Doctor Who Theme Music

It seems that most of the feedback about the new Doctor Who series is positive, save for one thing – the new credits and the new music.

Now, I must admit the new music was immediately a huge letdown for me. It grows on you a bit, but overall I’m not impressed. I decided that I might be prejudiced against it because it was new and different. I decided I needed to listen to it – a lot. The other day, I put that version on the iPhone, hit repeat one song and let it fly during my entire commute. I contemplated every note, every sound, every voice and internalized them.

Then, by way of comparison, I put all versions of the theme music (sans the 8th Doctor telemovie) into a playlist, put them on random and did much the same on my next commute. I’m now ready to pronounce judgement.

First though, let’s standardize our frame of reference. The Doctor Who theme consists in four basic parts: There’s the opening beat, that, thinking back to the Tom Baker years, represented the opening of the time vortex, which follows the main theme itself, which is the sort of howly bits, then there’s the fanfare, which I believe Murray Gold called “the middle third” and was absent from Eccleston’s theme music but added back for the Christmas Invasion. This bit was also usually missing during Tom Baker’s era and only showed up on six-parters that required longer end credits. Finally there’s the ending which is mostly a rehash of bits of the main theme repeating out sometimes ending with a sting.

Taking this new theme apart, I dislike the intro. Gold has added a new theme that isn’t Doctor Who at all overlaying and overpowering the proper parts.

The main theme could be good, perhaps great. It starts well with something similar to the original electronic version, but they discordantly crashes into something orchestral with little high-pitched noisemakers that set my teeth on edge. They’re probably flutes or piccolos or something. Get rid of them. On the other hand, he also uses a small, discreet bit of choral music which works well, and makes it sound darker. best of all, it’s just a little bit, not like his overpowering choral Dalek tunes.

The fanfare suffers the same problem, good foundation, damaged by high-pitched squeaky wind instruments. Some points for some very subtle wobbly sound effects that sound like things flying off into space.

Finally the outgoing part is mostly fine, gone are the obnoxious instruments, leaving us with the pleasant version, but all too soon, it’s over. Here’s hoping next year they’ll try again and learn from this mistake.

It used to be that there were “Science Fiction Theme Song” albums where various artists where Neil Norman, Jeff Love or some orchestra would cover Sci-Fi theme songs. Universally, Doctor Who did not make the translation well. Particularly bad were the orchestral versions, for precisely the reasons I’ve outlined here. The pitch isn’t suited for an orchestra. It shocked the heck out of me when Gold was able to pull the Eccleston/Tennant version off using an orchestra. I think part of the success was lowering the tone and not hitting those high notes.

Still, it’s not the worst “official” version of the Who theme tune, that honor goes (as with so many other “worsts” in Doctor Who history) to the Sylvester McCoy version.

It’s all subjective, but here’s my countdown.

  1. Early 1970’s Pertwee and into Baker version. It’s just a slight variation on the Derbyshire original, but it adds a few extra “hissing snakes”, plus the signature string.
  2. Original. For being the same as the above but just (slightly) less cool.
  3. Colin Baker, Trial of a Time Lord Edition (Dominic Glynn). I’ll take heat for that and it does suffer from 1980itis in the sound of the instrumentation, but I thought it was an improvement over the earlier Peter Howell version because it added a series of dark undercurrents to the theme and I like the FX of little things spinning off into space. The fanfare is bit off, though.
  4. David Tennant/Donna Version (Murray Gold). Yeah, I like the electric guitar.
  5. Eccleston/Tennant Version (Murray Gold) Orchestral done as right as it could have been.
  6. Baker/Davison/Baker (Peter Howell) Somewhat similar to the later Domic Glynn version in that it’s just too 80’s guy with synthesizer in his basement (see Look Around You on computer music), but in this case, it has no flourish. When I first saw it I thought, “this is exciting and fast” but it became vapid rapidly upon repeated exposure.
  7. Matt Smith Version (Gold)
  8. Sylvester McCoy version. (Keff Mcculoch). Poor McCoy, like Colin Baker he got shafted by the production crew and the BBC. Nothing says, “let’s kill Doctor Who” to me like this theme song to me. The theme is lost in the backbeat and it’s the least musically interesting of the bunch.

So there it is. I’ve been meaning to rank the theme songs for years now and I’ve finally gotten around to it. Let the complaints begin! 🙂

*Edit 2014-09-20 – edited to properly reflect the guilty and clear Mark Ayres name!

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