Top 10 classic Doctor Who scores

Throughout Doctor Who’s long history, music has played a vital role in its rich story telling. Here’s our list of the ten best Who music moments…

The original Doctor Who may not have had a huge visual effects budget, but the series instead broke new ground through a creative, often iconic use of sound to suggest the myriad worlds the Doctor visited. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop consistently pumped out soundscapes that defined the series, coupled with musical scores to match. Here then, are ten of the most fascinating musical scores for the series…

The Sea Devils (Malcolm Clarke)

Admittedly, this burbling synthesizer score isn’t the kind of thing you’d throw on your stereo to romance any would-be girlfriend, and is better served as a theft deterrent for your car. But in the show, it works weird wonders. Recorded on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s then-new Delaware PCS-3 (taking up the length of a wall), the Sea Devils score allowed composer Malcolm Clarke to play with all sorts of buttons and knobs. Frequently, the synthesizer would go out of tune, but this turned out to be a boon: the distorted soundtrack is constantly jarring, making scenes such as the invading Sea Devils more alarming than they otherwise would with a more traditional score.

The Curse Of Fenric (Mark Ayres)

Ad – content continues below

Ayres’ Greatest Show In The Galaxy is more melodic, with some nifty calliope runs and tacky record-scratching rap music, but Fenric works better with the show. The score, based around a 12 note theme, underscores dramatic moments with considerable aplomb, including Fenric’s revelation that the baby Ace has saved will become her mother, the vampiric Jean and Phyllis luring a soldier to his watery grave, and Ace’s symbolic final dip in the waters off Maiden’s Point. The most badass score of the McCoy era.

Pyramids Of Mars (Dudley Simpson)

Arguably Dudley Simpson’s finest score for the series, which is tricky, given that he composed the music for 60 stories – he’s the Murray Gold of the 70s. Pyramids boasts that great distorted church organ which Sutekh’s servant Namin madly pounds away at, like he’s trying to upstage Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Other great musical moments abound. The flute and rattling percussive effect as the robotic mummies stalk Sarah Jane in the nearby woods, or the weird musical sting when the jackal-like head of Sutekh is first seen in the TARDIS.

Delta And The Bannermen (Keff McCulloch)

Like Song For Ten from the new series? Want more of the same? Check out Keff McCulloch’s masterpiece of fluff. Why did it make the list? Because it’s tuneful. Because it’s fun. Because it does a fairly decent job of replicating tacky 50s Doo-wop, and is as deliciously tongue-in-cheek as the serial it underscores.

Ad – content continues below

Seeds Of Death (Dudley Simpson)

Simpson himself has said it’s one of his favourite scores. Heavy, distorted percussion adds literal weight to the Martian Ice Warriors as they lumber around the T-Mat moonbase (with help from sound guru Brian Hodgson). The spacey music underscoring the title sequence is particularly notable, even topping the similar post-title sequence he scored for The Ice Warriors.

Inferno (Delia Derbyshire)

Admittedly, this one’s a bit of a cheat. Much of the music was scored years before being used – Derbyshire’s standout track Blue Veils And Golden Sands was initially used for a documentary about Tuareg tribesmen. Still, hands down, this is Doctor Who at its sonically boldest. The score is an abstract, almost musique concrètescore that sounds like something you’d expect to find in a David Lynch movie.

Instead of underscoring specific dramatic action, the music is often heard hovering in the background, functioning almost like another character in the story. The surreal, dreamy strains of sound often drown out other sound effects in location shots. This serial boasts the best use of sound in the series – studio-bound shots of the Inferno project are soaked in the incessant whine of the titular drill (not unlike the drone of vuvuzelas at the recent Fifa World Cup), adding an additional layer of tension to the proceedings.

Terror Of The Zygons/Seeds Of Doom (Geoffrey Burgon)

Ad – content continues below

Why two scores here? Both came from the same season (13), for stories by the same writer (Robert Banks Stewart), and director (Douglas Camfield), and stylistically are quite similar. Burgon’s haunting score (for a chamber orchestra of four musicians) adds flavour and tension with a strong musical voice – lilting, uneasy wind melodies embellished with electronic dissonance that probably capture the gothic horror flavour of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era at its best. The music is downright eerie at times – a simple melody for the flute coupled with the close-up of Zygon leader Broton’s eyes as he eavesdrops on Angus Lennie telling Elizabeth Sladen ghost stories is particularly unsettling – and compensate when the big monsters (giant Loch Ness Monster and giant Krynoid) fail to impress.

The Daleks (Tristram Cary)

Like Delia Derbyshire’s otherworldly music in Inferno, Tristram Cary (who provided a killer score for Hammer’s Quatermass And The Pit) makes use of electronics, oscillators, reversed recording techniques, and lots of feedback to turn the studio sets of Skaro into something truly alien, such as the massive reverberant chord from the “City Music” cues, or the high pitched electronic whine that accompanies our first view of the Dalek plunger at the cliffhanger for episode one. Cary’s later music for the series (such as The Dalek Masterplan) would rely more on traditional melody, but were never as effective as this score, essentially a series of futuristic soundscapes which still impress nearly 50 years later. Kudos also go out to sound designer Brian Hodgson’s sound effects – his “Dalek Control Room” is still used in the series today.

Earthshock (Malcolm Clarke)

Popular as they are, the Daleks never got a good, hummable theme – and no, the 1960s cash-in holiday single I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas With A Dalek doesn’t count. Ironically, the emotionless Cybermen are the ones who have constantly had the best music of all the Doctor’s foes. Martin Slavin’s Space Adventure was used in early Cybermen stories (The Tenth Planet, The Moonbase, and Tomb Of The Cybermen) with enough frequency to associate the track as an early cyber-theme. Then came Carey Blyton’s brassy, melodic score for Revenge Of The Cybermen.

Even the Cybermen of the new series have a distinctive four-note motif, recently heard in The Pandorica Opens, which admittedly sounds suspiciously like the four-note motif Howard Shore whipped up for David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

Ad – content continues below

But the best realisation of a cyber-theme comes from Malcolm Clarke’s souped-up electronic score for 1982’s Earthshock, complete with a three-note motif used whenever the cybermen need something to march around to.

Survival (Dominic Glynn)

It’s a toss-up between this and Dominic Glynn’s other work on Trial of A Timelord (including the synth-tacular revamp of the theme tune) but Survival is more distinctive. The score is quite varied, with quiet piano and oboe underscoring the lazy Sunday scenes in Perivale. But once the Cheetah People show up, the music reverts from being a spooky warning to suspenseful, percussive action cues.

On the Cheetah People’s planet, Glynn adds figurative meat to the score with some pan pipes and bluesy electric guitar riffs, but he also balances this with some reflective music for Karra and Ace, and a gorgeous coda to accompany McCoy’s final speech that capped the series for 16 years. This might be the most emotionally well-rounded music of the original series.

Honorable Mentions

Peter Howell’s ballsy electronic scores for Warriors Gate and The Leisure Hive, and Roger Limb’s intense one for The Caves Of Androzani. There are still a plethora of Dudley Simpson scores worth mentioning: The Mind Of Evil features both the recurring theme for the Master, as well a great sub-theme for the mind-controlling Keller machine.

Ad – content continues below

Simpson’s The Ribos Operation has opulent music underscoring Unstoff sneaking down to hide the Jethryk in the treasure chamber. Although not specifically composed for the series, excerpts from Bartok’s Music For Strings, Percussion, and Celesta are well-used in the opening scenes reintroducing the Yeti in Web Of Fear (and in parts of Enemy Of The World).