Archive for cathannabel

Unearthly Music: Delia Derbyshire and the Doctor Who Theme

From the very beginnings of Doctor Who, there were two remarkable women who in their different ways had a huge impact on the success and longevity of the series.  Verity Lambert has already, rightly, been honoured on this blog.   But we should not forget the contribution of Delia Derbyshire, who turned the theme tune composed by Ron Grainger into the unearthly music that has haunted viewers of the show for almost 40 years.

Delia Derbyshire at the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop

Delia Derbyshire at the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop

Delia was born just before the Second World War, growing up in Coventry and then in Preston.   She went to Cambridge – an achievement in itself for a working class girl – and emerged with an MA in Mathematics and Music, specialising in medieval and modern music history.  She found her way in 1962 to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, an oasis of serious innovation in electronic sound, where one of her first assignments was the theme tune to a new science fiction series.

She’s not listed as the composer of the theme, although Ron Grainer, who is, wanted her to share the credit with him – as far as one can tell, this wasn’t sexism, but a policy decision that the Radiophonic Workshop staff should not have individual credits.

Delia herself didn’t see things in feminist terms:

‘Women are good at sound and the reason is that they have the ability to interpret what the producer wants, they can read between the lines and get through to them (the producers) as a person. Women are good at abstract stuff, they have sensitivity and good communication. They have the intricacy – for tape cutting, which is a very delicate job you know…. A producer once said to me, “You must be an ardent feminist,”….I said “What!”, I hadn’t even thought in those words.’ (2000 interview with Sonic Arts Network)

She also said that she thought she was a post-feminist before feminism was invented – what she was, was individualistic, single-minded, focused, determined.  She had to be – her first attempts to get into the field were rebuffed by Decca, who told her that they didn’t employ women in the recording studios.  Fortunately, the Radiophonic Workshop was different – it had been founded by electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram, with colleague Desmond Briscoe, and in fact the last composer to be based there when it finally closed in 1998 was Elizabeth Parker, who had worked on the score for a 1985 Doctor Who story, Timelash.

The Dr Who theme was one of the first pieces of purely electronic music to reach a massive audience.  It’s hard to imagine now, with the resources available to even the rankest amateur wishing to make electronic music, quite how painstaking the processes were back in 1963.  No synthesisers. No sampling.  No multitracking.   Every sound created from scratch, the whole thing built up and  then tuned, filtered, re-recorded, over and over till she’d achieved the effects she wanted.

It blew Ron Grainer away – he’d provided a simple tune and she’d turned it into something out of this world, technically innovative but also beautiful, haunting.  It blew audiences away too, even generating complaints that the theme tune alone was too frightening for young audiences, with or without Daleks.

The theme, and Delia’s work more widely, were massively influential.   She described herself as having ‘a passion to make abstract sounds.  A deep rooted physical passion’ (interview in Surface magazine, 1999), and her attraction to systems and rules, as a mathematician, was balanced by an instinctive desire to break those rules.  In the 60s, she found herself as comfortable with counter-culture heroes such as Brian Jones and Yoko Ono, as with giants of avant-garde music such as Berio and Stockhausen.

She went through a period of disillusionment with the Radiophonic Workshop, which increasingly seemed to be churning out jingles and turning down more challenging, sophisticated work, and with music more generally, but later in life had begun to make music again.  This interview with Boazine gives a wonderful flavour of her personality – she was just back from a Doctor Who convention, and she was fired up about the music she was making.  Sadly, those new initiatives were cut short by her death in 2001, aged only 64, of renal failure following treatment for breast cancer.

What we hear now, of course, isn’t Delia’s theme as she originally intended it to be heard – the title music has regenerated along with the Doctors.  But her composition is still in there, and always will be.  And every time we hear it, we should raise a glass (metaphorical or literal) to a fiercely independent, passionate, determined pioneer.




