Danny Stewart

State of the Who theme 2014

Supposedly, a bold new era of Doctor Who is now upon us. How much the show will actually change remains to be seen, but one thing that hasn’t changed is Murray Gold doing the music. Not counting different edits of the same theme, Murray has now given us a total of eight separate versions of the Doctor Who theme that have been used on the show1, running absolute circles around everyone else who has ever taken up doing the official theme for the show. I began writing about Murray’s themes in 2010 out of misguided optimism that the show would improve under Moffat’s reign. (I don’t think it was possible for me to have been more wrong.) I wrote again about 2013’s new theme, in a post I called “2013 and beyond” because I foolishly assumed that we wouldn’t have a completely new theme again the following year. But a new theme—along with a radically different title sequence—is exactly what we got.

Here is the theme in its latest incarnation:

What I like

For one thing, the palette of sounds used in this theme is almost entirely electronic. This is something Murray has been getting better at in recent years. While his first several themes got progressively more bombastic, this trend has thankfully slowed dramatically since 2010. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it has reversed itself, Murray has been much more selective when it comes to focusing on specific aspects or sounds in the theme each time, instead of just adding more things into the mix. The Doctor Who theme is so effective because it is fundamentally basic. A solid bassline and melody are all you need, and the inherent effect of the theme no longer works when those cease to be the central focus.

On top of that, the theme’s tempo has been brought back in line with what a Doctor Who theme should be. All of the themes since 2010 have run at 143 bpm, which is way too fast for a Doctor Who theme. A Doctor Who theme should run somewhere between 139 and 140 bpm, or in some cases slower. This newest theme appears to run at about 139.8 bpm—exactly where it should be.

The reliance on countermelodies has been sharply reduced this time around. The fanfare that has played over the bassline intro since 2010 is finally gone. The nice thing about Murray’s “trademarks” (the staccato strings for the first several years, and more recently the brass fanfare over the bassline intro) is that he will eventually tire of them and move on. I give him a lot of credit for this. Virtually every non-electronic element in this theme is either percussive, used to create pad-like harmonies, or directly complementing the main melody (rather than supplementing it). This is exactly how sounds like these should be used if you’re going to use them at all. The electronic sound effects, on the other hand, are prominent throughout the theme and used to great effect. One of them even sounds like Peter Howell’s “Catherine wheel,” spooling up as the theme builds to melody 1 and then winding back down. Even the theme’s conclusion sounds ominous and sets the right tone.

The new bassline is actually pretty good. I’ll get to the notation in a moment, but let’s start with the sound. The bassline is the single most important component of any Doctor Who theme; if one thing is going to be louder than all the other things, it should be the bassline. Murray Gold has a history of failing to recognize the importance of making the bassline the heart of the theme, but the bassline in this version is driving the theme as it should be. The sound itself spans a huge frequency range, which is great, and more or less unprecedented in a Murray Gold theme. Murray also has a history of very thin synth sounds for his bassline and melody, especially since dropping the Derbyshire samples in 2010. This bassline doesn’t have that problem, but this partially stems from the fact that it seems to be using a processed sample of a single “dum” from the original Derbyshire bassline to beef it up. It’s a surprising technique from someone who has full access to all the original samples, but it really does help the sound. In a way, I almost admire him for realizing he can’t synthesize something that rivals the original Derbyshire sound. Of course, the sampled Derbyshire bassline is also layered with some kind of synth bassline of his own (which is really what makes it work as cohesively as it does), but even that synth sounds better than usual.

The bassline notation, as far as I am able to tell, actually sounds like an improvement over the last theme, and is, in some ways, an improvement over all prior themes Murray has done as well. There is a very important distinction in the bassline that it seems Murray has suddenly become aware of: which sections of the theme use diddly-dums, and which sections use dum-de-dums. Ever since the Doctor Who theme’s very beginning, it was laid out that melody 1 should use diddly-dums, and melody 2 should use dum-de-dums. Peter Howell later established the rule that a dum-de-dum could be changed to a diddly-dum, but never the other way around. Thou canst addeth the note to the dum-de-dum, but thou shalt not taketh away.

