The Doctor Who theme song: analog electronica

When I was in third grade, my mom and stepfather went on academic sabbatical to London for six months, taking my sister and me with them. I guess I’m grateful for the chance to experience another culture and everything, but it was a rough six months. I missed my dad, school, New York, the Muppet Show. British third graders are manic xenophobes of Eric Cartman proportions. It was the first time I had ever experienced genuine alien-ness, and I didn’t like it. The best thing about being there was Doctor Who.

If you haven’t had the pleasure, Doctor Who is an extremely long-running, low-budget British science fiction show about a time-traveling alien being who looks like a flamboyant Oxford don. Or actually a series of flamboyant Oxford dons. The original actor playing Doctor Who was elderly and became ill while the show was just getting to be popular. When he couldn’t continue, the BBC ingeniously decided to have the Doctor’s species periodically reincarnate as a routine part of their life cycle. They were thus able to keep the show going through many changes of lead actor. Doctor Who has been on the air for most of the past forty-five years with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Here’s the original 1963 title sequence, with music composed by Ron Grainer and arranged, produced and recorded by Delia Derbyshire:

Let’s talk for a second about Delia Derbyshire.

She produced the Doctor Who theme music using analog oscillators and tape loops, laboriously, over a period of many weeks. Here she talks about her process.

Her name suggests that she might have been a professor at Hogwarts, but Delia Derbyshire was a genuine hipster ambient techno producer, decades before such a thing existed. She was buddies with Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Brian Jones and the guys in Pink Floyd. In addition to the Doctor Who theme, she produced a bunch of other tripped-out electronica. Hear a sample:

Delia Derbyshire – “Planetarium”


The Doctor Who theme I was hearing in the eighties as a third grader was a newer arrangement by Peter Howell:

The Delia Derbyshire version broke a lot of new ground, but the eighties version is the one that really works for me musically. The groove is tighter because the bass was recorded to a click track. The main melody is played on an Arp Odyssey, a more sophisticated version of the synth they used for R2D2’s voice. Peter Howell sings the B section melody wordlessly through a vocoder. Here’s a behind-the-scenes video if you want to really geek all the way out. Dude isn’t the world’s most dynamic camera presence, but he demonstrates all the different retrofuture gear one piece at a time.

In 1988, The KLF had a number one pop hit in the UK with “Doctorin’ The Tardis” which includes a sample of the Peter Howell theme.

What I like about electronic music is how it makes the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. The best science fiction does that too. Nothing could have sounded more futuristic or otherworldly to me as a kid than those synths and that vocoder. Now they’re museum pieces.

6 thoughts on “The Doctor Who theme song: analog electronica

  1. I really like this sort of music – you can do it on computers using sound recorder and a tracker! I have been experimenting with music made of textbooks slamming shut, dishes being plinked by knives, and thwangs of a ruler on a table. It’s fun!!!!!

  2. Me too. I get impatient if Pro Tools crashes and I have spend two minutes rebooting the machine. I can’t imagine splicing all that tape together.

  3. I’ve just gotten into digital audio editing, and am simply amazed with what they had to work with before they used computers. Just thinking about trying to synchronize those tapes makes me shudder. Looking at these videos make me really appreciate the Doctor Who theme.

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