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.

The Return

Rumors have been flying for months that an unspecified number of Doctor Who episodes, destroyed decades ago and thought to be lost, had been recovered. Fingers were being pointed in every direction, evidence had supposedly been dug up, and the internet reached fever pitch over it all. While I was hopeful at first, I quickly decided that the wisest course of action was to stay out of it and wait to hear something official.

Earlier this week, we heard something official.

The actual news will be revealed in a few hours, but I felt it was important to say a few words about the circumstances surrounding the recovery of these episodes. All of this is speculation based on no special knowledge. I am only speaking as someone to whom Doctor Who has been very important for many, many years.

Outpost Skaro reported the following on its website:

But there is one important thing to say: it was confirmed to me that the rampant speculation and personal attackes (sic) that has been going on in some quarters of fandom has made the acquisition more difficult. … I asked how, and was told even discussing that would create difficulties. The story can be told, but not yet.

It sounds to me like this whole thing has been a clusterfuck. I think these episodes were found by somebody who may have their own (likely reasonable) priorities and concerns, and it’s very easy to surmise that becoming involved with the rather, shall we say, “passionate” Doctor Who fanbase has created some bad experiences for them over all this. Add to that possible financial motivations and, based on the nature of these rumors over the past several months, possible poor management of the situation by the BBC, and it sounds like this whole thing has come close to derailing itself because of politics and greed, and political reasons may be why we haven’t gotten all the recovered episodes yet and “there may be more on the way.”

All I want to say is that people should just cool their heads here and back off. We all love Doctor Who, and I know we all would give any number of limbs or internal organs to get some of these missing episodes back. But the fact of the matter is that these episodes either exist or they don’t (and it’s sounding like more may indeed still exist). They are likely not going anywhere. It’s highly unlikely that anybody will maliciously destroy these episodes, although I would say those chances are reduced even further if everybody could just remain civil about all this. The best thing fans can do to ensure the safe recovery of these episodes—which is something that everybody wants—is to back off and let the BBC do what they need to do in order to bring them home. We’ll get what’s left eventually, and nobody is helping by letting tempers flare and resorting to baseless speculation and personal attacks. This needs to stop.

Don’t make a difficult situation worse; just let the people who are involved in this situation handle it the way they’re supposed to. And hopefully by tomorrow, we’ll all have some more Doctor Who that we never thought we’d be able to see.

Doctor Who Theme 2013

As we enter the year of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary, Murray Gold has given us yet another (slight) reinterpretation of the Doctor Who theme. The last time the theme was revamped was in 2010, ushering in Steven Moffat’s new vision for the show. In the time since, this theme has presided over the series as Moffat’s vision has been slowly yet utterly compromised and the show has become, for the most part, even more of a self-parody than it was during the tenure of RTD.

Before the new theme made its debut, I found myself worrying that any new theme would surely represent a step backwards. Despite its flaws (of which there are many), there was something inherently solid about the 2010 theme. It was built for a different, better vision of the show than the one we ended up with, and any change now would undoubtedly compromise and reflect what the show ended up becoming, rather than what Moffat originally wanted.

Now that the theme is finally here, it isn’t the ground-up rewrite I’d feared. It’s definitely built on top of what he did for 2010. But is it better or worse? The short version of my opinion is this: stylistically I think it’s a step up, but technically it’s a definite step backwards.

Here is the theme:

Stylistically, I like the direction this new theme has taken. It’s a little more powerful and aggressive, but not noisy to the point of being completely indistinct like the Voyage of the Damned theme. Everything sounds sharper—from the bass, to the brass, to the emphasis on the melody—but not at the expense of audio fidelity. There’s still definition to the sound. This is good.

Another Murray Gold trademark—the string arpeggios behind the melody—are gone. Back in 2010 I commended Murray for being willing to change one of the signature components of his theme—now I commend him even more for being bold enough to drop it altogether. I think this was the right call.

