Orbital re-mix the Doctor Who Theme

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