Doctor Who: Peter Howell’s 1980 arrangement

The Doctor Who theme was altered relatively little, apart from some edits for length and timing and a stereo rearrangement, until 1980, when John Nathan-Turner asked Peter Howell to arrange a new version. The theme tune to one of the BBC’s most popular shows was considered something of a sacred cow, and messing with it was not a task to be undertaken lightly. Howell was wise enough to not alter the key elements of the theme out of all recognition. He picked up the forward momentum of the bassline and rendered it on a Yamaha CS-80, and used a vocoder and an ARP Odyssey Mark III to create the electric-guitar-like sound for the main melody. 

In fact, I believed for years that parts of the melody had been rendered on an electric guitar, and it was only when I saw the DVD bonus documentary “Synthesizing Starfields” that I finally got set straight. I’ve announced my loyalty to the original 1963 version many times, and will continue to do so, but the fact is that out of all the rearrangements the theme has undergone over the years, the 1980 Howell version is definitely a very solid and respectable second place in my mind. I’m not sure that it ages quite as well, because there’s a slick, shimmery quality to the synth sounds that feels particularly 1980s (especially the thunderclap at the end). Of course, that kind of sound has become quite popular again of late, so to many listeners, that’s more of a feature than a bug. What Howell really gets is the power of that bassline, and also the swirling atmospheric details that strike the right balance between familiarity and spookiness that the Doctor Who theme requires.

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