - in it, an American police car drives around the English countryside occasionally encountering a Dalek which presumably the Blue Peter team had made earlier out of cereal boxes and rejected. It was all good fun until it was revealed that Gary Glitter had committed child sex offences and the song was seen as somewhat tainted as a result.
Orbital: Doctor? (2001)
Orbital were clearly inspired by the original Derbyshire version, but modernised it for the 21st Century in what is often considered a highly impressive version. Clean, deceptively simple, stylish and haunting with a catchy beat. In 2010 its performance at Glastonbury was one of the festival's highlights, particularly as Orbital were joined on stage by Eleventh Doctor actor Matt Smith.
Hank Marvin (2017)
In 2017, Hank Marvin released an interpretation of the theme on his Without a Word album. The legendary guitarist's interpretation, arranged by his son Ben, excludes the bassline and instead concentrates purely on the middle eight and melody, creating a remarkably upbeat yet haunting sound. When interviewed, Marvin stated that he had known Ron Grainer and been haunted by the theme ever since he first released it in 1963, at the peak of the Shadows' popularity, saying.
There was something about the way the music was realised by Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop – it actually sounded like science-fiction, probably because of the oscillators or whatever they used to create it. I thought it was so unusual, very haunting. It was one of those pieces that had been in the back of my mind for years.