The Doctor Who Music Guide // An Unearthly Child, 100,000 BC

The Doctor Who Music Guide begins with a discussion of "An Unearthly Child."

Figure 1. Susan Foreman explaining the fourth and fifth dimensions to her Coal Hill School teachers in “An Unearthly Child.” ©BBC
“I know these Earth people better than you, their minds reject things they don't understand.” — Susan, “An Unearthly Child”

Even from its humble beginnings in 1963, the music and sound design of Doctor Who proved to be one of the most striking features of the program. The impact of the program's music is easily seen in the critical documentation on Doctor Who’s reception and history. Within the first page of his introduction to the series, Kim Newman pays attention to the fact that,
The tone is set by the title sequence, which combines monochrome video distortion with music from Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Later regenerations added colour, the faces of current stars or unfortunate semi-disco arrangements, but the first, simplest and strangest take remains the most evocative. (Newman, (Doctor Who BFI TV Classics), source)
The Doctor Who fanzine “Doctor Who: An Adventure in Time and Space” also pays mind to the unique aural signature of the program early on in its run. The opening comment of that first issue addresses the sound design of the pilot episode. The “buzzing,” “shrill” sound of the computer banks, “throbbing” and persistent, made an impact on those viewers that caught that first episode of Doctor Who back in 1963.

Figure 2. An illustration of Susan Foreman based on her appearance in promotional imagery for “An Unearthly Child,” found in the first issue of “Doctor Who: An Adventure in Time and Space” fanzine.
The buzzing was everywhere. Shrill and insistent, it cut into Barbara Wright's mind like a knife. She stared, terrified, at the throbbing banks of equipment…
The program’s sound effects and compelling electronic and avant-garde scoring gave every indication to its audience that the spectacle would be a suspenseful science fiction drama. In fact, its music—particularly its title tune—would prove crucial to the establishment of the sci-fi leanings of the program that are otherwise far-removed from the main storyline of the first episode.

Doctor Who’s categorization as science fiction proved to be far removed from its initial conception. One of the pivotal figures in the development of the program was Cecil Edwin “Bunny” Webber, a writer based in the BBC’s Scriptwriting Department. In an internal memo from May 15th, 1963, describing the approach to Doctor Who’s stories, Webber is clear:
We are interested in human beings reacting to strange circumstances. This is not space travel or science-fiction: avoid the limitation of such labels, and make for use of any style of category that happens to suit a story. (BBC WAC T5/647/1)
And later in the same memo:
We are not writing science-fiction. We shall provide scientific explanations too, sometimes, but we shall not bend over backwards to do so, if we decide to achieve credibility by other means. Neither are we writing fantasy: the events have got to be credible to the three ordinary people who are our main characters […] Granted the startling situations, we should try to add meaning; to convey what it means to be these ordinary human beings in other times, or in far space, or in unusual physical states. (BBC WAC T5/647/1)
Perhaps this was why, even though the title tune was so other-wordly that it was unlike anything else on television at that time, that the first episode of the program, “An Unearthly Child,” felt so far removed from science fiction television.

The script of “An Unearthly Child” takes cues from a recurring theme in the 1960s regarding the suspicion of clever children. Beginning roughly around 1956, teenagers had shifted from trainee adults to a separate identity and subculture; John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos, famously adapted as Village of the Damned in 1960, established this theme on film and set forth the model that all subsequent “creepy children” horror films would be based. A generation of parents who found they did not understand or connect with their children identified with the film. As is evident in the narrative of “An Unearthly Child,” the audience is encouraged to empathize with the adult authority figures as they attempt to solve the riddle that is the teenage Susan Foreman. The opening half of the first episode is quite clearly a domestic tragedy, as two well-meaning schoolteachers follow a girl home to find her living in difficult circumstances. It is only after problematizing Susan as a teenager that the show unveils any SF tendencies.

This “troubled teen” narrative would be reinforced by the placement and aesthetic of the incidental music provided by composer Norman Kay. Packed into the scoring of the episode is not only a reinforcement of the point of view of the adult authority figures—teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton—but also the opposing point of view of Susan, one so far removed from the teachers that they find it distracting. 

