The Doctor Who Column: The (occasionally excessive?) music of Doctor Who
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Can Murray Gold be getting a free pass from John this week? It must be a Dalek mind-warp...
Chopped my finger off while preparing dinner – strange, I didn't hear a big, dramatic chord in the background. Whispered sweet words in my wife's ear – strange again, I couldn't hear the beautiful sound of harps trilling in the background. And stranger still, when I tripped over in the street, I didn't once hear silly whaa-whaa-whaaaaa comedy music. Just deafening laughter from passers by.
Yet whenever I see most TV programmes and films these days, there's musical cues ahoy to be found in the background. TV, in particular, can't seem to get through a programme without striking up the band. Even In EastEnders – although music is strictly limited to a pointedly chosen classic hit from years gone by. Say that furious hard nut Derek Branning is threatening hapless cheeky chappie Alfie Moon in the Queen Vic over a packet of pork scratchings, the cunning producers will heavily signpost the scenario with a background blast of Cilla Black's 1966 ear-destroyer, 'Alfie'.
"The scores have constantly bullied the hapless viewer into feeling the emotion that's happening on the screen. It's a bit like going to a restaurant and having the waiter constantly stand over you asking “Is everything alright?"
Doctor Who goes even better by mostly hiring a composer to write and perform specially prepared music. Incidental music is there to guide the viewer through the story, whether it's to add to the tension, relax the viewer with a comedy parp or make said viewer break out the nearest box of tissues. Music isn't really the first thing we think of when watching an episode of Who, and yet it's actually one of the most important ingredients in creating mood. In the 1960s, stories were divided three ways – depending on the budget, you'd get a specially hired composer, stock music or nothing at all. And to be honest, some of these stories seem a bit sparse – take The Dominators. Maybe a quick burst of specially composed music would have helped create a bit of tension. Instead we get a couple of strange beeping noises whenever psycho hunchbacks Rago and Toba strut onto the screen looking angry. The Krotons may have been a bit more memorable with a bit of dramatic noise in the background. Even in the late 1970s, lack of incidental music didn't go unnoticed. Destiny Of The Daleks had maybe about three minutes worth of music, and oddly, it's very much missed. The lacklustre action sequences could have been pepped up a bit by some Dudley Simpson cues – as they are, they're about as interesting as listening to a two-hour lecture on stamp collecting.
But at the same time, too much music completely destroys the ambience. Recent Who stories have included what seems to be 45-minute suites of non-stop music. The scores have constantly bullied the hapless viewer into feeling the emotion that's happening on the screen. It's a bit like going to a restaurant and having the waiter constantly stand over you asking “Is everything alright? Is your meal OK? Is everything to your satisfaction?” You can't enjoy the meal, and likewise with some recent Doctor Who stories, you can't enjoy the experience so much because of the non-stop aural distraction.
It's a difficult balance – too little and the story somehow doesn't come alive as much as it ought to. Too much, and it completely swamps the action. There's also the issue of the quality of music. By and large, Doctor Who has successfully found some inspired musical talents. In the beginning, there was a roster of different composers rather than a regular in-house contributor. So we'd get Norman Kay one month with his percussion and flute driven scores. Then Francis Chagrin with his experimental organ sounds. And then Tristram Cary another month delivering avant-garde bleeps.
Cary's a particularly notable example of a strong composer. Take The Daleks – with its strange musique-concrete score. It's a score full of odd, discordant bleeps and electronic noises, but in a way it's ahead of its time, pre-empting future ambient tunesmiths. The ambient theme for the shots of the Dalek city is particularly effective, as are the memorable stings for the Daleks themselves, which just add to the disorientating alien experience. Cary's scores would be re-used in future stories such as The Rescue, The Daleks' Masterplan and The Power Of The Daleks, adding greatly to the atmosphere. Mind you, by contrast, Cary could still provide some lovely orchestral sounds, in stories like Marco Polo and also Masterplan (which successfully blended orchestral and electronic sounds in accordance with that story's eclectic nature).
I've mentioned the use of stock music in the Sixties, and this was another effective way to add mood and atmosphere. It was also a good way of cutting costs! A good number of the Troughton tales use shrewdly chosen stock music. The Tomb Of The Cybermen offers some choice cuts such as M Slavin's Space Adventures, E Sendel's Astronautics Theme and Wilfred Josephs' Space Time Music. The museum piece in The Web Of Fear is also boosted by some creepy Bela Bartok music in the background, and again adding to the tension of poor old Julius getting cut down by a live Yeti.
However, one composer was to make a distinct impression – Dudley Simpson. Simpson would go on to become one of the most prolific and talented composers of Who. One or two fans have said that his music sounds a bit too samey (particularly in the late '70s), but I think that it's more a case of sticking with his own inimitable style. After all, it never did Status Quo any harm, did it?
