What You Didn't Know About the Doctor Who Theme

Take a look at this chick. She looks like she should be dancing at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go or chasing after the Beatles down a London street, doesn't she? Her name was Delia Derbyshire, and damned if that doesn't make her sound like a Bond girl. In reality, Derbyshire was the mastermind behind one of the eeriest and most memorable television theme songs of all time: the Doctor Who theme!

In the 60s, Derbyshire worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which was essentially the sound effects department of the BBC. She was fascinated with music and the mechanics of sound, and had previously tried to get a job at Decca Records only to be told that women weren't allowed in the recording studios (Decca was also the record company that turned down the Beatles; talk about a company that couldn't recognize talent.) Derbyshire didn't actually compose the theme (that was done by a man named Ron Grainer) but she was responsible for setting his notes to music. The story gets even more intriguing when you realize how this was actually accomplished in a period before commercial synthesizers were readily available. It was a complicated process at the time which involved a lot of cutting, splicing, speeding up and slowing down fragments of analogue tape. Honestly, I read about what Derbyshire did on this Wikipedia page and couldn't make heads or tails of it. Let's just say she was extremely clever. When Grainer heard the finished product for the first time his astounded response was, "Did I write that?" to which Derbyshire responded, "Most of it." 

The sad part of the story is that Derbyshire didn't receive official credit for her work. Grainer tried unsuccessfully to have Derbyshire listed as a co-composer and allow her to receive part of the royalties, but the Radiophonic Workshop was considered a secret bureau of the BBC and they wouldn't allow it! 

Every time the show came on PBS while I was a child, the theme gave me the chills. I was not the only one--apparently the BBC received complaints from at least one parent who said their son was terrified of the opening music. And yet, it's also strangely hypnotic. I can't think of a more appropriate, freaky TV theme for a sci-fi show!

Doctor Who debuted on British television in the UK in 1963 and it's still alive and well today which makes it the longest running TV series in Great Britain. Each time the actor playing the doctor was written retired via "regeneration" the show's titles would change and the theme would get a slight makeover as well. Reportedly Derbyshire was mortified that anyone would tinker with her creation; the original theme that ran for the first few years is the only one she approved of. The video below shows how the theme and opening credits have changed throughout the decades and it's interesting to see the variations that kept up with the times and how computer special effects have advanced as well. I was never a big Doctor Who fan, but I prefer the cheesier 70s effects, sets and costumes from my childhood. I think the original black and white opener is also the freakiest and the best. 

Derbyshire was truly a pioneer of electronic music and would go on to have a lucrative career experimenting with music and producing scores for the theater and movie soundtracks (you can look up her work on YouTube) but the Doctor Who theme will always be her most famous piece. She deserves our kudos. Thanks, Delia, for freaking me out as a kid!


  1. I love your find. Thanks for digging this up and welcome back.

  2. I never knew this. Great story. Keep 'em coming.

  3. Thanks, Desiree, JZ and 42N! I forgot to thank a few folks on the last post who had wished me well and said they would miss the blog updates so thank you to all for the kind messages. I was only away from Go Retro for about 10 days...but that's all I needed to get the creative juices flowing again.

  4. I think you're absolutely right. The black and white original is definitely the most chilling and brilliant. Gives me tingles.

    Oh and great site by the way! Love it!

  5. A most excellent article. I'm no fan of Dr. Who but I've always loved the hell out of that theme. I don't like the orchestral angle that it starts to take in the 80s... makes it sound like something that should be associated with a Star Trek.

  6. Thanks, renzastar and kakupacal! I agree, the later versions of the theme are way too theatrical...I prefer Derbyshire's original.

  7. Good to see you back Pam and a very interesting post.That was indeed a very cool theme,and being a fan back in the day of electronic music it struck a chord with me!(Bad pun intended.)

  8. Thank you Doug, it's good to be back!

  9. Hello, Pam -

    My brother has been a big Doctor Who fan since the late 70s. I did enjoy watching it with him when we were kids and even do so nowadays. He's getting the latest dvd of it in the mail soon. I am always ashamed to admit that I'm a bit of a fan though. It's less cheesy these days but some of the storylines are weird.

    This was certainly a very fascinating and educational post about this theme which I have always thought is pretty cool.

    I have alot of catching up to do with your posts which I'm looking forward to doing. I hope that you have been doing well and it's good to see that you are back in the blog world too.

    Take care


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