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The Music of Who (Davies Era)

Guest contributor Joshua Brownbridge examines Murray Gold’s music during the Russell T Davies era.

September, 2003. “Doctor Who is to return!” This one statement rings throughout the country, causing irreverent grumblings from some, and over-dramatic squeaks of joy -- betraying all human dignity -- from others. But soon, the dust settles, the tea begins to cool and the vast majority of people who previously rejoiced, begin the long, steep hike of doubt.

One doubt overlooked by the common man is the music. While music is merely the floating sound which underlies or overbears each story, it has critical hinging in the quality of any story. New Who would’ve been a far less pleasant viewing experience had they let an untrained monkey loose with a toy piano, fresh from the shelves of the Early Learning Centre, in a dim-witted budget saving measure. But instead we got Murray Gold, thankfully.

What did Gold bring? Simply put, it’s hard to doubt his excellence. Every moment of Series 1 was garnished with exciting, catchy songs, right from the word “go!” in “Rose”, as the Doctor and Rose dash around London at night. As the series progressed, the music did too, and provoked every reaction the script and acting desired.

Murray Gold’s music could pour the heart and emotion into a scene that so desperately needed it, it could pull terror into any villain and monster alike, perhaps bar the Slitheen. But even an angelic choir sent from heaven itself alongside the universe’s finest orchestra couldn’t achieve that effect.

His stylish and simple music creepily backed “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”, with grace and elegance to spare. The twinkling piano stings and subtle drum beats carved an uneasy tone. While in The Parting of the Ways, the music used an almighty choir, chanting the words “What is happening?” in Hebrew, which echoed throughout the Emperor Dalek’s ship with reverberant majesty.

Whatever the situation, Gold’s music could provide to brilliant effect. Even Jagrafess-enjoyment-inducing effect. As the first series drew to a close, Gold had undoubtedly brought to Doctor Who the much needed high-budget backing track it so desired. The simplicity of the incidentals from the 70s may have been excellent, as were the dramatic electrical counterparts of the 80s, but the beauty and uniqueness of Gold’s music was startling.

Sure, your big blockbuster Hollywood doohickeys could deliver an operatic soundtrack, but nowhere nearly to the same avail. They follow two distinct patterns. Big and dramatic, employed for chases; or sweet, go-lightly numbers for the emotional scenes and conversations therein. But the soundtrack placed in New Who’s palm combined orchestras with electric instruments, and the two paired together created the chilling and very spine-tingling pieces which garnered most moments of “Dalek”.

One year later, when Series 2 rolled around, Gold was naturally at the front of the queue, with 13 more episodes-worth of original music. Notably, “The Cybermen”, an uneasy and dark piece which perfectly complemented the eponymous monsters, thanks to a repeated jingle of eclectic notes.

The soundtrack of Series 2 was far more memorable, and was lined with lashings of ‘character’, songs like “Rose’s Theme”. The opening notes are enough to trigger deep emotions, as it grows it gains more layers than the entire electromagnetic spectrum, and as it crescendos to a twinkling climax.

What’s more, every episode’s music had a distinct style and theme to it, sprawling from the bold, enormous, encapsulating music in The Impossible Planet to the feather-light, music box-esque style from The Girl in The Fireplace, which matches the intricate fairy-tale played upon in the story itself.

With Series 2 concluded, and Rose’s heartbreaking departure -- also backed by exemplary music that worked to extraordinary effect – the audience sought for Series 3. But in the meantime, the soundtrack to the previous two series was released. A trend that continued, even to today. Now, the fans who couldn’t do anything but glue themselves to every Doctor Who based release -- in a form of eccentric clothing -- could listen to the full versions of these songs. This move was certainly a smart one.

The majority of the next series was darker, and set to the addictive “All The Strange, Strange Creatures”. If anything, this motif was overused, for proof of this, explore the regions of “42”. But none of this mattered, purely because its catchy-ness content was enough to clog an artery, or to re-phrase, it’s fantastic!

This series also delivered the new companion Martha, who needed a theme that would instantly be recognisable as hers. We received “Martha’s Theme”, and despite beginning to see a naming trend in companions’ themes, it had a delightfully ethereal tinge to it, like the notable metal-y tang to water that’s been left out for an hour or two.

Series 3 purveyed further of these adrenaline-pumping themes, with the downright chilling “The Master Vainglorious”, which starred the driving four tone drum-beat that haunted episodes 11-13. To this, twisted strings added a purely tense and sickening tone.

While Series 3 garnishes the top of my favourite New Who series’ list, its soundtrack helps to deadly effect, with pieces like “Blink” once more exercising simplistic but different stylisations.

Yet another year cleared away and Series 4 was waiting ahead. With Gold consistently delivering first class music, a quality soundtrack for Series 4 was almost certainly in the bag.

The majority of Series 4’s soundtrack took a far more laid back approach, and while Gold continued to make atmospheric and brilliant music this series, it all seemed to blur into one mass. Not to claim it’s bad, but unlike occasions where you’d be humming “All The Strange, Strange Creatures” like a smiling idiot (in the eyes of the confused people around you), you’ll not exactly be humming much from here. Either because it’s not particularly memorable or because it’s just plain impossible to do so.

Take “Davros” for example. You’ll remember it, it’s fantastic, but attempt to make the sound of it emit from you and you’ll be left a little dizzy.

‘Atmospheric’ is the key word here, it provides perfect backing to episodes, but won’t give you much to sing for a long time afterwards.

A few amazing (and actually quite memorable) pieces do come out of it though, “Silence in the Library” for one. The crevices of its ticklish notes and upright string section result in the mythical air that allows it to slip into “Silence in the Library” (the episode) with relative ease.

Despite my criticisms, I still wholeheartedly enjoy this soundtrack however.

As Russell T Davies prepared to take his leave from the show, the final few specials leave you with the final few songs of the final few hours of Tennant’s era.

The music here is up to the regular Doctor Who yardstick, with more of the usual fast-paced malarkey. “Final Days” still stands as my favourite, and concludes “The End of Time: Part 1”. It feels almost as though it’s a moment to step back, after an hour’s worth of build up, there’s time to step back and look at what on earth has just happened. As for every piece featured in “The Waters of Mars” I needn’t say more about it’s chilling aroma.

I’ve been prompted to write this hopefully-not-quite-a-disaster outburst after recently re-listening to all of these soundtracks. Having done so, I’ve felt a clear evolution, and not the poorly constructed devolution kind that we saw in “Daleks in Manhattan” but instead an evolution where each soundtrack grew in ‘character’. It’s hard to place a finger exactly on this ‘character’, but hopefully if you’ve listened to these soundtracks, you’ll know pretty much what I mean.

While Doctor Who has many milestones under its belt and a fanbase the likes of which can’t quite be matched, it also has unmistakably remarkable music. So take a moment to thank Murray Gold, Ben Foster and the National Orchestra of Wales for uncompromised levels of effort, talent, and originality. New Who wouldn’t be the same without all of them. And once more, be thankful that they didn’t get that aforementioned awful untrained monkey to do it all.

Step back in time...

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