Believe it or not, for the first time in history, Murray Gold seems to have observed and honored this distinction. The bassline intro begins with dum-de-dums, then switches to diddly-dums halfway through. Melody 1 uses diddly-dums, and melody 2 switches back to dum-de-dums. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, but there it is. (The complete absence of dum-dum-diddies, however, is a separate issue, and will be bitched about in the “What I don’t like” section below.) The bassline has also been rearranged so that it no longer jumps up to the B an octave higher like it did in the last theme, and instead correctly goes down to the lower B.

It’s difficult to be 100% sure of this, but it sounds like the notation of Murray’s bassline second layer has improved in this latest theme as well. It’s still not perfect, but if he’s done what it sounds like he’s done, it’s less wrong than it has been in every prior Murray Gold theme that bothered to include a second layer at all. I’ll qualify this by saying that the second layer is very quiet in this theme, so it’s hard to make out, but it sounds as though instead of using the “inverted” notation he has used in all previous themes with a second layer, this time he has switched to what I call the “Glynn-style” second layer. This means that when the bassline goes up from E to G, the second layer starts on D, but when it comes back down to E, it starts on D again (or starts on A if the bassline comes down to B), rather than starting on F or F#. I first explained this in depth back in 2010, when his second layer became a clearly audible separate track. Switching to a Glynn-style second layer is not perfect, but it is progress.

The theme’s melody has also made significant progress in this version. (Well, except for the sound… but that’s not for this section.) For one thing, the first note of melody 1 is back with a vengeance. No more “wah-oo”—now we’re back to “oo-ee-oo,” as it should be. On top of that, another important aspect of the melody has been restored. The first phrase of the melody is composed of two halves: melody 1a, and melody 1b. The final B note of melody 1a should always be held and continue to play behind melody 1b. This is something that Murray Gold has never done, until now. Or, to be more accurate, he’s approximated the effect by repeating melody 1b on a different sound (a string sound) and concluding on the B note at the higher octave. It isn’t perfect, but it achieves the desired effect and it sounds good leading into melody 2. Dominic Glynn used the same basic technique in his 1986 opening theme.

Speaking of melody 2, the notation there is also better. In fact, the notation is almost perfectly accurate now, with the exception of the final two notes, which are missing altogether. By extending the post-melody 2 bassline from two blocks to four, he bought himself plenty of time to conclude melody 2 properly, but for whatever reason he hasn’t done so here. Still, credit where credit is due—he finally has the notation on all of his layers clearly doing A-B, C-D-B, and at the right times too. Another C-B wouldn’t have killed him, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?

What I don’t like

For the second theme in a row, Murray’s bassline is completely devoid of the dum-dum-diddy. For all the progress Murray has made in his understanding of the bassline in this latest theme, the complete omission of the dum-dum-diddy is a huge gap in accuracy. What has the dum-dum-diddy done to Murray to warrant its exclusion like this? Perhaps we’ll never know, but it’s a great shame. Murray has always had his issues with the dum-dum-diddy—for example, he never includes it when leading into the bridge if the bridge bassline is played on the higher octave—but you simply can’t have a Doctor Who theme bassline without it. Having each block locked to a certain pitch with no graceful transition between them becomes terribly awkward very quickly.

On top of that, Murray has made a pretty fundamental change to the structure of the bassline intro. Instead of going E-G every time as it’s supposed to, the second repeat now goes E-D. Yes, the bassline intro now goes down instead of up for one of the repeats. That’s just not cricket. I know Murray thinks the bassline intro is just so boring without some kind of brass fanfare or staccato strings over it, but maybe if you included some dum-dum-diddies you wouldn’t have so much of a problem?

That melody sound is just terrible. There’s no getting around it. It sounds like a basket of kittens being lowered into a vat of acid. If people watch the show at a high enough volume, there might be a class-action lawsuit for property damage coming up.