When viewers first meet this problem child, called Susan Foreman, she is listening to what adults at the time would consider “rock music,” reminiscent of the tune played by Ringo on his handheld stereo in A Hard Day’s Night (since the Beatles themselves were a rock group, the music they were listening to needed to fit within the mold of the jukebox musical, where rebellious youth listened to “Rock Around the Clock” to show how tough they were). The tune, a piece of stock music titled “Three Guitars Mood 2” performed by The Arthur Nelson group, is so generically coded that it’s almost comical. In an attempt to connect to Susan in some fashion, Ian remarks that the track is by John Smith and the Common Men, quite possibly the most generic name one could possibly think of for a fake rock band. She also, fittingly, plays the music too loudly and without the consideration of the hearing of her elders. Here, the stage is set for the gulf of difference between the teenager and her teachers.

Not long afterwards, Barbara and Ian find themselves having nightmarish flashbacks to interactions with the young Susan in their classrooms. While at face value the teachers appear to be sharing amusing moments of Susan acting “odd” there is clearly a deeper terror and misunderstanding lurking throughout the interactions. There is more to Susan than meets the eye, and Barbara in particular can feel it in those awkward learning moments at the Coal Hill School. While complaining about the futility of experimenting with inactive chemicals, or misremembering that England was yet to be on the decimal system in 1963 (a lucky guess by the program’s writers at the time). The sharp, stinging horns and low rumble of the drums are straight out of a 1950s PSA about troubled children. The horns in and of themselves drive home the unsettling sensation Susan gives her teachers, while the low woodwinds with their slinking ascending chromatic scale provide no arrival point, no central pitch to latch on to and provide the normalcy these two adults so crave. 

Of course their inert fears would be justified just a few minutes later, as they are swept away in a ship existing in relative dimensions that can travel anywhere in time and space. Finally, the science fiction portion of the tale that the title theme—so brilliantly realized by Delia Derbyshire—eluded to from the very first moments of the episode. Note that the mysterious police box is set up as a bookend to this introductory story. The title theme rarely bleeds so methodically and lengthily into an episode’s narrative, but here it follows a slow and winding path out of the opening credits and into a junkyard, finally fading into an other-wordly buzzing as the camera centers itself on a seemingly innocent police box. When the buzzing returns later in the episode the real narrative starts and the “mysterious teenager” story gives way to something much more bizarre and reveals the central tenet of Doctor Who as Verity Lambert conceived it, a focus on the axis of estrangement and recognition, of familiar and unfamiliar. As Mark Bould (Bould 2008, source) points out, this would set up the representation of “separation/reunion, capture/escape, pursuit/evasion that will dominate the next twenty-six years” of Doctor Who.

Figure 3. A caveman stumbles upon a strange object. ©BBC

The following three episodes featured a very different musical treatment even though they were scored by the same composer. Norman Kay's musical treatment for "The Cave of Skulls" and its following episodes on pre-historic Earth would lay the groundwork for much of the sound design and incidental music to follow. In particular, music acting less like underscoring and more like structural signifiers. What that implies is music participates in the narrative in a more structural manner, signifying changes in location, changes in point of view, or reinforcement of "acts" of the story. Think of the music like punctuation. And when music does run under a scene, it is often lacking a noticeable melody (the cues are not singable) which keeps them from being intrusive and obstructing the understandability of the dialogue, and also makes the cues much easier to mix into each episode during recording. (This concept will be addressed in more detail next week in a discussion of "The Daleks.")

One noticeable exception is the short melodic line of the bass clarinet in episode three, "The Forrest of Fear," which accompanies a tracking shot of the cavemen and ends on a shot of the old woman picking up a rock, intending to strike and kill the Doctor and his companions. You may notice the cue ends too early, finishing before the camera finally rests on the old woman's face. The music had to be recorded before the actors filmed the episodes in studio, meaning that precise timings were difficult to gauge for the composers tasked with creating incidental music. The next short sequence of the cavemen features a similar musical cue, this time running too long, having to be suddenly faded out at the transition (03:50). Composers working on Doctor Who would quickly learn that they and the editors would have the most control when cues were short, amelodic, and repetitive, so quick edits during filming would be less noticeable. Either that, or the cues would need to be amorphous, devoid of any noticeable musical lines whatsoever, to allow maximum flexibility (this concept will be addressed in more detail next week in a discussion of "The Daleks"). The repeated drum cues that run throughout episodes two through four are indicative of this; in later episodes of a live drum would be brought on set to record similar cues, especially in stories that happened on Earth's past, like "The Time Meddler" and "The Aztecs." A modernist style would come to dominate the incidental music of Doctor Who; it allowed for the most flexibility in editing, and also made the program stand out from other television at the time.

Stay tuned next week for the next edition of the Doctor Who Music Guide and more discussions on the sound design of Doctor Who

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