A History of the Doctor Who Theme

An online article by Mark Ayres

The Doctor Who theme (composed by Ron Grainer, published by Erle Music/Warner Chappell) is one of the most recognisable pieces of television music ever written. It is also one of the most original in terms of its execution, being created as "pure" electronic music. Quite what I mean by this, I'll explain later.

This article explains the background to the creation of the original theme music and offers a history of the changes made to it down the years. The text is based on known facts, my own research and cataloguing work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and discussions with the people involved (special thanks to Tristram Cary, Brian Hodgson, Delia Derbyshire, Dick Mills, Desmond Briscoe, Barry Letts, Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell). Obviously, however, after 30-40 years it can be difficult to remember precise sequences of events, so I have made occasional logical assumptions. As ever, the background research of other historians - I'll single out Andrew Pixley and David Brunt for particular acknowledgement here - has been invaluable, and the ordered presentation of the early history of Doctor Who in the books of the "Howe, Stammers, Walker" team was also more than useful. Pertinent questions asked by fans have also been of help on occasion!

I hope that this article will help to answer some of the many questions I am frequently asked about the theme, including:

  • How was the theme made?
  • Why is the original broadcast version of the theme different from the single?
  • What is an "electronic spangle"?
  • Why was the theme so badly edited on Spearhead from Space?
  • How was the "electronic scream" made?
  • Where can I get hold of the sheet music?

I should point out that I restrict the scope of this piece to the original BBC Television series, and the Radiophonic Workshop's original versions of the theme in particular; the American television film and the numerous cover versions of the music are not included here.

Index:

The Beginning - Rex Tucker and Tristram Cary
Les Structures Sonores
Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Delia Derbyshire
Doctor Who - The Original Theme
The First Broadcast Version
The 1967 Version
The 1970 Version - Opening Titles
The 1970 Version - Closing Titles - First Revision
The 1970 Version - Closing Titles - Second Revision
Opening Titles - The Ambassadors of Death
The "Electronic Scream"
1972 - The "Delaware" Version
1972 - The Stereo Versions
The Peter Howell Version, 1980
Later Versions
The Sheet Music

The Beginning - Rex Tucker and Tristram Cary

The story of the Doctor Who Theme starts in June 1963. It had been over a year since the idea of a new weekly science fiction series was first raised at the BBC, and some three months since Doctor Who had started serious development. In May 1963, BBC staff producer/director Rex Tucker had been placed in temporary charge of the project pending the appointment of a permanent producer. Tucker, a specialist in children's and "classic" serials, had been working with composer Tristram Cary on a 6-part production of Jane Eyre, and in June he suggested to Cary that he might be interested in composing the theme music to Doctor Who, and the incidental music for the first serial.

Oxford-born Cary was one of the greats of contemporary music and a trail-blazer in the history of electronic and electro-acoustic composition. Unforgivably, to my mind, his contribution is frequently overlooked in favour of the Stockhausens and Cages of this world, but a listen to his CD, Soundings (Tall Poppies Records TP139, 2000), should dispel any doubts as to his importance. He started his working life as a radar officer in the Royal Navy, already conceiving the ideas that would lead him to become a pioneer in a new form of music - tape music. After the Second World War he studied at the Trinity College of Music in London, qualifying in 1950. He composed many conventional works during this time, but from 1947 was starting to build a "home studio", largely from war surplus equipment. This studio even featured a 78-rpm disk-cutting lathe, replaced by more practical tape machines as soon as they became usable around 1952. His first film score was for The Ladykillers in 1955, and he continued a career alternating cutting-edge experimental work with conventional concert compositions and TV, film and radio commissions. In the 1960's he linked up with two other enthusiasts, computer music pioneer Peter Zinovieff and engineer David Cockerell (later responsible for designing the Akai sampler range), to form EMS (Electronic Music Studios). Between them, they specified, designed and built the EMS VCS3, the first British synthesiser and a seminal piece of equipment still in use by discerning electro-composers around the world. The VCS3 would later be used by Brian Hodgson and Dudley Simpson to great effect in many scores for Jon Pertwee Doctor Who stories, and the technology was expanded to form the monster Synthi 100 "Delaware". Tristram emigrated to Australia in the mid-1970s to take up an academic position at the University of Adelaide. He died in April 2008.