I’ve heard people compare Murray’s new bassline to the Derbyshire bassline. To be honest, I’m not really hearing the similarity that some people are, and in fact I’m mostly unimpressed with the sound he’s using, but that might just be me. He is likely using an FM-like pluck/strum sound that may account for those familiar qualities. Some have even speculated that it may sample the actual Derbyshire bassline, but I’m convinced this isn’t the case.

Another addition comes in the form of some pitch bend applied to the main melody lead. The high B note of the opening melody phrase now begins to dip down slightly in pitch just before the second half of the melody plays. I like this too—not only does it help the theme’s atmosphere, but it’s almost a nod to Dominic Glynn’s version of the theme, which made liberal use of pitch bends both in and around the melody. (It does seem, to an extent, that Murray may be cycling between the classic themes for inspiration—2008’s Voyage of the Damned theme may have drawn inspiration, albeit poorly, from the Howell theme, while 2010’s bassline seemed very much inspired by Keff McCulloch’s.)

I’ve had mostly good things to say about this latest theme so far. I said his 2010 theme had been my favorite theme of his up to that point. The fact that, stylistically, I consider almost everything to be an improvement on that theme means that this may well be my new favorite. But, as with every new Murray Gold theme, I feel that it’s a case of “one step forward, two steps back” thanks to certain technical choices he has made relating to the mechanics and structure of the theme. For those who care about the structure of the components that make up a Doctor Who theme (a group which Murray Gold sadly cannot be counted amongst), there are a number of things that were “correct” (or more correct) in the previous version that are now broken.

An intro to the Doctor Who theme bassline

The Doctor Who theme bassline is comprised of a few different note patterns. In the vernacular I and my friends have established over the years, I call them dum-de-dumsdiddly-dums, and dum-dum-diddies. Once you get past the names, you’ll find that this is an easy way to understand a large part of how the bassline was originally put together. For clarity, here are some demos. Note that all of these demos are used correctly as they would appear in a theme, with the exception of the diddly-dum demo, which is set up this way only for demonstration purposes.

Dum-de-dum: This file contains four dum-de-dums in a row.

Diddly-dum: This file contains four diddly-dums in a row. (Note that you shouldn’t do this in an actual theme.)

Dum-dum-diddy: In each demo, every other bar ends with a dum-dum-diddy.

1: B to E (“Low to High” in generic terms)

2: E to E (“High to Low” in generic terms)

3: B to B (also “High to Low,” just on a different pitch)

To go just a little bit deeper down this rabbit hole, there are two main melody phrases in the theme (excluding the middle eight), and according to the original Derbyshire theme, the opening (first) melody phrase should be accompanied by all diddly-dums in the bassline (with the obvious exception of any dum-dum-diddies), while the answering (second) melody phrase should be accompanied by all dum-de-dums(again, excepting dum-dum-diddies). (The rules for the middle eight are a little more complicated.)

It was Peter Howell who established the proper way to make changes to this format, with one simple rule: anything that was a diddly-dum in the original Derbyshire theme must remain a diddly-dum, but anything that was a dum-de-dum may be changed to a diddly-dum. Think of it this way: you’re free to add notes to the theme, but you cannot remove notes that were already there. (The middle eight, however, as with the Derbyshire theme, is a bit of a free-for-all.)

Admittedly, none of this is particularly relevant to this theme, as Murray has never paid any attention to these rules. However, this latest theme’s bassline is an even bigger step backwards—Murray has now oversimplified his bassline to the point where it contains nothing but diddly-dums. Yes, that’s right. He has removed all variety from the bassline structure and replaced his entire bassline with nothing but diddly-dum after diddly-dum. Not even a dum-dum-diddy remains.

Murray has also removed the “second layer” of the bassline from this latest incarnation of the theme—the swoops that usually begin two semitones below each main pitch of the bassline and lead into it. He hasn’t always grasped this core part of the bassline, but all of his versions since 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned” theme have had it (despite inaccuracies). Until this one.

