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Doctor Who: Change, Renewal And An Upturned Piano

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Life depends on change and renewal,” a great man once said in the aftermath of his first regeneration–an apt subject you’ll surely agree with, days into a new year (see Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor in The Power Of The Daleks. ) Indeed, many hold that the only thing staying the same in life is that very change–which may be the true secret of the enduring appeal of Doctor Who, even this far down the line.

Certainly, progress has been made since 1963, despite what many so called traditionalists would have you believe–a female incarnation representing political correctness gone mad in many an eye. 

But, in a sense, well before Jodie Whittaker there really was a woman at the centre of the TARDIS, sustaining it even in death four years prior to its return to the small screen and a far bigger worldwide audience than she and indeed anyone else involved in the production of the (in retrospect) perfectly titled An Unearthly Child could ever have envisioned.

Step forward the true female soul of what William Hartnell’s First Doctor termed simply the ship, Suranne Jones’ Idris (see The Doctor’s Wife) opposite Matt Smith’s Eleventh later giving body and voice to it. 

The spirit, though, was the work of Delia Derbyshire of the Radiophonic Workshop. Having contributed a theme tune which most likely served as a first exposure to electronic music for anyone hearing it, musique concrete (analogue tape of a single plucked string played back at differing speeds, white noise and test tone oscillators in timed sequence) used to realize the sound of space in both E minor and time for tea on November 23.

Equally as important was an upturned piano.

Exactly why would become apparent once the seemingly normal for the time police box showed its true nature–a simple key being scraped over its strings giving rise to the now familiar grind of its materialization and subsequent exit from whatever corner of time and space it needs to be in at the heart of everything it does. 

Opening up in such a manner was something she herself had learned while teaching the instrument: “The first thing I did was to show the child what is happening inside, you press this, and the hammer hits the string and it bounces off again and what happens when you use the two pedals.”

The idea that as a result of all that energy the TARDIS is somehow given a degree of sentience possibly not coincidentally also first presents itself during the early years of the programme in The Edge Of Destruction, a place many still fear it could return, having dangled there from 1989 prior to its 2005 return. 

Upon its return from exile, with Christopher Eccleston taking on the mantle of the Ninth Doctor, Murray Gold would serve as its musical steward- not without taking a few notes (or at least, sounds) from his predecessor.

As he once said: “I really didn’t want to have anything to do with it. That piece is so complete on its own, it’s like a piece of electronic art.” 

Little wonder then that he raided Auntie Delia’s paintbox for what he referred to in the past as, “the electronic ‘scream’ at the start, the famous swooping top line, the organ harmony underneath, the bass line, and the ‘time tunnel whoosh’ at the very end.”

Even after being told what had gone before wasn’t needed.

All of which would have been heard prior to City Of Death, Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor looking the part as he takes in a little culture alongside companion Romana (Lalla Ward, who in a definite case of life imitating art would marry him after the two fell in love filming in Paris). Electronic art by definition would then in a brilliantly timed convergence be followed in a roundabout manner by a discussion on the very same…

ROMANA: Well, at least on Gallifrey we can capture a good likeness. Computers can draw.

DOCTOR: What? Computer pictures? You sit in Paris and talk of computer pictures?

He then sets about showing her “real paintings painted by real people,” who were, of course, at least credited for their work.

Delia, somewhat unbelievably given all she’d done for the electronic arts, wasn’t even extended that courtesy during her lifetime. Her day in the sun would come with The Day Of The Doctor, a fiftieth anniversary special which also used her original arrangement of the theme by way of an introduction before things reverted back to Gold’s bombast–which, from Series Two of the revived show, David Tennant’s first as the Tenth Doctor, would often drown out the dialogue and indeed drama after he got his wish to record with a real orchestra rather than making do with the sound of one for budgeting reasons.

But now it’s back to subtle undercurrent with new Delian student Segun Akinola, proving Troughton quite right–change and renewal hand in hand once more as perhaps they forever have been.