Doctor Who and the Pop Charts Or How to Get a Number One the Criminally Easy Way
Science Fiction has always had a bit of a weird relationship to music. From the weird disco remixes of the Star Wars theme, to falling in love with a Starship Trooper to Mr. Spock singing about Bilbo Baggins: the bravest little hobbit of them all, the connection has always been there. It’s easy to see why, given the pop culture appeal of sci-fi and it’s ability to convey a sense of wonder mixed with the very immediate emotive sensibility of pop music, it seems to be a perfect match.
Why then, is it always so kitsch?
Cheese is so rampant with the space age love song (except, interestingly enough, for the Flock of Seagulls song of the same name) that it is almost ubiquitous, and nowhere is this more apparent than with Doctor Who. You see, the merry old Gallifreyan has had more than a few trips to the tin pan alley, each one more than a little bit quirky, offbeat, and almost intentionally dreadful. Allow me, if you will, to take you on a voyage through nearly fifty years of time and a vast aural space in order to show you some of the more notable forays.
Interestingly enough, music based on Doctor Who came out as early as December 1964, barely a full year after the show’s launch in 1963. The reason? Those crazy yet inspired saltshakers of death, the Daleks. Yes, in the early years of the show, the Doctor’s biggest adversary were actually the stars of the show, spawning such a massive and successful fad that it has since been dubbed “Dalekmania”, and spawned a massive welter of Dalek-specific merchandise, including an array of different records that for the sake of brevity I will discuss as a group.
The first of these was “I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas With A Dalek”, a novelty ditty released by one record wonder The Go-Gos. This happened a lot in the early part of the 1960s, given that pop music as we know it was barely a decade old and with high costs of printing they was a lucrative market in finding the next fad to sell a ton of records. The Go-Gos thus tried to turn our favourite little genocidal race into a staccato version of the ever-popular Chipmunks, with that one famous cry of “EX-TER-MIN-ATE!” replaced with “PASS! THE! PLUM! PUD-DING!” and other seasonal japes. I don’t know about you, but I could have lived a happy, fruitful life without hearing a Dalek say “I! LOVE! YOU!” in a way that makes me long for the dulcet soothing tones of Hannibal Lectar.
1965 brought the unsuspecting world Roberta Tovey’s “Who’s Dr. Who”, a song that manages to combine the sickening saccharine of “There’s No One Quite like Grandma” with the cheesiness of “Christmas with a Dalek”. Resist those urges to throw up and there is a lot worse to suffer, especially on this list, even if you have to suffer the oldest knock knock joke in the world in the process.
In 1968 we get the first crossing of the streams between a member of the Doctor Who cast and the world of pop, as everyone’s favourite fake Scotsman Frazer Hines. Here, he’s traded the kilt for that one pose every single teen heartthrob used in the late 60s and his highland brogue for not even trying to sing. It is a toss up between Hines and John Travolta for the competitive “worst teen heartthrob singer” award. Behind them sounds like a Cream tribute band trying way too hard to make a three chord bop-along pop song sound like Jimi Hendrix, with guitars all wailing and flailing behind what is otherwise a rather sedate ballad.
But all this Dalekmania pop rock was just a warm up to the main event: Jon Pertwee going all Shatner on the world! “Who is the Doctor?”, released in 1972 in the wake of the infamous work of art The Transformed Man, is Pertwee trying his hand at that very odd, literally off beat spoken work poetry that ol’ Captain Kirk so hilariously excelled at. To Pertwee’s credit, he is a much better poet, and has a gravitas which elevates even the silliest lyrics. And the song isn’t bad, with a good, rockier take on the familiar theme. All the components were there, it was just that they fit together about as well as a Sontaran head on a poor extra’s body.
By the turn of the 80s, Doctor Who had transformed from a brief fad to a great institution, with a huge sphere of influence, and it showed in the breadth of music inspired by the good Doctor. First off there was the début of underground punk act Art Attacks, “I Am a Dalek”. Unlike a lot of the music talked about here, it is actually a really good bit of first wave of punk, with an unrelenting guitar and a catchy chorus to boot.
Then there was a cover of the Doctor Who theme by non other than the late Frank Sidebottom, as part of his Sci-Fi Medley. Intermixed with his oh so very northern takes on so many other Sci Fi shows of the era… and Bill and Ben.