But by the middle of June 1963 Verity Lambert had arrived as Doctor Who's permanent producer. She had been brought to the BBC by Sydney Newman (who, with Donald Wilson, was primarily responsible for creating the new series), and had followed Newman from ABC, where she had been his production secretary on Armchair Theatre. Tucker was, at this stage, still assigned to direct the first Doctor Who adventure while another staff director, Waris Hussein, was brought aboard to direct the second story.

Yet at the very beginning of July, schedule changes meant that Rex Tucker would no longer be available, and Hussein moved up to cover. Tucker telephoned Cary to tell him that, as a result, he would not be required to contribute.

We can only guess what a Doctor Who theme by Tristram Cary would have been like: we can be sure that it would have been very different from Ron Grainer's but equally enthralling! Tristram would eventually provide a pure electronic score for the second Doctor Who adventure, which introduced the programme's most enduring monsters, the Daleks, and he returned a few times after, including for the one story that Rex Tucker finally got to direct - The Gunfighters (1966). Cary's collaboration with Tucker continued on other productions however, including Madame Bovary and The Mill on the Floss (both 1964) and The Million Pound Banknote (1968).

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Les Structures Sonores

In mid-July Verity Lambert, still in need of music for her new series, harboured ideas of commissioning a theme from French avant-guard composers Jacques Lasry & Bernard Baschet, otherwise known as Les Structures Sonores. They produced most of their music from elaborate custom-built metal and glass sculptures (sound-structures). Attempts were made to contact their agents but the idea was dropped by the end of the month. Music from a couple of their LP's would, however, be used to underscore two adventures, The Web Planet and Galaxy 4, some months later.

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Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

It was the head of the BBC's Television Music department, Lionel Salter, who suggested to Lambert that she meet with Desmond Briscoe of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

The Workshop had been formed in 1958 as a department specialising in creative sound for radio, and television had quickly caught on to the potential of what they could achieve. The Workshop was staffed by a small number of "assistants" working under Briscoe. They were all enthusiasts from within the BBC who, before the creation of this dedicated resource, had been experimenting "after hours" with whatever equipment they could lay their hands on. Much of their experimentation involved similar tape-music techniques to those being developed by Tristram Cary and others at the time, and they all took a great interest in each others' work. But it has to be remembered that while Cary was able to experiment freely in his own time, the Workshop was set up as a service department within a broadcasting organisation.

Lambert's meeting with Briscoe was fruitful, with the Radiophonic Workshop (in the person of Delia Derbyshire) agreeing to work with Lambert's choice of outside composer on creating the theme music, and also undertaking to provide special sound effects for the series on a regular basis (Brian Hodgson to be assigned to this task). Lambert's final choice of composer - probably suggested by Briscoe - was a convenient one: Ron Grainer, composer of theme tunes for such programmes as Maigret and Steptoe and Son, had just finished working with Brian Hodgson on Giants of Steam, a television documentary series about railways.

Giants of Steam had been something of a minor hit for the Workshop. Brian (with assistant Dick Mills) had constructed an elaborate radiophonic rhythm track from tape-sequenced bursts of electronically-generated white noise and metallic thumps derived from a large, battered oil drum (which still survives at Maida Vale!). Grainer had then taken this rhythm track to a session at which he had overdubbed a live orchestra. Well-received, the track was later rerecorded (using the same rhythm track) for release by Decca records.

Lambert's brief for Doctor Who was that she wanted something with a beat, radiophonic, "familiar yet different". Ron Grainer composed the theme on a single sheet of A4 manuscript, and sent it over from his home in Portugal, leaving the Workshop to get on with it. With an eye to the fact that the techniques to be used to realise the theme were very time-consuming, Grainer provided a very simple composition, in essence just the famous bass line and a swooping melody. There are few harmonic changes, and these are marked out almost entirely by the movement of the bass line, with only sparing use of inner harmony parts to reinforce where necessary. Any indication as to orchestration or timbre was simple but evocative: "wind bubble", "cloud" and so on. To an inventive radiophonic composer such as Delia Derbyshire, this was a gift. Even so, the composer perhaps harboured doubts as to whether all this could be achieved electronically (though that was always the intention) and kept in mind that it might be necessary overdub a small "live" instrumental ensemble (as with Giants of Steam) at the end.