Another minor complaint regarding Murray’s bassline relates to an octave change he’s made. This is actually something he’s done before, back in the series 2-3 theme, but it’s reared its ugly head again here. When the bassline is supposed to go down from E to B, Murray now instead jumps up to the B an octave higher. This is a relatively minor annoyance, but it changes the whole feel of the bassline in a way that I don’t think works.

It sounds even stranger when the bassline is on B and then goes up to D for the dum-dum-diddy after the second melody phrase. But wait—not only does it sound strange, but Murray has decided that the dum-dum-diddy has outlived its usefulness anyway. So what does he do here to work around these problems? Simple! He completely excises the end of the second melody phrase and awkwardly cuts back to the first. Well, I guess that’s one way to solve that problem.

But if he had taken the time to look back over previous themes, he would have discovered that the ham-fisted approach he took here is not the only one available to him if he wanted to get back to the first melody phrase in a hurry. In fact, the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker version of the Derbyshire theme used from 1970 to 1979, and by extension Peter Howell’s 1980 version of the theme, already solved this problem in a much more elegant way. With the addition of just one bar, he could have taken advantage of the dum-dum-diddy that was already there and used that to jump back into the first melody phrase. (The Derbyshire and Howell themes use this dum-dum-diddy to lead into the titles section, but under the circumstances, it would have worked perfectly fine to lead back to the opening melody phrase here.) Ah well.

Two final notes, only peripherally related:

  1. The episode’s closing fell back to the 2010 theme. Either Murray has not yet done a closing version, or they dubbed the wrong one by mistake. (Additionally, how screwed up is it that we live in a world where the closing theme is shorter than the opening theme?)

  2. The new title sequence is fantastic. It’s perhaps a little too fast-paced and disjointed, but it is leaps and bounds beyond any previous new series title sequence. Watching a Doctor Who title sequence should make you feel like you’re tripping on acid. This is the only new series attempt that even begins to capture that feel. The only part that really lets it down is the stupid ending with the TARDIS flying into the screen and the doors opening onto the episode. Aside from that, though, the visual style of the show seems to be at an all-time high: the titles, the TARDIS, and the Doctor’s costume are all hugely improved. The quality of the writing, sadly, remains another matter.

My final verdict is this: Murray Gold does not and never will care about the musical intricacies that go into a Doctor Who theme. When Peter Howell had to make structural changes to the theme for the purposes of creating a new opening or closing version, he put intense thought into those changes, and confined himself to working within the structural framework laid out by the original theme. Murray Gold just wants to get in and get out. He doesn’t care if the cuts or edits he makes to the theme make musical sense or honor the structure of the themes that came before. He’s been given a 30-second title sequence for which to make a theme, and all he cares about is making something 30 seconds long that’s recognizable as the Doctor Who theme.

This is why I make Murray Gold-inspired Doctor Who themes from time to time. Some of his ideas are good. Some of his sounds are good. Sometimes the feel of his theme is good. But there’s more to the Doctor Who theme than just its feel. There’s a legacy of musical history here that deserves to be respected and protected. My goal is to show that one does not have to negate the other. Both can be achieved at the same time. This is why I sometimes work with Murray’s themes, this is why I incorporate Murray’s ideas into some of my remixes, and this is why I write these articles year after year. And unless Murray Gold suddenly decides to start caring, that’s what I’ll continue to do.

Why I'm Not on Facebook

A friend recently relayed to me something that occurred on Facebook, in which a small argument occurred publicly over something minor. The whole thing was rather trivial, but incidents like this remind me that I have absolutely no interest in reactivating my Facebook profile, and I thought I would take this opportunity to write out why so that I would have something to point people to if they were curious as to why I’m not there.

