How To Make A Doctor Who Theme In Three Days
The final episode of Doctor Who: Redacted comes out today and, to mark the season finale, I wanted to share some scribbles about my experience making music for the series. I wrote this a few days after sending off the final mixes, before the series came out.
How To Make A Doctor Who Theme In Three Days
The sensible answer is: you don’t. You should definitely have more time for something as big as composing music for one of the greatest sci-fi franchises in television history.
But, as I’ve continually learned from working in media, there’s often very little time for being sensible.
This story starts in February 2022, on a visit to Manchester to stay with my good friend Ella Watts, who is a producer for BBC Studios. She is currently working on a new Doctor Who audio drama podcast for the BBC because Ella is, to use the technical term, a badass. We talk a lot about the project, the story, the challenges of putting it all together, some of the names involved, big scary names like Jodie Whitaker, Juno Dawson and Russell T Davies, and I repeatedly tell them how awesome it is that they get to work on Doctor Freaking Who.
Making things is stressful, it is truly a miracle that anything gets made ever. Making things for a Very Large Famous Franchise with a lot of executives and people who control the lore, and what’s allowed and what isn’t, is a completely new level of stress. Working on something like Doctor Who is very much like working on a Very Large Famous Franchise, only somehow more complicated. This is what Ella and I talk about.
Jump forward in time to the end of March. I’m 30 now, and back in Glasgow working on some slightly dull podcast edits as well as some slightly less dull music projects. Ella sends me a message asking if I have any music that would fit a horror comedy audio drama as she’s pitching me as a composer for ‘something’. I offer to send some music through but I’m then told ‘he’ (presumably the person she’s pitching me to) loved my Soundcloud page, the top track of which at that point was a piece of music I made using manipulated samples of my cat snoring. I am mortified.
Nonetheless, I get the pitch: a new audio drama commission for an original Doctor Who series approved by Russell T Davies, featuring the current Doctor Jodie Whitaker and so on which is all very exciting but all my eyes and brain are seeing is ‘Would you like to make music for Doctor Who?’
I should take a second here.
There is a lot surrounding Doctor Who and its history and relationship with music and sound design. The series is forever synonymous (in admittedly very niche circles) with the legendary Radiophonic Workshop who made the iconic sounds of the original series, a lot of which are still used in the series today. Think about the sound the TARDIS makes, think about all the sounds you associate with the Daleks, it’s Star Wars levels of iconic sound design. There’s also the work of Delia Derbyshire, who created the original theme to the series by playing analogue tapes back at various different speeds to create one of the very first pieces of electronic music all the way back in 1963. To be asked to be a part of such a history (albeit a very, very tiny part of it) was a dream come true.
I was being asked to make two pieces of music for Doctor Who, a main theme and a theme for the Doctor. The anxious little 13 year old nerd inside me quietly cheered.
Then came the news that it had to be done in a week. Not a first draft, not an initial idea, the whole thing had to be done in a week. A combination of tight production schedules, COVID absences and budget negotiations. I’m told I’ll get an email next week with the brief. I spend the weekend trying to be calm, and normal, rearranging deadlines so I can fit this in (fortunately I mostly work with other Big Nerds, so they were very sympathetic).
Monday rolls around and I’m in Edinburgh for the day doing sound for an upcoming immersive theatre production. Due to the amount of electrical equipment in the room, combined with a thick insulated carpet, I keep getting electric shocks off the mixing board. While we’re on lunch, chatting about executives and how hard they make making things sometimes, the brief arrives. I spend the rest of the day spaced and full of electricity, trying to work out how in the universe I’m going to pull this off.
Admittedly, I wasn’t too worried. I learned my craft as a composer making soundtracks for short films made during the 48 Hour Film Challenge, where teams have to make a short film from scratch (writing, filming, scoring, editing, the whole thing) in 48 hours. It usually involved me composing film music between the hours of 2am and 7am on a Saturday night/Sunday morning while the rest of the team were asleep, and having to make changes and turnarounds very quickly. I got very good at it, I won an award at one point.
None of the films we made, however, had anything whatsoever to do with Doctor Who.
I wake up early on Wednesday, surprising my cat as she comes in to passive-aggressively purr at me to feed her (cats do not observe British Summer Time). I set up at my desk, warm up my analogue synths as a small offering to Delia Derbyshire for safe passage, open up a blank project file, and start work.
The first idea for the main theme, I think, works really well. It has that particular Doctor Who sound, blending electronics and orchestral arrangements, it has the drive, the excitement, the grandeur, while also keeping the particular quirkiness you get from the series and its music. What was meant to be a demo soon turns into a full piece.
I have a very fun morning, and I send off the finished theme tune.
What follows is the least fun part of being a composer: feedback.
Every composer that knows anything will tell you to never respond right away when you get feedback, as you’ll be on the defensive and you won’t really be responding to the notes, you’ll be criticising them. Take a break, go for a walk, come back, read them again, get to work.
The main notes are to dial back the 80s synths (I get that a lot, it’s a fair criticism honestly) and to swap out the orchestral elements for a more electronic arrangement. As much as I was a little sad my grand Doctor Who theme wasn’t going to get used, the grown-up composer in me realised I needed to get that out of my system before I was going to make anything that properly stood on its own. The foundations of the piece are there, it’s now a case of building the rest of it.
I send through three mixes of the Main Theme and a piano sketch of the Doctor Theme by the end of the day. The latter goes down really well, and I’m asked if I can integrate it into the Main Theme somehow. I go to bed with the music ringing in my ears, coming up with new changes and new ideas. I finish the next day having sent through, in total, four mixes of the Main Theme, and two different arrangements of the Doctor Theme (‘Doctor Theme (Ominous) and ‘Doctor Theme (Hopeful)’). I also now have a project file entitled ‘DoctorWho_DoctorTheme’ which my tired brain finds very funny. In the middle of the day I go for a walk in the sunshine. I try listening to music, but everything keeps blurring into electronic arpeggios and sequencers and noise. I’m instead accompanied by the birds along the Forth-Clyde canal.
Friday is spent making cutdowns and alternate mixes of each track. There can be many different strands and ideas baked into a piece of music, and isolating some of those strands (just the synths, just the piano, just the string parts etc.) can lead to music with an entirely different tone. By doing these alternate mixes as part of the composing process, it means I can provide clients with extra music they can use without having to go through the process of making more music from scratch than I’m not being paid for. I have an afternoon taking the tracks apart and putting them back together in different ways.
The pieces are finalised, the mixes are mastered and exported, and I package up the 2 themes, along with 21 different cutdowns and arrangements, as well as all the individual instrument stems, totalling around 80 audio files in total. The files finish uploading at 16.57, I get them in just before everyone signs off for the weekend.
I spend the next 24 hours horizontal, sleeping and playing video games, trying to ride out the adrenaline that decided to kick in right as I sent off the final mixes.
I still find it very strange telling people that I’m a professional musician. It’s the only time I get Imposter Syndrome. It doesn’t happen when I describe myself as an audio producer, I suspect because nobody really knows what an audio producer does (myself included). But, very occasionally, I get the opportunity to Very Convincingly Pretend to be a musician, and making the music for Doctor Who: Redacted was one such opportunity, and it was wonderful. I hope people listen to it, and enjoy the work of some brilliant people making brilliant things, with some decorative piano music underneath, and I hope, maybe, that we get to make more someday.
You can listen to all of Doctor Who Redacted on BBC Sounds. I also went more in-depth about the composing process for the music here. There are a number of special events happening across various sites this weekend to mark the series finale, and the best way to keep track is to follow the #DoctorWhoRedacted tag. Thank you for reading!