It’s unfortunate when, over the course of 55 years of history, one period in particular becomes something of a benchmark, or the standard by which all others are judged. When it was announced that Chris Chibnall had cast a female Doctor, the knives were out. When we discovered that Murray Gold was gone, it was the hankies. “It won’t be the same!” complained many fans who had never experienced anything else or even heard of Dudley Simpson and who were thus missing the point that Doctor Who thrives on change. Incumbent composer, Segun Akinola, had already made his mark on Dear Mr Shakespeare and Black and British, but he could have been Jerry Goldsmith for all many people cared: he wasn’t Murray Gold, and therefore he was the wrong choice. What possible hope for a soundtrack album?
Nevertheless, here it is: two CDs comprising two and a half hours of music (which, while not quite managing the heights of the four-disc extravaganza that was Series 9, is nonetheless really quite generous). It takes in everything from The Woman Who Fell To Earth through to the end of the series and beyond – so Resolution is in here as well – and every episode gets a shout, with only Arachnids feeling slightly underrepresented. This is score only, so those hoping for Andra Day’s Rise Up (as featured in Rosa) or anything by Stormzy are going to be disappointed, but there’s enough on here to keep the rest of us happy.
In many ways, Akinola’s approach mirrors that of his co-conspirator. If Series 11 felt stripped back, pared down, or diminished in some way, then the new score is either a reflection of this or the partial cause of it. Perhaps it is both. The music on offer is generally minimal, often repetitive and frequently sparse. There is none of the grandiose, concert hall-filling bombast that characterised Gold’s time in the chair – no string-laden romantic interludes, no through-composed ballads, no sweeping choirs chanting Latin. There is a bit of singing, but we’ll get to that, and this is by no means a wholly electronic score (we’ll get to that as well): nonetheless the lesson learned is that less is more, or at least we’re supposed to think so.
Whether you do or not is a matter of taste. Many people I spoke to marked the score for this year as ‘forgettable’ and ‘background music’: for the most part, this is an apt description and it is purely down to personal preference as to whether ‘background music’ is good music or bad music. Perhaps ‘unintrusive’ might be a better choice than ‘background’. Gold’s score was, to all intents and purposes, an extra character – sometimes it worked, much of the time it didn’t – but Akinola’s music is subtle to a fault, and a lot of the time I barely registered its presence during the sequences it accompanied.
That’s not the same as not noticing it. Visual effects supervisor, Derek Meddings (Batman, Superman, the Bond films), took it as a compliment if his work went unnoticed: to a degree, the film composer is saddled with the same blessing/ curse dynamic. All too often music has an emotional impact whether we realise it or not, and the absence of a memorable score does not render it ineffective. I can’t hum a single piece of music from The Avengers, for example, but I remember having an emotional reaction to bits of it, and it’s foolish to suggest that the score played no part in that simply because I cannot remember it.
All that said, this is perhaps not music to sit down and actually listen to at the expense of all other activity, at least unless ambient sessions are your thing. I listened to it while I was tidying and washing up, with a notebook in one hand and a black sack in the other. It has that sort of background vibe: it is mood music, for driving or painting or writing. There are undoubtedly people who sit down and actively listen to Gold’s series albums; I have never been one of them, but it doesn’t feel like something that’s about to catch on with this particular set. Akinola is not about to get his own prom.
And in a way, that’s a pity, because this is a quite lovely collection, and after a slightly tentative start things get very interesting. There are a reasonable number of nondescript filler cues, and it’s a shame that the lion’s share seem to sit at the beginning of the first disc, with Ryan’s journey through the forest and the gang’s first encounter with Tim Shaw charted with moody but dull foreboding. You’re anxious for something with a little more meat and a little less gravy – the rumbly diesel effect (that’s what we call it; you will have your own pet name) is all very atmospheric, but did it have to be layered on quite so thick?
It’s not until we get to Sonic Screwdriver, a few minutes later, that the pace picks up, as for the first time we hear the lyrical, Celt-tinged cry of the Doctor’s Theme (or so I have dubbed it). It is played on a cello – there is an awful lot of cello, just as there is an awful lot of the Doctor’s Theme. It’s a very pleasant little ditty, but it is in danger of outstaying its welcome at times – although once you get to Thirteen, with its wordless vocal (a decent performance from Hollie Buhagier) echoing the Ninth Doctor’s theme from way back in 2005, all is just about forgiven, as the drums crash through the ambience and you feel, perhaps for the first time, that the new Doctor is home. And then you remember that Muse discovered a progression that worked halfway through recording their second album and have used it in just about every song since, so if nothing else Akinola’s in good company.
Cello aside, one thing that is surprising is how much variety there is here. The thudding bass of Resus One recalls early Jean-Michel Jarre; horns intersect the synths halfway through Keep Your Faith. Traditionalists (read: fans of Gold) will find the border markings for their comfort zone sitting squarely round the Rosa selections, where Akinola employs a string orchestra and some mournful lone trumpets (they could be cornets; I’m a little out of practice). It sounds like cut rate John Williams served up with Copland but that’s basically the point, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit moved as you retrace the steps of that fateful journey – just as the reverb-soaked piano cuts like a knife during Make A New Friend. It’s not quite enough to redeem Episode 9, but no one was expecting a miracle.
It’s safe to say, in fact, that a lot of the really good stuff is on that second disc (or second half, if you’re downloading), whether it’s the Indian suite from Punjab – including Shahid Abbas Khan’s rather splendid interpretation of the Doctor Who theme – or the Zimmer-inspired action music that topped and tailed the New Year’s Day special, coming across like something from a Michael Bay film, or at least 1990s Bond. There is an energy and a pace in the last two cues that is lacking throughout much of the rest of the album, which perhaps mirrors the episode itself: life imitates art, but so, it seems, does art. By the time the guitars crash in almost halfway through Me and My Mates, Akinola has made himself as at home as the new Doctor, with the stamp he’s laid on the series fully and indelibly cemented, for better or worse.
Make no mistake: this is not for everyone. It’s unlikely to make the Classic FM playlists, even when it’s Film Week. It is also, in its own way, a wall of clichés: for every moment of innovative brilliance, there is another discordant string wail or that sound you hear at the beginning of every single horror trailer. There is much to love here, but you get the feeling that Akinola is a beast who would do better unchained, and who might be holding back some of his best material for Series 12. But the future is an undiscovered country. For now, this’ll do just fine.