Friday, February 23, 2018

Madman with a Baton: Orchestral Revelations of a Time Lord

Ten years ago, Doctor Who returned to the screen. It seems oddly fitting that the time has flown by.

Murray Gold
Murray Gold

In that decade, we’ve seen four new Doctors, each of which has brought something unique to the character and the show. One of the few constants has been series composer Murray Gold whose bombastic, energetic style has been immensely effective at times and, at others, a little like being shouted at by an Orchestra. Gold is one of the controversial figures in a series where everything and everyone has been controversial at one point or another. His work has often been criticised for being needlessly bombastic or overwrought and, at times, that’s been both fair and accurate.

Season 8 Soundtrack
Season 8 Soundtrack

But recent years have seen his work get a much needed, and deserved critical re-evaluation. What’s particularly apparent, with the recent release of the Season 8 soundtrack, is how Gold’s music both mimics and acts as the herald for the show’s own, inherently chameleonic nature. The Doctor changes constantly and, despite it being the product of the same composer for the last decade, so does his music. That’s clearest in the various themes the contemporary versions of the Doctor have had.

The Ninth Doctor – Making Peace with Trauma

Actor Christopher Ecclestone
Actor Christopher Ecclestone

That’s particularly true of the 9th Doctor’s Theme. Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation occupies a triumvirate of vital places in the show’s canon. He was the first actor to play the character in the modern show, he was one of the first actors to play a Doctor who was clearly from somewhere (‘Lots of planets have a north!’) and his run was short. There’s a lot of reasons for this, ranging from behind the scenes personality clashes to the 9th Doctor’s making peace with his own trauma.

That brevity is also present in his music. Named simply ‘The Doctor’s Theme’ it, like he, doesn’t hang around. A single female vocal against minimal instrumentation, its 78 seconds long and is both the shortest and calmest of the four themes to date. Everything about it, from the vocal line to the tentative strings that close it out, embodies the colossal, genocidal trauma the 9th Doctor suffered in the Time War. It’s mournful because he is, it’s calm because he isn’t and it’s so short because he, like the show, is trying his level best not to dwell.

That echoing of the show’s central motifs is apparent throughout the music for the early seasons, where Gold works to match the often wildly varying tone. ‘Rose in Peril’ in particular is a fascinating piece of music that starts with Bond-esque chords and builds into something that’s towering, orchestral and at the same time grounded. The two pieces played in sequence are the Rose/9th Doctor partnership in musical form; caution and exuberance, adventure and careful happiness. That idea, of the music embodying the character and the character’s journey, is one that would resurface with the 12th Doctor.

The Tenth Doctor – The Lonely God

David Tennant
Actor David Tennant

It’s also fleshed out and expanded for the 10th Doctor’s theme. David Tennant’s entire run is intimately concerned with songs and music as a metaphor for life and it’s especially interesting to look at his theme in connection with the two pieces on either side of it. The refrain of the 9th Doctor’s ghostly vocals is expanded out here with choirs and a full orchestra. It’s a huge, rich piece of music that’s built around a sudden expansion in volume and complexity at around the 1:12 mark and, like the others here, it maps onto the trajectory of the character superbly well.

The 10th Doctor’s arc is built around the PTSD he’s clearly suffering from and this sudden complexity is indicative of his willingness to engage with the universe around him again. The choral line in particular is the embodiment of the ‘lonely God’ motif that defined the 10th Doctor era, for good and bad. It’s music that balances on the knife edge between the triumph of the survivor and the hubris of the last man standing.

As a result it’s a far tighter, more personal musical portrait of the character than ‘All The Strange, Strange Creatures’, widely viewed as the other definitive 10th Doctor piece. That’s all driving bombast and urgency. This is a smaller, less certain, more mature piece of music. One is the Doctor’s world. The other is the Doctor. The conflict between the two extremes; epic scale action and quiet, honest character writing is where the show does its best work. Gold too.

The Eleventh Doctor – Cutting Some Wires

Actor Matt Smith
Actor Matt Smith

That conflict is internalized in ‘I Am The Doctor’, the theme for Matt Smith’s run as the 11th incarnation. Rather like he did, it hits the ground running with a string line that’s a clear riff on ‘All The Strange, Strange Creatures’. Here though, the Doctor isn’t siphoned off into his own piece but up in the guts of this one, fiddling with it and seeing what happens when he cuts some wires. There’s a woodwind line that’s a near perfect portrait of Smith’s character; impish, distracted and cheerfully unconcerned with everyone else. It’s not just the Doctor but the Doctor’s perspective in musical form; a madman with a box. Or in this case, a flute.

Around 1:50 the piece evolves again, becoming more urgent. The 10th Doctor’s choir returns here too, as the themes we’ve heard are folded around that constant, driving need to keep moving that lies at the heart of the Smith run. This is a Doctor who can’t stop, because he knows if he does he’ll see the flow of time around him. That idea lies at the heart of Smith’s run and it takes the character to some surprisingly dark, even cowardly places as he refuses to accept that time passes quicker for everyone else.

