Monday, 5 April 2010

Doctor Who theme 2010, I'm not sure

The only thing I'm not crazy about with the new series of Doctor Who is the theme tune. It now sounds like this.

Once upon a time it sounded like this: 1963 Dr Who credits. This is a marvellous piece of music, written by Ron Grainer (who also wrote Steptoe & Son and many more) and performed by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It is the very epitomy of an enigmatic, mysterious signature tune for a drama. Even today no listener can be entirely sure how those notes are made. It sounds like no instrument that has ever existed, and indeed every note was unique to the show, being a mixture of recorded and manipulated sounds, "sampled" by Derbyshire in the most hands-on way. Using primitive, innovative synthesisers and recording equipment, and making up almost every technique they used as they went along, Delia and team produced noises that still sound other-worldly.

Grainer's tune has a simple dramatic bassline, sounding like it was conceived for timpani and double bass, which is then performed by some mechanical means which has qualities a bit like a bell made of rubber. Then in comes the melody, and no note is hit perfectly on time, each delayed or premature, as if they have been retrieved from outer space or crept into the back of your head. And what instrument does that sound like? In 2010 I'd struggle to make that noise given the breadth of technological gizmos hidden in my computer, but in 1963 what sound on earth had ever sounded like that? None, obviously.

That basic theme tune had some developments and, I'm not afraid to say, improvements over the years. By the 1970s it was crisp, clean, punchy, and had lost none of its mystery: Tom Baker credits 1974. And so it could have stayed.

The first lesson in missing the point with the Doctor Who theme tune came in the 1980s when, as well as losing its grip on the point of the show, someone decided to make the music sound thin, shallow, reedy, pathetic, and dated as soon as it was broadcast: 1987 Dr Who credits. Yuck. Not only is the logo so hideous even blind viewers complained, but the music has been re-performed, so precisely that you can almost see the fingers hitting the Casio keyboard, and with such a run-of-the-mill synthesiser sound that a kid in their bedroom could have made it. Worst of all, the bassline has been re-jigged, almost literally, so that you could dance a jig to it. Listen to this version and picture some English country dancers or pixies skipping along to it. How mysterious? None mysterious, that's how much. This was the theme tune of a TV show that deserved cancelling.

In 1996 the TV movie version took a classic film-themed approach to the Doctor Who theme, which turned it on its head. 1996 Who credits. Not at all bad, the music is being taken seriously, but there's a bit too much emphasis on the melody, we've lost the power of that dramatic bassline. If only, through the Marxist dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, we could end up with the perfect theme for the 21st century...

Ta-da! 2006 Doctor Who theme. This, I think, is perfect. Admittedly all instruments are now recognisably the work of an orchestra, but we have given that dramatic beat the oomph of real timpani, and we've made the swirl and flow of the orchestra capture the magic and mystery of 1963's synthesiser. This, I feel, nails the theme for a movie-style production.

Now in 2010 the same arranger, Russell Gold, has over-egged his own pudding. He has added too many layers of counter harmony (I don't know the correct term for unecessary twiddly bits) and buried the dramatic bassline to such an extent that, on first listening, I couldn't even follow it. I was listening a beat out of synch, and it wasn't until the melody came in that I knew where I was. So, for me, this a theme tune fail, and I hope by Christmas he brings in a new arrangement that recovers the greatness from the theme, without retreating too far.

Kev F 2010

2 comments:

Mart said...

Hmm, I dunno, I rather enjoyed the new version - perhaps I was blinded by the flash (I wonder if the lightning was episode specific, reflecting the Tardis' turnoil as we entered the opening credits). I'll have to have a look at the old versions when I get home.

Mind, did we get Matt Smith's face? I don't remember seeing it.

At least we still get proper credits, unlike so many US TV shows today.

Anyway, loved the first episode.

Alan Donald said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0WVRbIKjR4 Has the full opening sequence. If you look carefully it appears to me that it is the 10th Doctor's TARDIS at the start (slightly squatter and no St John's badge), it is that TARDIS that is hit by lightning. When Matt's name appears we get the flood of orange and the new logo. The logo then dissolves into the new slightly thinner looking TARDIS with St. John's badge flying fairly stable. It seems to signify the turmoil of the handover etc. We may see a full credit sequence without the lightning next week or that the whole of this series will be about the hand over between the two eras/Doctors.

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