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Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire was born in Coventry, trained as a pianist, and read mathematics and music (specialising in mediaeval and modern music history) at Cambridge University. She joined the BBC as a Studio Manager and moved to the Radiophonic Workshop in 1962. Her imagination, combined with her mathematical precision and sense of structure, led her to produce some of the Workshop's most extraordinary output over the next eleven years. She maintained influential outside interests too, forming Unit Delta Plus with Brian Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff in the mid-1960's (Zinovieff would later create EMS from the ashes of this endeavor) and working with Brian Hodgson and David Vorhaus on the original White Noise LP. Delia left the Workshop in 1973, frustrated by the internal workings of the BBC and feeling that her creativity was being stifled by petty bureaucracy. She died in July 2001.

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Doctor Who - The Original Theme

Delia Derbyshire, with assistant Dick Mills, created the original version of the theme in August 1963 using techniques, described here, that applied for years, whether the sound sources were electronic or concrete.

In 1963, when the job of producing the Doctor Who theme landed at Delia's feet, there were no synthesisers. The sound for electronic music came either from pure electronic sources, or from recordings of actual live sounds - the precursor of what we now term "sampling". But sampling now is easy: capture a sound, assign it to a range of notes on a keyboard, and play. But musique concrete was not so easy forty years ago.

There being no "synthesisers", the Workshop needed a source of electronic sound. They found this in a bank of twelve high-quality test tone generators, the usual function of which was to output various tones (square waves, sine waves) for passing through electronic circuits for testing gain, distortion and so on. They also had a couple of high-quality equalisers (again, test equipment - equalisers, or "tone controls", were not that easy to come by at the time) and a few other gadgets including a "wobbulator" (a low frequency oscillator) and a white noise generator.

Each sound in the Doctor Who theme was individually created using these instruments, and recorded to magnetic tape. By "each individual sound" I mean just that - each note was individually hand-crafted. The swooping sounds were created by manually adjusting the pitch of the oscillator to a carefully-timed pattern. The rhythmic hissing sounds were created by filtering white noise to "colour" it, as were the "bubbles" and "clouds". Examination of the original makeup tapes suggests that one of the two bass lines alone is a "concrete" sound, a plucked string sample.

Once each sound had been created, it was modified. Some sounds were created at all the required pitches direct from the oscillators, others had to be repitched later. This was done by taking the piece of tape with the sound on and looping it. The loop was placed on a tape machine and its playback speed varied until the pitch was correct, then the sound was rerecorded onto another machine. This process continued until every sound was available at all the required pitches. To create dynamics, the notes were rerecorded at slightly different levels.

Now the fun really started. They had all the sounds, all the notes, and now had to create the music. So each individual note was trimmed to length by cutting the tape, and stuck together in the right order. This was done for each "line" in the music - the main plucked bass, the bass slides (an organ-like tone emphasising the grace notes), the hisses, the swoops, the melody, a second melody line (a high organ-like tone used for emphasis), and the bubbles and clouds. This done, they ended up with a number of lengths of cut tape with the individual parts on. Most of these individual bits of tape, complete with edits every inch, still survive.

This done, the music had to be "mixed". There were no multitrack tape machines, so rudimentary multitrack techniques were invented: each length of tape was placed on a separate tape machine and all the machines were started simultaneously and the outputs mixed together. If the machines didn't stay in sync, they started again, maybe cutting tapes slightly here and there to help. In fact, a number of "submixes" were made to ease the process - a combined bass track, combined melody track, bubble track, and hisses. Eventually, the piece was finished.

The result is an astonishing piece of work with a magically organic quality to it that belies the many hours of patient work it took to create. As I said at the start, it is a "pure" electronic work - there is no element of "performance" at all, yet it still sounds alive. Even more extraordinary is that you can listen to the Doctor Who theme now, nearly 40 years later, and still not work out exactly how it was done. It must be one of the most timeless recordings ever - still fresh and modern when later versions sound dated and stale.

Ron Grainer was delighted with the result and, realising that the music worked perfectly well as it stood, abandoned any thoughts of overdubbing "live" players - to Delia's great relief. The story goes that on listening to playback, he enquired of Delia, "Did I write that?". To which she replied, "Most of it!". Recognising Delia's immense contribution, he apparently also suggested splitting his performance royalty income with her, but for various reasons this was not possible.

