The Music of Doctor Who: 6 Themes and Variations to Get You Hooked

Everybody has a different story as to why and where they started with Doctor Who. One person’s friend convinced them to watch Blink, and got them hooked. Another person happened to turn on the TV while Vincent and Doctor was showing and couldn’t turn away from the feels. Yet another made a deal with a friend – they would watch Doctor Who if their friend watched Avatar (which I still haven’t gotten around to… erm…).

Why did I start watching Doctor Who? Actually, I started with the Eleventh Doctor, and in case the title of the article isn’t a big enough hint, I started watching entirely because of the music. I’d managed to read an article on a soundtrack review site for series 5 of Doctor Who, and the music was rated 10/10. This was pretty near impossible at the time for that site, so I decided I absolutely had to listen to the music.

The first song I heard was Words Win Wars.

Within a week, I’d finished watching series 5 and had quickly moved onto series 6, before catching myself in the deadly mid-season hiatus. In the intermediate time, I’d caught up on series 1-4, as well as finding out about the classics and, of course, spending a great deal of time listening to and analysing the music. Soundtracks and character themes has to be one of my favourite things in the world, and I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve found myself watching many movies, TV shows or playing video games entirely because of the music.

With all of that said, I am of course going to the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who proms this July, because for a fan who started with the music it’s just too good an opportunity to miss. And as a fan who started with the music, I thought it would be worthwhile prepping everyone for the proms by discussing six of the themes in Doctor Who and the ingenious ways in which Murray Gold has varied them. So… without further ado:

6. The Cybermen Theme

rise_of_the_cybermenIt was quite tricky for me to figure out whether to discuss this theme or that of the Daleks. Both are certainly brilliantly done and extremely iconic, but in the end I have to admit that the theme of the Cybermen has much more going for it in the way of variation. It’s only really six notes, and yet it has a lot behind it. When we first hear their theme in the appropriately named track The Cybermen, we begin with a theme that is almost mechanical, rigid, with a great deal of momentum. But at the same time it’s slow, there’s something almost tragic in the music. Despite their later appearances, the basic concept of the Cybermen in Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel frightened me more than any of the other monsters in Doctor Who, even the legendary Weeping Angels, and the music certainly played its part in building this unsettling travesty.

Fast-forward a few years past series 2 and we have the return of the Cybermen in ‘The Next Doctor’. In the track ‘Not the Doctor’, a very grandiose, Classic-Doctor feeling theme, we have the ghost of the Cybermen cropping in, playing alongside the rest of the music in a beautiful manner that makes it almost hidden. Once again, there’s a sadness in the theme, but we also hear something that the Cybermen’s theme is particularly good at – subtly creeping in on another piece, just edging through as we see the flash of a face or the hint of an arm. The theme is again used this way in The Pandorica Opens, in the track Beneath Stonehenge – just one playthrough of the six notes, reminding us that the Cybermen haven’t quite left yet.

Beyond that, though, the music in ‘The Next Doctor’ is hardly subtle and creepy. The musical highlight of the episode – and certainly my favourite rendition of the theme – is ‘The March of the Cybermen’. This version feels like the Cybermen theme unleashed; there’s no reservation here, no travesty or darkness or sadness – this is a grand, speeding-train sort of a theme. There’s momentum, there’s grandeur. These aren’t the Cybermen who bide their time converting people like a plague – these are the Cybermen who launch a ridiculous full frontal assault on Victorian London. You have to admit, they do it with style.

5. River Song’s Themes

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River’s ‘theme’ is an odd one. She really started off with several little themes, which focused more on a common emotion than an actual common tune, that would later become one as her plotline became more significant. When we first meet her – or, rather, when she last meets us – River’s theme is the mysterious and sad The Song of Song. It certainly fits the character, but is replaced by more militarised themes, River’s Path and River Runs Through It in Series 5. The mystery and sadness returns in A River of Tears, with the wonderful reversing effect that perfectly characterises her (almost) inversed timeline. Still, there’s nothing cohesive to make us say “this is River Song.”

Until series 6. In Series 6 we’re presented with The Impossible Astronaut, Melody Pond and The Enigma of River Song, among a multitude of other tracks, which really solidify an emotional base for River’s themes. Haunting, mournful, and yet with a touch of wonder in them (particularly that fantastic end to Enigma). The themes are less a mirror of the outer character as they are in tune with her inner feelings and thoughts. All of this comes together in a splendid manner in what we could call River’s grand finale, The Wedding of River Song, which brings together different themes built up over the series, but more importantly maintains that emotion that is so very River. Although it’s hard to tell whether the same motifs are used or not (several are), you know that this is a song of Song.

