Regenerating the ‘Doctor Who’ Theme

It’s been terrifying children for generations, but how did the ‘Doctor Who’ theme come about?
Doctor Who Opening Tardis
By  · Published on December 16th, 2019

There’s something about the psychology of TV theme songs and the way they’re designed to hook someone in a short space of time. But the Doctor Who theme isn’t just a catchy piece of music, it’s perhaps the most influential theme song to ever come from the television medium. But how wrote it? And how was it made? Get ready for a journey through time, space, and British television to learn the fascinating secrets of the Doctor Who theme and the sad tale of its creation.

On November 23, 1963, the Doctor Who theme debuted with the pilot episode, “An Unearthly Child,” also the first appearance of William Hartnell in the role of what would subsequently be known as The First Doctor. The unsettling theme would have been an odd experience for viewers of the time, who were serenaded with friendlier tunes for shows such as Z Cars and The AvengersDoctor Who‘s theme song is now an iconic piece of music that is recognizable to millions of people around the world. But back then, it was as frightening as the Daleks themselves.

To the uninitiated, the theme would likely sound like an alarm, something which would have worked in its favor as a call to arms. “Get to the living room now,” it seemed to communicate, “Doctor Who is on!” The first thing you hear is the incessant bassline, a thudding death ray that sounds like it wants to exterminate you. It’s then joined by the main melody, which itself sounded more alien than anything else musical at the time. Those opening three notes are a gateway to another dimension, one of time and space, and their crystalline aesthetic offers a kind of seduction never heard before. No wonder viewers were immediately hooked.

When “An Unearthly Child” ended, the music was credited to “Ron Grainer with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.” That looks legitimate enough. Grainer was an Australian composer who had already written memorable music for two BBC television shows, Maigret, based on Georges Simenon’s French detective tales, and Steptoe and Son, a sitcom about a family scrap business that would later be adapted as the NBC sitcom Sanford and Son. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was a department at the broadcaster mainly responsible for sound effects and music. Cut and dry, no?

It’s not. As usual with this kind of tale, there’s a lot more than meets the eye. Producer Verity Lambert originally wanted a strange sound for the music, so she went to the Radiophonic Workshop, who recommended Grainer. He wrote the score and then gave it back to the Workshop. Speaking in the 2006 featurette “Creating the Theme” for the DVD Doctor Who: The Beginning, Workshop engineer Dick Mills said, “Ron actually wrote the tune on a piece of paper and left us to it.” And in stepped Delia Derbyshire.

Derbyshire had joined the Workshop in 1962, having been interested in creating unique forms of music, the kind that many people even today refuse to even consider music. “I was always into the theory of sound,” Derbyshire told engineer and lecturer Jo Hutton in 2000 for the Sonic Arts Network. “It was always a mixture of the mathematical side and music. Also, radio had been my love since childhood because I came from just a humble background with relatively few books, and radio was my education. It was always my little ambition to get into the BBC. The only way into the Workshop was to be a trainee studio manager. This is because the Workshop was purely a service department for drama. The BBC made it quite clear that they didn’t employ composers, and we weren’t supposed to be doing music.”

Derbyshire had a very analytical view of music and experimented with sound in a way that followed the pioneering French artist Pierre Schaeffer and his musique concrète technique, where existing sounds were manipulated and transformed with the help of tape recorders. Adding to this, Derbyshire used the electronic sound of oscillators, which were perfect for the futuristic tones of the Time Lord’s adventures.

“When I saw Ron Grainer’s score,” said Derbyshire, “there were some swoops indicated, and I assumed those were sine-waves. I think he may have described this as guitar plus something like a bassoon or something. He also used words like clouds and wind bubbles. Clouds, obviously one thinks of as filtered white noise, and wind bubble, I think we used the wobbulator.” The wobbulator is a device used with an oscillator to align radio signals, and Derbyshire used it along with 12 oscillators created by the Jason Motor and Electronic Company in London.

The theme has changed many times over the years, although not always to Derbyshire’s taste. “I think every time a new producer came or a new director came, they wanted to tart it up,” she told BBC Radio Scotland in 1997, “and they wanted to put an extra two bars here, put some extra feedback on the high frequencies. They kept on tarting it up out of existence. I was really very shocked at what I had to do in the course of so-called duty.”

