The History of Doctor Who Theme Music (Updated for the 50th Anniversary)

Any true Brit or Anglophiles know the cultural impact of Doctor Who. The show is one of the iconic pieces of British culture and science fiction. The show has been on-air since 1963 and has aired 790 episodes and one TV movie. Each of those episodes has started with the iconic Doctor Who theme song originally composed by Ron Grainer. Unlike your standard TV show, however, the Doctor Who theme has undergone some dramatic revisions. As Doctor Who reaches its 50th Anniversary in 2013, here is a look back at the history of the Doctor Who opening music, updated through this week’s Christmas Special.

William Hartnell Theme (1963 – 1966)

The original Doctor Who theme was composed by Ron Grainer and brought to life by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workship. The theme was made using sine-wave oscillators and electronic noise generators. At the time it debuted on TV, the theme was unlike anything that had been heard on TV before. Hell, the original theme is still unlike anything heard since.

Each note was individually created by cutting, splicing, speeding up and slowing down segments of analogue tape containing recordings of a single plucked string, white noise and the simple harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators which were used for calibrating equipment and rooms, not creating music. The swooping melody and pulsating bass rhythm was created by manually adjusting the pitch of oscillator banks to a carefully timed pattern. The rhythmic hissing sounds, “bubbles” and “clouds”, were created by cutting tape recordings of filtered white noise.

Patrick Troughton Theme (1966 – 1969)

The change of Doctors from Hartnell to Troughton didn’t make for a radical change in the opening. Some new special effects and The Doctor’s face were added to the visuals of the theme. There was also the addition of some more electronic sound effects to the start of the theme and a bit of echo to the bass line.

Jon Pertwee 1st Theme (1970 – 1972)

In 1970, the theme underwent a bit of editing to match the brand new title sequence. While the actual music was the same as what we heard from the Troughton years, it was edited to give it a shorter introduction and to eliminate the “middle eight” part of the theme. If you want to listen to the middle eight, it’s that part starting at about 0:32 of the Troughton theme. The theme itself wouldn’t change again for another ten years.

Jon Pertwee 2nd Theme (1973 – 1974)

As I just mentioned, the theme didn’t change for the rest of the 1970s but that didn’t mean that other changes weren’t made. The new Pertwee opening sequence introduced us to the time vortex which keeps popping up in varying versions of the theme before the show’s cancellation and has been a permanent fixture of the new Doctor Who series.

Tom Baker 1st Theme (1974 – 1980)

Tom Baker is one of the most fondly remembered Doctors and the longest tenured but you wouldn’t know it from his opening credits. He got Pertwee’s hand-me-down theme sequence as well as the exact same theme song that had been used since 1970.

Tom Baker 2nd Theme (1980 – 1981)

In 1980, John Nathan-Turner took over as producer of Doctor Who and overhauled just about everything on the show. That included the opening theme which got a total overhaul. Gone was the classic Derbyshire version (and subsequent slightly modified derivatives). In its place was this synthesizer, guitar and bass driven theme by Peter Howell. It’s quite nearly a complete 180 from the original. And I think that’s why this one works so well. It’s different yet somehow familiar.

Peter Davison Theme (1982 – 1984)

Davison’s theme is the same as the theme introduced at the end of Tom Baker’s tenure as The Doctor. The big difference is that Davison’s face doesn’t seem nearly as scary as Baker’s. Seriously, I don’t know what they were thinking with that Baker picture. It was scarier than some of the aliens.

Colin Baker 1st Theme (1984 – 1985)

When Colin Baker became the second Baker to take control of the TARDIS, not much changed in the opening between Davison and Baker 2. The theme remained the same but with some added sound effects. Most of the changes were to the opening visuals with some more speeding lights and sparkling colour things making a sort of time vortex. However, the most important (and worst) change to the opening credits is the addition of the smiley Doctor picture. Watch Baker’s picture. A couple of seconds after it materializes, he suddenly smiles. It’s quite disconcerting.

