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Doctor Who: Evolution of a Title Sequence
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Television programmes often survive or fail on the strength of their opening title sequence. It's a bit like the wrapping on a chocolate bar or fizzy drink, in that it 'sells' the show to its intended audience and hopefully sets the tone for what is to follow. In the 1950s, cinema audiences saw title sequences escalated from mere animated cast / production lists into artistic vignettes - mini-movies in themselves. The work of title designer Saul Bass in particular pushed the envelope in creating dizzying, unsettling or intricate intro sequences for films like Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Man with the Golden Arm. Bass's work was the inspiration for a revolution in TV too, with shows like The Twilight Zone, Lost in Space and The Avengers focussing more on the style and mood of the piece than its stars.
The First Sequence - 'Howl-around'
In 1963, producers of new science fiction drama series Doctor Who asked BBC graphic designer Bernard Lodge to create a title sequence for their show. Dealing with time travel across all manner of alien worlds, the show couldn't afford to be tied down to a specific look. It had to hint at the mystery that the show would offer, and perhaps play on the pun in the show's title ('Doctor … who?'). At the suggestion of associate producer Mervyn Pinfield, Lodge began experimenting with a technique called 'howl-around'. In the same way that placing a microphone too close to its speaker can result in a high-pitched feedback, pointing a black-and-white video camera at its own monitor can distort the image and produce abstract patterns of light. The technique itself wasn't new; a technician called Ben Palmer had created similar patterns for Amahl and the Night Visitors, a drama broadcast in 1951. Lodge and the producer of Doctor Who, Verity Lambert, watched yards of Palmer's experimental footage and decided to have a go at making their own.
Lambert asked Lodge to try to get the show's title into the sequence, and the first footage for the sequence was shot on 20 August, 1963, three months before the first episode was scheduled to air. 'What I didn't realise,' admitted Lodge some years later, 'was that the simple shape of the words, the two lines of fairly symmetrical type, would actually generate its own feedback pattern1.' Though the opening shot - a thin, foggy line of light that begins to break apart, like a rocket - came from Palmer's original footage, the remaining sequence comprised Lodge's new film sequences of clouds of feedback (formed both from the logo and from the use of a pen-torch). Combined with an equally unique title music (written by Ron Grainer and realised by Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), the title sequence 'effortlessly' epitomised the most unusual, imaginative and economically-innovative drama series ever to hit British (and eventually worldwide) TV screens.
'Howl-around' (Troughton Remix)
When the time came for the show's star, William Hartnell to retire due to ill-health, the producers decided to continue the show with a new lead actor - the idea being that Doctor Who could 'regenerate' at the point of death into a new body. It was a radical idea, and not everyone was sure the stunt would pay off. However, happy that Hartnell's replacement, Patrick Troughton, had not killed off the show, the decision was taken to commission new opening titles which would feature the face of the show's star for the first time. It was an idea that had been suggested for the original titles, but it had been felt that initial test footage depicting a face 'disintegrating' through howl-around was too disturbing. Hence Hartnell's visage had not appeared on the show's first titles.
Bernard Lodge found a way to incorporate Troughton's face into a new montage without it looking scary. A photograph of the actor was inserted in front of a camera and then the image was fed through a howl-around sequence, filmed and then reversed into a negative. The two elements, positive and negative, were assembled so it looked like Troughton's face was assembling. This was combined with new 'ripple-effect' howl-around shots (including a different font for the logo) to create a new intro.
This new composition, complete with a remixed title music, would introduce the show for a further three years, until 1969 when Troughton too decided to move on. Troughton's successor, Jon Pertwee, would be introduced to the British public with the new colour TV system - which would of course require revised intro graphics to make maximum use of the new colour techniques.
For the 1970 season, Bernard Lodge again set about creating the look of the show's intro graphics, and, assisted by Ben Palmer, he relished the chance to play with colour. 'I had expected colour television would give us even more wonderful abstract shapes than we had achieved in black and white,' said Lodge, 'but in fact, the results were very disappointing.' What the pair ended up doing was simply filming more footage in black and white, and then colouring the images afterwards. The patterns this time consisted of concentric diamond patterns, which were then coloured by optical printer in a bulls-eye design.
