Just how many versions of the famous Doctor Who theme tune have there been?
Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
The haunting tones of the Doctor Who theme tune were originally composed by Ron Grainer, who realised his composition using the skills of Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which specialised in electronic sounds. The result was an otherworldly piece of music that sounded as scary as it did alien – a fully electronic rendition, and something that was virtually unheard of in 1963.
And whilst legions of fans cowered behind the sofa whenever the dreaded Daleks raised their plungers, for some the Doctor Who theme tune was the stuff of nightmares in itself. Like the TARDIS, Ron Grainer’s composition became iconic, and was used (in one form or another) as the main theme for some 16 years. By the Tom Baker era, the tempo had increased slightly, but it was still the same Doctor Who theme tune that everybody knew and feared.
When producer John Nathan-Turner took over the programme in 1980, he had many big changes planned. One of these was the removal of the classic Doctor Who theme tune and replacing it with something more modern – a piece of music that would “bring the show firmly into the 80s.” He tasked composer Peter Howell with cooking up a new electronic version, and famously included the word “discotheque” in his brief.
And it was certainly a radical departure. Love it or hate it, the Peter Howell rendition of the Doctor Who theme tune was slick, fast-paced, groovy and – undoubtedly – jive-worthy at any fashionable venue. Howell also raised the tune’s key, and we can’t tell you what it changed from or into as we’re not musicians but, in acoustic terms, it was “muchly different.”
As Doctor Who prepared to make a bold return to our TV screens in 1986, the producer John Nathan-Turner made a (somewhat) last-minute decision to cook up a new version of the famous theme tune. Composer Dominic Glynn was given this daunting task and, according to legend, was only given a week to deliver it.
And whilst Glynn’s rendition of the Doctor Who theme tune only lasted one season, it is fondly remembered. Whilst it’s not loud or bombastic, it is understated and mysterious, loaded with tuneless howls and bucket-loads of enigma. Glynn has remixed it a number of times, most notably for the 2008 DVD release of ‘The Trial of a Time Lord,’ and to this day it remains one of the more obscure, ethereal versions of the classic music.
Keff McCulloch’s 1987 rendition of the Doctor Who theme tune retains the altered key of the Peter Howell version (whatever that was!) and captures the series’ fast-paced weirdness, with odd-sounding electronic effects that plant the series very firmly in the 1980s. And for the first time, the opening titles featured the Doctor Who theme’s much-loved middle 8 – a controversial and popular decision which (to date) has been rarely replicated. Only once, in fact.
Alas, the series was cancelled three years after the debut of McCulloch’s Doctor Who theme, so we’ve no way of knowing how long it might have lasted. When the series returned in 1996 (albeit for one night) it had a whole new production team at the helm…
Brace yourselves – John Debney almost ditched the Doctor Who theme tune entirely to replace it with a composition of his own. He had been tasked with scoring the 1996 TV movie, and toyed with the idea of canning Ron Grainer’s famous piece.
In the end, though, he stuck to the original, delivering a bold orchestral arrangement which, interestingly, actually began with the middle 8 and a new rendition of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who logo. Crazy times.
This particular version was perhaps more ‘superhero’ than ‘science fiction,’ and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, what was the Eighth Doctor if not a hero? Sadly, this went on to become one of the least-used versions of the Doctor Who theme, lasting for the TV movie only.
Poor Murray Gold. To date, he has been tasked with cooking up no fewer than eight versions of the famous Doctor Who theme tune, each of them distinctly different from the other.
There was a time, though, when showrunner Russell T Davies was toying with the idea of simply playing the Delia Derbyshire version over the opening credits, and interestingly the leaks of the very first episode ‘Rose’ used this very rendition.
In the end, Gold chose to incorporate Derbyshire’s original electronic sounds with an orchestral arrangement, delivering a piece that was both otherworldly and action-packed. His first rendition lasted from 2005 to 2008, and was given a slight upgrade from Series Four onwards.
The biggest change to the Doctor Who theme tune came in 2010 when Gold wrote an entirely new melody to play over the classic dum-de-dums, and also made use of a choir and copious amounts of thunder. This version lasted for almost the entirety of the Matt Smith era, with a couple of exceptions.
First, there was the 50th anniversary arrangement which played out over ‘The Day of the Doctor’s closing credits. Then there was the Series 7B ‘Snowmen’ rendition which, whilst similar to Gold’s other Doctor Who theme tunes, also channelled some Dominic Glynn energy, with creepy-sounding howls which were made somewhat-less-creepy-sounding for the remainder of Series 7B.
After this came the Peter Capaldi version of the Doctor Who theme tune (literally in the case of ‘Before the Flood,’ which featured a rock version played by Peter Capaldi himself.) The Twelfth Doctor’s title music incorporated clock chimes and distinct dum-de-dums, tying into the clockwork-themed graphics designed by fan Billy Hanshaw.
Arguably, Segun Akinola’s rendition of the Doctor Who theme tune is one of the creepiest versions since Delia Derbyshire. And in fact, it’s not a million miles from Derbyshire’s original rendition, utilising some of her original effects together with pounding drums and a window-shattering base beat. This haunting version of the Doctor Who theme tune lasted for the entirety of the Thirteenth Doctor’s era.
Murray Gold… again!
📢: THIS IS THE WORLD PREMIERE OF THE NEW DOCTOR WHO THEME TUNE!!! pic.twitter.com/UFs6xDOvx5— Doctor Who (@bbcdoctorwho) October 12, 2023
And now we come to the 60th anniversary. Murray Gold has delivered yet another version of the Doctor Who theme tune to signal the start of the Fourteenth Doctor’s era… even if it is only three episodes long. Again, Delia Derbyshire’s electronic signatures are back in full force, together with an orchestra and some spine-tingling piano. It remains to be seen how long this particular version of the title music will stay with the programme. Will Murray Gold have to devise a new rendition when Ncuti Gatwa takes to the TARDIS in this year’s Christmas special? The debate starts here.
In the meantime, tell us: which is your favourite version of the Doctor Who theme tune?