Doctor Who: 50 Years of Main Title Design

doctor who credits

Answers are easy. It's asking the right questions which is hard. —The Doctor
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Writer Marcus Bernard from TVARK , the authoritative website on television presentation and graphics, discusses the history of the Doctor Who opening titles.

Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi fantasy series in the world. It was created at the BBC in 1963 by Canadian film and television producer Sydney Newman and writer and producer Donald Wilson. and launched by producer Verity Lambert. who was then 27 years old. Her team, under Director Waris Hussein, recorded the first episode, “An Unearthly Child”, by Anthony Coburn, first as a pilot in September 1963 and then again a few weeks later, for the launch transmission on 23rd November. Viewers were introduced to a mysterious elderly scientist, known only as the Doctor, who travels through time and space in a ship known as the TARDIS. He eventually turns out to be a benevolent alien from Gallifrey, the planet of the Time Lords, with the ability to transform or 'regenerate' his appearance 12 times.

Over forty years, the Doctor has been played by ten different actors on TV, with others on film, stage, radio and audio media. The TV series was quickly identified with a startling theme tune, composed by Ron Grainer – who also wrote the music for Steptoe and Son. Tales of the Unexpected and Man In A Suitcase (AKA TFI Friday ) – and a spine-tingling title sequence, of which a complete history follows below.

Doctor Who (1963)

The pilot title sequence was created by Bernard Lodge. who filmed and manipulated the "howlaround" feedback of a TV camera pointing at its own monitor. A column of light rises before ripping and swirling, as if to suggest a journey through time. Delia Derbyshire's extraordinary original arrangement of the famous Ron Grainer theme music* accompanies this footage, in its day the most alien-sounding piece of music ever recorded and still prone to sending a shiver up the spine.

*For more information on the theme: “A History of the Doctor Who Theme ”

In the pilot, William Hartnell's Doctor was distant and almost callous. Newman called for the episode to be remounted, with the star's performance toned down for the recording of what became Doctor Who – Episode One, first shown on BBC TV on November 23rd, 1963.

The opportunity was taken to tweak the title music too, removing the scary extra-terrestrial sound effects, but the filmed graphics stayed the same. This title sequence and music were retained well beyond Hartnell's departure in 1966.

Doctor Who (1967)

Patrick Troughton made his debut as The Doctor on November 5th, 1966, but the decision to refresh the titles and add his face was not taken until March

1967, when the series logo was reset. Delia Derbyshire tweaked her music by mixing in some spooky "spangle" sound effects over the opening bars. Both clips date from episodes in Troughton's final series: “The Krotons”, as repeated on BBC2 in November 1981, and “The Mind Robber”, shown again in 1992.

Doctor Who (1970)

Series 7 was the first to be made in colour. Jon Pertwee's face replaced Troughton's in the titles, re-designed via "howlaround" with red and green swirling flames and climaxing with another new logo design. Delia Derbyshire's theme arrangement was given a third new edit, retaining the spangles but shortening the opening bars and, for series 7-9 adding a "stutter start". Closing music changed too, standardised at 52" and 1'12", starting with the now-famous radiophonic scream.

*For other examples of the use of slit-scan technology, see the "star child" sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the "stretching" of the starship Enterprise-D when it engaged warp drive in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994).

Inspired by the stunning hyperspace sequence climaxing Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bernard Lodge re-designed the Doctor Who titles again in 1973. For series 11, "howlaround" was dropped in favour of a technique known as "slit-scan", in which multiple exposures of light refracting in plastic were filmed through slots in black card on a rostrum animation stand.* Lodge also re-designed the series logo as a diamond.

By 1974, with Tom Baker assuming the title role, graphics designer Bernard Lodge hit his stride with arguably the best title sequence in the series' history. He applied the slit-scan technique to images of the TARDIS and a morose-looking Baker, thereby evoking the most sensational time tunnel effects. Possibly the scariest bit is when the diamond logo dissolves out of the time tunnel, accompanied by a loud hiss of gas rushing right 'atcha!

An experimental colour change with brown and orange filters in 1975 was transmitted on episode one of Baker's second story, “The Ark in Space,” but deemed unsuccessful. The original version of this sequence was retained from series 12 right up to series 17 in 1979; the only change made was a variation in the font used to spell out the story names and writers' credits.

Doctor Who (1980)

John Nathan Turner produced from series 18. He considered Lodge's work to look like a journey through a vacuum cleaner tube, and felt that the image of Tom Baker was now too young to match the actor as he looked in 1980. So graphics designer Sid Sutton was obliged to take us splendidly into space rather than time, while Peter Howell gave Ron Grainer's theme its only decent re-arrangement of the 1980s. The added whooshes and sonic booms make it all so thrilling!

Doctor Who (1982)


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