I was on Facebook from 2006 through 2008, and then again briefly in 2010. Even back in 2010 I hardly ever used or checked it, and since closing it again I have had no desire to return. My reasons for disliking the service go beyond the simple privacy concerns inherent with maintaining a Facebook account (and I’m referring less to the interpersonal privacy issues and more to the “tinfoil hat” concerns relating to Facebook itself). If that was my only issue I would probably suck it up and maintain an account on there anyway. The real reason I have no desire to be on there is that I just don’t like having that kind of window into other people’s lives. Going years without Facebook in my life has made me infinitely prefer that my electronic interactions be one-on-one, through more neutral and direct means like email or IM chat, and that’s something I consider to be a very good thing.

I dislike what Facebook represents, and the value that has been placed on it by society. Things like validating a relationship by making it “Facebook official.” There is an intense social scrutiny attached to Facebook, and I want no part of that. The very foundation of the service involves publicly broadcasting information about your personal life. I dislike that kind of soapbox broadcasting. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not a social misfit or a hermit. I love sharing experiences with friends; in fact, I thrive on it more than many people I know. But the value of all of my interactions is drastically reduced the minute they become public knowledge to everyone simultaneously. The value I derive from personal interaction comes from sharing news or experiences one-on-one, and allowing a whole new experience to bloom from that single point of interaction.

I also put a high degree of emphasis on controlling the experience when I share something with my friends. I put a great deal of thought into where and when we should do something or have a conversation, the form it should take, and how best to maximize the value and enjoyment of that interaction for both parties. I want it to be both fun and meaningful. (Those who know me know that I treat many experiences—such as someone’s first viewing of a TV show—in this way.) Broadcasting via Facebook, in my opinion, is neither of those.

I know that I miss out on a lot of things because of this and I’d even go so far as to say that my circle of friends is likely significantly smaller because I’m not on there, but none of that changes the fact that being on Facebook is a compromise I am not willing to make. If people want to know what’s going on with me, I want them to come to me so we can have a conversation about it. Likewise, I feel incredibly awkward observing the little details that others choose to broadcast. As far as I am concerned, it is an unpleasant and undesirable environment for human interaction, and it’s a world I have no desire to be on either the sending or receiving end of. I feel that the standard of my friendships and the quality of their interactions is higher because they are not part of some larger public pool.

The bottom line is that I would rather have a small group of awesome friends who I can make sure to keep on the same page individually than a large quantity of pseudo-friends whose caring about my experiences extends to a comment on my Wall. It is an issue of both division of attention, and loyalty and dependability. Without Facebook, I know much better where I stand with people, and that’s not something I want to give up.

Murray's Latest Theme

I’ve been listening to Murray Gold’s latest theme a lot over the past few days, and it’s grown on me significantly since I first heard it. I actually now think it is the best version of the theme that Murray has done. That said, there are still some things that he’s gotten “wrong” about the theme, and what bothers me is that people might be learning how the theme works from Murray Gold’s versions instead of the originals. So without further ado, here is a small lesson on how the Doctor Who theme works.

Before we begin, here is the full version of Murray’s new theme:

Everyone knows the familiar “dum-de-dum” bassline of the theme. But what not everyone knows is that there is another very important component to the bassline which is very commonly misunderstood. Mark Ayres calls this layer the “swoops.” I call it the “second layer” (with the “first layer” being the “dum-de-dum” layer). This layer provides a sort of grace note that leads into each bit of the bassline. In Delia Derbyshire’s original theme, this layer is quite understated. It fills an important role, but most listeners don’t even know it exists. In Peter Howell’s version of the theme, this layer is made much more pronounced. Later versions of the theme (namely Dominic Glynn’s and Keff McCulloch’s) combined both layers into a single bassline, which I would generally consider incorrect. (To his strong credit, Dom fixed this in his 2008 remixes by adding a new and very loyal second layer. Dom is something of a special case, in my mind, as I know he was rushed when making his theme and has nothing but the utmost respect for Delia Derbyshire and her original theme. I have every confidence his theme would have been far more impressive than most people give him credit for now if only he had the time to do it right.)

