As a TV series "Doctor Who" has seen many changes over its 50-plus years, to its lead actor, to the companions, to producers, writers, directors and other crew. Series 11 in particular marked the start of a new era in many ways, with a new showrunner, a female lead actor and a new composer replacing Murray Gold who had been the series composer since the show restarted in 2005 under Russell T Davies. Although Gold's music has evolved over the years, in particular with different themes for different Doctors and Companions, it had a certain consistency which became the sound of new Doctor Who. Indeed many younger viewers would never have heard any other composer's music in the series, unless they had seen episodes of the Classic Series. And Gold's music has achieved quite an impact judging from the range of special concerts including twice at the Proms, and the amount of fan attention online. Incoming composer Segun Akinola therefore has a difficult task filling those shoes yet establishing his own sound, and inevitably any reviews will invite some level of comparison with his predecessor.
First let's look at the new theme music. Akinola has used the Delia Derbyshire version of Ron Grainer's theme but added a prominent drum track plus new instrumental and electronic layers. The opening and closing versions are necessarily different in length and structure. The opening theme has a couple of key hit points, the first being an early whoosh to usher in the melody proper as the on-screen pattern brightens and the main cast-list starts, and the second hit-point heralds the story's title and writer, before a complex fade kicks in with some electronic flourishes. The closing theme retains the initial electronic descending buzz before we get a longer version of the theme, and Akinola seems to retain something similar to the counter-melody introduced by Gold before the closing hit and fade. It's new, it's different, it's interesting, and it's essentially the same theme we all recognise as inseparable from the show. So far so good, but the composer serves up a more radical version of the theme in a later episode...
The core of the Akinola's incidental music is very ambient and electronic in approach, the very definition of background music. There are drones, textures or atmospheres with sustained or evolving pad sounds. These might introduce or support a rhythm layer with beats or drums. And on top of this might come some minimalist instrumental material in the form of ostinato patterns, chords and arpeggios. So first impressions are that the music generally takes a more subtle atmospheric approach compared with previous series. However there is still a range of themes, mostly played by orchestral instruments. These themes are reserved for big and significant moments in the story as we shall see. CD1 contains music from the first 6 stories of the season and in some ways these are establishing stories, since we are just getting to know the new doctor and her 3 new companions (or "friends").
The first story illustrates the composer's approach to the new Doctor Who music, with plenty of electronic ambience, sometimes with drum beats, instrumental or sound effects layers. Then as important plot points are reached on screen ("Sonic Screwdriver" and "The Doctor") we are introduced to important themes on cello and vocals and later guitar. The 2nd story "The Ghost Monument" reunites The Doctor with the Tardis and we hear the Doctor theme again on horn with guitar and other instruments. We hear the theme again as the 3rd story consolidates the new Tardis crew back on Earth, and this Doctor Theme (or set of related themes) is heard or hinted at in a few later stories too. Among other new material on CD1 there is some funky music in "Kerblam!" and "Help In Dispatch" ends in a nice percussive flourish. Among other things "The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos" consolidates cello and horn as important melodic instruments with vocals also playing an important role.
CD2 builds on the foundation of CD1 with some inventive stories inhabiting their own distinctive sound world. First up we have the "Rosa Parks" story which introduces a distinct bit of Americana with a trumpet melody. It is quite an emotional story and very much demands the acoustic strength of an orchestra, with strings in particular supporting the pad sounds and picking up the trumpet theme. Then "Demons of the Punjab" is set at the time of the Asian partition into India and Pakistan, and Akinola adds an authentic ethnic feel to the music in the shape of a Sarangi (Asian fiddle) and ethnic vocals. Later tracks use tablas to reinforce the beat, but the story's most innovative music comes during the end credits with an ethnic version of the Doctor Who theme itself. Perfect for the story. "The Witchfinders" uses a String Quartet to give a period (yet slightly wacky) feel to "King James", while "It Takes You Away" goes further with a set of 3 cellos. "Resolution" was the New Year Special story which re-introduced the Daleks, and Akinola gives this the necessary punch with full orchestra plus rock band (with drums and guitars).
The new style series may still be finding its feet at this time and the music likewise, but both the story-telling and the music have brought a distinctive new edge to the Series. Akinola in particular has successfully found a way to re-invent the theme music (while still maintaining its links to the Series), and his daring Indian-style arrangement was absolutely perfect for the Punjab story. His use of electronics for the ambient atmospheres also returns the series to its electronic roots, but his instrumental, vocal and orchestral layers sustain the sounds (and more importantly the emotional levels) of the post-2005 Series. His use of ambient sounds is less melodic and less obtrusive than that of his predecessor Murray Gold, yet it seems to fit the current production concept overall and bodes well for the future. Let's see what Series 12 brings!