Having made do with an existing publicity portrait of Troughton for the 1966 graphics, Lodge commissioned specific shots of Jon Pertwee and ensured that all the stills were backlit from each side to form a perfect shadow down the centre of his face. One early edit of the new sequence featured a full-length image of Pertwee holding his trademark opera cape outstretched before fading into a close-up of his face; this full-body shot was removed from the final edit2.
For the first time, closing titles were also commissioned (the black-and-white episode credits had, with a few exceptions, always rolled across a plain black backdrop), which was simply a reworking of the opening graphics.
These titles ran for three years, until the 1973 season. For their final appearance, on the sixth episode of a story called 'The Green Death', the graphics were shown upside-down.
By 1973, the producer of the series was Barry Letts. Tired of the howl-around technique, which had been the programme's signature since its start in 1963, Letts commissioned Bernard Lodge to create a new opening. To give a sense of depth, Lodge decided to explore a technique called 'Slit Scan', first used on Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The essence of the technique is the use of long time exposures. The rostrum camera, normally shoots a series of frames while tracking towards artwork, but for slit scan the camera tracks while exposing only one frame, towards a slit which is the only light source. As the camera tracks down, backlit patterns on the rostrum bench, pan laterally behind the slit. The result is that the slit 'paints or scans a perspective image of the pattern on that one frame. For subsequent frames the rostrum bench begins its pan from a different point, so, over a series of frames the pattern appears to move along the wall or tunnel, its shape depending on the shape of the slit. A single vertical slit creates a wall, a circular slit creates a tunnel, a slit traced around an image of Doctor Who creates a Doctor Who shaped tunnel, and so on.
One of the patterns Lodge used to pan through his various apertures was created by placing torn strips of polythene plastic between pieces of glass. Filmed through polarising filters, the stress in the polythene showed up a spectrum of colours.
The distance tracked by the camera restricted the length of each tunnel: the camera Lodge hired could travel only about 1.5 metres, so to create an illusion of greater depth, a bright glow was superimposed at the end of each tunnel and for the end titles, a soft dark patch. At 25 frames per second, the filming and the final optical assembly took three months to complete.
Beginning with a tubular image formed by dots of light stretching into place, the sequence then goes through a number of other tunnel effects, including a full-length one of Pertwee, and a close-up head. The latter had to be shot through a screen of dots to avoid the image being washed out by the long time exposure. Finally a diamond shaped tunnel is the setting for the diamond shaped logo.
But after the death of Roger Delgado - the actor behind the series' recurring villain, The Master - and the departure of Pertwee's on-screen companion Katy Manning, the star himself decided to call it quits. A new actor - and yet another title sequence - would be required…
Go the Distance
Tom Baker stepped into the shoes of the able Time Lord with a revised version of the Slit-scan graphics. For this version, a letterbox image fans out to fill the screen in the shape of the Doctor's time machine, the TARDIS (in the form of a British 1950s Police Box), which soars towards the screen and dissolves to give way to a golden-coloured tube. Tom Baker's face then fades in, then the final segment - the blue diamond-shaped tube from Pertwee's version - appears with the logo travelling backwards along it. The story title and episode number pop up before the sequence fades to black and the episode ends. The closing credits, meanwhile, run across a looped sequence of the golden tube segment.
With very little variation (a very few stories began with the sequence tinted a sepia colour), this opening sequence opened the show for six years, until 1980.
This time, the change in titles was not for a new lead actor, but for a new producer wanting to make his mark on the show - John Nathan-Turner. Nathan-Turner had been involved with the show on and off since the late 1960s and was aware of the need for the show to go through a number of changes. Out went the familiar Delia Derbyshire arrangement of the theme tune - in came a completely new arrangement courtesy of the synthesisers of Radiophonic composer Peter Howell. Out too went Bernard Lodge's titles, replaced by a fully animated graphic created by BBC designer Sid Sutton.
The new graphics depicted a field of stars zooming towards the screen and forming the face of the Doctor and the new neon-styled programme logo. Though comprising a vastly-increased frame-rate to the slit-scan technique, the overall sequence was flashier, but much less complex.
