Doctor Who has been around for over half a century, and a decade on from its triumphant return to TV, it’s fair to say that it’s never been more popular around the world. Events like the 2013 simulcast and special cinema screenings of The Day Of The Doctor will attest to this and it never seems like we’re far off from another reminder of its regenerated global fandom.
Following successful runs in Australia and New Zeleand, the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular arena show reiterated that case on its first UK tour last week, drawing crowds across the nation. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and members of the National Chorus of Wales went from Wembley to Glasgow over the course of seven dates, in celebration of composer Murray Gold’s spellbinding musical score for the series.
I caught the show in a packed afternoon matinee at Newcastle’s Metro Radio Arena and was bowled over by the scale of the event. Even movie franchises rarely get this kind of treatment. The only obvious comparison point would be 2010’s Star Wars In Concert, which gave John Williams’ music from all six Star Wars films the same tribute, with recorded narration from Anthony “C3PO” Daniels. Doctor Who‘s answer goes one step further by putting on an immersive and interactive show, mingling monsters and sketches between performances.
The show is presented by Peter Davison – in character not as the Fifth Doctor, but as the version of himself we saw in the hilarious Five-ish Doctors Reboot – an insecure and competitive compère who has the threat of being replaced by Colin Baker again looming over his head (“There’s a car waiting outside his house right now”) all the way through the show.
Conductor Ben Foster often steals the show, partly because he’s such a good comic foil to Davison and various monster performers, but also because the music is naturally the real attraction here. The show starts out in style with A Good Man, the Twelfth Doctor’s theme, alongside a specially edited video presentation on the big screen and a well-chosen dialogue clip of Peter Capaldi’s first “proper” Doctor speech from the end of Flatline.
So soon in Capaldi’s tenure, this theme isn’t nearly as well known as some of the standards played later in the show, but it sets the tone and hooks you immediately. The setlist (selected by Gold on the basis of which tracks got the most likes on YouTube, according to the programme) favours music from the most recent series, which is part of what sets this apart from the previous BBC Proms shows that you might have seen in highlights packages in the past.
It could have felt like a band doing their new material before getting into their greatest hits, but there’s a mix of more recognisable themes from the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors’ eras through the first half, in between series eight suites like Whenever Wherever and Listen.
You do notice that the most recent series invented more conceptual threats than costume-based monsters, and early on, the Teller and the robot knights stay up on stage rather than going out into the audience. The Daleks liven things up during a hostile takeover of the orchestra and there’s something indelibly hypnotic about watching them move around in the flesh. The show then barrelled into an unseasonably eerie suite from Last Christmas to close the first half, with Dream Crab-possessed performers moping around the arena and startling punters.
The second half seized on this success by opening with the Tenth Doctor’s action theme All The Strange, Strange Creatures, heralding the arrival of Cybermen, Silurians, Judoon, Whispermen and the Vigil stomping around too. The press release for the tour and other reviews have mentioned that the Silence were in attendance too, but I honestly don’t remember seeing them.
The other, obvious aspect that sets this apart from watching those Proms highlights shows on TV is the atmosphere that comes with hearing this music performed live and it makes you appreciate the score more than those shows or a soundtrack album ever could.
In the early days of the revival, particularly around the beginning of David Tennant’s first series, some critics complained about the sound mix making the dialogue difficult to hear over the ambitious cinematic score. But if you haven’t paid loads of attention to the score while watching before seeing this, you could almost be convinced that you’ve subconsciously been watching it just for the music.
There’s also a thrill to hearing more recognisable musical moments played live too. Song For Freedom and Abigail’s Song are amongst them (both performed beautifully by soloist Elin Manahan Thomas) along with a reprise of the regeneration montage set to Vale Decem from the previous Proms, (brought up to date with Paul McGann, John Hurt and Matt Smith) and a roof-raising rendition of The Pandorica Suite, ending in Smith’s I Am The Doctor theme.
Following the 2013 proms, this one focuses mostly on the show since 2005. It’s all Gold, so there’s no medley of incidental music from the classic series and the holistic nostalgia of the 50th anniversary year has given way to more of a celebration of the last decade, particularly rooted in the most recent series.
Then again, it would have been lovely to hear Gold’s jazzy arrangement of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now from Mummy On The Orient Express, which appears in instrumental form on the recent soundtrack release, but I’m not sure how much of that is me just wanting to make requests of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. (“Now do Stairway!”) Besides, Mummy got its own terrific 66 Seconds suite, complete with the Foretold menacing the audience – it’s all the more effective for going on unannounced right after after the Impossible Girl suite has just lulled you into a false sense of monsterlessness.
There’s no doubt that the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular is one for the fans, but it’s more than entertaining enough for any Not-We parents dragged along by excitable kids (and vice-versa.) Davison’s MC role is in-jokey but inclusive and by the time you get to the stunning final rendition of the iconic theme tune, with a crowd-pleasing wardrobe change for Foster, you feel utterly immersed in the proceedings.
It’s a hugely enjoyable testament to just how important Gold’s music is to the identity of the series in the 21st century. Here’s hoping this Symphonic Spectacular will be winding its way around the UK again over the summer, because if you even like Doctor Who just a little bit, it’s a must-see.
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