The music of Doctor Who has brought chills, caused tears and inspired original works – not to mention raised a few eyebrows over the years. From the on-screen work of the show’s composers to novelty pop singles, trance epics, live proms, a surprising Glastonbury cameo, and the Master’s recent taste for dance-floor fillers, we track the music moments it’s hard to forget.
Across the Universe
There’s no denying that The Beatles’ Doctor Who cameo is a strange and somewhat gratuitous moment – but one that came very close to being so much more than that. The First Doctor has just acquired a “Time-Space Visualiser”, meaning that he (along with companions Ian, Barbara and Vicki) can view what’s going on anywhere in all of time and space as if they’re watching the telly.
As far as the Doctor’s gadgets go, this is just a teensy bit overpowered, but anyway: after channel-hopping and spying on the likes of Lincoln and Shakespeare, Vicki is delighted to catch the Beatles performing ‘Ticket to Ride’, much to the bemusement of the others. Soon after, they manage to eavesdrop on a Dalek hunting party that’s started pursuing the TARDIS, the plot lurches into life and the Fab Four are immediately forgotten.
Originally, though, this scene would have been the set-up for a joke that would be paid off later in ‘The Chase’ – the idea being that while hopping around history trying to shake off the Daleks, the Doctor and co. would have bumped into the Beatles circa 1996, with John, Paul, George and Ringo playing elderly versions of themselves.
Unfortunately, manager Brian Epstein decided to forbid their appearance, spoiling what would surely have been a headline-grabbing moment for the show. That said, it’s a good thing the earlier ‘Ticket to Ride’ scene made the cut regardless. The BBC went onto wipe the Top of the Pops tape the footage was originally from, meaning it now survives only within Doctor Who – ironic, considering it’s a show that has lost so much of its own history to unfortunate tape erasures.
Despite being the first number on this list to have been inspired by Doctor Who, ‘Who Is the Doctor’ isn’t the earliest tribute to everyone’s favourite time-traveller. Novelty records had already been and gone – for example, the UK had already been subjected to The GoGo’s ‘I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas With a Dalek’ almost a decade earlier.
What gave Rupert Hine’s 1972 take on the Doctor Who theme a sense of legitimacy, however, was the voice of Jon Pertwee himself, intoning what can charitably be described as ‘lyrics’ over the familiar tune and turning the whole affair into a spoken-word single delivered with such po-faced sincerity it’d make Shatner blush.
Despite the jaunty arrangement and obvious linguistic talent present throughout, for some reason lines like “With sword of truth I turn to fight / The satanic powers of the night” didn’t particularly resonate with fans of a time-travelling alien scientist. Although BBC Records went so far as to re-release it a decade later, presumably out of spite, ‘Who Is the Doctor’ was never a hit. It’s doubtful that bothered Pertwee, though, as he’d eventually break into the Top 40 with another novelty record based on the Worzel Gummidge theme.
For fans of a certain age, Orbital’s haunting take on the Doctor Who theme is one of the all-time great renditions, harking back as it does to Delia Derbyshire’s ethereal original rather than the busier, guitar-twanging versions introduced in Tom Baker’s era and beyond.
Released back in 2001, it’s become a mainstay of Orbital’s live performances whenever Phil and Paul Hartnoll are performing together, and that includes their appearances at Glastonbury Festival. So it wasn’t hugely unexpected to hear the iconic theme tune closing out their set – except that Orbital had seemingly acquired a third member with very familiar big hair…
Yes, Matt Smith appearing on stage alongside Orbital was an unexpected and very welcome surprise to close out the festival. Despite the good timing – this was 24 hours after the airing of ‘The Big Bang’ had closed out the Eleventh Doctor’s first series – this was far a lucky coincidence rather than a PR stunt. If it hadn’t been for a chance introduction at a party back in April, Smith’s Glastonbury debut might never have happened.
A Titanic Performance
It’s Christmas Day in 2007, the tub of Cadbury’s Roses has been raided, and families are sitting down to watch the now-traditional Doctor Who Christmas Special, ‘Voyage of the Damned’ – which, as the BBC Press Office has made sure everybody knows, guest stars none other than Kylie Minogue!
And here we are on the Titanic, sort of, and it’s a big swanky spaceship, there’s a stage, there’s a band… Of course Kylie’s going to sing, isn’t she? That would be absolutely bonkers, to get Kylie on your show at Christmas and not have her… hold on, who’s this? The background songs while the Doctor explores the Titanic are performed magnificently not by Kylie, but by Yamit Mamo, whose nameless character unfortunately doesn’t survive.
Mamo’s presence underpins many of the special’s early scenes and adds immensely to the sense that the Doctor’s gate-crashed a real Christmas party. While she kicks things off with ‘Winter Wonderland’, it’s composer Murray Gold’s jaunty original ‘The Stowaway’ that fans remember – not only is it a belter of a tune, it’s underpinning the festive revelry at the moment everything goes so memorably to hell.
Mamo would continue to work with Murray Gold throughout his tenure as Doctor Who’s composer, including singing his pieces live at the Proms. Listen carefully to the bar music in ‘The End of Time, Part Two’ and you’ll hear Mamo performing Gold’s ‘My Angel Put the Devil in Me’ just as Captain Jack gets introduced to Midshipman Frame – who, of course, was last seen in ‘Voyage of the Damned’. Now that’s wrapping things up neatly.
