Saturday, 16 November 2013

THE 'DOCTOR WHO' CREDIT SEQUENCE – A CLASSIC OF IT'S TIME


As a warm-up to the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of the classic show, let's look at one of it's most iconic elements – the credit sequence. Because let's face it, we do judge books by their covers and we do watch TV shows according to their title sequences. We just do...

At one point during the early story ’The Edge of Destruction’ we’re taken to the beginning of the universe. There being no money then to actually show this sort of thing on the screen, the Doctor instead demonstrates it through the medium of overacting. Spotlit, he gushes on about how little particles are slowly drawn to other little particles until finally things break out into recognisable shapes.

Watching the early Hartnell era is a bit like that really. While the fans construct elaborate timelines between stories and convoluted explanations for apparent incongruities, never was a thing more clearly stuck together on the hoof. It was never devised. It simply congealed.

What’s customary is to peer through this cloud of particles and see what furniture was there from the beginning (Earthly companions yes, Tardis, yes, Time Lords not, etc). But we’re not doing that here. Instead we’re letting ourselves be drawn to what strikes the modern viewer as iconic. After all, while fans might latch onto plot-points or particulars, a general audience is likely to respond more imagistically. And anyway, if we’re talking about the evolution of the show, we all know its fundamental to Darwinism that each evolutionary step has to have an immediate reason for occurring – not just a long-term goal.


The great toy spin-offs the Tardis and the Daleks are there from the beginning, of course. Though the pepperpots perfectly exemplify the themes in Terry Nation’s script, and though they’re certainly iconic in the sense of enduring… I can’t consider them part of what I’m on about here. Steven Moffatt was right to call them “a bit of ridiculous Sixties pop art.” (‘Radio Times’, 20-26/3/10) They look iconic of the Sixties, endearingly archaic, like Mini cars or Beatle haircuts.

Perhaps they’ve since suffered the death of a thousand skits, or perhaps their very crossover appeal lies in the facts that they never did look that scary, lending themselves easily to teatime viewing and marketing campaigns. ’The Guardian’s list of Alternative Design Classics (14/1/09) puts the Daleks at number three – “somehow they have become as loveable as they are monstrous.” And I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Even the re-launch implicitly acknowledged this, announcing the Daleks’ return with a ’Radio Times’ cover but starting with a caged, broken Dalek - something only the Doctor knows to be scared of. Okay these things may not look like much, the post-CGI generation was being told, but wait to see what they can do.


What’s iconic in the sense of being both classic and immediate, in the sense that it can still grab you even today, is the credit sequence. Grainer and Derbyshire’s theme tune of course chimes with genius, and sounds just as otherworldly today despite its familiarity. But I’m talking here of the total credit sequence, as a gestalt integration of sound and vision.

It’s hard to recount the effect this sequence would have upon me as a young feller. ’Stingray’ opened with the classic line “anything can happen in the next half hour”, words to set infant hearts a-racing. But ’Doctor Who’ upped the ante by demonstrating anything could happen, in what felt like a total disruption of the normal rules of time, space and Seventies TV.


The psychedelic tunnel was a vital emblem of this to me, a portal between worlds, like the typhoon that took Dorothy to Oz. It opened up a hole in consensus reality right in the middle of our suburban living room - and pushed me through it. Half an hour later, it would reappear to take you back again and Bruce Forsyth would come on to announce ’The Generation Game’.

Part of its appeal was that it seemed unlike even other science fiction shows, and the credit sequence telegraphed that. They almost always started with star fields and quasi-military music. For maximum contrast compare ’Doctor Who’ with the other ‘classic’ SF TV show, ’Star Trek’, which appeared a mere three years later. It was ’Trek’ which more commonly set the template, and (though my juvenile brain would have been unable to articulate it at the time) create the distinction between two types of SF show.


Post ’Star Trek’ shows would be military stories with teleporting instead of parachuting, or Western stories with ray guns for pistols, the stuff ’Pigs in Space’ took the piss out of. (The original brief for ’Star Trek’ was “Wagon Train in space”.) The rarer post-’Who’ shows were uncanny and otherworldly. They weren’t even necessarily science fiction shows, they overlapped with horror but mostly they were strange. (Though in my youthful innocence I then thought ’Who’ unique, it bears some familial resemblance to ’The Outer Limits’ or ’The Twilight Zone’.)

One could be exciting, but with the other you weren’t even sure how to respond. In my juvenile pedantry I even came to dislike scenes which showed the Tardis floating among stars like some common-or-garden silver rocket. The Tardis, I firmly held, should dematerialise from the world as we knew it and then reappear to us only when it chose to materialise again. (Instinctively recognising, years before I actually knew, that this mirrored the astral flight of the shaman.)

Watching the various credit sequences through, what‘s striking is how their development (and otherwise) can be used as a rough and ready barometer of the quality of the series as a whole. First we have not the psychedelic tunnel of my youth but a kind of ripple effect, conveying distortion in the fabric of space and time. (Quite awesomely, done through a feedback loop, like Hendrix’s guitar only done visually.)

This gets refined in the Troughton era, and the Doctors’ face added. (The documentary bundled with the ’In The Beginning’ DVD claims this has been originally pitched but nixed by producer Verity Lambert as too frightening!) It reaches both psychedelic-tunnelhood and a sustained peak through the Pertwee and early Baker years. (Though the ideal sequence, the one of my dreams, would be the tunnel combined with the pre-diamond slab serif logo.)


Then it all goes wrong in that great historical cusp year of 1980, inventively substituting (wait for it!) a star field! Tom Baker was still at the helm, but the series was already in decline. The Sylvester McCoy logo is a classic example of how a ’63 look can be classic but an ’87 one merely dated. The modern relaunch comes with more updates, but the closest referring back to both title sequence and original theme tune in over thirty years.

Okay, it's not a precise fit. The McCoy era was more characterised by good ideas which worked only fitfully, while that logo is simply baaaaad. And while the relaunched show has hit two peaks, when Davies first kicked it off and when Moffat first replaced him, then sagged between, it's credit sequence has slowly but consistently drifted away from the original. But it's a surprisingly good barometer.

Examples:The vidclip below allows you to see the sequences as a segue. If you want to see each sequence separately, as broadcast and with descriptions, use this link.

3 comments:

  1. Totally agree about the quality of the credit sequences reflecting the series' general quality. And I love that "like Hendrix’s guitar only done visually"!

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  2. Doesn't really work as a parallel though, does it? I mean the programme has gone up and down in quality, with a really big trough through the Saward era, whereas the title sequence did variations on brilliantly abstract, followed by variations on boring starfields. And the revival has had an ok title sequence, but never really brilliant (although the most recent one is best, for my money).

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  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Whittso, by parallel you mean barometer? I think how well it works depends on how big a scale you look at it from, the further back you stand the better. What's most striking to me is the star field appearing in later Baker, just when the best Doctor was at his worst. It's certainly not a precise fit, as I acknowledged in the piece.

    I'd argue the revival credit sequence was never as good as the original. Though perhaps for a different reason to steady degeneration. Adding elements, such as backstories for the companion, sometimes did and sometimes didn't work. Regardless, it ws probably something the revival needed to do to prevent it just being a re-enactment. But the original sequence had an elegant simplicity where you can't add without detracting. Adding the strings to the theme just sums it up. It's like taking the Acropolis and building an extension.

    And to my eyes it degenerated from there pretty evenly. The current sequence, with the clouds and the lightning bolts… my money wouldn't be on that at all.

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