For me, that’s where the show is at its most controversial and most interesting. Gold essays everything that’s to come here, starting with a brass flourish that’s one part Gallifrey, one part James Bond. Then it shifts again, the woodwind rising back up as the piece becomes delicate and precise and just a bit fussy. Again, much like Smith’s run itself. Then there’s yet another tonal shift back to the driving, urgent strings which leads to a huge, very sudden and absolute stop. Again, this is Gold’s music mirroring the tempo of the show and, more importantly, the Doctor. Smith’s incarnation took 90 degree conceptual left turns at will, changing subject on a dime and, at times, showing the same willingness to play the longest game as the 7th Doctor had. That’s the other reason he doesn’t often slow down. Because when he does, it has real meaning. Look at the moment in ‘The Almost People’ where he tells Rory to step away from ‘Amy’. Rory has no context for that, no reason to trust him, but he does so because this is so out of character for the Doctor.

That constant need for distraction is also embodied in ‘I Am The Doctor’’s relation to ‘Amy’s Theme’. Where one is all bombast and frantic running, the other is slow to the point of a dirge and mournful. ‘I Am The Doctor’ is about the distractions of the journey. ‘Amy’s Theme’ is about the consequences of the arrival. That in turn signifies a major shift in the nature of the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. Where the 9th (And 10th) Doctor and Rose fall in love with each other, The 11th Doctor and Amy fall in love with the idea of each other. The Doctor is the future that Amy gets an early preview of and builds her life around. Amy is a puzzle to be solved, a journey to be embarked on. A distraction until, like everyone else, she has to leave. Or to put it another way, If the 10th Doctor’s theme is music for a lonely god, ‘I Am The Doctor’ is music for a god with a very long to do list.

The Twelfth Doctor – Railing Against Compassion

Actor Peter Capaldi
Actor Peter Capaldi

The 12th Doctor is where things get very different, and arguably, most interesting.

Firstly, the title is a clear indicator of the character’s state of mind. 11 gets ‘I Am The Doctor’. 12 – portrayed by Peter Capaldi – gets ‘A Good Man?’. He’s uncertain of himself and that was even reflected in the music’s placement in the show. We don’t hear the theme for the first few episodes, as 12, and Clara, both try and answer the titular question. This older, grimmer, far angrier man is a very long way away from 11’s floppy-haired boyish swashbuckler and the music, like the characters, and us, takes it’s time figuring him out. The first couple of minutes are a gentle, music box-like series of chimes spreading out against a carefully wide ambient background. It’s precise, antique and ever so slightly uncertain. This is also the longest Doctor theme since the show returned, again reflecting that long journey to self-acceptance.

Then, at 2:18, the music goes somewhere it’s never really gone before; Hans Zimmer country. Long distended brass notes stretch across that percussion bed, all in a low key, all never less than two seconds long. It’s slightly reminiscent of Zimmer’s Inception soundtrack and very reminiscent of his work on the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. ‘Am I Good Man?’ becomes a question that Gold asks the Doctor and Zimmer asks Gotham’s favorite son. The confidence and force of the final notes the brass deliver tells them, and us, the answer.

From 3:24 onwards the track changes again, the urgent drums rising to the surface and the brass line becoming more complex and complimentary to those drums. It’s all still distended and all still in a low key but the complexity, and engagement, encode 12’s personality into the music in a surprising and elegant way. He’s a vast, towering personality who rails against the compassion he feels, but never backs away from it. There’s a sense of that in this section, of cautious engagement with complexity. There’s also, appropriately, a real sense of anger to the music.

That’s tempered in the third section of the piece by another tone shift. The key rises, the complexity remains and the piece becomes if not melancholy then certainly far from happy. Again, the personality of 12 and the near physical pain he feels confronting his emotions comes to the fore. The music’s most dutiful sections are also its most emotive for that exact reason; it’s the one area this Doctor is very uncomfortable. Even the piece’s sudden stop speaks to this; emotional responses nodded to, duty done, time to change the subject.

Constancy in the Chaos

Murray Gold
Murray Gold

Doctor Who is a show defined by mutability, and at times, that’s been both a blessing and a curse. The wild swings in tone that a couple of the more recent seasons have endured have been hard to love, as, at times, has the character. But digging into Gold’s music like this shows just what a vital function it performs. This is music that not only changes to mirror the personality of the current incarnation but also provides one of the few bedrocks of stability the show can rely on. The style is always different and, in recent years in particular, ever more so as the series has evolved.

But the mind behind the music remains the same and, through that constancy, helps give us the consistency the Doctor never can. The new Doctor may be an idiot with a box, but one thing is certain; Murray Gold is a genius with a baton.

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