"Dudley Simpson can create tension when there isn't really any on the screen"
For me, Simpson's music succeeds on a number of points. For one thing, he can create tension when there isn't really any on the screen. The Fendahl Core, for example, is no more than a woman in gold paint, swishing robes and fake eyes painted over Wanda Ventham's closed eyelids. What Simpson does is to disregard this and create a strange, eerie howl over the top of a doomy church organ. The end result adds a lot more to the drama, and makes the Fendahl Core just that bit more unearthly and creepy. The ending of Part Two of The Power Of Kroll sees poor old Harg pulled to his doom by a fake rubber tentacle. Sounds silly? Well, in fact, not only do we get some great agonised screaming from actor Grahame Mallard, we also get a big, bold, dramatic scoring from Dudley Simpson – all culminating in Philip Madoc's memorable bellow of “HAAAARRRGGG!!” What could have been a ridiculous cliffhanger now works rather well, and Simpson plays an important part in this. The Nimon, the Mandrels and even the Taran Beast boost greatly from Simpson's music, and considering that they're not among the top-tiered monsters, that's some accomplishment.
Another trick of Simpson's is to subtly reflect what's going on on screen in his music. The Robots Of Death is one of the best examples of this. The throbbing heartbeat theme for the Robot attacks perfectly sums up the thumping pounding of the heart in a stressful situation of fear – and just as cleverly, the music suddenly stops at the point of death, just like the luckless victims on board the Sandminer. Then there's the clever chord sequence at the end of City Of Death's Part Three, which rapidly goes through a progression of chord changes until the big sting at the end – just like Kerensky's rapid ageing which culminates in a rotting skeleton, a smug grin from Scarlioni and the crashing cliffhanger scream. And let's not forget the ominous Who riff for the Daleks' arrival in The Evil Of The Daleks.
The Who theme itself was regarded as one of those things that sent the kids behind the sofa, so Simpson cleverly parodied this to heighten the fear in the Daleks' victims (as seen in the great cliffhanger to Part One, as a pepperpot threatens a quaking Kennedy). Simpson pulls this trick out of the bag time and again, showing not just a talent for great tunes, but also an intelligent understanding of what's actually happening on screen (as opposed to just random big, dramatic chords for the hell of it).
Not only that, but Dudley's music just somehow helps to create the atmosphere. Whether he's spreading fear on the streets of Victorian London with gongs and mournful brass, providing romantic canoodling music for Jo and Cliff to swap test tubes over, or creating a filmic, joyous celebration of Paris for The Doctor and Romana to run around in, Dudley Simpson just gets it. The one composer that knew Doctor Who inside and out, front and backwards, Simpson still remains my favourite composer.
"The early 1970s Who stories were just following what was in vogue, even if the results didn't always come off"
Mind you, I'll agree that his Season Eight scores occasionally leave a little to be desired (although the Keller Machine riffs works brilliantly in upping the scares), but then a good counter-argument is that they are simply reflecting the times. Looking back at the Who scores, the interesting in that by and large, they reflect the popular styles and trends of music in each age. The Invasion, for example, has twangy guitar and Hammond organ, making it so Sixties, you half expect UNIT to mellow out in kaftans and Jesus sandals at the story's conclusion. The Season Eight stories, along with The Sea Devils and The Mutants may comprise oddball electronic burbles and squeaks, but the early 1970s saw many a musician and pop group dabble with this style. The early Roxy Music toons, for example, feature odd electronic burbles – same goes for Tangerine Dream and even some of the early 1970s Pink Floyd albums. The early 1970s Who stories were just following what was in vogue, even if the results didn't always come off.
By the mid 1970s, the trend for mixing brass and orchestras with modern instruments was growing ever more popular – whether it was in soul (Stevie Wonder's Superstition and You Are The Sunshine Of My Life or Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On album, for example) or the burgeoning success of American jazz rock (Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark and Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic were doing the rounds to great acclaim in 1974). And likewise, in the groovy sounds of Doctor Who World, this mixture of brass, woodwind and modern synth held court for most of the mid to late 1970s, whether it was Dudley Simpson, Carey Blyton or Geoffrey Burgon, who provided two, haunting, lilting scores for Terror Of The Zygons and The Seeds Of Doom.
But by the early 1980s, synthesisers had taken over the building. With their slicked back hair and silly costumes, the likes of Ultravox, Depeche Mode and The Human League had burst onto the scene. And Doctor Who, as always, keeping in with the times, dispensed with the services of Dudley Simpson and hired the BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers, whether they were staff or freelance. I suppose you could say that this is where the quality of the music started to yo-yo a bit. By far the most successful and consistent was Peter Howell, who added his own very notable style to not only a good chunk of '80s stories, but also the brilliant version of the theme tune. Howell adds a majestic sweep to his work, and utilises every electronic trick in the book to add the finishing touches. Whether he's using the Vocoder to great effect in Meglos or sampling and reworking unusual sources for distinctive results (the violin sampled screech for the Mara), Howell produced some great scores – the Planet Of Fire one is still a lovely suite of ambience that perfectly sums up the hot climes of Sarn.
