DW60: Now That’s What I Call Doctor Who The Music!

When it comes to Doctor Who soundtracks in the 21st century, we’ve never had it so good. Every new series is guaranteed a release on CD and download, and classic serials frequently see vintage recordings of their full soundtrack released for collectors – not to mention isolated scores on DVD/Blu-Ray and numerous copyright-fracking unofficial collections on YouTube. It was not always thus, however. In the early 80s, the only soundtrack material available other than the iconic title theme was a 45rpm B-side of Malcolm Clarke’s suite from The Sea Devils or a similarly sidelined recording of Delia Derbyshire’s Blue Veils and Golden Sands, used in (but not composed for) the 1970 serial Inferno. So, when Doctor Who – The Music appeared in 1983, it’s impossible to overstate what a treasure trove of musical goodness this was for fans of the series.

Okay, so looked at with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Doctor Who – The Music was a release more interested in promoting the recent work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (who had been exclusively scoring the show for the last three years) than it was in exploring the rich heritage of Doctor Who music; but that’s understandable, because although the recordings of a lot of music from the 60s and 70s has come to light in recent years, much of it was thought to not exist in the 80s, or was so deeply archived that retrieving it would not have been deemed cost effective. Also, John Nathan-Turner was justifiably proud of what the Workshop had achieved since he promoted them to full-time tunesmiths and he really wanted to show them off. About 90% of the tracks on Doctor Who – The Music are from seasons 18 to 20.

What is important to bear in mind is the core audience at which Doctor Who – The Music was aimed. TV & Movie soundtracks these days are predominantly bought by middle-aged men and are of negligible interest to youngsters, but most of the people who bought this album on BBC records and Tapes would probably have been children and the music from the most recent few years will have been the music that they were familiar with. I was certainly still a kid when I bought this album on vinyl LP and I was overjoyed with it, playing it again and again on my Dad’s old stereo. You can see from the choice of music that they’ve very much gone for the ‘exciting’ or ‘scary’ pieces because that is what would appear to its intended audience. There are only 2 tracks on here that date before 1980 and although I remembered Doctor Who music from most of the 70s, at the time I didn’t really miss the music of Dudley Simpson or Geoffrey Burgon on this album.

Five years later, when Doctor Who – The 25th Anniversary Album was released, my feelings were completely different. Much like Doctor Who – The Music, the 25th Anniversary Album primarily took its contents from the most recent series, in this case the brash scoring of Keff McCulloch, but this time I was less than impressed. The reason is simple: I was 18 years old by then and I was no longer so easily impressed to music that was fast and exciting, plus McCulloch’s synths sounded too generic and no different to those heard on every other song on Top of the Pops. The sound palette of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop always sounded unique; their music was something special and not something you could reasonably recreate with some musical talent and a keyboard from Tandy. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop were truly out of this world.

Doctor Who – The Music starts off with the first of two non-80s tracks, the original Delia Derbyshire rendition of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme. It still sounds as fresh as ever, but I have to admit that this mix with the TARDIS sound effect on the beginning and in the middle is not my favourite. The theme mixes into another vintage piece, its one time B-side, Malcolm Clarke’s suite of music from The Sea Devils. This 1972 score was an experiment into the efficacy of using the Radiophonic Workshop’s talent for entire stories, which wasn’t considered successful at the time and it’d be another decade before Clarke was let loose on another Doctor Who episode. It’s weird, there’s no doubting that, but even as a teenager who’d never seen The Sea Devils, I found it mesmerising and not remotely out-of-place on this album.

Next up is a short piece from Meglos by Peter Howell. This story from Tom Baker’s last season is not well regarded, but the music is spooky and intriguing, demonstrating how the Radiophonic Workshop’s music in the 80s could sometimes save a rather drab adventure. More Season 18 follows with three excerpts by Roger Limb from his score for The Keeper of Traken. Nyssa’s Theme shows how the BBCRW composers were moving into the area of using character themes and leitmotifs, though with the cycling of composers from story to story, these themes weren’t always used again; for example, Roger Limb’s Nyssa’s Theme appears in her final story Terminus, because he also wrote the score for that episode, but if he hadn’t done, it likely wouldn’t have appeared. Kassia’s Wedding Music is a short, jaunty piece and is immediately followed by The Threat of Melkur – equally short, but much more menacing.

Still with Roger Limb, we have a couple of excerpts from Four To Doomsday from Peter Davison’s first season. One of the criticisms levelled at Roger Limb’s music back in the day was that it was rather screechy and had a limited palate of sounds, but Exploring the Lab from Four To Doomsday introduces a haunting synthesised harmonica sound, which is really rather lovely. Nyssa is Hypnotised is a very short excerpt from the same story. Side One of the original LP/cassette ends with Peter Howell’s suite from The Leisure Hive; taking inspiration from Gustav Holst’s Mars – Bringer of War, this pounding arrangement started life as the B-side of the 45 of Howell’s new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme. I loved this as a kid and listened to it over and over; it’s probably my favourite piece on the whole album.