Anyway, sometimes the second layer bends from note to note, as in the Derbyshire theme (and Dom’s remixes, and even Murray’s 2010 version). Other times, this layer serves more as sharp punctuation (“ba-bum”) as in the Howell theme.But I am not here to talk about sound. I am here to talk about structure. The second layer is designed to lead in to each bit of the bassline. As such, the general rule of the second layer is that it starts two semitones below the bit of bassline that it is leading into. For example, if the “dum-de-dum” of the bassline is on E, the second layer note preceding it should begin on D. There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are beyond the scope of this post. (Generally speaking, if you are doing a Doctor Who theme, follow this one rule and your second layer will be fine.)

Murray has gotten this backwards in his theme. I am not sure whether this stems from laziness on his part (improperly copying notes in his sequencing software) or just not knowing how it works in the original themes (which is pretty inexcusable considering he has the full Derbyshire multitrack). But either way, he has designed his second layer as a lead out rather than a lead in. He places the note two semitones below the main pitch after each bit of the bassline rather than before. This screws up the flow of the bassline by making the lead-in note entirely dependent on what comes before, rather than what is coming up. This is not how the bassline is supposed to work.

Here is a demo of Murray’s second layer versus how it is supposed to work.

Incorrect:

This is how it appears in Murray’s versions of the theme.

Correct:

This is how it appears in the Derbyshire, Howell, and 2008 Glynn themes.

I am quite sure that if I were to bring this to Murray’s attention, he would chalk it up to “artistic license” or similar. I suspect this would be a cover for the truth, which is simply that he doesn’t care. Of course, it is entirely possible that it was a creative decision on his part, in which case I would find it a lot more excusable (while I personally still consider it wrong). But generally, I find that people who make these kinds of mistakes simply do not understand how the original themes work. For many people, they simply do not take the time to study the theme up close before doing their own version (and they should not necessarily have to). In Murray’s case, however, he has full access to all the original Derbyshire theme materials, so he easily could have taken the time to learn about how the theme worked if he so chose. Additionally, he is making the official theme for the series itself. For that reason alone, I think some additional time and study is warranted.

That said, just in case Murray’s IT guy is still staking out my site (long story), I am not above complimenting Murray when I think he’s done a good job, and overall, I think he did a great job both with the new theme and with his score for The Eleventh Hour. I just wish he’d taken the time to make it perfect. My biggest remaining complaint is that the Doctor Who theme is no longer “special.” Murray Gold could have whipped up this latest version of the theme on his laptop in an afternoon (and probably did). I’ve done a ground-up recreation of his latest theme and it took me about three hours, just for comparison.

Delia Derbyshire spent two weeks making hers using extremely unorthodox means, and Peter Howell effectively wrote the book on how to approach a totally new version. (He spent five and a half weeks on his and used similarly unorthodox means for the time.) Peter Howell also studied the theme in depth, and to this day I am impressed at just how well he understood what made the theme unique and what could and shouldn’t be changed about it. Delia Derbyshire herself approved of Peter Howell’s version—there is no higher praise.

I’d love to see Murray Gold really come to grips with the theme and lock himself in a room for a week with all sorts of weird equipment and give us a really strong new theme. I’m quite sure the result would be brilliant. Unfortunately, based on comments he’s made in interviews and things (especially recently), I just don’t think he cares enough about the theme—especially now, after doing so many different versions of it. And it’s a great shame. So if this post does end up getting back to Murray (and based on how intensely he seems to monitor internet comments about him, anything’s possible), then we’ll see if he accepts my challenge. Not this year, and maybe not next year or the year after, but please—if you plan on sticking around for a while, give us a truly compelling take on the theme. Do something off the wall insane to make some of the sounds you use. Be an artist like Delia. Be crazy (I know you have it in you). Everyone is putting out a really top-notch show this year, and everyone—from the production team right down to us lowly viewers—deserves it. I look forward to hearing what you can do.