Some of his stablemates have mixed fortunes. Roger Limb's lesser days didn't really add much to Black Orchid or Arc Of Infinity, but I wonder how much of that was down to the lax direction. Give him a good director such as John Black or Graeme Harper, and Limb can produce some lovely scores. The Keeper Of Traken is a mini masterpiece, boasting some nice moments such as Nyssa's theme or the background music to the Keeper's story in the early scenes of Part One. The Caves Of Androzani is his piece-de-resistance, a doomy, uncompromising score that includes all the elements of forthcoming death such as the tolling bell or the subtle Blue Monday-esque “Aaaaahhhh”s. The Revelation Of The Daleks sounds were none too shabby either.
Malcolm Clarke's scores are an acquired taste, but his unusual reading of Earthshock works magnificently, the clanging musique-concrete punctuating the dizzy sights of Snyder's remains, marching Cybermen and Adric's death. Resurrection Of The Daleks would work along the same lines, while offering a sweet cue for Tegan's leaving scene. It's Enlightenment that brings out the best in Clarke, who contributes an ethereal, dreamy score with plenty of clever nods to jaunty sea shanties. Paddy Kingsland's music is more accessible and straight-ahead – sometimes, it's a nuisance, particularly in Frontios, which just re-hashes the same old cues over and over to the point where my facial expression resembled Brazen's grumpy scowl. But there are some strong moments for Kingsland, whether it's the mournful score for Logopolis or the rock-driven backdrop to Mawdryn Undead – Eric Clapton would be proud.
The mid to late 1980s are also variable. Richard Hartley's sole contribution for Mindwarp is a belter, and one of the factors in making this tale such a clammy, claustrophobic one. The synthesised, doomy score pins down that feeling of dread and amplifies it, particularly in the climatic scenes of Peri's not-quite death. Dominic Glynn contributes a fine score for Survival, and actually sounds quite listenable in its own right with trendy guitar workouts and sinister screeching noises for the Cat people. Mark Ayres is probably the most successful of the lot, producing some dramatic and well thought out cues, whether it's the strident army marches and Gothic Omen-esque horrors in The Curse Of Fenric, the dense, rich, orchestral-sounding score for Ghost Light (amazing what you can do on a synth) or the brightly creepy backdrop to The Greatest Show In The Galaxy.
Sadly, Keff McCulloch's scores are also notable, but maybe for the wrong reasons. While they're generally tuneful, they're somehow in the wrong context. I mentioned the trends of the time echoing what went on in Who, and again, this is the case for the late 1980s. The McCulloch scores are more rooted in pop, and at times sound like the Stock Aitken And Waterman domination of the pop charts between 1987 and 1989. Not only that, but we get a few housey drum fills as well – that sequence in Remembrance Of The Daleks, when The Doctor and Ace are hiding in a makeshift hut. It sounds like someone's dug out copies of House Arrest by Krush or Rok Da House by The Beatmasters to see which one has the loudest drum sound. Battlefield ain't much better with silly cues that alternate between sounding like Pet Shop Boys B-sides and gameshow theme songs. Still, at least Keff's Delta And The Bannermen rockabilly score is a hidden gem – dig those sounds of the '50s.
"A good number of Gold's scores work brilliantly"
So that leaves us with Murray Gold, who brings new meaning to the word prolific. Having scored all of the 21st century Who stories, Gold has certainly made his mark on the revival. So John, here's your biggest challenge – find the positives instead of babbling on about Murray's Pompous Choir, the volume turned up to eleven and the wall-to-wall histrionics.
OK, well, actually, a good number of Gold's scores work brilliantly. Random good scores: The eerie vocal workouts and the twinkly effects of Planet Of The Ood. The lovely remembrance of all things '20s in The Unicorn And The Wasp. The off-kilter brilliance of Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead. The music box jewels of The Girl In The Fireplace. The terrifying Master theme. And that music cue which still ranks as one of my favourites in Doctor Who, which is repeated on a number of occasions (when Donna walks down the road remembering her adventures in The Sontaran Stratagem or when Martha prepares to say goodbye to The Doctor in Last Of The Time Lords). Does anyone know the name of this piece?
Incidental music, when it's done right, is a vital piece of the jigsaw. It needs to be used enough to create an impression – too little, and there's limited effect: too much and it swamps the action. Inappropriate music doesn't help, whether it's Murray's Pompous Choir or Carey Blyton making the Daleks look like laughing stocks, or dated keyboard sounds. But in its element, a good incidental score can make you scared, make you happy, make you laugh or even make you cry. And isn't that what music's all about?
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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