Groundbreaking Doctor Who theme tune lives on

Doctor Who actors Matt Smith and Karen Gillan with the Tardis.
Doctor Who actors Matt Smith and Karen Gillan with the Tardis.

As a scene-setter it is hard to beat - an otherworldly, futuristic trip into another dimension. And 50 years on, Doctor Who still uses the same theme tune, albeit an exciting orchestral rollercoaster ride rather than the slightly sinister primitive electronica of old.

Creators of the show were determined to make the music as innovative as the show itself. Launch producer Verity Lambert wanted to engage a French avant garde group, Les Structures Sonores, to create the theme but efforts to contact them stalled. Instead they turned to the BBC's own experimental whizz-kids in the Radiophonic Workshop for a no-less groundbreaking composition.

They set about breathing life into a theme written by Australian composer Ron Grainer, whose signature tunes for Maigret and Steptoe And Son were already familiar to viewers - and won Ivor Novello Awards - and who later created memorable title music for The Prisoner, Tales Of The Unexpected and Man In A Suitcase (later revived for Channel 4's TFI Friday).

Grainer, born in Atherton, Queensland, sent his simple one-page score over from his home in Portugal for the Workshop's Delia Derbyshire to work her magic. The Cambridge graduate - who had studied music and maths - used sound generators, oscillators and tape loops to painstakingly assemble the tune, using changes of speed to alter the notes and create the melody, in the days before there was easy access to synthesisers. Hisses of white noise were dropped in to complete the sounds.

Grainer himself barely recognised the resulting recording, famously asking when he heard it played back if he had written it.

Derbyshire has long been recognised as an electronic pioneer for her work on the show and Sir Paul McCartney revealed earlier this year that he had toyed with the idea of having her work on The Beatles song Yesterday before settling on the acoustic guitar and strings approach which made it on to the Help! album in 1965.

The finished recording weighed in at more than two minutes - and was released as a single in 1964 as well as being the basis for a 1973 release - but needed to be re-edited to match the swirling "howlaround" effects created for the title sequence.

Although there was a little tinkering each time the Doctor regenerated to stamp a mark on the music, the theme was largely unchanged except for the occasional tweak until 1972 when it was given a total overhaul.

Derbyshire recorded the tune using a synthesiser for the first time, using a twangy sounding bassline and a burbling electronic noise, but poor feedback led to the show reverting to the older version before the programs and it was broadcast on only one occasion as a trailer for the story The Three Doctors.

It was not until 1980 that a proper revamp took place, with Peter Howell using a bank of synths to recreate the tune, a version which lasted for six years, with increasingly synthetic slick versions following.

For the program's 2005 revival composer Murray Gold was brought in to give his interpretation, adding orchestral brass and string flourishes, but also sampling the original Derbyshire version, and over time he has added his "chase" theme on top of the familiar tune to add to the excitement.

The Doctor Who theme has been performed over the years in whole or in part by acts such as Orbital and Pink Floyd, sampled on The Timelords' hit Doctorin' The Tardis and even recorded with vocals by third Doctor Jon Pertwee.


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