How Doctor Who's Use of Pop Music Echoes Through the Decades

The long-running sci-fi show's changing relationship with its songs over the years showcases its greater evolution.

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Oct 17 2017, 3:00pm

Doctor Who conjures up all kinds of images in people's minds, but seeing the Doctor shred an electric guitar isn't usually one of them. Yet in 2015, on the British sci-fi show's episode "The Magician's Apprentice," the time-traveling, perpetually reincarnated Doctor—played by Peter Capaldi—tore through a cover of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" while wielding a Yamaha SGV800. Or maybe, considering the volume and attack, it was a cover of Van Halen's cover of the song. In any case, Capaldi himself played the guitar in the scene, which isn't much of a surprise, considering his history as the frontman of the obscure 80s post-punk band Dreamboys (which also featured future comedian Craig Ferguson on drums). "I was really delighted to open the script and find the Doctor playing guitar," Capaldi later remarked. "I think I'd sort of half mentioned it in joking, but I was really delighted that these guys went for it as an idea." Still, upon first viewing, the scene was a bit jarring. Doctor Who has traditionally never been known for its sympathy toward popular music.

Music has been as essential to Doctor Who as it has to any other television show, but the vast majority of the program's soundtrack has been classical or electronic in nature. The synthesizer innovation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 60s gave birth to the show's legendary, eerie theme music, and the work of composers past and present, from Bela Bartok to Murray Gold, have been used to score the show. But it wasn't until 1965 that pop music made any kind of appearance in Doctor Who, when a clip of The Beatles performing "Ticket to Ride" was used in the episode "The Chase." It was being used to sardonic effect; the character of Vicki, a visitor from the 25th century, considers the Fab Four to be classical music.

The Beatles' "Paperback Writer" pours out of a jukebox in the 1967 episode "The Evil of the Daleks," but it isn't until the dawn of the 70s that Doctor Who starts to truly acknowledge the existence of rock 'n' roll. In the 1970 episode "Spearhead from Space," Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" soundtracks a particularly bizarre scene set in a doll factory. "Spearhead from Space" was a revolutionary installment of the series in many ways: It was the first to feature the popular Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, and it also was the first Doctor Who episode broadcast in color. The fact that Fleetwood Mac's electrified blues-rock was part of the sonic background greatly added to the impression that, in 1970, Doctor Who was taking a bold step into the future—or at least the present.

Progressive rock was also peaking in popularity in the early 70s, and the music of prog groups such as King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer began appearing in Doctor Who. The former's song "The Devil's Triangle" was used in the 1971 episode "The Mind's Eye," and the latter's song "Tank" was used in the episode "Colony in Space," both from 1971. Many young musicians of the time had grown up on Doctor Who, and it's hard not hear the Radiophonic Workshop's influence on early 70s prog bands, particularly keyboard-driven ones like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Pertwee, for his part, looked like he could've been a member of a prog band; his portrayal of the Doctor favored ruffled shirts, extravagant capes, and other such frippery that were in vogue onstage at prog concerts.

Doctor Who and rock culture seemed like they were forging a lasting bond during Pertwee's term, but that synergy wound up being short-lived. During the reigns of the Fourth and Fifth Doctors, from 1974 to 1984, contemporary popular music disappeared from the show, replaced with the likes of Debussy and Irving Berlin. For a program with so many futuristic elements, the music choices were extremely old-fashioned—although the cost of licensing rock songs was surely prohibitive for the show's notoriously tight-budgeted productions. It wasn't until the Sixth Doctor, the youthful-looking Colin Baker, that rock returned to Doctor Who. In the 1985 episode "Revelation of the Daleks," an intergalactic DJ—played by Alexei Sayle of The Young Ones—spins everything from "Fire" by Jimi Hendrix to "Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum. But even these songs from the 60s were certified oldies by 1985.

Nostalgia for the 60s continued in 1988, when the episode "Remembrance of the Daleks" actually took place in 1963, the year Doctor Who debuted in real life. Accordingly, the show returned to The Beatles, whose recordings of "Do You Want to Know a Secret" and "A Taste of Honey" were used to help establish the bygone setting. Ironically, the most cutting edge of bands circa 1988, the electronic group The KLF, released a novelty single in 1988 called "Doctorin' the Tardis," in which Gary Glitter's sports arena anthem "Rock and Roll (Part Two)" formed the basis of a tribute to the Doctor and his famous, blue, spacetime-traversing telephone box. It became a hit in England, showing that although Doctor Who was averse to using contemporary music, contemporary music wasn't averse to using Doctor Who.

Doctor Who ceased broadcast soon after, in 1989, after a staggering 26-year run. A failed effort to revive the franchise appeared in 1996, when a made-for-TV feature film titled Doctor Who was released. With the 21st century just around the corner, it would have been the perfect opportunity to infuse some modernity into the Doctor's soundtrack; instead, the closest the movie came to acknowledging the 90s, at least musically, was by including a cheesy hard-rock song titled "Into the Moonlight," performed by a group called Loud & Clear who were never heard from again.

A lot of things changed between 1996 and the revamp of Doctor Who in 2005. For one, television shows began using more classic and contemporary pop music than ever before. That said, few Whovians were prepared to hear Britney Spears in "The End of the World," the second episode of the rebooted series. With Christopher Eccleston as the intense, brooding Ninth Doctor, the show clearly aimed to reinvent itself for the fresh millennium—and it did so by having Spears' "Toxic" play on a jukebox to citizens of the future, who regard it as classical music in much the same way Vicki did The Beatles way back in 1965's "The Chase." If it wasn't a deliberate callback, it was an incredible coincidence. Either way, it instantly established the new Doctor Who as a show that was willing to celebrate its legacy while forging a new direction forward.

That's not to say Doctor Who has avoided old music. Showrunners Russell T Davies, and subsequently Steven Moffat, have deployed classics like David Bowie's "Starman," Elton John's "Daniel," Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," The Specials' "Ghost Town," Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," and no less than three Electric Light Orchestra songs to whimsical effect in the 2006 episode "Love & Monsters." But Russell and Davies have also kept the soundtrack refreshingly current, with The Streets' "Don't Mug Yourself," Scissor Sisters' "I Can't Decide," Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," and Muse's "The Rebel Flesh" among the songs used in the show. As with Doctor Who's use of prog in the early 70s, some of these contemporary acts used sci-fi ideas or imagery—including Muse, whose 2009 hit "Uprising," although never featured on Doctor Who, bears an unmistakable resemblance to the show's indelible opening music.

Doctor Who's use of pop and rock over the past decade is a small but vital way the show has embraced pop culture at large, part of the franchise's overall effort to break out of the cult-status doldrums it once inhabited, where late-night reruns on PBS were often the only way to watch the show in America. The reach of BBC America on cable not only gave Doctor Who a need for universal appeal, it also granted the show the increased budget to license more popular songs. But the use of Britney Spears or Joy Division has done more than catch viewers' ears; it's helped to ground the show in our world, adding dimension and context.

Moffat will wrap up his Doctor Who tenure with this year's Christmas special in December—the same episode that will mark Capaldi's departure, making way for the first female actor to play the Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. It's not yet clear what direction incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall will take. "The amazing thing about Doctor Who is that you can go anywhere and do anything," he said in a recent interview. Here's hoping he realizes that means musically, too—and that Doctor Who thrives when its not afraid to shred a little.

Jason Heller is on Twitter.