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The First Broadcast Version

The original August 1963 version of the theme was around 2 minutes and 19 seconds in length, and a complete piece in its own right. You'll find it as track one on Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume One - The Early Years (1963-1969). It was licensed to Decca in 1964 for release as a single (Decca F.11837, 1964 - backed by a popular dance tune of the 1950's, This Can't be Love, in a bizarre rendition by Brenda and Johnny), and formed the basis of the 1972 stereo version released by BBC Records (see later). Everyone loved it, yet it was not destined for use on the programme.

By the time this first master (the earliest Doctor Who recording of any kind) was completed, Bernard Lodge had completed the opening titles graphics. He had created an inventive swirl of howlaround (or "howlround") images formed by feeding the output of a video camera optically back into itself via its own monitor - the visual equivalent of the high-pitched whine that results if you point a PA microphone at its own loudspeaker. The theme needed adjustments to match the graphics more closely, and the production team wanted a piece which gave a lot of flexibility as to use from one master tape. Lambert also wanted, it is said, some of the precision removed from the recording, to make it sound more "human".

So in September, a second master was prepared. A number of different versions of the theme are on this master tape, of which two are broadly similar. They feature an edited version of the theme running to about 1'15", followed by a repeated bassline loop running up to about 2'00", then the "wind bubble" to end. The rhythmic hissing that drives the track has also been altered (the main change being that it speeds up and fades out just after the entry of the melody before a brand-new loop reenters) and some deliberate imprecision has been introduced. Of these two mixes, one is a good mix with good edits, and the other is a poor mix with some terrible edits. The pilot episode of Doctor Who was recorded in Lime Grove Studio D on Friday 27 September 1963. And guess which edit of the theme they used...?!

So they used the bad edit version on the pilot...you can hear one very poor edit just before the end of the melody before the bass loop takes over - the bass line sounds as if it is going into the bridge section, when in fact it goes back to a restatement of the opening melodic figure. The bass loop then carries on over the Policeman searching the junk yard and fades out as we see the TARDIS, before the wind bubble would have closed the track.

It is this "bad-edit" version that also found its way onto the Radiophonic Workshop's 21st birthday celebration album, appropriately entitled 21 (BBC Records REC 354, 1979). For this recording, however, they shortened the number of repeats of the bass loop at the end, cutting to the wind bubble early, making the track about 1'30".

For the remake of An Unearthly Child in the version finally broadcast (recorded Friday 18 October 1963, again in Lime Grove D), they used the good edit, in the same way as on the pilot, with the bass loop fading as we see the TARDIS in the yard. This version features as track 5 on Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume One.

One other curious thing about these first broadcast versions of the theme is that after they made the masters, they added the initial "hiss" at the very start of the theme to accompany the first flowering of the howlaround graphics. And, indeed, the effect was different on the pilot (a low hiss starting just after the entry of the bass line leading to a "thunderclap") to its final form on the transmitted version (a longer, higher whoosh slightly anticipating the bass line). These effects are not on the original mixes and so do not appear on 21. There is a band of candidate hisses appended to the end of the master reel - I chose what I believe to be the correct one and added it to the recording featured on the above CD.

This version now becomes the theme master for use from then on. It was used from the start of the tape - with added initial hiss - for the opening titles (married to the titles film print and played in to each studio recording from telecine), and from the entry of the melody (about 14 seconds in) for the closing titles. There were occasional variations in use of the closing titles, with the theme being run from the start (without the added "whoosh") rather than from the start of the melody - The Powerful Enemy (part one of The Rescue, 1965) is an example of this. And on at least one occasion (The Macra Terror Part One, 1967) the original "pilot" version of the theme was used for the closing titles in error.

Doctor Who was first broadcast on BBC television on 23rd November 1963, at 17.16hrs. At the time, most of the world was still reeling from the assassination of President J F Kennedy, which had taken place the previous day.

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The 1967 Version

By December 1966, William Hartnell's tenure as Doctor Who had finished, and the character had "regenerated" for the first time. Patrick Troughton was now the Doctor, and it was decided to remake the opening titles introducing an image of Troughton's face into the sequence. The new titles debuted with episode 1 of The Macra Terror, transmitted in March 1967. This same month, producer Innes Lloyd ordered a new version of the theme music to go with the new visuals, and Delia Derbyshire set about the task.