But she was very proud of what she’d accomplished, Saying that “He [Grainer] expected to hire a band to play it, but when he heard what I had done electronically, he’d never imagined it would be so good.” According to Workshop colleague Brian Hodgson in The Guardian in 2001, Grainer, upon hearing the final piece, asked Derbyshire, “Did I write that?” “Most of it,” she replied.

Sadly, Derbyshire did not receive the credit or reward she deserved for her work. “He [Grainer] offered me half of the royalties,” she said to Hutton, “but the BBC wouldn’t allow it. I was just on an assistant studio manager’s salary and that was it…. and we got a free Radio Times. The boss wouldn’t let anybody have any sort of credit.” The BBC’s policy was that members of the Workshop were to be anonymous, thus the credit “with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.” When Derbyshire was finally credited on an episode of Doctor Who, the 50th-anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” she had been dead for 12 years.

After a brief but quickly aborted attempt by Hodgson and Paddy Kingsland, the first composer to rework the theme was Peter Howell in 1980. His version employed more contemporary synthesizers to bring a more jaunty sound while still using a Derbyshire-esque wail for the titles. Dominic Glynn took the same route in 1986, with the bassline sounding a lot more forceful, similar to the Airwolf theme. The following year saw Keff McCulloch take a spin, although Derbyshire reportedly wasn’t pleased with his effort, probably because of the horrible buzz that is the main melody.

It took nine years for the Doctor to return in a short-lived attempt to produce a US-based version of the show, and on theme music duty was John Debney, who had scored episodes of Star Trek series The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, as well as the film Cutthroat Island. As you might expect, Debney’s theme goes for a big Hollywood sound, all glossy and mighty and John Williams-y, and interestingly it begins with the middle eight of the theme. But the show never took off and Debney’s theme never appeared again.

In 2005, however, the Doctor returned and has stayed ever since. Joining him was composer Murray Gold, who also gave something of a Hollywood treatment to the theme. It’s a bit too much, as the thumping bassline accompanied by thundering percussion just overwhelms the whole thing. Gold refined it a couple of times in the David Tennant era but completely rearranged it for Matt Smith’s debut as the Doctor in 2010.

Unfortunately, it sounds dreadful, with a new bassline intro that doesn’t really work and a cheesy choral element. And once again there’s a percussion element that sounds like the Airwolf theme. For the 50th anniversary in 2013, Gold arranged a new version that harked back to the original theme with more use of electronics, although as before, it was overawed by the percussion elements. Gold stripped it down again in 2014 in what is his best version, allowing for a creepier and more intense version of the bassline and the wailing melody.

The newest incarnation was unveiled in 2018, following all the nuanced reactions you can expect when Jodie Whittaker was announced to be the first female Doctor the previous year. The new theme was composed by Segun Akinola, and as the cool kids tend to say nowadays, it’s a banger. The bassline is really low and murky and has just the right tension needed before the melody comes in, which interestingly is taken from the original theme. It’s a great interpretation.

One of the best versions of the theme doesn’t even come from the television series, though. In 2001, a company called Big Finish Productions began producing audio plays based on Doctor Who, and approached to arrange their theme was David Arnold, who at the time was still composing for the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films. Arnold’s theme is brilliant, with a crackling bassline that sounds like it’s being hummed by Darth Vader and a haunting melody, and someone really should have tried to get it on the idiot box at least once.

Doctor Who continues, although it’s disappointing that even though a woman is now playing the title character, they still can’t regularly credit Derbyshire. It’s like not crediting John Barry on James Bond. Nevertheless, Derbyshire’s name is much better known today, and her efforts both with the show and outside are celebrated. There’s even a special day named especially for her in the UK. And as long as Doctor Who continues, so shall the memory of her genius.

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Charlie Brigden is the author of many fine soundtrack liner notes and Blu-ray booklet essays and some call him a film music expert. He also recorded a commentary for Howard the Duck. You can find him on Twitter here: @brigdenwriter. (He/Him)