Watching Doctor Who’s 60th anniversary special, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Tardis had taken us all back in time to 2010. Not only is former showrunner Russell T Davies back at the helm, so is fan-favourite Doctor, David Tennant. Consequently, the first of three anniversary specials, ‘The Star Beast’ feels as much a celebration of the show’s ratings heyday, as it does an anniversary for the show’s original 1963 debut.
But what does all this mean for the Doctor Who title theme music? And how has one of the most recognisable themes on TV evolved to reflect Tennant’s return?
A Brief History of Time Lords
The original 1963 Doctor Who theme was one of the first electronic music signature tunes for television. However, just like the show’s titular Time Lord, the theme has gone through many changes over time.
One of the most dramatic revisions came in 1996 with the TV movie starring Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor. Shrugging the traditional electronic sound, this was an orchestral-led rock-influenced cover.
Since the show’s reboot in 2005, the so-called ‘New Who’ era has continued to adapt the tune to reflect each new Doctor.
According to our analysis, the themes accompanying David Tennant and Matt Smith were more influenced by the Hollywood-style orchestral rock than the original electronic music.
In fact, Russell T Davies instructed the show's composer Murray Gold to write with “heart and emotion, not coldness and alienation.” Acoustic instruments were fitting for the humanity of David Tennant and Matt Smith’s portrayals, while the powerful, dramatic orchestral rendition reflected the show’s greater budget and scope.
In contrast, the title music for the Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker eras not only returned to a more electronic, ambient sound like the original 1963 version, but also leaned into a tenser, darker, and more scary mood. Given how much a show’s theme tune telegraphs the tone of its content, it’s perhaps not surprising that the show’s step away from family-friendly drama resulted in decreasing ratings.
The Theme for the Fourteenth Doctor
So where does this leave the 60th anniversary title theme?
The answer lies in showrunner Russell T Davies’ decision to bring back Murray Gold as composer after his departure in 2018.
As a result, the new title theme is very reminiscent of David Tennant’s era.
For example, the mood of the new titles directly matches the power and drama of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor theme. It also reflects the orchestral rock genre from that time.
And it’s not just the main theme that calls back to previous regenerations.
The underscore during ‘The Star Beast’ also gives a nod to Matt Smith, bringing back an arrangement of the popular ‘I am the Doctor’ musical theme during a climactic sequence.
Clearly, through both the music and the storytelling, Russell T Davies' intention was less to remind us of the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who and more to remind us how much fun we had watching ‘New Who’ in the 2000s.
Time travelling to the future
But David Tennant’s renewed tenure in Doctor Who will only last three episodes.
As he passes the torch to Ncuti Gatwa for the 2023 Christmas special, will we see the titles take a more experimental turn again or continue with the Hollywood style big-budget orchestral sound?
Unless you’ve got a Tardis, you’re going to have to wait to find out.
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