What she produced was not a complete new mix, but a copy of the very first (August 1963) master with new elements overlaid. The main new element was some rising arpeggiated patterns (often referred to as "electronic spangles") over the introduction and statement of the main melody, but the entire piece was also re-equalised slightly, and a delay echo with feedback was added to the final mix to give the bass line (in particular) a slightly different feel. Some commentators have suggested that the music runs at a slightly higher tempo - this is not true, but the echo can make this seem subjectively to be the case. This new master recording is only 51 seconds long, as only the opening was required in this new version (the master tape contains one other band - we'll return to this later!). The music was married to the new titles, and debuted on Episode 2 of The Faceless Ones in April 1967 (Episode 1 having used the original 1963 titles, but minus the added "whoosh" at the start). The new music is featured on Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume One, track 33.

The closing titles carried on as before, with some exceptions. For instance, Tomb of the Cybermen reuses the new opening titles (in their entirety) over the closing.

I'll add a "useless fact" here, which is that on the Radiophonic Workshop booking for this new version of the theme, it is stated that the requirement is for "Titles (Closing Only)". The tape reel, however, is labelled "new opening".

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The 1970 Version - Opening Titles

Further changes were made three years later at the start of the seventh season of Doctor Who, as the Doctor regenerated once again, and Patrick Troughton stepped aside for Jon Pertwee. The programme was made in colour for the first time, and a new set of colour howlaround titles featuring Pertwee's face were commissioned. To match these, another new version of the music was ordered, and on this occasion both titles and music would debut together, with episode 1 of Spearhead from Space, transmitted 3rd January 1970.

It is interesting to note that while the booking for radiophonic sound effects for this story was made in August 1969, the new music appears not to have been ordered until sometime later, in October, and after the effects for the following story (Doctor Who and the Silurians) had been commissioned. The Radiophonic Workshop charge code is the same as for Spearhead from Space, however, and it is Derek Martinus, that story's director, whose name appears on the booking. The new master tape is dated 31st November 1969 - undoubtedly an error, as there are only 30 days in November!

The differences to the opening titles music this time around include a short reverse-echoed stutter leading to the introduction, which is cut in half. This means that we get to the melody quicker, at about 8 seconds. After a statement of the melody, the music moves to a repeat-to-fade ending which could be tailed out under the opening action of an episode - this was a big improvement on previous versions, which had just been faded out arbitrarily when finished with. The additional repeat echoes added to the overall mix, as on the 1967 version, are also heard here.

In fact, this new 1969/70 version is a cleverly edited and further overdubbed version of the 1967 master - the theme is now a number of tape generations down from its original recording. The shortened introduction was created by doing a very clever (for 1969!) "overlap edit". A very slight perceived doubling of the bass line over the bubble, and the way the "cloud" (the white noise "whoosh") is at a lower level than on the 1967 version point to this, which of course saved having to go through the complicated remastering process that added the "spangles" in 1967 all over again. A little bit of additional white noise, and an extra "spangle", were also added to help disguise the new edits.

I stated earlier that the 1967 master contained one other band alongside the 51" titles. This band is labelled "new bubble", and was created to reinforce the bubble sound in the introduction which was otherwise lost under the new spangles. Strangely, the separate spangles track is not found on that master, indeed I have not found it anywhere. It was probably removed from the master and separately reedited into a new overdub reel for this 1969/70 version (providing the new spangle pattern over the melody), then erroneously thrown away rather than being re-archived.

This version of the opening theme - you'll find it as track 1 on Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume Two - New Beginnings (1970-1980) - was to serve until 1980, although the stuttered pre-introduction was removed for the tenth season (The Three Doctors) in December 1972, and the programme briefly reverted to using the 1967 titles for the first three stories of season eight.

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The 1970 Version - Closing Titles - First Revision

The 1969 master also contains another version of the theme which was used for the closing titles of both Spearhead from Space and Doctor Who and the Silurians. This version cuts in hard on the entry of the melody (after the introduction) but is otherwise seemingly identical to the 1967 version (overdubbed spangles at the start, added repeat echoes to the final mix, re-equalisation). But there is one important difference between this version and that on the 1967 master - this one doesn't fade out after 51", but continues to the end.