Spheres of Influence
Speaking of the Proms… There had already been one celebratory concert of Doctor Who’s music broadcast as part of Children in Need, but the ante was well and truly upped in 2008 when the show was incorporated as part of the BBC’s Proms season, shifting the venue to the Royal Albert Hall and introducing classical pieces alongside Murray Gold’s scores.
One particular highlight this year was an original mini-episode titled ‘Music of the Spheres’. Knowing that David Tennant would be unable to attend in person due to scheduling conflicts with his run in Hamlet, the decision was made to film pre-recorded segments in the Tenth Doctor’s TARDIS that would intermingle with staged events at the Proms themselves.
So it was that the Tenth Doctor bantered with the audience before accidentally unleashing a water pistol-wielding Graske into the Albert Hall. It was a cute idea, though one that suffered a little in execution because, when ‘Music of the Spheres’ was initially made available online, it didn’t include any footage from the Proms side of things. That made for a strange, one-sided pantomime routine that left many fans bewildered until the Proms eventually aired on TV.
We’re back to novelty record territory for this next entry, albeit in 1988 this time. With the show not exactly in rude health at this point in its run, and the spectre of Michael Grade hanging over proceedings, you would imagine that an unofficial spoof like ‘Doctorin’ the TARDIS’ (by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, more widely recognised as The KLF) would, like the titular time machine, swiftly vanish into history.
It’s never wise to underestimate the appeal of a novelty record to the British public, however, especially if it’s one that people can bellow on their way home from the pub. Despite being absolutely savaged by critics, ‘Doctorin’ the TARDIS’ managed to gain a ‘so bad it’s good’ reputation and claimed the #1 chart spot in the UK despite its dubious charms.
Naturally, The Timelords swiftly capitalised on their surprising success, but it wasn’t with a follow-up album or anything that you might expect. Instead, Drummond and Cauty released “The Manual” – a self-deprecating guidebook on how to create a chart-topping hit without trying.
It’s fair to say that while the Master’s return to Doctor Who in the closing moments of ‘Utopia’ was a highlight of Russell T. Davies’ third year as showrunner, the two-parter that followed – namely, ‘The Sound of Drums’/’Last of the Time Lords’ – is remembered less fondly by fans.
Common criticisms include the questionable CG used to portray an ancient, wizened Doctor, Tennant literally flying through the air powered by love, and a particularly madcap performance by John Simm all combining to make an episode that feels zany even when it’s trying for genuine pathos. Simm’s Master had been pitched as a twisted reflection of Tennant’s Doctor, and that manifested in both hyperactivity and the fondness for pop-culture references Ten was known for.
Although the Master’s previous regenerations had always seemed indifferent to humanity’s ways (apart from The Clangers), Simm’s incarnation wasted no time in raiding the nearest HMV for tunes that would underscore the various atrocities he was planning. When the Toclafane arrive, their massacre is accompanied by the strains of the Rogue Traders’ ‘Voodoo Child’, and the Master would continue to force his Spotify playlist onto an enslaved humanity from that point on.
Love it or loathe it, the Master’s newfound passion for music has helped define that character since the show’s return, whether they’re busting out Boney M for special occasions, tickling the ivories while locked in a vault or dancing atop a city ravaged by Cybermen. Though the episode itself has its flaws, this moment in ‘The Sound of Drums’ is where this modern-day Master found his footing.
We’ve covered Orbital, but what about Orbison? Having been presented as a ill-tempered, stand-offish incarnation throughout Series Eight, nobody was really expecting Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor to quite literally rock up the following year wielding an electric guitar, strumming ‘Pretty Woman’ while riding a tank and looking for all the world like he’d been hit by three mid-life crises at once.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so surprised. Capaldi’s an accomplished musician, and the guitar underlining Twelve’s transformation from Grumpy Teacher to Embarrassing Uncle was actually his suggestion. In fact, if Capaldi had had his way, the guitar might have featured even more prominently in an adventure that would have seen the Doctor crossing paths with Jimi Hendrix, eventually inventing the wah-wah pedal for him to help spice his tunes up a bit.
Such Back to the Future-style shenanigans never came to pass, of course, but ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ does mark the first time the Doctor Who theme (albeit a heavily arranged version) was heard diegetically within the show – one of the many occasions where Steven Moffat came perilously close to demolishing the fourth wall.
Song for Eleven
For all that we’ve covered pop songs, charity records and concerts, it’s only right to round out this selection by celebrating the music within the show itself. There’s been a lot to love over the years, but one particular high point is a moment that the show itself regenerated alongside the Doctor – the point at which Russell T. Davies handed the keys to Steven Moffat, the “grunge-phase” TARDIS became a childlike wonderland of glass and gadgets and, of course, David Tennant stepped aside for Matt Smith.
The music encapsulates this changing of the guard perfectly. Murray Gold had been making heavy use of choirs and choruses throughout the RTD era, and that approach crescendos in the form of ‘Vale Decem’ – a mournful chant that has been woven throughout ‘The End of Time’ and culminates in a rousing reprise of the Ninth Doctor’s theme.There’s a second of silence, and in roars a bombastic guitar piece with a heavy drum beat, clashing cymbals and heavy brass that sounds almost like an emergency alarm, befitting the TARDIS’s imperilled state. The message is loud and clear: this is a new era of Doctor Who. It will sound different, look different, be different. The music embraces the spirit of change and reinvention that has kept the show alive for sixty years, and it provides Matt Smith with a simply unforgettable introduction.