10 classic Doctor Who sound designs

The Lists Jeff Szpirglas 3/23/2011 at 8:43AM

With the imminent arrival of the next series of Doctor Who, here’s our top 10 list of classic sound designs from episodes past...

This upcoming season in Doctor Who, we’re likely to learn a little bit more about the mysterious ‘silence’ that’s going to descend upon the Doctor and company. If such a silence does fall, then the universe will be devoid of some of the best sound effects work in TV history.

Here are but a few notables…

The Daleks

The big question really is, where does Tristram Cary’s eerie musique concrete soundtrack end and Brian Hodgson’s groundbreaking effects work begin? One of the first serials also boasts one of the more impressive arrays of sound in the show’s massive run, including the iconic ‘Dalek control room’ cue/effect that’s popped up numerous times in the series, both classic and new.

Low rumbling in the petrified jungle of Skaro suggests a world still poisoned by fallout, if fallout could sing through the trees. And there’s the Dalek City itself, rendered in windswept metallic hues that create the atmosphere of an endless cavernous labyrinth.

Seriously, if you have time to waste (and if you peruse this site as often as you do, it’s quite likely), pop on the first few episodes and try it with your eyes closed. Glorious.

The Mind Robber

“Quiet, Jamie, quiet. That sound. That vibration. It’s alien!” Though the first episode of this serial was written at the eleventh hour, it’s arguably the best part of the whole story, one of the better Troughton adventures that wasn’t junked.

Visually, it anticipates the spacey white void from Warriors’ Gate, also on this list, which suggests that Doctor Who is at its sonic best when dealing with minimalist worlds, perhaps to compensate for the lack of visual effects.

In The Mind Robber, we’re treated to a ‘best of’ Brian Hodgson sound palette, in which the Doctor and company are literally assaulted by a series of noises, each more unusual than the last.

The War Games

While the sounds of WWI-era warfare is appropriately ear-splitting, you’ll have to wade through nine episodes until we get to the good stuff, namely, the arrival of the Time Lords and the Doctor’s ‘home planet’.

The War Games predates the Pertwee-era depiction of the Time Lords as bureaucratic oafs, lampooned wonderfully in Robert Holmes’ The Deadly Assassin. Before becoming a bunch of cosmic sad sacks, the Time Lords first appear as a judicial, emotionless race, and their planet is a series of darkly lit chambers and corridors, possibly influencing Zod’s trial at the beginning of Superman I and II.

Troughton’s impish portrayal of the Doctor, and his subsequent forced regeneration, is all the more wrenching when juxtaposed against these characters and setting. Sound plays a huge role in establishing the somber tone.

The arrival of the Time Lords at the climax of episode nine comes with a deafening funeral organ that literally slows everything down. Once the action shifts to Gallifrey itself (which remains nameless for another few seasons), all we get is a continuous loop of an eerie, reverberant drone that rises and falls in waves. It suggests a great, vast empty space that lies within and beyond the darkened walls.

It’s a shame that Gallifrey later turned out to be full of outdated computer technology and shiny spray painted walls, but that’s the 70s for you.

Inferno

This author has already sung Inferno’s praises in a top ten Doctor Who scores piece (linked below), but Delia Derbyshire’s exotic experiments blur the line between music and sound so flawlessly that it warrants inclusion on the list.

Particularly noteworthy are the incessant drilling sounds that ratchet up the tension in most scenes.

The Claws Of Axos

One of the more entertaining (read: shorter) entries from the Pertwee era, The Claws Of Axos is also Doctor Who at its most psychedelic. There are more than a few parallels between the interior of the Axos ship and a trippy discotheque. The interiors seem inspired by psychotropic substances, there’s the appearance of several good-looking folk in golden spray paint, and various groping appendages that seem to spring from the walls themselves. Plus, both places are full of unusual, throbbing sounds falling somewhere between music and noise, although one suspects there are few nightclubs out there spinning Brian Hodgson records.

Pay particular attention to the first episode, when the Doctor and company first enter the ship and are subjected to an assault of sound and image that could nestle well within a Pink Floyd collection. Extremely groovy.

Terror Of The Zygons

While not as bold as Claws Of Axos, Terror presents a similar storyline. A weird alien ship with far-out interiors is stuck on Earth with really weird inhabitants that can change shape and form at will.

While Axos, with its giant roving eyeball, growing and shrinking frog, and fondling crab-like arms, seems more like a perverse take on the Muppets, Terror Of The Zygons’ goal is to really freak out the kiddies. It provides us with a ship populated by truly bizarre Jim Acheson-designed monsters, creepy lighting that recalls a Dario Argento film, and gurgling noises that sound like the worst indigestion you’ve ever had.

Like the serial itself, the sound design is truly unnerving, save for one element. In the show, it’s the bloody B-movie caliber Skarasen, while the sound is let down by the world’s most annoying alien alarm system.

For the curious, the anniversary video More Than 30 Years In The TARDIS informs us that the sound of a dying Zygon is made with squelching hand cleanser, which will, hopefully, give you readers something else to do with the stuff.

Image Of The Fendahl

Kudos to the powers that be who gave the thumbs up to one of Doctor Who’s creepiest effects: several long, lingering close-ups on the glowing skull, superimposed with the image of a zonked out Wanda Ventham. Coupled with Dick Mills at his most psychedelic, you get something that may even send grown-ups scurrying behind the sofa.

The Stones Of Blood

To be fair, this one only made the list because of the Ogri sound effects, which don’t seem terribly complicated, just a big old rumbling noise. But man alive, does it work!

There are other serials that feature one or two standout sound cues. The auton blaster effects were cool enough to pop up in the new series, and if the Yeti ever show up again, let’s hope we get sounds of mutating cobwebs and signaling silver spheres. Finally, let’s not forget the ‘transmaterialisation’ cue from Survival, which is so awesome it got put onto every classic Doctor Who DVD menu screen.

Warriors’ Gate

Today, it looks a little cheap (heck, it may have looked a little cheap back in 1981). The gateway between universes, taking place literally nowhere, is presented as actors shot against a bluescreen with a white background keyed in. But old Doctor Who was always rescued by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to elevate the material above what the visual effects department could muster up. Once you add in the dreamy music and spacey timewinds noises, you get something truly unique.

Arc Of Infinity

So awesome are the sound effects from this Peter Davison serial that they were integrated into the soundtrack suite as presented on the original The Music album.

Omega gets a whole slew of white noise and soundscape deliciousness to keep him company in his anti-matter universe (which also happened back in The Three Doctors, if memory serves).

As with The Mind Robber, we’re blessed with a variety of fun sounds, most notably what seems to be a lucky foley artist wobbling a big piece of sheet metal to accompany the sound of the Doctor seemingly executed at the end of part two.

Really, it’s all about great gun sounds like the Ergon blaster and Gallifreyan staser. Even that anti-matter doodad that the Doctor chases Omega with blows up real good.

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