To create the new closing titles, the introduction was lopped off a copy of the 1967 opening titles. The August 1963 master was then taken again and treated as closely as possible to match the treatment applied in 1967 (the continuation section features no added "spangles") then, again, a clever cross-fade edit was performed to mix from the 1967 titles, just before they faded out, to the newly-treated matching master. This is not very obvious from the TV recordings, but is noticeable with careful examination of the new master.

Up until this time, the closing titles had, similar to the opening titles, merely faded away when the pictures ran out at the end of the roller. But with the new opening music in place, it seemed a good idea to try to edit the closing titles to finish with the end bubble on the director's credit. Yet, for some reason, this job was not initially assigned to the Radiophonic Workshop, even though, as we have seen, a new master was created.

For Spearhead from Space, they used the new closing master from the entry of the melody, then shortened it by arbitrarily editing it back into itself so as to make the end bubble fall on the director's credit and fadeout. The result is terrible. The edits (actually short cross-fades probably done on the film dubbing stage) are appallingly unmusical and disjointed. Someone must have noticed, as the idea was dropped at least partially for the next story, Doctor Who and the Silurians. For this story, the new closing theme was simply, as previously, faded when the titles ran out. But it was realised that a more permanent solution should be found.

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The 1970 Version - Closing Titles - Second Revision

The third story of the 1970 season of Doctor Who was The Ambassadors of Death (originally referred to in Radiophonic Workshop documents by one of its working titles, Carriers of Death), and it was decided to use the adventure for some further experiments with the titles.

Firstly, the closing titles were redone again. A still further edit and copy of the version produced for the start of the season produced three new masters with standard lengths of 40", 52", and 1'12". All of these started with a new "electronic scream" which would emphasise the cliffhangers, and ended with the closing "bubble". All made musical sense! In practice, the 40" version was never used on the TV series, but was used when a shortened closing theme was required for the audio-only LP version of Genesis of the Daleks in 1979. Like the opening titles which debuted this season, these closing titles stayed in use until 1980. All versions are featured on recent BBC Compact Discs - the 40" version on Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume One, the 1'12" on Volume Two, and the 52" on Doctor Who - Terror of the Zygons/The Seeds of Doom.

In fact a fourth edit of this version was also done, running to 15". This was used for some experiments with the opening titles...

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Opening Titles - The Ambassadors of Death

The opening titles of this story are unique. They start with the new music and graphics but fade immediately after the Doctor Who title caption. There is then (for part one) a short "teaser" of the episode or (for parts 2-7) a reprise of the previous episode's cliff-hanger, followed by the short 15" titles version as mentioned above, starting with the "scream" and ending with the "bubble". Over this we get the story title (with an added "zap" effect marking the appearance of the words "of Death" - this effect is also on the audio master reel), writer and episode number. The experiment was not repeated after this story.

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The "Electronic Scream"

The major innovation in the new closing titles was the "electronic scream" emphasising the cliff-hangers. How this sound was made has been the subject of some debate among fans. Here's how Delia Derbyshire realised it.

The sound consists of two elements, a rising bubbling sound and a descending scream effect. First of all, let's deal with the rising bubbling sound. The process used to create this was very simple. The first couple of notes of the closing titles (as the theme melody enters) were copied onto a new piece of audio tape. This was leadered, then flipped over so that it played backwards. The output of the tape deck was then fed into a frequency shifter set for a downwards shift at a short delay, and fed back into itself. When the tape was played into the shifter, it came out the other end milliseconds later with its pitch shifted down slightly. This output was fed back to the input and so on, creating a downwards cascade of ever more distorted sound. This was copied onto a new tape, and when this piece of tape was in turn flipped over, Delia was left with a rising flood of sound starting very distorted and slowly resolving into the opening couple of notes - this was then spliced onto the beginning of the theme.

The downwards scream was created in similar fashion. The source sound is a downwards-sliding hard-edged tone produced using an audio oscillator. Again, this was fed into the pitch shifter with very short delay, a downwards shift, and heavy feedback. Aliasing distortion within the shifter added to the overall effect. The result was mixed with the rising echoes to give the sound we are all familiar with.

