The 1963 Doctor Who Theme

You can’t talk about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop without talking about the Doctor Who theme. You just can’t. It’s arguably the piece that made Delia Derbyshire’s reputation, and the story of its conception has achieved the status of legend among musicians and SF nerds alike. The composer Ron Grainer left a rough sketch with Delia Derbyshire—written out on a single sheet of paper, according to some accounts—and she transformed it to the extent that when he heard it played back to him later, his reaction was, “Did I really write that?” Her alleged response: “Most of it.” Grainer wanted co-composer credit for her, but it never came to pass.

Producer Verity Lambert had requested “something melodic, but yet didn’t sound like any conventional grouping of instruments”. According to Brian Hodgson, Desmond Briscoe arranged for Ron Grainer to do the actual job of composing, and then Derbyshire, assisted by engineer Dick Mills, brought the theme to life.

In writing about the theme two weeks after Doctor Who’s premiere, the Daily Mirror describes the theme as being the creation of “Mr Briscoe and his team”; in Special Sound, Louis Niebur writes: “Casting the Workshop as a white-labcoat-wearing ‘think tank,’ modernizing popular music for the masses in a way impossible for the general public to imagine, this assessment depicts the music as mirroring the ideas of the program itself, with its enigmatic hero, a time traveler from space.” Of course, the Mirror’s portrayal of the workshop also has a way of eliding the actual people behind the composition. Combine that with the show credits that attribute the music to “Ron Grainer with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop”—here begins the legend of the anonymous heroes of the Workshop. 

Nearly 50 years later, the original arrangement of the Doctor Who theme still sounds like something not of this earth, and is a towering technical accomplishment and a shining testament to the magic that can be wrought with oscillators, filters, and reel-to-reel tape. As the show requires, it strikes a perfect balance between spooky sci-fi otherworldliness and a catchy, hummable theme with a memorable hook. The Peter Howell version from 1980 (which we’ll come to later this week) has its backers, but to me, this is the truly definitive version of the theme, and it has never been bettered.

The bassline  is the secret weapon: faintly menacing, relentlessly repetitive, thoroughly insinuating. And then the melody kicks in, offset by sonic “clouds” and “bubbles” that suggest movement through unmapped dimensions of time and space. There are faint trembles in the high notes and sometimes the rhythm of the melody sounds faintly off-balance, a little disconcerting to a listener who might be expecting electronics to deliver shiny, seamless perfection. There’s a handmade quality to it—according to Mills, very deliberately introduced “to make it sound as though it was played by somebody with feeling, rather than a stitched-together music job”.

My favorite part has always been the “middle 8”, the shimmering segment which was generally only heard over the closing credits. Where the main melody plays on the instinct to hide behind the sofa, the middle 8 has an Indiana Jones-like sound of High Adventure, and what Craig Ferguson in his affectionate tribute to the show calls “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”. It’s hard to imagine Grainer, Derbyshire, and Mills creating a more perfect theme for the show; it’s no wonder that it has endured after all this time.

(For a detailed breakdown of the theme, this segment from Sculptress of Sound, featuring archivist and composer Mark Ayres, accomplishes through sound what I can’t in words, and is highly recommended.)

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