4. Gallifrey’s Theme

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Gallifrey’s theme is first heard with the return of the Master, in the popular song This Is Gallifrey: Our Childhood, Our Home. It first enters throughout Utopia as small hints and snatches of a song, but builds into its full glory in The Sound of Drums, as the Doctor recounts his history. It’s a magical, nostalgic theme, with a great sense of wonder to it, and one of the favourite themes in the whole series (used to wonderful effect in the 2010 Proms, to follow the regenerations of all the different doctors). From thereon in, it becomes not just the theme of Gallifrey, but a theme for the Time Lords as a whole. As such, it’s significantly used in The End of Time, in the rather more sombre Gallifrey as well as in the grander, more militarised The Council of the Time Lords.

My favourite arrangement of the theme has to be the most recent, played as a simple fanfare in the opening of The Name of the Doctor, in that wonderful First Doctor cameo. It continues throughout the piece, weaving in and out of the Doctor Who theme itself, and unlike its other incarnations it isn’t sombre, nostalgic or with an edge of darkness. It’s more triumphant – not a look back on Gallifrey so much as Gallifrey as it happened. Needless to say, I can’t wait for the series 7 soundtrack to be released.

Article covers: TV

Article by: Joshua Sammy

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Joshua Sammy
I sit awkwardly somewhere between the arts, the sciences and my new-found love - languages. I'm obsessed with Doctor Who, film scores, Discworld and just, well, stuff.

17 Comments

  1. Amy’s themes really represents the tone of Season 5 – very ghostly and fairy-tale, whereas the RTD era was more action-y and straight sci-fi. And how Amy’s character is primarily established as a strange little girl (even if her screentime is mostly as an adult). Her’s are my favorite theme.

    • Joshua Sammy

      Yeah, I agree. I think a lot of Amy’s themes really represent a bit of a hallmark of Eleven’s era – unlike with RTD, Eleven’s era is written from the perspective of the Doctor looking out, which is why we see so many flaws of his character, as compared to the admiration afforded to the Doctor in RTD’s era. Amy’s themes really represent the fact that throughout the series the Doctor always views her almost as his daughter.

  2. The music in the Matt Smith era has been utterly brilliant! I can picture so much of his run just by hearing the music, but that just makes me wish it wouldn’t end.

    • Joshua Sammy

      Matt Smith’s Era’s music just has something amazingly magical to it that only really took grip in a bit of series 4 and the specials. It’s a pity, because I really think this sort of music suits the series much more than the more sci-fi style of series 1-3, which is brilliant but just not the same.

  3. Taylor Ramsey

    I have enjoyed thje show as much because of the music as anything else.
    The music in the classic series does not age well, but this will I think

    • Joshua Sammy

      I think all old sci-fi has that problem; the music doesn’t seem to age well because it was trying to be ‘unusual’, which ends up with there not really being anything to define the music by.

  4. This is probably my new favorite article in the entire world. Finally, someone managed to put my feelings about Murray Gold’s Doctor Who music into words. Thank you.
    (Couldn’t listen to Vale Decem again, though – this one always makes me cry.)

    • Joshua Sammy

      Wow, favourite article in the entire world? I’m glad I did so well!

  5. Came here via a tweet by Dr Who News! Banging selection of themes!

    • Joshua Sammy

      Oh, brilliant! I’m quite flattered to have been tweeted!

  6. Jemma Baddock

    This is a great article, an interesting concept! :)

  7. Austin Bender

    So much of the music in this series has been good and you really did pick the greatest to write about. There’s something sci-fi feeling about each song, but it doesn’t sound like it came from another planet, like older Who songs. Great article.

    • Joshua Sammy

      Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. I must say, after the proms – the orchestrated equivalents of many of the older Who songs are marvellous. But there still is a lack of the thematic base.

  8. Whats the track from the widow and the wardrobe with 10 and 11 theme runs alongside each other?

  9. I hear eleven’s music and instantly emotions just run through me like a river. They say everybody has a doctor, and he is definitely mine. The music conveys so much emotion and action that I can see him, coat billowing, sonic out, ready to save the world.

  10. Jessica Souza

    The tracks that were around with the Eleventh Doctor are some of my favorite, especially Amy’s themes. Great selections and also thank you for including the songs in your piece! It’s a nice refresher.

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