Are you my mummy? The power of motherhood in new Who

Parental love and its redemptive power has been a big Moffatt theme, no doubt about it.  In the last season alone, we had Stormageddon’s daddy making Cybermen explode (‘Closing Time’):

Craig: The Cybermen — they blew up! I blew them up with love!

The Doctor: No, that’s impossible — and also grossly sentimental and overly simplistic. You destroyed them because of the deeply engrained hereditary trait to protect one’s own genes — which in turn triggered a… a… uh… [sighs] Yeah. Love. You blew them up with love.

and George’s daddy taking on board that his son is an alien and being his daddy anyway (‘Night Terrors’):

Alex: Whatever you are, whatever you do, you’re my son. And I will never ever send you away. Oh George. Oh my little boy.

So it’s not perhaps as over the top as all that to have the power of motherhood as the focus of the Christmas episode this year, in ‘The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe’.   It seems to have annoyed people though, some people anyway.

The portrayal of an ‘ordinary’ woman roused to scary fierceness to protect her children is not probematic in itself – we’ve seen already that Madge is far from conventional, responding to the sudden appearance of an alien-angel in a quiet English village with considerable aplomb, and dealing with the Harvest Rangers in similar fashion:

Harvest-Ranger Droxil : There’s nothing you can say that would convince me you’re going to use that gun.

Madge: Oh, really? Well – I’m looking for my children.

[Droxil’s expression changes to one of fear]

In her first encounter with the Doctor, Madge assumes a motherly role – ‘Oh no, love. No. I think you’ve just got your helmet on backwards. How did you manage that?’.  With her own children, though, she’s struggling to cope with the burden of her own grief and the tension of hiding from them the loss of their father, and she’s cross with herself for being cross with them.   She’s not some idealised image of motherhood, she’s real.

Some viewers had a problem though.  The Wooden King and Queen reject Cyril and the Doctor as not being strong, and Lily as not strong enough – what they need is someone  who not only potentially could bear children but actually has done.  Now, I don’t read that as a global statement, it’s a plot device.  But many [on the Guardian’s Who blog ] did:

“hey, you called me sexist, so I’m going to write an ep that keeps saying women are awesome…because they can have babies!! ‘

‘the idea that all men are “weak” compared to women – even a male time lord is nothing in comparison – and that the maternal lurve of a human female for her cubs can overcome all obstacles, while the Doctor was reduced to a bystander, was kind of rubbish.’

‘Yes, girls, you’re all super-strong. But only if you lay back, think of England, and squirt out some babies’.

The hostility, it seems to me, arises from an extrapolation from the specific premises of this episode to global principles.  The weak-strong dichotomy has, surely, to be understood in the context of the world of the story.  In ‘The God Complex’, what saves them is scepticism, because faith is the specific emotional energy the creature feeds on.  Here, maternal programming happens to be something that the tree species can use to get themselves off the planet.  Whether that’s maternal instinct, mummy love, or chromosomes.   It’s not about awesomeness or fabulousness or the respective worth of the genders.

Having said that, Madge is rather marvellous:

Madge:  I’m perfectly fine, thank you.

The Doctor: Fine? You’ve got a whole world inside your head!

Madge: I know! It’s funny, isn’t it? One can’t imagine being a forest, then suddenly one can! How remarkable.


And despite the problematic nature of the Amy as mother storyline (which I’ve struggled with myself, along the way), there is something ultimately rather Madge-like about her take on motherhood.  ‘She’s a good girl’, she says of the child who was stolen from her, who she grew up alongside, unknowing, and who she now knows as  a woman seemingly old enough to be her own mother.

How remarkable, indeed.

Women who waited…

I’m increasingly sensitive about how older women are portrayed on TV.  So few of the programmes I love, when I think about it, give me  images that I can recognise or respect.  Either they are solely defined by being somebody’s mum or somebody’s wife, or they have independent lives which appear to preclude them being somebody’s mum or somebody’s wife.

Dr Who is no exception.   There are reasons why companions are in general young (and I note the exception of Barbara, from the very first DW).  Older women have ties and responsibilities, and though they might yearn to travel in time and space (and they do yearn, oh, they do) they can’t just take that leap, without looking back.

