Take a look at this chick. She looks like she should be dancing at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go or chasing after the Beatles down a London street, doesn't she? Her name was Delia Derbyshire, and damned if that doesn't make her sound like a Bond girl. In reality, Derbyshire was the mastermind behind one of the eeriest and most memorable television theme songs of all time: the Doctor Who theme!
In the 60s, Derbyshire worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which was essentially the sound effects department of the BBC. She was fascinated with music and the mechanics of sound, and had previously tried to get a job at Decca Records only to be told that women weren't allowed in the recording studios (Decca was also the record company that turned down the Beatles; talk about a company that couldn't recognize talent.) Derbyshire didn't actually compose the theme (that was done by a man named Ron Grainer) but she was responsible for setting his notes to music. The story gets even more intriguing when you realize how this was actually accomplished in a period before commercial synthesizers were readily available. It was a complicated process at the time which involved a lot of cutting, splicing, speeding up and slowing down fragments of analogue tape. Honestly, I read about what Derbyshire did on this Wikipedia page and couldn't make heads or tails of it. Let's just say she was extremely clever. When Grainer heard the finished product for the first time his astounded response was, "Did I write that?" to which Derbyshire responded, "Most of it."
The sad part of the story is that Derbyshire didn't receive official credit for her work. Grainer tried unsuccessfully to have Derbyshire listed as a co-composer and allow her to receive part of the royalties, but the Radiophonic Workshop was considered a secret bureau of the BBC and they wouldn't allow it!
Every time the show came on PBS while I was a child, the theme gave me the chills. I was not the only one--apparently the BBC received complaints from at least one parent who said their son was terrified of the opening music. And yet, it's also strangely hypnotic. I can't think of a more appropriate, freaky TV theme for a sci-fi show!
Doctor Who debuted on British television in the UK in 1963 and it's still alive and well today which makes it the longest running TV series in Great Britain. Each time the actor playing the doctor was written retired via "regeneration" the show's titles would change and the theme would get a slight makeover as well. Reportedly Derbyshire was mortified that anyone would tinker with her creation; the original theme that ran for the first few years is the only one she approved of. The video below shows how the theme and opening credits have changed throughout the decades and it's interesting to see the variations that kept up with the times and how computer special effects have advanced as well. I was never a big Doctor Who fan, but I prefer the cheesier 70s effects, sets and costumes from my childhood. I think the original black and white opener is also the freakiest and the best.
Derbyshire was truly a pioneer of electronic music and would go on to have a lucrative career experimenting with music and producing scores for the theater and movie soundtracks (you can look up her work on YouTube) but the Doctor Who theme will always be her most famous piece. She deserves our kudos. Thanks, Delia, for freaking me out as a kid!