Whether we were part of it at the time or not, there can be no time travelling back to the innocence of 5.15 p.m. on Saturday the 23rd November 1963, when Delia Derbyshire’s unstable tune cued our wide-eyed wanderlust. It is too much the stuff of the collective cultural memory. Oh to be as surprised as teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jaqueline Hill) as the doors to TARDIS opened on what the Radio Times mysteriously called the ‘Doctor’s strange travels’? To be transported from the mundane surroundings the Doctor (William Hartnell) and Susan (Carole Ann Ford) find themselves in — an ordinary Britain that 1960s television technology makes even more bleak and drab – to the majesty of the imagination.
Watching television in the 1960s was an experience quite unlike that of today, both in terms of the box the nuclear family gathered around, as well as the broadcast conventions. The black and white sets had pretty good reception, if your house was close to a transmitter, but the picture size was small, unfocused and subject to signal interference. You had to sit down early too as the set took a few minutes to ‘warm up’. And you might wait a week for an engineer when the set inevitably broke down. Meanwhile, the visual and narrative style of Doctor Who was necessarily minimal, a result of low budgets and a theatrical paradigm of staging, where cameras tracked in through the ‘fourth wall’ of the audience. Television was really not all that different from radio and hadn’t developed much since the end of the war. Indeed the sound of Doctor Who emerged from a BBC unit initially set up to promote an aural architecture through radio drama. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop came together in 1958 and soon earned a reputation for creating electronic sound effects and music that was so alien the BBC felt it necessary to minimise how long its staff were exposed to it.
The theme tune was part of an overall sound treatment that included incidental music, stock tracks and sound effects, and it is the special sound of Doctor Who that creates an immersive experience, compensating for the poor visuals by constructing an aural architecture for the viewer. Alien planets, weapons and even enemies like the Daleks, are brought to life by their unique electronic sound. The viewer found himself wandering through a sonic landscape that was quite unlike anything heard before, and in striking contrast to the dull black-and-white images on the screen. The effect is rather more similar to reading than television viewing, with the sound stirring the imagination, filling in the gaps.
The theme tune was a perfect marriage with Bernard Lodge’s equally alien title graphics, but by overrunning the titles, also set the atmosphere, jarring against the textureless realism of the opening scenes of An Unearthly Child, paying off the moment Foreman’s gates spring mysteriously open. The music evaporates only when the eerie hum of TARDIS is heard, a sound that turns it from a simple police call box into something full of alien possibilities. The dematerialisation sound, created by engineer Brian Hodgson using his Mum’s front door keys scraped across piano wire, is so successful as an aural signature that it was possible, when budgets were particularly tight, to dispense with the expensive visual effects altogether. Hodgson’s TARDIS sounds create a sonic architecture more convincing than the modernist white cube that signifies the studio as much as it does space ship. These sounds are felt bodily as the television audience finds itself located in the strange world of the Doctor. It’s bigger on the inside, just like television, and just like the fertile imaginations of the young audience.
The biggest sound is for the dematerialisation sequence, the first experience of which seems to go on forever, one that wraps around and transports the listener. Internal politics meant that radiophonic sounds were only regarded as special effects, but even the BBC eventually recognised that TARDIS sounds should be categorised as music. The sonic architecture is so convincing, the last thing you want after two minutes of dematerialisation, is to be violently cast away from TARDIS. But that is exactly what happens. As TARDIS comes to rest, instead of being on the inside with the hum ringing in our ears, we are suddenly outsiders looking at the grimy police box, surrounded by a chilling wind sound, a beautiful audio-natural effect. And it feels exactly like we’ve been abandoned, deserted by one of the most effective sonic sequences in the entire history of the programme.
How to rediscover that intense and eerie awe, to experience it again as if for the first time?
How to get anywhere close?
My anniversary fan-vid is an act of de-remediation, if we take remediation to mean improvement through new technologies, filtering the film through several (handheld) re-screenings, re-imagining the image as the product of analogue 405-line television broadcasting. I have also delayed the image to stretch out those startling moments of dematerialisation, clinging on to this nostalgia while simultaneously erasing the very thing that gave viewers sensory lift off: the sonic architecture. This I have replaced it with a new soundtrack, surely the most wanton act of vandalism. These film tricks are available to anyone happy enough to download free software and fritter away a few hours. Indeed, each spectator is already engaged with the filmic text in assembling and reassembling it, in delaying images and disturbing the sense of what it means to respond to those images, to zero the volume and replace one sound with another. It is surely exactly that agency which underlines the difference between us and those children who, in 1963, wouldn’t dream of such an intervention.
Oh, but how they dreamed.
Happy anniversary everyone,
Dene October (co-editor)