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A Golden Era – Part 1: New Who’s Best Musical Episodes

David Selby counts down ten of the best.

doctor-who-music-SpheresI’m sure Doctor Who TV’s other well-known contributors have something big in the bag: something ingenious, something completely original, and over the past few weeks I was growing increasingly concerned that I was missing the ‘big idea’. How could I possibly encapsulate my own experience of the show? What could I possibly cover that’s still fairly uncharted waters – yet something that everyone knows about, and, perchance most importantly, something that’s close to my heart?

And then it struck me. Possibly my favourite aspect of the show, and the one thing that’s been consistent for the last seven years is the music of Doctor Who. Murray Gold is an absolute genius – he’s one of the most unique, inventive and by far most inspiring composers of the modern world. As someone who has great passion for music, I thought it was about time I studied what really makes Doctor Who what it is. Today I’ll be looking at the best Doctor Who episodes in terms of their music: how it suits the story, why it stands out, and why it adds to the narrative – whether the non-musical content itself is good or bad.

Let the countdown begin…

10. Human Nature/The Family of Blood

Most of you here will be familiar with the fact that this is my favourite episode of Doctor Who. I put part of this down to the terrific soundtrack it was given. The tracks have a suitably antiquated feel; they’re not too ‘heavy’ or modern and use a lot of ‘whistle-y’ melodies which help to typify the archaic simplicity of John Smith’s somewhat humdrum life without leaving behind his whimsical dreams of the Doctor. On the final opening of the watch, we then return to the majestic themes of the Time Lord; haunting, intense vocals and rising All the Strange, Strange Creatures variations that just echo awesomeness.

Standout track: The Dream of a Normal Death

9. The Rings of Akhaten

You wouldn’t really expect anything less from a story which is about music, but Gold brings the space-age into hymns with the mesmeric The Long Song. The leitmotifs from The Long Song can also be detected in other tracks such as Merry Gejelh, The Leaf or Infinite Potential, helping the different aspects of the narrative to all feel connected. Each track brings something different to the story; The Leaf being a quiet, poignant composition that builds up to something quite powerful, Merry Gejelh resembling Merry’s childhood innocence and The Speeder racking up tension before the Pyramid scene, whereas the ‘sung’ songs signify the story itself: God of Akhaten symbolising a population locked in servitude, and The Long Song depicting their well-earned liberation.

Standout track: The Long Song

8. Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways

Another episode I have fond memories of, Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways evokes nostalgia on so many levels.

The Daleks feel like a genuinely menacing antagonist, and whilst this is mostly down to the ingenuity of Russell T. Davies, Murray Gold helped to create something really menacing and invisible with his dark choral processions. It’s a shame that a lot of the sinister background music got missed off of the soundtrack, but regardless of this, Parting of the Ways is remembered musically as something really powerful. Its tracks are intricately layered with the most potent instruments available to the orchestra and it’s beneficial, if not pivotal, in reinforcing the sheer magnitude of the finale itself.

Standout track: The Daleks

7. A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is the only episode of the revived series to have a whole soundtrack to itself, and perhaps this is a testament to its utter variety. The 2010 Christmas Special is one of those ‘Who doesn’t love it?’ episodes (I’ve probably just instilled total negativity into the comments section), and I’m under the impression that those who have heard the soundtrack feel much the same way. Of course, A Christmas Carol had one major advantage music-wise that set it apart from the rest of the series: Katherine Jenkins. Jenkins’ unearthly voice was perfect for the Dickensian Christmas story and we are blessed to this day to have had her work on the show.

Standout track: Abigail’s Song

6. A Town Called Mercy

If I’m making the choices solely on how apt the tracks are for the episodes and their themes, A Town Called Mercy is arguably a contender for the first place. Already buzzing with classic Western vibes, the fitting choice of instruments and rhythm only complemented an episode which relished in something completely brand new. Murray Gold dazzled with a stunning awareness of Western music, experimenting audaciously with the theme to The Magnificent Seven in Out West. It should also be noted that it has perhaps some of the best vocals in all of Doctor Who, making Welcome to Mercy especially worth a listen with the headphones on full blast.

Standout track: The Salvation of Kahler Jex

5. The Waters of Mars

Ironically, The Waters of Mars had the smallest soundtrack out of all of the 2009 Specials, but it’s the use of tracks which I’m nominating it for. Take Vale: the moment where Adelaide pulls the gun out of the holster and enters the house, followed by a flash of light, is a far superior use of the track to some of the scenes in The End of Time. The same can be said for many of The End of Time’s tracks: The Time Lords’ Last Stand, A Dream of Catastrophe -- they feel natural and great here and will always be the soundtrack to The Waters of Mars to me. Something else it also manages is to be less bombastic (but when the tracks do speed up and go overboard, they really are brilliant) and focuses on the raw drama of the episode – Altering Lives, for instance, could be from a post-watershed BBC drama which says something about both the tone of the music and the episode itself. It’s like it completely imitates The End of Time’s musical structure and in doing so only makes itself ten times better.