I’m not terribly thrilled with the bells either. I don’t object to them conceptually, as they were likely designed to fit with the title sequence, but they’re used in a pretty repetitive and boring way. Murray never seems to be able to come up with a creative way to use percussion in his themes, and the bells are no exception this time around.

Finally, the post-melody 2 bassline is still not ideal. It’s miles better than the previous theme, which just had two B blocks before returning to melody 1, but this time he has just padded them out with another two B blocks. If you’re going to add two blocks, do a B block and then go up to D like the Howell theme, or a G high-low dum-dum-diddy to lead back into melody 1. And speaking of those final melody 1 sections, do you really need to do a bassline intro-style E-E-E-G behind them instead of the proper melody 1 E-E-B-B notation? At least you had this right in the last theme.

Verdict

When all is said and done, I actually kind of like this newest theme. But then again, I’m the kind of person who loves the Delaware theme, and I don’t care what you think. For a Murray Gold theme, I think this is progress. Unfortunately, I’ve learned by now that when it comes to Murray Gold, “progress” is usually just a fortunate accident. We’ll see how much of this is actually retained when the next theme rolls around.


  1. Plus one that was soundtrack-only, and another that hasn’t been officially released at all, which brings us up to ten. 

Paul Hartnoll’s Sea Devils Remix

Amazing piece I just discovered. Props to Paul Hartnoll for being such a dude.

England 2014

My annual trip to Brighton, England begins tomorrow, March 22, and lasts until Thursday, April 3. I can’t make any promises regarding availability, but if you’re interested in meeting up and grabbing a drink, let me know!

The Time Traveler

A poem by my uncle, Greg Knight. Partly inspired, of course, by “I Am The Doctor.”

Who can blend faith
with science?
To take away
the night that blinds us?

Who wields the sword
of consciousness?
To destroy the foes
from someone less?

Who frightens usurpers
of the light?
Those purveyors
of eternal night?

Who commands the cosmos
with a word?
Until all his
enemies have heard?

A traveler of time
so bold and true
He is the Doctor,
That’s who.

Peter Capaldi’s costume

Commenting on his costume, Peter Capaldi said: “He’s woven the future from the cloth of the past. Simple, stark, and back to basics. No frills, no scarf, no messing, just 100 percent rebel Time Lord.”

I like it. I like it a lot.

Doctor Who and TV culture

This was written by Josef Kenny. I just stole it and made minor alterations for clarity.

Doctor Who is a reflection of the culture in programme-making and showrunning that it originates from. It’s just that the current TV culture is not conducive to good Doctor Who. It can be done, but not with people like Moffat and the current BBC board of directors.

TV now is heavily invested in essentially just making a very long movie that never properly ends. It used to be more like an old-fashioned radio serial, but now it’s like a Hollywood movie. That’s just how TV is. Doctor Who isn’t emotionally-driven, so it suffers, because that’s all people know how to make, and even worse, it’s all people know how to market.

I like Doctor Who because it’s an enigmatic guy who nobody knows anything about, taking people from one time and place to another, and having to solve problems and deal with situations by casting them in either a historical light, or taking current ideas and extrapolating them either into the future or into an alien society different from ours. That’s why I like Doctor Who.

Sure, I like the TARDIS and I love seeing the proper TARDIS prop and howlarounds and Sid Sutton’s rainbow stars, but that’s not what defines Doctor Who, those things are just symbols of it. I like them because of what they suggest and what they represent.

Doctor Who isn’t a bunch of memes sandwiched together with contrived plots and unrealistic peril. It’s an educational TV show where you take people (frequently from Earth) to other places. It’s an adventure, not a drama.

Developing characters isn’t wrong. It’s not a problem. Most great TV shows and movies are based on it. But Doctor Who isn’t focused on that. The point of it is to expose ideas, not to develop characters over a lasting, overbearing arc.

The point of Doctor Who is that sometimes you get attacked by a giant shellfish.