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Soundtrack Review

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Doctor Who
The Five Doctors
Original Television Soundtrack


Composer: Peter Howell
Label: Silva Screen Records
RRP: £10.99
SILCD1553 (CD), SILED1553 (download)
Release Date: 14 September 2018

Made and transmitted as a 90-minute special in 1983, The Five Doctors was the 20th-anniversary outing for the Time Lord, seeing the incumbent Peter Davison joined by his previous incarnations. The music was composed by Peter Howell at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It was, in accordance with normal practice at the time, mixed in mono, so is presented here within a subtle mono-compatible stereo image. In 1995, Paul Vanezis was contracted by BBC Video to produce a ‘Special Edition’ of the story, extended beyond the original running time and featuring updated visual effects. It was also decided to mix the soundtrack in Dolby Surround (later updated to full 5.1 surround for DVD), so Howell was called in to rework the music. Both versions of the score are presented complete on this release…

It had been a long time since I last watched The Five Doctors, possibly as much as two decades. In the years immediately following its 1983 transmission, I viewed my off-air VHS recording of the original 90-minute version countless times. So many times, in fact, that I was afraid I’d worn it out – not the tape, but my own viewing pleasure, since by this point I knew much of the dialogue and music off by heart. Great chunks of my past, as the Fifth Doctor himself put it. Therefore, it’s hard for me to be entirely objective about this soundtrack, because of all the nostalgic recollections it conjures up. A man is the sum of his memories, you know, a reviewer even more so.

For years (since 1985), the only commercial soundtrack release from this story was a medley running to just under nine minutes on the collection Doctor Who: The Music II, which I played even more frequently than my recording of the episode itself. As a result, I still half expect Track 3, “The Eye of Orion”, to segue into Track 18, “Cybermen II”. It’s akin to the sense of “Whoa, that can’t be right” that I get when watching the Special Edition (on which, more later). However, I’m gradually getting used to having the whole score!

There’s a lot of Cybermen music here. Back in 1983, I was disappointed that the score didn’t make use of Malcolm Clarke’s memorable theme from Earthshock, not recognising the fact that Peter Howell needed to create his own composition, something that didn’t heavily plagiarise the work of others and that tied in with the story’s soundscape as a whole. Appreciated in its own right, Howell’s Cyber-music works very well, conveying a dual sense of the military and the mechanical. Introductory tracks “Hand in the Wall” and “Cybermen I” have a similar tempo to Clarke’s march, but the pace picks up with “Cybermen II” – and is there just a hint of the ‘computer’ sound from the end credits of The Tenth Planet in that track? Higher notes break in during “Cybermen vs Raston Robot” and “As Easy as Pi”, signifying distress from the massacred Cyber-troops.

Howell might not have referenced Malcolm Clarke’s music, but he tips his hat on several occasions to Ron Grainer’s signature tune. This is perhaps not surprising, given that this adventure concerns multiple incarnations of the Doctor, but such a practice was quite rare in Who at the time. Snippets of the main theme are heard as various Doctors are taken out of time in “Cosmic Angst”, “Great Balls of Fire” and “No Where No Time”, when the First Doctor enters the Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS in “Who Are You?” and when four Doctors join forces against the villain in “Mindlock”. The snippet in “No Where No Time” mimics the sting at the start of Howell’s own arrangement, though this was subsequently removed for the Special Edition (on which, as I promised, more later).

A ticking sound punctuates these and other tracks, indicating that someone is meddling with time for their own evil ends. Sounds like snapping jaws and the rattle of a deadly snake are suggested whenever the trap that is the Time Scoop captures another of its victims, while synthesised slicing blades signal other dangers, such as an approaching Dalek in “Dalek Alley and the Death Zone”, or the Cybermen priming their bomb in “Above and Between”. The synthesised pipe organ of “The Tomb of Rassilon” and “Immortality” conveys the majesty of the cathedral-like space and its deathless occupant, while also reminding us of the grandiose pomp and ceremony of The Deadly Assassin, the serial that established much of the now familiar iconography of Gallifrey.

For the end credits, which segue from an old-style arrangement of the main theme into Howell’s own, the musician did not, as is widely believed, use a section of Delia Derbyshire’s original 1963 rendition. Instead, he painstakingly reconstructed it so that both pieces were in the same key (F# minor). Listening to this now, I am slightly annoyed that Howell seems to have made the opening section deliberately weak, distorted and lo-fi, so that his own version sounds all the more impressive when it fades in during the middle eight. I didn’t notice this at the time, because before the advent of the Doctor Who Restoration Team in the 1990s, we were all used to the poor sound quality of 1960s film recordings.

Most of the sound effects for The Five Doctors were created by Dick Mills, but Howell was keen to include the atmosphere of the Death Zone as part of his score. Therefore, with Mills busy working on a prior project, the musician created “Death Zone Atmosphere” himself. This can be heard immediately after the music from the 90-minute version of the story. Effects by Mills are presented at the very end of the CD. Only those created for The Five Doctors are included, like “Time Scoop” and “Transmat Operates”, so you won’t hear any pre-existing effects, such as Cyber-guns. The ethereal “Rassilon Background” reminds me somewhat of Tristram Cary’s Dalek atmospheres.

The feature-length adventure was also edited into four 25-minute episodes for foreign sales and a UK repeat, for which Howell provided additional cues to help beef up the rather underwhelming ‘cliffhangers’. These are included just prior to the Special Edition music. The endings to Parts Two and Three build upon existing cues from those points in the narrative, while “End of Episode 1 (Sarah Falls)” is a variation on the rockfall from the beginning of “Where There’s a Wind There’s a Way”.

The 1995 Special Edition added about ten minutes of footage to the 1983 original – much of it superfluous or actually harmful to the pacing, in my opinion. In order to accommodate the new material and several changes of scene order as well as convert the soundtrack to surround sound, Howell reworked his score. Rather like watching the Special Edition when you’re very, very familiar with the original, listening to this part of the soundtrack can be a disconcerting experience. Things don’t play out in quite the way you expect them to or how you think they should. One of the better innovations is the addition of a tune based upon the Gallifreyan nursery rhyme sung by the Second Doctor, which can be heard during “The Dark Tower (Special Edition)” and “Below (Special Edition)”. Other tracks lend more of a sense of menace, via the substitution of Roger Limb style low notes (as in “No Where No Time (Special Edition)” and “The Tomb of Rassilon (Special Edition)”) or the addition of ghostly, whispering voices to the corridors of the Dark Tower (as in “The Five Doctors Special Edition: Prologue” and “I Hope You’ve Got Your Sums Right / Phantoms (Special Edition)”).

It’s a soundtrack of two halves, then – but whichever half I listen to, I can’t help chipping in with bits of dialogue at certain places, whether it be the Master’s ruminative “These thunderbolts are everywhere” during “My Best Enemy”, the Fifth Doctor’s cocky “Sorry, must dash” at the end of “Cybermen II”, or the eerie cry of “Sto-o-o-o-o-op hi-i-i-i-i-im” from the illusory Liz Shaw in “Phantoms”.

Listening to this thrilling score prompted me to dig out my DVD copy of The Five Doctors and experience the exciting escapade all over again.

Why not? After all, that’s how it all started.


Richard McGinlay

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