Space Doctor's musical maestro Jamie Fenton on following in the footsteps of one of TV's most iconic theme tunes...
Back in January of this year, which was in and of itself a very Whovian month, going on so long I began to suspect we were travelling backwards in time, I first stepped foot in the Tardis of a show that is Space Doctor. ‘Can I write a theme tune for your fictional television program?’, I asked Mr Dalrymple, looking for something to fill up the long dark evenings. ‘Yes’, replied Mr Dalrymple, because this was what his answer was.
I was in the prime demographic for the return of Doctor Who in 2005. And while my memories of those episodes are hazy (except the children with gas masks, keep them well hecking clear of me) the theme tune still triggers a nostalgic, giddy thrill. I now realise that the 2005 iteration was a bit of a departure: in contrast to the spaced-out eeriness of the original score, the reboot’s theme was unabashedly exciting. The lush, full orchestration adds a prestige absent from the earlier versions: by building in a wider range of classical instruments, the theme feels much more robust than the weird twanging synths of the 70s.
When I started fiddling around for the Space Doctor theme, I was mindful of the pitfalls of parody. It had to sound like a Doctor Who theme, but not too much like the Doctor Who theme. It had to sound naff, because Space Doctor is incredibly naff, but not too naff, because I want people to be gripped when they hear it.
I started by riffing on the melody which comes straight to mind when you mention the Doctor Who theme: “ooo-WEEEE-oooooooooo”. What an amazing three notes. It’s basically a double octave jump, but it overleaps by a semitone before falling back, creating this weird, electrifying jolt. I nicked this for Space Doctor, but hammed it up by just jumping a clean octave:
Very trite, but it’s a big, lurching interval, and when I run it up the scale with some glide it sounds pretty spacey. The tune then meanders up and down a bit, diverting via a slightly discordant A flat, which gives it some of the same weirdness as the Doctor Who theme.
The piece’s main gag is that the only musical journey it goes on is moving successive octaves higher, until it becomes unbearably shrill.* I like the idea that it introduces a TV program which is reaching wildly for new levels of excitement and adventure, but always falls a bit short due to budget constraints — so the theme goes up and up but can only afford one actual melodic phrase.
It wasn’t until a few months after I recorded a demo using the stock synth sounds on Garageband (shout out to ‘Soft Saw Lead’) that it was decided I’d be playing it live, in the guise of Stan, AKA MC Vortex, the musical arm of the Space Doctor Appreciation and Networking Committee. The video below showcases the culmination of a lot of trial and error in trying to create a way to render the theme - and the other tracks I ended up writing (as I said, it’s a Tardis of a show) - as a one man band.
Abandoning software was the first step. Stan is definitely an analogue man wherever he can be, and I think the audience will be more on side with the vulnerability of just a keyboard and no laptop. Hence the Korg Minilogue synthesiser, which I’m using to create 95% of the sounds. The gaps are filled by a Korg Volca Sample (no, I’m not sponsored by Korg, but if they’re reading and interested…), which is basically just a box which sequences samples into a rhythm — a departure for convenience from Stan’s analogue roots. The opening swirly noise on the theme is a sample lifted from the original Garageband arrangement: try as I might, I haven’t been able to recreate it on the Minilogue. I just don’t have enough of those damn Low Frequency Oscillators.
So come and see Space Doctor, every day at Gilded Balloon, and I’ll use my share of the profits to fund my growing oscillator collection. It’s for the good of the universe.
*The other gag is the vocal. In the initial briefing, Will told me the theme’s lyrics should be ‘“Space Doctor, Space Doctor” over and over again’. That’s my kind of request. I croaked into a mic and ran it through a phaser and a pitch shift for that classic alien effect.