Another oddity, released as the B-Side to the re-release of Jon Pertwee’s “Who is the Doctor?” was a song by the somewhat obscure 80’s new wave band Blood Doner, entitled simply “Doctor…?”. It’s a rather oddly apocalyptic tune, about man’s destruction of the world up until the moment “Doctor Who” comes from the sky and saves the day. It’s genuinely worth looking into, with an infectious beat and that odd pseudorobotic vocal style that was all the rage in 1982.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and that end came with the first hiatus for the series. Colin Baker was the one in the TARDIS and Michael Grade had what can be charitably described as a distinct dislike for the show. To fight the very real risk of cancellation, Record Shack, allegedly after being begged by a number of Doctor Who insiders (Apparently, then-showrunner John Nathan Turner was really into the idea) created what was being hyped as a “Live Aid to support the Doctor” event. They apparently tried to get The Village People, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Elton John involved. Sadly when it all came together they had a member of Bucks Fizz, half of the 80s Moody Blues and the drummer from Ultravox along with a bunch of c-listers, has-beens and never-weres to join The Doctor, The Master, the Brigadier and The Peri for what can only be described as an unforgettable experience. Tragedy really.
The song was awful, and Colin Baker claimed it was his single greatest regret professionally. It is a rarity in music in that it’s hard to quite figure out which bit of it is worse, whether it is the appalling (and Hans Zimmer composed) music, the fact that not one person could sing on the record including the professional singers, or the lyrics that simply transcended the limits of terrible camp cash-in lyrics. To those brave but foolish souls who think I am exaggerating the point, I will provide for you the last two lines of the final verse, verbatim, and you tell me that they follow any measure of rhyme scheme, tempo, good taste, knowledge of the show or even being nice words to listen to:
There was the brigadier, and a Master (Ha Ha Ha Ha!), And a K-9 Computer.
Each Screaming girl just hoped that a yeti wouldn’t shoot her!
It was a laughing stock and apparently sales were so poor (under one thousand) that they burned the great numbers of unsold records to save face. The BBC refused to play it on the grounds of being so poorly produced. The original plan was for all the proceeds to go to a kind of rescue fund for Doctor Who, but given the great success of Live Aid the only sort-of joking premise was dropped and the money was to go to Cancer Relief. This all was a moot point because it didn’t make any money at all. There is a happy ending in all of this though; Michael Grade did in the end grant the show another series after an 18 month hiatus, presumably to avoid the threat of another terrible Doctor Who pop song being made.
Yes, there was one more major Doctor Who song, one that literally wrote the book on cheap crap. The year is 1988, the Perestroika Initiative of structural reform in the Soviet Union enters its full swing, Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley wins a Brit Award and proves they were always rubbish and Doctor Who is very slowly getting very dark indeed, despite his battles with Bertie Bassett. Amidst all these world-shaping events was the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, a very post-modern pop-art inspired acid-house group famous as much for how many lawsuits were taken against them as their music. People didn’t know what to make of them and that was probably a good thing, as they could do absolutely crazy stuff and still get top-ten records. Their modus-operandi was to heavily sample and patch together songs in such a way that it completely undermined the original song, as well as including pop-rock production values and synthesised crowd noise into their songs, becoming the poppy alternative for those acid dropping ravers who wanted something just a little bit safer.
This particular song came as the result of an attempt to make a Doctor Who themed song, that ended up somehow having a “Glitter Beat” (which isn’t what most people want to do to the man now, but instead a beat that you can emulate by stomping on the ground). The KLF, showing the kind of “in for a penny” mentality that led to their more famous publicity stunts, went all out, mashing it with glam rock standards, renamed themselves the Timelords and claimed their car wrote the song.
The result is every bit as kitsch, dodgy and barely listenable as you can imagine, with the Daleks apparently now known for emulating Harry Enfield’s dated Loadsamoney character and chant-singing “DOCTOR WHO! THE TARDIS” to the tune of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part II. Even before Glitter was a personae non grata and the stock market crashed it was an abomination. So naturally it shot straight to the top of the charts and sold a million copies. This success spawned some interesting legacies, such as the book about the creative process known as The Manual (How to Get a Number One the Easy Way) and a later film that showed them taking the money they earned from Doctorin’ and burning it. In a field. For art’s sake.
There were a few lesser known gems in the 1990s, such as the cult yet basically unfindable “Theme From Absalom Daak, Dalek Killer” but the legacy of pop’s relationship with Doctor Who ended when Doctorin’ fell from the charts after one week. This might have less to do with the cultural power of Doctor Who, which came back bigger than ever in 2005, but with the state of pop music in general, taking itself too deeply seriously to do a silly song about a man in a blue police box. Perhaps it is the loss of cultural power in the pop charts themselves, which are no longer the determiner of taste, decency, fashion and the music we listen to anymore, so all the tributes to the good Doctor that would be in the charts and on CD are now on Youtube for the world to see for free.
We may never know, but what we do know is that we will likely never see a song as tremendously awful as Doctor in Distress ever again.
I can only hope.