Here’s a clip of British techno-geeks Phil and Paul Hartnoll, AKA Orbital with their take on a British musical institution – the Doctor Who Theme.  The original theme was composed by Ron Grainer and realized in the studio by Delia Derbyshire in 1963 using electronics in the BBC Radiophonic workshop.  The tape machines are not unlike the ones used by the Beatles to create their 1966 track “Tomorrow Never Knows”, also revered among 90s turntablists.

Delia Derbyshire
The first British techno sampling wizard? Delia Derbyshire at work in the BBC Radiophonic workshop created music from sound effects both manually as well as with sine wave oscillators. The Doctor Who Theme composed by Ron Grainer and realized by Derbyshire was made into a whole piece through tape loop editing technology, with each note literally sampled from raw source material. She would go on to create themes for many British television shows, including the Doctor Who Theme in 1963, as well as working with techno-boffins The Aphex Twin and Sonic Boom before her death in July, 2001.

I’ve been a fan of the original show since I was a kid, the show being broadcast in Canada first on provincial TV, and then by American public television, beamed across the border.  I was always struck by the theme song – kind of ghostly, otherworldly – and I’d always wondered what instruments they were using to create it.  Basically, the original Doctor Who Theme is a series of sound affects moulded into a piece of music, including a middle-eight section.  To me, it’s a towering achievement in sound.  And the original piece, although translated by modern technology, is also the theme to the more recent version of the show, which picks up where the original show left off.  Geeks like continuity, you see.

The first time I’d seen Orbital perform this one was live at the 1999 Glastonbury festival.  They’d released their version of the theme on 2001’s the Altogether entitled “Doctor?”, but it was known to be a set favourite a few years earlier.  This is more of an affectionate tribute than it is a serious take on making a viable single.  And they would have been hard pressed to make this a representative piece.  But, it’s the affection that makes this piece so charming.  It reveals a funloving spirit, and a humanity that is often not associated with the genre. It’s also something of a tribute to Delia Derbyshire, who was able to find music in everyday objects, with the skill of being able to translate those sounds in accessible ways by using technology.  So, the affection is also about what she created; music as organized chaos, pulling as it does from unlikely sources while being appealing and enduring too.

For more about this band, check out the Orbital MySpace page.

Read more about Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

And for more about Doctor Who, check out these fine websites too:

BBC – Original Doctor Who Series

BBC – New Doctor Who Series



6 thoughts on “Orbital re-mix the Doctor Who Theme

  1. I love the original version. It has a haunting not of this world feel. The remake is ok but the heavier beat added to it looses some of the effect for me – makes it sound more like it belongs in a club.

    What a great show Dr. Who was. The larger room inside the phone booth did wonders for my imagination growing up.

  2. The Orbital version of the Doctor Who theme is great fun. They often have clips from the show itself before they do it, usually something from the Patrick Troughton era.

    I did a brief blog entry on Delia Derbyshire here: which links to a fuller explanation of how she did the original theme at the Radiophonic Workshop and discusses some other recent discoveries, including a sample which sounds surprisingly like today’s dance music.

    I’m not sure if the new series theme so much ‘translates’ the original as uses the original melody line from Derbyshire and overlays other instrumentation on top of it. I do like Murray Gold’s treatment of it though.

    Ron Grainer always felt that Derbyshire should have been given a credit on the actual theme music because his actual music is pretty scant and really it was Derbyshire that created the iconic piece as we know it. (BBC Policy however didn’t allow such things). Derbyshire’s other electronic music is well worth seeking out– “Blue Veils and Golden Sands” is one of the most incredible pieces of electronic music ever written, after the Doctor Who theme of course.

  3. Oh, and of course hardcore Doctor Who geeks (like me) will know the Oribital theme version because BBC Video used it to create a mega-clip video for the series’ 40th Anniversary in 2003 (it was added as an extra in all the DVDs released that year)

    Nice mixture of Who clips with Orbital’s music

  4. Hey Graeme – thanks for all of the additional info and great links too. I knew you’d come through for me!

    Jeff – I get the whole ‘sounds like it should be in a club’ thing. I think it can be forgiven, only because the club is Orbital’s natural habitat. I like that they’ve taken something familiar and transplanted it. For me, that’s part of the charm.

    Cheers guys!

  5. I prefer the original. Like Jeff, I feel the heavier beat is not a great addition. Also, it sounds kind of bouncy and chirpy where the original sounds space-y and atmospheric. The original is one of the most evocative pieces of music for me; it’s haunting in general, and of course there’s all the added layers of memory it stirs up from my childhood in the 70s.

    Thanks for the post!

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