As much as the lead character has changed over the years, so has the sound of Doctor Who. In the 1960s, there was a mix of conventional-type compositions with the more abstract musique concrète, inspired by the likes of French musicians Les Structures Sonores.
The 1970s saw the occasional dabbling into electronica, but mostly the show saw the closest it had ever been to a house composer, in the shape of ‘Deadly’ Dudley Simpson, with a total of over 300 episodes and 62 stories scored by him. As the 1980s dawned, a new broom swept clean, as a change of producer led to a change of musical stylings, with Simpson being told that his services would no longer be required on the programme.
Simpson was replaced for the first half of the decade by the musicians of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who were at long last given more to do than just crafting special sounds to be used on the show. After an 18-month hiatus, upon the series’ return it was the Radiophonic Workshop’s turn to be superseded, as a small cadre of independent composers were now brought in, making the utmost of the latest advances in synthesisers and sampling.
After the show was revived in 2005, having been ‘rested’ by the BBC in 1989, showrunner Russell T. Davies employed the services of composer Murray Gold, who was to score the series until his departure after the tenth series in 2017. His time on Doctor Who saw a grander, orchestral, cinematic-type sound, the style and volume of which was mercilessly lampooned in a Dead Ringers skit, where characters were seen complaining about their speech being drowned out by the music.
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Every composer who has worked on Who – no matter how briefly – has left their own musical footprint on the show, and with the arrival of Chris Chibnall as showrunner, it was to be the turn of Segun Akinola, who has scored every Jodie Whittaker episode, including 2021’s self-contained mini-series, Doctor Who: Flux. Over the years, many of the show’s soundtracks have been put out by Silva Screen Records, who have now released Akinola’s score for Flux.
A contrast is notable between previous composer Gold and incumbent Akinola, as the former’s loud, strident bombast with many catchy and memorable character themes were a strong part of the rejuvenated programme’s identity. With Akinola, his work tends to be far more understated, which seems to unintentionally fit with the show’s less prominent public profile in recent years, along with a somewhat more muted critical reception than it has been used to.
However, this is not to suggest that Akinola’s style is worse than – or inferior to – Gold’s output, just that his style is a different one, being far more restrained and much less ‘in-your-face’ than that of his predecessor. As you can hear in Akinola’s compositions for Flux, they fit the definition of ‘incidental music’, his work sitting underneath the action, unobtrusively present and helping build the overall mood, rather than Gold’s usual brassy and loud modus operandi of at times pummelling you into telling you precisely how you should feel.
Without wishing to sound belittling of Akinola’s work on the series – including Flux – his compositions are akin to audio wallpaper at times, in the nicest possible way, by building up soundscapes, and never letting music try to ride roughshod over the action. However, Akinola draws from quite a broad palette of styles, and he has his moments of big orchestral swells, but they never feel overpowering. A downside of this approach, perhaps, is that listening as standalone pieces of music, they never identify quite strongly enough with any particular scenes or moments from the story.
This is not to say that Akinola’s score for Flux is in any way lacking, as his use of synthesisers helps to evoke a mood or feel, almost creating subtle tone poems, which would aid in gently creating an atmosphere, sometimes perhaps almost imperceptibly, as part of the creative team’s overall bag of tricks. In fact, bits of the score could be described as being almost hauntological, akin to something at times like The Night Monitor’s album Spacemen Mystery Of The Terror Triangle, which delves into the uncanny and unsettling for its listener.
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A good example of this is the careful use of a stripped-down version of Akinola’s take on Ron Grainer and the Radiophonic Workshop’s Doctor Who theme, played at the very end of the episode ‘Village Of The Angels’. Shed of its usual backbeat, it sounds empty and hollow, but not in a bad way; instead, this captures the feel of the episode in question, acting as quite a perfect bookend, given the content of its story. You also get to appreciate just how much work Akinola put into layering his arrangement of the theme tune, with both opening and closing credits versions included as well.
Fans of Akinola’s contributions to Doctor Who will certainly find much to please them with this digital release covering his score for Flux. However, in a hurrah for the collectors of physical media, the CD release coming up in November will also include a bonus disc, with Akinola’s soundtrack for the 2021 New Year’s Day adventure, ‘Revolution Of The Daleks’, which has only been available to date as a standalone digital album.