When Tom Baker left in 1981, the sequence was altered slightly to accommodate the next Doctor, Peter Davison, but the sequence remained largely unaltered until another Doctor - and another Baker - came along. Beginning with Colin Baker's first story, 'The Twin Dilemma', a coloured ripple effect was superimposed over the sequence to represent the more gaudy, tasteless aspects of Colin's Doctor. Another new theme arrangement was commissioned for the troubled 1986 season3 - the show's 22nd - though Colin's title sequence remained unchanged. Producer John Nathan-Turner (still in charge after all these years) had considered commissioning a new computer-generated sequence for this season, but decided against it. However, it would be all-change again the following year...
After the hurried (and premature) departure of Colin Baker at the end of 1986, comic performer Sylvester McCoy became the final regular TV Doctor Who. Nathan-Turner commissioned BBC designer Oliver Elmes to work with a company called CAL Video to create a wholly computer-generated sequence, which would be the most complex since Tom Baker's first one.
The basic concept for this one was the 'Big Bang', with stars exploding to form a multi-coloured galaxy (the Milky Way). At the heart of the galaxy, a huge gas bubble forms, inside which materialises a spinning TARDIS. Sylvester McCoy's face then fades in - surrounded by blue swirling clouds that deliberately aped those of the original sequence from 1963 - who then winks, grins and then fades out again. The camera circles around the galaxy before tilting sharply up to see pieces of the new comic-book-style logo soaring overhead to assemble just as the story title appears.
Costing £20,000 and taking three months to create, this sequence ran for the duration of McCoy's reign - some three short years. By 1989, the top brass in BBC drama had tired completely of the show. Transmitting it in direct competition to ITV's flagship soap, Coronation Street, had not killed it off, so when John Nathan-Turner finally resigned after ten years of fighting to promote the show against insurmountable odds, the decision was made not to replace him. Despite assurances to the contrary, Doctor Who as an on-going concern was dead.
…and the Rest
The McCoy title sequence enjoyed a brief resurgence when it was used to open the 1993 one-off spoof 'Dimensions in Time', a special edition of the series in aid of the BBC's annual Children in Need appeal. This was the first of three revivals that appeared on British screens in the 1990s.
The 1996 TV Movie, which starred Paul McGann, had a subtle opening sequence which managed to ape both the tube element of the Tom Baker titles and the misty nature of Hartnell's original. This was not the only element of the film that was a 'kiss to the past'; many critics have noted that the movie itself seemed like it was trying too hard to recapture the past without offering anything substantially new to the series. Indeed, 1999's 'The Curse of Fatal Death' (a hilarious spoof in aid of Comic Relief) - which used a re-edited version of Tom Baker's slit-scan titles - managed to gently ridicule the more laughable elements of the show's rich history, cast five new Doctors in one go and add more to the programme's legacy in 24 minutes than the McGann movie managed in 90.
New Beginnings - 2005 onwards
'The Curse of Fatal Death' was, for many years, the final TV outing for Doctor Who. While the show managed to live on in the form of original novels, CD-based audio dramas and webcast specials, it was the TV version that the general public still remembered.
When the series returned in 2005, the title sequence echoed the look of the 'slit-scan' time tunnel Bernard Lodge had made for Tom Baker's early seasons. This time, the graphics were created through computers, depicting a police box spinning at speed down a blue tunnel. At the mid-way point, the police box enters real space, turns and re-enters the tunnel, which is now red. The sequence also appears at regular intervals in the episodes themselves and the production team has explained that the tunnel is blue when the TARDIS travels back in time, and red when it's moving forward.
This sequence differs from the usual opening titles from the series in a couple of ways. Firstly, the lead actor's face is not depicted, and secondly, the title of the show is preceded by credits for the lead actors (so, for 2005, this was Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper).
The 2010 series, which introduced Matt Smith as the Doctor, saw a variation on this sequence. Once again, a tunnel motif was used, with icy blue at the start, changing to fiery red part way through.
Alongside improbable monsters, attractive companions and eccentric stars, the magical, mysterious opening titles continue to play their part in creating the legend that is - Doctor Who.
The h2g2 Team would like to thank Bernard Lodge for supplying additional information for this entry.