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1972 - The "Delaware" Version

Although the pattern of the theme was now set until 1980, an attempt was made to update the music in June 1972. The first story intended to feature the new version was The Three Doctors, celebrating the start of the tenth season of Doctor Who (transmitted, nevertheless, just after the programme's ninth birthday). Electronic music was by now created largely using voltage-controlled synthesisers such as the EMS VCS3 and Synthi 100 "Delaware", both by now permanent fixtures at the Radiophonic Workshop. Delia Derbyshire, however, was unimpressed with the new technology, and still happily expressing her amazing creativity through traditional musique concrete tape cutting techniques. But, in response to Barry Letts' request, she was persuaded to try producing a new version of the Doctor Who theme on the Delaware by Brian Hodgson, who, with Paddy Kingsland, assisted her. The result was not liked by Delia, but was dubbed onto a number of episodes of the new season. As more people heard the new theme, the consensus was arrived at that it was not a patch on the old version, which was duly reinstated, a process which involved partially redubbing a number of completed episodes. It survives, however, on a couple of early edits of Carnival of Monsters (Episode 2) and Frontier in Space (Episode 5), which were sent in error to Australia and shown on ABC. The recording was actually broadcast just once in the UK, as part of a trailer for The Three Doctors. The original master tape of the theme is not in the library.

In retrospect, it is easy to see why this version didn't work. It is a very simple restatement of the theme created using early sequencing; the synthesiser tones used are very simple - too simple - and there is none of the magic organic quality of the original.

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1972 - The Stereo Versions

In November 1972, with transmission of The Three Doctors still a few weeks away, and the decision to drop the Delaware version of the theme still to be taken, a new "full-length" version of the music was commissioned, to be released as single by BBC Records in April 1973. One stipulation was that the new single would be in stereo. Delia Derbyshire and Paddy Kingsland set about producing the new master and decided to introduce Brian Hodgson's TARDIS sound into the mix. Already doubtful as to whether the Delaware version would "make it", they started by remastering the original August 1963 version of the theme (which had formed the master for the 1964 Decca release, and been reissued earlier in 1972). The master was passed through some filtering and delay effects to give it a "pseudo-stereo" sound, the "scream" was added to the front, and the TARDIS was tracked in to take off in the middle. Various experiments were tried: for some mixes, the theme fades out to be replaced entirely by the TARDIS in the middle, before returning and continuing to the end. In the event, a simple stereo'd version with added scream and TARDIS became the single (you'll find it as track 38 on Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume Two).

A stereo version of the Delaware version was also prepared, although for this a true stereo remix was done from the recent source. Nevertheless, some strange editing meant that the first few seconds remained in mono (and similar experiments with the TARDIS were tried as with the "original" version). The most complete version of this is also featured on Volume Two, track 39.

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The Peter Howell Version, 1980

The master tapes of the Doctor Who theme produced in 1969 and 1970 served the series well for ten years, a good example of the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". But in 1979, Production Unit Manager John Nathan-Turner was promoted to become Producer of the show, taking over from Graham Williams. And he, quite simply, decided to fix everything. This extended from day-to-day production details like making leading man Tom Baker wear makeup, to a complete overhaul of the entire on-screen style of the programme. Bernard Lodge's innovative slit-scan graphics (introduced for Jon Pertwee's last season in 1974 and altered only slightly for Tom Baker in 1975) were replaced by a sequence based around a conventionally cell-animated star field. Regular incidental music composer Dudley Simpson was informed that he had written his last score for the programme, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were commissioned to take on compositional duties full-time. And the Workshop's Peter Howell was tasked with updating the theme music.

Peter decided to start from scratch, wanting to produce a version for the 1980's that was as technically challenging as Delia's had been for the '60's. Starting from Ron Grainer's original score, he used a variety of techniques.

The bass line was created in a manner not totally removed from the original, with the sound, performed on Peter's beloved Yamaha CS80 synthesiser, assembled across two tracks of multitrack tape. This finished part was then run off onto quarter-inch tape, flipped over, and rerecorded through effects onto another reel to give each note a subtle pre-echo. The final effect was dubbed back to the multitrack.