So, where are the older women on Who?

There are, of course, mothers.  The power of motherhood has been a bit of a theme recently, notably in the 2011 Christmas special, which merits a blog post of its own.   But what seems to be a NuWho phenomenon is that companions now have mums.   There’s a reason why fantasy narratives tend to keep parents, particularly mothers, out of the way.  They ask awkward questions, they want to know where you’re going, and if you’ll be back in time for tea.  A bit like Buffy’s mum, Joyce Summers, who attempts to ground her daughter on the night that a vampire apocalypse looms (OK, on one of the nights…), with the words, ‘I know. If you don’t go out, it’s the end of the world. Everything is life and death to a sixteen-year-old girl!’.  Jackie Tyler, Sylvia Noble and Francine Jones all contribute to the narrative primarily by getting in the way, inadvertently, through their fears for their daughters and mistrust of the Doctor, or through naivety.  Of the three, it’s Jackie who emerges most fully from the stereotype, to play, albeit briefly, a more active role alongside Sarah Jane, Mickey and Jack. Jackie and Sylvia are played for laughs, however, Jackie for her sexuality, which we are clearly meant to find ridiculous, and Sylvia for her prudishness (she wouldn’t allow webcams as they were ‘naughty’).

Of course, companions do become older women, eventually.  Sarah Jane Smith is our icon here, the one whose post-Tardis life we know most about. In ‘The Death of the Doctor’ (Sarah Jane Adventures) she and Jo Grant compare notes on other past companions, all clearly changed by the experience of travelling with the Doctor, and now working for the benefit of humanity.  Sarah Jane speaks movingly in ‘School Reunion’ of the pain and loss she felt when he left her behind, and Jo’s reaction when she realises Sarah Jane had seen the Doctor shows that she too had felt abandoned.  There’s a hint that ex-companions do the things they do in the hope that he will be aware of them, and that they will see him again.   Fair enough.  The Doctor (so far) is a man, a charismatic, unpredictable, extraordinary man.  Those who travel with him, whether or not they harbour romantic or sexual feelings for him, whether or not they maintain a healthy scepticism and have the confidence to challenge him, however their connection with him ends, are scarcely going to forget him, nor are they likely to encounter anything in the rest of their lives that will eclipse those experiences. ‘We get a taste of that splendour and then we have to go back’ (‘School Reunion’).

There are a few women who don’t fit either category – neither ex companions nor companions’ mums.   They’re not quite allies, nor yet adversaries.   Harriet Jones (backbencher, PM, ex-PM)  is forthright, good in a crisis, brave and the stand-off between her and the doctor left me unsure whose side I was on.  That kind of moral ambiguity is relatively rare – one could disagree with her actions AND dislike profoundly the Doctor’s way of bringing her down.  And Adelaide Brooke (‘Waters of Mars’,  pioneer, explorer, grandmother,  opposes the Doctor at his most hubristic, taking her own life to negate what she sees as his arrogant irresponsibility.   The parts that these two play in the narrative didn’t absolutely require them to be women, but I’m glad they were.

And then, of course, there’s the girl who waited.  ‘Old Amy’, who grew old(er), alone.  She needs a post to herself, I think.

So, what do I want from DW in the future?   I don’t want the companions’ mums to retreat back to invisibility, but I’d like them to be less of a joke.  Sadly, more Sarah Jane is no longer possible.  But more of the ex-companions – the women who were plucked from regular lives, plunged into intergalactic mayhem and then dropped back again into ordinariness, who then put their energies into trying to change the world, even if they didn’t have the power to save it.  More Harriets and Adelaides, yes please.   Women who are on the right side in the old good v. evil thing,  but who are confident enough in their knowledge, their wisdom, their judgement, to say no, even to the Doctor.

And should there be a vacancy for a more mature woman, say, around 54ish, untested in actual combat situations but mad organisational skills, to hop aboard the Tardis, can I be first in the queue?