Colin Baker 2nd Theme (1986)

The second Colin Baker theme was done specifically for the Trial of a Time Lord season. The theme was supposed to sound more mysterious but in retrospect it seems more like a Doctor Who club music theme song than a Doctor Who TV show theme song. Part of that might be because this theme was composed by Dominic Glynn which meant this was the first time that the theme was composed outside the BBC Radiophonic workshop. It shows here.

Sylvester McCoy Theme (1987 – 1989)

Rumour has it that original Who theme composer Delia Derbyshire hated this version of the theme with a passion. As you’ve listened to the themes through the years, you’ve probably noticed how they’ve gone farther and farther away from the original theme from the 1960s. Gratuitous use of the “middle eight” is the biggest evidence of how much this theme has changed from the original. Unless you find someone raised on McCoy’s era as The Doctor, you’re not likely to find anyone who likes this theme. If you’re at all interested, the theme was said to be part of a “fresh start” under producer John Nathan-Turner. It went so well that the show was cancelled in 1989.

Paul McGann Theme (1996)

The McGann theme was used for the Doctor Who television movie shown on BBC (and Fox in the US) in 1996. This was the first Who theme that was fully orchestrated which I suppose makes sense for a movie theme. This theme also uses the “middle eight” but unlike the McCoy theme, this theme is predominantly in the E minor key of the original theme. A quick fun fact about this theme: Composer John Debney was almost forced to write a brand new theme for Doctor Who because of a legal battle over licensing the original Grainger composition.

Christopher Eccleston Theme (2005)

Sixteen years after the TV series was cancelled, Doctor Who returned to the airways helmed by producer Russell T. Davies. Composer Murray Gold was drafted in to arrange an updated Doctor Who theme for the relaunch of the series. The familiar bass line of the song is lifted straight from the original Derbyshire theme as are some of the synthesizer notes. Gold supplemented that with some orchestral elements, mostly strings and horns. Compared to the 1980s themes, this one was the closest to the original Derbyshire theme.

David Tennant 1st Theme (2005 – 2007)

Eccleston lasted all of one season as The Doctor before being replaced by Scottish actor David Tennant. Gold didn’t make any changes to the theme after the first season of the new Who and no changes were made to the theme until after the third season in time for the 2007 Christmas Special.

David Tennant 2nd Theme (2007 – 2010)

An edict from the BBC said that closing title sequences had to be shortened up so Davies and Gold took the opportunity to put a new theme together. This theme goes with the full orchestral theme and drops music/sounds sampled from the Derbyshire theme (though officially the electronic melody is in there but well covered up). There’s a heavy dose of strings in this arrangement with some horns, piano, percussion and bass guitar. There’s also a string counter-melody called “The Chase” which is the rapidly rising and falling strings that you hear in the earlier part of the theme.

Matt Smith 1st Theme (2010 – 2012)

For the fifth season of the new Doctor Who, Davies and Tennant left the show and new producer Steven Moffat and new Doctor Matt Smith took over. Murray Gold came up with a new arrangement of the theme which re-emphasized the bass line from the Derbyshire theme while retaining “The Chase” counter-melody from his previous theme. But the big change in this theme is the new opening fanfare which is unique to Gold’s latest theme.

Matt Smith 2nd Theme (2012 – Present)

For the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, showrunner Steven Moffat went back to the drawing board and had a new theme song and title sequence produced. The TARDIS interior was also redesigned with a more classic look and gave Matt Smith’s Doctor a new wardrobe but that’s beside the point. The new theme starts with Murray Gold’s opening fanfare from the first Smith theme. In addition to the classic Gold parts of the theme, there are callbacks to the original Derbyshire theme and Peter Howell’s synthesizer based theme from the early 1980s. The Doctor’s face even makes a return to the credits for the first time since 1989. I guess that would be appropriately fitting for the 50th anniversary of this iconic series.

3 thoughts on “The History of Doctor Who Theme Music (Updated for the 50th Anniversary)

  1. You got some things wrong, especially mixing up “theme” (theme tune or signature tune) and “intro/outro” (opening and closing titles respsctively). Might correct you more later.


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