Side Two gets off to a less than auspicious start with three pieces from Roger Limb’s score for Arc of Infinity: Omega Field Force, Ergon Threat and The Termination of the Doctor. I don’t know what it is about these tracks, but even back in the day they were my least favourites on the album. There’s just something a bit generic about them and the inclusion of sound effects doesn’t help. Three more interesting Peter Howell tracks follow; Banqueting Music from Warriors’ Gate and Janissary Band from Snakedance fade in and out like a passing parade, which is quite apt for the latter. In between is an excerpt from the score for Kinda called TSS Machine Attacked. This also contains sound effects, but they’re much more a part of the music than in the Arc of Infinity pieces, giving this track a mechanical urgency that is really effective.

Malcolm Clarke makes his triumphant return to the series with the score for Earthshock from Peter Davison’s first series. There are three excerpts from Earthshock included here; Requiem is extremely short, but Subterranean Caves and March of the Cybermen are much meatier fare. Subterranean Caves is a haunting piece that brings to life the darkness and remoteness of its titular locale. Full of deep, echoing synths and weird dripping noises, it’s extremely evocative. March of the Cybermen starts on similar ground, but leads into a dramatic, pulsating theme for the silver giants, which Clarke would bring back when he scored Attack of the Cybermen for Colin Baker’s debut season. It’s very effective that Malcolm Clarke tops and tails the album, albeit with excerpts from two very different scores a decade apart.

The album ends with Peter Howell’s sublime 1980 reworking of the Doctor Who theme. Though often maligned at the time for not being Delia Derbyshire original, it’s easily the best 80s rendition of the theme I love it every bit as much now as I did then. For my money, it nails the middle-8 better than any other version of the theme, before or since! When Silva Screen rereleased Doctor Who – The Music on CDin 1992, cynically (and misleadingly) re-titled Earthshock – Classic Music from the Radiophonic Workshop with the addition of three extra tracks, they shockingly dropped Howell’s Doctor Who Theme from the track-listing in favour of a reprise of Delia Derbyshire’s version (basically the same recording repeated). The definitive re-mastered digital release of Doctor Who – The Music has yet to see the light of day.

A second album Doctor Who – The Music II was released in 1985 and it’s a very different record. For starters, all of the music is composed into suites, with great pieces such as Peter Howell’s The Five Doctors, Malcolm Clarke’s Resurrection of the Daleks and Roger Limb’s The Caves of Androzani, though it doesn’t feature any version of the Doctor Who Theme. Also, whereas Doctor Who – The Music had a gorgeous cover painting of the first five Doctors by Iain McCaig, the second album opts for a highly pixelated piece of computer art by Bill Smith & Digital Arts; it might have been state of the art in 1985, but it kinda looks like it was cobbled together on a ZX Spectrum and it really doesn’t benefit from being blown up to 12”x12”. Doctor Who – The Music II was a great album, but it doesn’t have the same intense hit of nostalgia for me. Silva Screen also released this one on CD, confusingly renamed The Five Doctors; this one did feature Peter Howell’s theme – TWICE!

If a young fan of today streamed Doctor Who – The Music from some coldly efficient website or app, they likely wouldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. That’s because not only are they approaching it with the hindsight of an ever-increasing retinue of Doctor Who soundtrack releases, but also because they don’t comprehend the simple tactile pleasure of sliding that white paper envelope out of a colourful, oversized cardboard sleeve, then sliding that cool black plastic disc out of the envelope and placing it on a turntable. They have understanding of the frisson to be achieved from placing the delicate needle on the disc, then sitting back in a chair to listen, fully in the knowledge that you’ll have to get off your arse to turn the record over in 20 minutes.

In the day, however – before streaming, mostly before home video even – this was pure magic. For any kid sitting at home pining between seasons of Doctor Who on telly, Doctor Who – The Music was the perfect accompaniment to reading the latest edition of Doctor Who Monthly, enjoying the latest adventure from Target Books or, best of all, listening with headphones, closing your eyes and just imagining. For anyone brought up in the era of limitless choice and instant gratification, it’s probably difficult to understand that in a way we were privileged to have so little, because it fired the imagination and created a generation of great writers and creatives. Doctor Who – The Music certainly fired my imagination back in the day… and y’know what? It still does today and will probably continue to do so for many years. Doctor Who – The Music is 40 years old this year, so where’s the anniversary luxury CD release? Eh, BBC? Are you listening…?


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