Other instruments employed included the ARP Odyssey (used for the opening line of the melody), the EMS Vocoder (used to build the complex texture voicing the answering phrase in the main melody), and the Roland Jupiter 4 (set to auto-arpeggiate in octaves, it provided the sound for the middle eight). The chordal parts were created by layering the Jupiter 4 with the CS80.

The recording opens with an explosive whoosh - a kind of higher-tech equivalent of the "electronic scream" introduced in 1970 and, again, the origins of this sound have been the subject of much discussion. Informed wisdom suggests that the opening flameup was created from a basic sample of a match being struck, the original sound being trimmed to remove the initial scrape of match against paper, leaving just the flare. This was heavily processed and combined with a synthesised roar. Nevertheless, while the "match" effect was a standard part of a series of lectures Peter gave a few years ago, he does not remember using it at all on this recording, although it does sound as if he might have done! An alternative explanation is that the sound was entirely synthesised - this view supported by a demonstration Peter once gave on a schools' television programme, but in this case he was heavily simplifying the process, and may even have been playing a sample of the finished sound! In fact, Peter combined a processed recording of the downward glissando part of Delia Derbyshire's "electronic scream" with some white noise (and/or the match flare!); the final effect was achieved by laying the combined sound to the multitrack tape machine running at 30 inches per second (the highest speed the machine would run at), then starting playback dead on the start of the sound. The doppler-like effect is the result of the machine's motors starting up then settling down to the correct speed, playing back all the time.

The closing "explosion" was a result of a little bit of serendipity. The original multitrack reel was, in common with most reels of tape at the time, being reused, its previous use being for one of Dudley Simpson's Doctor Who scores. Peter discovered, purely by accident, that a particular minute burst of sound, played backwards at a particular speed through some effects units, produced this very pleasing "bang"!

Peter produced three different versions of the piece, taking six weeks' work in total: opening, closing, and a full-length version for commercial release. The resulting master is undoubtedly the second most successful rendition of the theme after the original, and similarly defies many attempts to analyse exactly how parts of it were created - as Peter intended.

Its use lasted until 1986, including the occasional addition of sound effects emphasising graphic elements in the titles. In its full length commercial version it is presented as the final track on Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume Two.

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Later Versions

In 1986, the programme had been rested by the BBC and, when it returned, the Doctor was on trial in more ways than one. For the 14-part story The Trial of a Timelord, John Nathan-Turner commissioned newcomer, freelance composer Dominic Glynn, to come up with a new version of the theme. A short year later, another freelance, Keff McCulloch, was asked to change it again for Time and the Rani. With all due respect to the two musicians (both of whom are friends of mine, so I hope they won't mind me saying this!), neither of these versions (and this goes also for the various cover versions I and others have recorded down the years) quite captures the magic or the simplicity of the original composition in quite the way the Radiophonic Workshop versions do - we all agree that Delia's version, in particular, is unbeatable. To me, this lies in the way they were produced. The Radiophonic Workshop versions were each realised through days - weeks - of loving work, creating new techniques and fighting with cutting-edge but temperamental tools. The later versions were performed in conventional manner using off-the-shelf synthesisers and by-then-commonplace multitrack techniques.

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The Sheet Music

The Doctor Who theme was composed by Ron Grainer and originally published by Erle Music, now represented by Warner Chappell. In sheet music form it has been made available in a number of TV Theme Music compilations, and as an individual publication arranged for solo piano, but is now officially out of print. However, Chappell of Bond Street can supply authorised copies at £4.95. Contact them at:

Chappell of Bond Street
50 New Bond Street
London
W1Y 9HA

Tel: +44 (0)20 7491 2777
Fax: +44 (0)20 7491 0133
Web: http://www.chappell-bond-st.co.uk/
Email: enquiries_bs@chappell-bond-st.co.uk

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Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume 1 - The Early Years (1963-1969)
Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume 2 - New Beginnings (1970-1980)

The text on this page is Copyright © 2000-2002 Mark Ayres.
No part of this article may be reproduced without permission.

If you have any comments on the contents of this page, mail me: Mark_Ayres@compuserve.com.

For further details of Doctor Who-related releases, and other music by Mark Ayres, please see the
Doctor Who Compact Disc Catalogue and Mark Ayres's Discography.

Please also see the Mark Ayres Doctor Who Pages

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