Standout track: Altering Lives

4. The Eleventh Hour

The Eleventh Hour’s always felt really fresh after the Russell T. Davies era. Character-wise it goes from tormented wise-man to bouncy madman, and if we’re talking musically, from All the Strange Strange Creatures to I am the Doctor. The tunes we’ve become accustomed to are thrown out of the window to make way for a whole load of new magical compositions such as I am the Doctor and A Mad Man with a Box; songs that will spawn countless variations and re-workings, and here they feel raw and beautiful. The Eleventh Hour went full-on with the fairy-tale theme, and Murray Gold made sure he didn’t ignore this decision.

Standout track: I am the Doctor

3. The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords

The well-known This is Gallifrey is largely to thank for the Series Three finale’s musical success; transporting us to the celestial land of the Time Lords. Indeed, This is Gallifrey isn’t just a singular piece in one episode, it’s played with constantly and used for different purposes: to introduce the sagacious Professor Yana, to illustrate the harsh childhood of a Time Lord, and finally to depict the tragedy of being the Last of the Time Lords. Funnily enough, the other best tracks from the two-parter are unreleased: the music when Martha tells her story to the world, or when she is ‘welcomed’ back to the Valiant, or when the Master dies – or, of course, the full version of YANA in all its glory.

Standout track: This is Gallifrey

2. The Angels Take Manhattan

This was one of the choices which I picked because of how much it impressed me, with regards to the fact that I don’t think too highly of the actual episode, so I think it’s a miracle that Murray Gold made a masterpiece out of what was, in my opinion, poor material. Gold captures the feel of the Jazz Age, the malevolence of the Angels and the tragedy of the Ponds effortlessly and each track has something worth listening to. My Husband’s Home, for example, makes for a lovely break from the serious nature of the episode, but soon after we’re treated to Hide the Damage; a touching, evocative piece of music. New York New York and I Am You make for a dramatic opening and it’s even worth nothing that the re-use of A Lonely Decision is even more effective than the original. The highlight, of course, is the vocal crescendo/string amalgamation as the Ponds fall to their supposed deaths; it turns it into a truly valiant action.

Standout track: Together or not at All (The Song of Amy and Rory)

1. The Pandorica Opens

“You weren’t expecting that, were ya’?” (The first person to name the source of that quote gets ten free meaningless points)

It’s quite ironic how I’ve put my choice down to mainly unreleased music but The Pandorica Opens’ soundtrack managed something better than any soundtrack I’ve ever heard before: subtlety.

Categorically, it was somewhat gentle for the most part; poignant piano tunes, strings, but it was humming with suspense and eeriness. I find The Pandorica Opens such a nostalgic episode to re-watch and I think the dialogue, with the haunting melody playing in the background, is what really ‘does it’ for me. I couldn’t pick an adjective to describe a musical technique that somehow feels beyond my world and level of understanding other than, really haunting; that feeling that there’s something more to come, something transcendental, almost, like someone is standing next to you; a stranger who you’ve somehow known all your life. It’s rare for music to ever do that to me but on this one occasion it managed it.

The music played the moment River arrives in Amy’s house, with its sweeping whisper-like accompaniments, is one that sends a chill down my spine every time I watch it, and long may that sensation last. Even Beneath Stonehenge, composed very much as a background track, is twinkling with mysterious wonder.

Standout track: The Life and Death of Amy Pond

Honourable Mentions:

  • New Earth, where the music quite literally moves you to the mystical future with the Doctor and Rose
  • The Girl in the Fireplace – again, another episode to suffer from the misfortune that most of the best tracks never even made it to the soundtrack
  • Doomsday, for its tragic implications and that killer The Lone Dalek moment that – genuine confession – always makes me cry
  • Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead – need I say more?
  • Vincent and the Doctor – nearly made it simply for its use of an external artist; Chances was the best possible music choice for that heart-warming scene
  • The God Complex – because it’s bizarre and brilliant and I can’t pinpoint quite why I love it – and that was referring to both the music and the episode itself
  • Asylum of the Daleks – for managing to use one track (I’ll let you take a guess) to execute a long-lasting ominous atmosphere
  • The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe – because of how Murray Gold shamelessly plagiarises his own work (more on that soon)

This is only the beginning of a long and – hopefully – captivating journey which I’ll be taking you on over the next few weeks. I find it funny that there’s only one episode in the Top Ten that I don’t actually like; perhaps it’s merely proof of that often-implied fact that music really can turn a story around.

Next Time: Murray Gold’s Top 75 Tracks – The Countdown Begins!

Step back in time...

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