I’ve been listening to Murray Gold’s latest theme a lot over the past few days, and it’s grown on me significantly since I first heard it. I actually now think it is the best version of the theme that Murray has done. That said, there are still some things that he’s gotten “wrong” about the theme, and what bothers me is that people might be learning how the theme works from Murray Gold’s versions instead of the originals. So without further ado, here is a small lesson on how the Doctor Who theme works.
Before we begin, here is the full version of Murray’s new theme:
Everyone knows the familiar “dum-de-dum” bassline of the theme. But what not everyone knows is that there is another very important component to the bassline which is very commonly misunderstood. Mark Ayres calls this layer the “swoops.” I call it the “second layer” (with the “first layer” being the “dum-de-dum” layer). This layer provides a sort of grace note that leads into each bit of the bassline. In Delia Derbyshire’s original theme, this layer is quite understated. It fills an important role, but most listeners don’t even know it exists. In Peter Howell’s version of the theme, this layer is made much more pronounced. Later versions of the theme (namely Dominic Glynn’s and Keff McCulloch’s) combined both layers into a single bassline, which I would generally consider incorrect. (To his strong credit, Dom fixed this in his 2008 remixes by adding a new and very loyal second layer. Dom is something of a special case, in my mind, as I know he was rushed when making his theme and has nothing but the utmost respect for Delia Derbyshire and her original theme. I have every confidence his theme would have been far more impressive than most people give him credit for now if only he had the time to do it right.)
Anyway, sometimes the second layer bends from note to note, as in the Derbyshire theme (and Dom’s remixes, and even Murray’s 2010 version). Other times, this layer serves more as sharp punctuation (“ba-bum”) as in the Howell theme.But I am not here to talk about sound. I am here to talk about structure. The second layer is designed to lead in to each bit of the bassline. As such, the general rule of the second layer is that it starts two semitones below the bit of bassline that it is leading into. For example, if the “dum-de-dum” of the bassline is on E, the second layer note preceding it should begin on D. There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are beyond the scope of this post. (Generally speaking, if you are doing a Doctor Who theme, follow this one rule and your second layer will be fine.)
Murray has gotten this backwards in his theme. I am not sure whether this stems from laziness on his part (improperly copying notes in his sequencing software) or just not knowing how it works in the original themes (which is pretty inexcusable considering he has the full Derbyshire multitrack). But either way, he has designed his second layer as a lead out rather than a lead in. He places the note two semitones below the main pitch after each bit of the bassline rather than before. This screws up the flow of the bassline by making the lead-in note entirely dependent on what comes before, rather than what is coming up. This is not how the bassline is supposed to work.
Here is a demo of Murray’s second layer versus how it is supposed to work.
This is how it appears in Murray’s versions of the theme.
This is how it appears in the Derbyshire, Howell, and 2008 Glynn themes.
I am quite sure that if I were to bring this to Murray’s attention, he would chalk it up to “artistic license” or similar. I suspect this would be a cover for the truth, which is simply that he doesn’t care. Of course, it is entirely possible that it was a creative decision on his part, in which case I would find it a lot more excusable (while I personally still consider it wrong). But generally, I find that people who make these kinds of mistakes simply do not understand how the original themes work. For many people, they simply do not take the time to study the theme up close before doing their own version (and they should not necessarily have to). In Murray’s case, however, he has full access to all the original Derbyshire theme materials, so he easily could have taken the time to learn about how the theme worked if he so chose. Additionally, he is making the official theme for the series itself. For that reason alone, I think some additional time and study is warranted.
That said, just in case Murray’s IT guy is still staking out my site (long story), I am not above complimenting Murray when I think he’s done a good job, and overall, I think he did a great job both with the new theme and with his score for The Eleventh Hour. I just wish he’d taken the time to make it perfect. My biggest remaining complaint is that the Doctor Who theme is no longer “special.” Murray Gold could have whipped up this latest version of the theme on his laptop in an afternoon (and probably did). I’ve done a ground-up recreation of his latest theme and it took me about three hours, just for comparison.
Delia Derbyshire spent two weeks making hers using extremely unorthodox means, and Peter Howell effectively wrote the book on how to approach a totally new version. (He spent five and a half weeks on his and used similarly unorthodox means for the time.) Peter Howell also studied the theme in depth, and to this day I am impressed at just how well he understood what made the theme unique and what could and shouldn’t be changed about it. Delia Derbyshire herself approved of Peter Howell’s version—there is no higher praise.
I’d love to see Murray Gold really come to grips with the theme and lock himself in a room for a week with all sorts of weird equipment and give us a really strong new theme. I’m quite sure the result would be brilliant. Unfortunately, based on comments he’s made in interviews and things (especially recently), I just don’t think he cares enough about the theme—especially now, after doing so many different versions of it. And it’s a great shame. So if this post does end up getting back to Murray (and based on how intensely he seems to monitor internet comments about him, anything’s possible), then we’ll see if he accepts my challenge. Not this year, and maybe not next year or the year after, but please—if you plan on sticking around for a while, give us a truly compelling take on the theme. Do something off the wall insane to make some of the sounds you use. Be an artist like Delia. Be crazy (I know you have it in you). Everyone is putting out a really top-notch show this year, and everyone—from the production team right down to us lowly viewers—deserves it. I look forward to hearing what you can do.