We’ll be taking a bit of a break from Mr Bond today and looking at one of my other obsessions.
I would be very surprised, dear reader, if it had escaped your notice that there is a new man leading Doctor Who. Scottish actor Peter Capaldi is the Twelfth Doctor and is rapidly blazing a divisive trail through the fandom. I for one think he is excellent. But that’s not what this post is going to be about. No, in true Ravings fashion, there’s a new thing out, so we’re going to be looking at the old version. Specifically, the music.
The music of the old series was ground-breaking at the time. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop and its crew of dedicated sound merchants worked with what is now very cumbersome equipment to create synthesised soundscapes and musical scores before synthesisers became practical, and, more importantly, affordable for the BBC. Electronic sounds from just about any machine lying around would be recorded onto tape, and frequently looped and manipulated to create actual music. The Doctor Who theme itself began life as a series of tape loops pieced together by Delia Derbyshire, a pioneer of the genre and apparently general musical genius.
Quite a large amount of the early sound of Who was very avant garde and experimental in style, in keeping with what the staff of the Radiophonic Workshop were keen on. However, here and there as the show goes on are dotted a few scores written in standard musical styles realised by session musicians, and it’s those that I pay the most attention to.
One such story is 1968’s Second Doctor serial, The Invasion. Unfortunately, like most of Patrick Troughton’s time as the Second Doctor, the first and fourth episodes of that particular story are missing from the BBC’s archives. For the DVD release of The Invasion, however, animation house Cosgrove Hall was commissioned to create animated versions of these missing episodes. Now, this could have gone two ways. It could have appeared patently ridiculous, or it could be rather engaging indeed. Luckily for us, it was every bit the latter. The dark black and white tones used compliment the real footage perfectly, and if anything I found the animated episodes a little more exciting than the real thing.
Obligingly, some kind soul uploaded the trailers to YouTube!
This engagement was in a large part thanks to the excellent, mysterious score written by one-time Who composer Don Harper, and recorded by a small group of musicians on what sounds like a hammered dulcimer, drum kit, an organ of some description, and a bass clarinet plus some atmospheric sounds courtesy of our friends Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire at the Radiophonic Workshop. The cue below is used throughout the story to denote mystery and things being genuinely ‘not quite right’. Its first use is during the opening episode, when a truck driver is mercilessly shot by some mysterious mercenaries. Not only does the scene have a massive impact (the Troughton stories were pretty dark), but the music lends it an air of discomfort and suspicion.
Pretty creepy, eh?
Thanks to the miracle of the internet and DVDs as opposed to TARDISes, forward we trot to the 1970s. And look, there’s fan favourite composer Dudley Simpson. Simpson’s scores are loved amongst fans of 1970s Who, as much for their variety as their high melodic standards. During the Third Doctor era and most of the Fourth, Simpson wrote the music for many stories which are now very well remembered. 1970’s Spearhead from Space, the first to star Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor, also featured a score from Dudley Simpson. When I returned to the classic series a couple of years ago after having left it behind at about 1981, this was one of the first stories I watched, and damn if there wasn’t real music instead of overbearing synthesisers.
Many of Dudley Simpson’s tapes are missing from the BBC archives – much like the programmes they accompanied, alas – and so it has fallen to fans to make recreations and sound extractions of music which will likely forever be unreleased, unless the tapes are found in some London basement somewhere. This is a shame, as Simpson’s work on the early Pertwee stories set the tone for what would follow. His score for 1970’s The Ambassadors Of Death was perhaps the coolest music I had yet heard in Doctor Who until Murray Gold took over compositional duties for the revived series in 2005.
In point of fact, it’s what motivated me to write this post! Listen here to the “UNIT Theme” from Ambassadors. The piece evokes business, importance, and intensity, but the various versions are also very of their time. The electronic harpsichord locks the Ambassadors version firmly in 1969-70, even if the story is supposed to be set in 1975 (which itself is a point of contention thanks to later lapses in continuity policing). A jazzy, cool arrangement accompanies a slightly surreal car chase between a Cortina and a vintage roadster. The Ambassadors of Death was Doctor Who having a go at including more action and excitement to make up for the Doctor being Earth-bound, and so the music is quite clearly inspired by Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s music merchant, John Barry.
Simpson would go on to compose for the Fourth Doctor story City Of Death, and many fans argue that it’s the pinnacle of his achievement writing music for the show. The story itself is pretty good too – it was script edited by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy fame – and features extensive location filming in Gay Paree. As far as I can tell from my adventures on the information superhighway, the release of this score would be the Holy Grail for Dudley Simpson fans. It’s got mystery, romance, bustling city style, and it’s played on real instruments, as opposed to a synth trying to pretend. As before, there’s no versions available without dialogue, but this clip gives a pretty good example of the style (and you get to hear Tom Baker’s voice).
To me, Dudley Simpson wrote the best music for the classic series. His more traditional scoring was not to everyone’s taste, though. In 1980 when the new producer, John Nathan-Turner took over, Simpson was politely told to shove off, as the music would become the exclusive preserve of the Radiophonic Workshop. By this time, it was all about the futuristic computerised sounds of the rapidly evolving keyboard synthesiser – think Vangelis and then get a bucket. To be fair to those who followed Simpson, though, they did do a lot more work on melodies, as opposed to the beeps and twangs of 1960s Doctor Who. Indeed, many of the scores are pleasant to listen to. I just have a prejudice in favour of real instruments!
And yet all the music from this show, which I love, was synth. I DON’T KNOW ANYMORE.
I feel like I’ve written an awful lot here and I don’t really have a point to make.
But what I’ve taken away from my recent re-watches of older Doctor Who stories is that the music does contribute an awful lot to the atmosphere of Doctor Who. Considering the low production values, decent music is a huge leg up in the quality department of the programme, because it makes up for whatever is lacking in set design and special effects. If the music conveys feelings of drama when a dodgy looking toilet paper tube rocket is wobbily taking off from a barren Styrofoam planet, we automatically react with feelings of excitement and tension, even if we are later guffawing about the dodgy effects. Classic Doctor Who is certainly an untapped mine of entertainment for many fans of the new series – I was pleasantly surprised to find this enjoyment extended to the music as well.