It’s November 23rd, and that means that it is 57 years since those swirling black and white shapes loomed onto the screen for the first time, accompanied by that spooky electronic bass line, signifying the arrival of Doctor Who on BBC TV. The opening titles of Doctor Who are some of the only ones I don’t skip when I watch TV, because to me they are a part of the package, part of the feeling. My favourite ones are in front of classic Who stories (1963-1989), but which ones are the best?
12. Jon Pertwee (“Delaware” version, 1972)
Look, this probably isn’t quite fair as it was never meant to reach broadcast as the producers hated it and replaced it on the episodes it was applied to. However, best laid plans etc., and this peculiar arrangement of the theme (recorded using the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s EMI Synthi 100 modular “Delaware” synthesiser) slipped through on a couple of episodes sent to Australia for the ABC. And so, without further ado, prepare to have your day ruined by the weirdly bouncy Delaware Doctor Who theme.
11-9. Tom Baker (second titles, 1980-81), Peter Davison (1981-84), Colin Baker (first titles, 1984-85)
BOOM! It’s 1980! The visuals are computerised! The music is electronic and loud! But by the time these titles pass through three iterations with little to no modification of the theme music, and just a change in headshot based on who was playing the Doctor, you get a bit sick of them. Full credit to Peter Howell, though, who was tasked with reinventing the theme for the computer age and absolutely smashed it out of the park. This is one of my favourite versions of the theme tune but the accompanying titles get old fast.
8. William Hartnell (1963-66), Patrick Troughton (front half of first series, 1967)
Sacreligious, I know. The original version of the theme, composed by Ron Grainer but given life by the genius of Delia Derbyshire from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, manipulating sounds and creating a tune by splicing together strips of tape. Derbyshire was a pioneer in her field. And so was Bernard Lodge, the graphic designer responsible for the spooky visuals (achieved by pointing a camera at a live feed of its own output which confused the signal and resulted in the “howlaround” that’s now so iconic). Both Derbyshire and Lodge would improve on their work massively with future versions of the opening titles.
7. Paul McGann (1996)
The Doctor only once on television, Paul McGann has gone on to record a great many audio plays in the role with Big Finish Productions, which are apparently very good. Certainly, he showed promise in 1996 in his perfomance as the Eighth Doctor in Doctor Who: The TV Movie. Expense wasn’t spared on the impressive CGI titles. The arrangement of the theme here is by John Debney and is punchy and (synthetically) orchestral, and works well in the context of the film. Not high on my list of versions to listen to on its own though.
6. Patrick Troughton (1967-69)
Now these, THESE I can understand people finding scary. The Doctor’s face melts away to reveal the opening titles WHICH ARE FOR SOME REASON SET IN TIMES NEW ROMAN! GHASTLY! This is the debut of the second Delia Derbyshire arrangement of the theme, and it has an intensity lent to it by the reverb on the “diddly-dum” bassline which would remain in all subsequent uses of the theme until the end of 1979. The titles were again created by Bernard Lodge using the same technique as before, but refined so the patterns produced are more symmetrical and orderly.
5. Colin Baker (Season 23 “Trial of a Time Lord”, 1986)
This fantastically eerie arrangement of the theme is by Dominic Glynn, and was used for only one season – Colin Baker’s last, the epic 4-story “Trial of a Time Lord”. I have a very distinct memory of listening to this one very late at night, sitting at the family computer which was next to a window looking out to the “down the side” of our house, a narrow passage between the fence and the house which was spooky by day and terrifying by night. Anyway, I had to close the window and the blinds because I was freaked. Visually, this is the 1981-84 titles but with a spangly effect over them. Apparently a side effect of this filter caused the Doctor Who logo to be curved – they didn’t intend it to be like that!
4. Sylvester McCoy (1987-89)
People hate this version of the theme. But I ain’t people. It’s fantastic. Keff McCulloch’s episode scores were patchy but this is right on the money. Another even newer synth was pressed into service here, for these groundbreaking CGI titles. Sure, they look a little clunky now, especially with digital clarity on an HD screen, but I’ve seen them on a VHS tape on an old CRT TV and they looked the part! One of the things I really like about tis particular set of opening titles is that the music and the visuals have been edited to be a standalone unit – they have a clear end instead of just a fade out. And after years of the 1980 version of the titles this is super different and refreshing.
3. Tom Baker (first titles, 1974-1979)
Bernard lodge is at it again here, expanding his use of slitscreen techniques onto the entire title sequence. The logo here is most usually associated with Tom Baker even though it debuted in the last season of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. There are actually two versions of these titles, but the only difference between them was a shift from Futura Extra Bold to Della Robbia for the episode titles. I just like these ones because I love Tom Baker and I love the arrangement of the theme used here (spoiler alert: the same arrangement features in the top two). When you see these titles you know you’re going to have some whimsical fun!
2. Jon Pertwee (second titles, 1974)
Jon Pertwee’s last season as the Third Doctor saw a brand new title sequence debut, along with a new logo and Bernard Lodge’s first foray into slitscreen techniques. This blew my mind when I saw it as a kid, it was so different and unexpected. I think it’s a shame that the “starfield” part only lasted for this season, as it breaks up the overwhelming iridescent tube effect of the first Tom Baker titles. And really, look at this! No-one else was doing stuff like this in TV in the 1970s (a baseless assertion, harangue me in the comments if I’m wrong). It’s just cool.
1. Jon Pertwee (first titles 1970-1973)
Bernard Lodge did his best “howlaround” work for this sequence. The first that would be broadcast in colour, he experimented using colour monitors but found the effects wanting. So he recorded it in black and white, and manually coloured it. On the music side, the theme has been edited to add a “screaming” note at the end, which repeats during the story title and writing credit. This is the best version of the opening theme, hands down. It wakes you up, it says, “Look out, time to save the world using a velvet smoking jacket and an uneasy alliance with the military!” Of course, so effective was this arrangement that it would stay in place for almost 10 years after its first use. Part of its appeal for me personally has to be that it was the version of the titles in use when I first really got into Doctor Who. As kids, we’d tried to watch the Hartnell ones when the ABC showed them in 2003, but 1960s TV pacing and scripting (which I love now) was lost on us. On a whim we tuned in again at the start of 2004, and WOW it was in COLOUR and look at this MAN OF ACTION in his NICE SUITS! And look there’s the BRIGADIER and his MOUSTACHE is DEFINITELY NOT FAKE. The whole family loved Pertwee and the Brigadier, and when Pertwee gave way to Tom Baker we all stopped watching in disgust. I know now this was a mistake, but anyway. Without further ado, behold the 1970 Doctor Who opening titles!
For more of my writing on Doctor Who, click here.