Thursday, 29 October 2009

The New Sounds on Skaro

A nice little bundle of Doctor Who records came into Oxfam this week and have now found their way onto the online shop. These included the 1978 BBC sound effects record (vol 19) which collected Radiophonic Workshop atmospheres from two adventures from Jon Pertwee’s final season, Death to the Daleks and Planet of the Spiders, and from various Tom Baker episodes dating from 1974-1978. Just reading the track titles conjures up aural pictures in the mind of the evocative sounds which did so much to create the programme’s atmosphere of strangeness and homely surrealism, and helped the imagination in papering over the cracks of the occasionally (but not always!) ropy sets and effects. Can you really resist the invitation to bathe in ‘Metebelis III atmosphere’, or peer cautiously into ‘Dalek hatching tanks on Skaro’. Keep a safe distance from ‘Styre's Scouting Machine (Approach, Stop, Seach, Depart)’ and the ‘Zygon Spaceship Control Centre’ and make sure you don’t fall into either the ‘Sutekh Time Tunnel’, the ‘Kraal Disorientation Chamber’ or ‘The Mandragora Helix’. You can also compare and contrast the sounds made by a ‘Tesh Gun’, a ‘Gallifreyan Staser Gun’, a ‘Vardan Gun’, a ‘Sontaran Gun’, a ‘Dalek Gun’ and a ‘Dragon Ray-Gun’. Proper Who fans will be identify the sources of all these sounds.

From those antediluvian days before video cassettes, there’s also an LP version of the all-time Who classic, Genesis of the Daleks, which actually works rather well, particularly with Tom Baker’s bridging narrative. Like the 70s LPs of Laurel and Hardy extracts, it reminds you how good a lot of the dialogue was. What a pleasure it would be to drop the needle on Davros’ megalomaniacal monologue, perhaps the definitive mad scientist declaration of intent: ‘To hold in my hand a capsule that contained such power. To know that life and death on such a scale was my choice. To know that the tiny pressure of my thumb, enough to break the glass, would end everything. Yes, I would do it. That power would set me up above the gods. And through the Daleks I shall have that power’.

The 1983 LP of Doctor Who music is bookended by Delia Derbyshire’s peerless version of the theme tune, and Peter Howell’s 1980 reworking, which replaces the original’s murky hiss and swirl with a clean but rather characterless digital sheen. The record tends to focus on the contemporary efforts of the Radiophonic Workshop, which are a bit of a mixed bag. Peter Howell’s haunted ‘Banqueting Music’ from Warrior’s Gate with its synthesised gusts of wind is rather effective, as is some of the courtly futurism of Roger Limb’s music for The Keeper of Traken. The real treasure has been dug up from a decade or so earlier with Malcolm Clarke’s music for The Sea Devil’s. This was wrested from an early EMS synthesiser affectionately referred to as the Delaware, which had a room all to itself. It needed it. The timbres which Clarke produced were harsh and occasionally approached white noise. They were not noticeably melodic, either, unless that was melody as defined by Boulez or Stockhausen. But they were utterly compelling, and gave the serial a uniquely disconcerting and disorienting feel. Who can forget the gradually increasing pitch of the screaming oscillators as the Sea Devils emerge from the waves to attack the naval base? And all this broadcast at Saturday tea time. Avant garde for the kids!

There are a few singles, too, including the obligatory mid-80s charity single which calls for the series to be saved. On then current form, it was a difficult case to back up. More intriguing is a re-release of Jon Pertwee’s 1972 single (originally on green vinyl, no less) ‘Who is the Doctor?’ on which he apparently delivers a narration over the theme tune with characteristically flamboyant aplomb. I imagine the answer is never in any doubt.

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