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.