For long time Doctor Who fans, the debut of a new title sequence and theme music orchestration is as momentous as the debut of a new Doctor. And yet, the season 11 debut, “The Woman Who Felt To Earth” lacked both. Well, you got a sneak peak of the new theme orchestration if you watched the show on a streaming platform, but viewers of BBC America’s debut were denied even that.
This week, however, Doctor Who opened with those very important pieces of mood-setting. While made with cutting edge computer technology, it’s clear where the new production team found inspiration for the new sequence: the original 1963 titles. Realized by shooting a TV monitor displaying the camera’s own output, the feedback loop was startling and unexpected. It was modified in 1967 to include the face of actor Patrick Troughton and changed again in 1970 to include color feedback patterns and new Doctor Jon Pertwee. The 2018 title sequence seems to take most of its inspiration from that 1970 sequence with shapes resembling rounded diamonds appearing on screen before converging into the more familiar vortex as seen in the 1974 titles and every New Series title sequence since its 2005 return. The titles appear to signal a renewed focus on the program’s original format — four travelers in space and time trying to get home — than in subsequent visions of the program.
The music also seems to back up this reading as new series composer Segun Akinola utilized Delia Derbyshire’s orchestration of the melody almost exactly. Previous series composer Murray Gold also used many of the elements Derbyshire devised in his initial orchestraion, removing them as he re-orchestrated the theme piece by piece before ending on the screeching weasel sound of his final theme revision for Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi. Considering how out of place that version of the theme always felt, Akinola’s return to the funky electronic sound of Derbyshire is both a welcome relief and a suggestion that the show is embracing its roots while also looking forward.
And the story itself, entitled “The Ghost Monument” supports a lot of that looking forward. Written by new showrunner Chris Chibnall, it shows off his vision of alien worlds. They are a bit more mysterious than they’ve been in a good while; as illustrated by The Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) lack of knowledge about the place. She and her friends also find themselves in a story nearing its end as relay racers Angstrom (Susan Lynch) and Epzo (Shaun Dooley) draw to the finish line of an extensive, galaxy-sized obstacle course for untold riches and the only escape from a planet of death. It is interesting to note that Chibnall chose to run with the reality of the piece where first New Series showrunner Russel T. Davies might have made it a pastiche of The Amazing Race or previous showrunner Steven Moffat would have made the mystery of the world more cloyingly clever. Instead, Chibnall devotes his time to the new characters, re-establishing a Doctor who is not so sure of herself, and setting up some thematic throughlines for the season.
One of these throughlines, a possible romantic connection between Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Ryan (Tosin Cole), is not nearly as intriguing as the developing relationship between Ryan and Graham (Bradley Walsh). In a Moffat season, Graham’s hope to hear Ryan call him “grandad” would not happen until one or the either neared certain death. That could still happen, but it is possible Chibnall will go for something more hopeful and see the two become real family over the course of the season. Having a genuine family (as opposed to a married couple) traveling with The Doctor is new territory and one worth exploring.
Also worth exploring is Graham’s constant nay-saying of The Doctor. In previous iterations, a more cantankerous Doctor/companion relationship has lead to great moments. But considering the dynamics on display, the show may have to investigate why Graham is always nay-saying her. He may be a progressive bloke who was certainly okay with his wife taking charge, but that may not be true with The Doctor. Alternatively, he could just be scared.
Meanwhile, it was nice to see Ryan’s condition get referenced as the team was forced to climb ladders again. As it seems to be something which can be treated but not cured, it will be interesting to see how the show works with this dynamic. Can Ryan overcome it or will it lead to some sort of tragedy a few episodes down the road?
The emphasis on character — including the guest characters — means the story felt a little unfinished at the end. Epzo never really learned to trust people even if The Doctor convinced him to share the prize with Angstrom and the real resolution of the race occurs offscreen. Perhaps the stories are not as “one-off” as Chibnall said during Comic-Con and we’ll see more of their story later on.
Indeed, “The Ghost Monument” also introduced two curious running ideas. The first runner sees the Stenza — the alien race from last week — responsible for ethnically cleansing Angstrom’s homeworld and press-ganging scientists to create the planet of death. It seems they will be a new A-Class antagonist going forward. And since the New Series wouldn’t be the New Series without exploring some aspect of The Doctor’s past, we get a new term to hold onto: The Timeless Child. Being a fan of the old show, it leads one to hope The Doctor’s granddaughter Susan will appear before too long, but “The Timeless Child” may be another artifact of the Time War. Perhaps it is a cousin to the referenced-but-never-seen Nightmare Child?
Another intriguing possibility: considering The Doctor mentioning her long-gone family, maybe The Timeless Child is one of her own?
In the meantime, we’re happy to continue to enjoy a season of Doctor Who less bound by its fictional past and utilizing elements of its production history for a fresher take. But one element of the show which is not looking back is the new TARDIS console room. Since Chibnall and episode director Mark Tonderai never pulled back far enough to get a sense of its shape and full design, it’s hard to judge how successful it is as a new major set. Personally, the Console Room used by the previous Doctor was so perfect that it seemed a shame to redesign it only for convention’s sake. Additionally, isn’t it odd that the TARDIS guessed the look of The Doctor’s handmade Sonic Screwdriver and replicated the metal-and-crystal aesthetic? All that considered, the exterior’s return to a more Classic Series look (right down to the white-on-dark lettering of the “FOR PUBLIC USE” panel) gives it a lot of old school charm.
And with Doctor, TARDIS, companions — er, friends — theme tune and title sequence all united, we look forward to the new team’s first trip to the past next week.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC America.