The Sound of Doctor Who

The second panel I’m on at A Celebration of Doctor Who, immediately after the first one, concerns the series’ aesthetics. Instead of examining aspects of mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, or narrative design, I’m concentrating on what Doctor Who sounds like.

Sound has been a crucial part of the design of Doctor Who, from the very first appearance of the series on British screens on November 23, 1963. The first ghostly images of the original, swirly title sequence are accompanied by Delia Derbyshire’s landmark electronic arrangement of Ron Grainer’s theme tune. In a matter of seconds, Doctor Who has announced itself as new and alien, and it’s the sound–generated by various tone generators, oscillators, and hundreds of feet of tape loops at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop–that clinches it:

Note that as the theme fades out, the next sound we hear is the mysterious hum from a Police Box in a junkyard. Such sound effects were fundamental during the series’ first few years, as Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson, Dick Mills, and others in the Radiophonic Workshop created alien atmospheres, high-tech laboratories, weapons and tools, monsters, and of course, the most famous sound of all, the TARDIS dematerialization: 

At times throughout the 1960s (and at various points in the 1970s and 1980s as well), electronic sound effects and music bled into each other (occasionally even credited as “Special Sound”), emphasizing the relationship between the sound and image of “SF.” That is, electronic sounds (later generated by dedicated synthesizers) reinforce the mystery and otherworldliness of “proper” SF.

In contrast, music and dialogue are relatively secondary in the sound mix in the early years. Of course, the dialogue has to convey the plot, and the music (usually in brief “stings”) punctuates the emotional moments. But the sound effects are the basis of the series’ world-building, and what make it inescapably Doctor Who. In the first six seasons, these sound effects (and musical cues) were even piped into the soundstage during primary recording, helping the actors and crew locate themselves on alien worlds (post-dubbing music and sound effects became standard in the 1970s).

As the show’s style changed, this general emphasis on sound effects remained, with “alien” sounds locating the Doctor and friends (and us) in “alien” environments (or, in the Pertwee years, familiar spaces made “alien”…)

Along the way in the 1970s, however, the music changed from otherworldly compliment to more familiar counterpoint. After spending much of the Pertwee years favoring synthesizers, Dudley Simpson switched to more acoustic, chamber-like scores in the second half of the 1970s (with a half-dozen musicians, usually french horns, clarinet, piano, and percussion). This was the sound of this era, as alien atmospheres receded in favor of Simpson’s “organic” duets with Tom Baker’s velvet baritone.

When John Nathan-Turner took over as producer in 1980, he aimed to overhaul the look and sound of the series. Simpson was an immediate casualty, as the composers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (including Peter Howell, Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb, Malcolm Clarke, and Jonathan Gibbs) took advantage of rapidly developing music technology to craft all-electronic scores. By this point, electronic sound effects were still a mainstay, of course, but meshed more clearly with the music, particularly since they came from the same production house for several years.

In the embattled last three years of the classic series (1987-89), and despite a dwindling budget, the sound mix changed again, with more melodic, motif-driven music up front, and a new focus on the sound and texture of dialogue. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor was far and away the most vocally expressive and varied Doctor to that point, and when paired with Sophie Aldred’s (sort of) working-class Ace and a wide range of expressive guest roles, the net result were voices that were not only conveyors of verbal information, but (finally) conveyors of character.

When Doctor Who returned in the mid-00s (setting aside for the sake of space the one-off 1996 TV Movie, which faithfully followed 1990s American genre TV conventions in its design), its sound design completely inverted the original formula. Television itself was, of course, now over fifty years old, rather than still fresh and weird, as it had been in 1963. Accordingly, as episodes are now tighter and faster, having to compete more for attention, dialogue is now king, and Murray Gold’s earwormy, wall-to-wall music is its queen. Sound effects are still there, of course, but are much more ad hoc and functional, rather than immersive (e.g., the new series’ ubiquitous sonic screwdriver). The scope of the SF sensibility is now carried primarily by the relatively sumptuous visuals and music, with most of the remaining “alien” sound effects being conveyed by various alien voices.

Moreover, in contrast with the general “BBC English” of most of the previous Doctors (save Hartnell’s “old man” tics and McCoy’s indulgent Scottish burrrrrrr), each contemporary Doctor has a very particular verbal style: Christopher Eccleston’s unabashed “Northern” patter:

David Tennant’s emo mockney (though it’s a shame he couldn’t go with his native Scots):

and Matt Smith’s Oxbridge nerdisms:

Starting with Billie Piper’s council estate princess Rose Tyler, each of the companions has also had a distinct vocal style. This emphasis is reinforced with the increased function of dialogue in the narrative: there’s not enough time to linger in as much in spaces and silences, and so dialogue conveys not only plot information, but also character (usually variations on biting wit), and greater subtext.

So, while sound of course continues to structure the series (and in more complex constructions and mixes), it’s important to consider the overall function of sound effects, music, and dialogue within the context of particular moments in the series’ history.

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2 Responses to “The Sound of Doctor Who”

  1. emily Says:

    So… what inspired you to start talking about the sound of Doctor Who?

    • dkompare Says:

      I’ve always been interested in sound design (in general), and I thought it’d be a different angle for a discussion about aesthetics. Lots to say about other issues (e.g, narrative structure in classic vs. new Who) as well!


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