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Credit: BBC

Doctor Who's new composer breaks ground on the 13th Doctor's adventures

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Nov 26, 2018, 4:25 PM EST

Like its titular Time Lord, Doctor Who has thrived for over 50 years through its penchant for regeneration – changing everything from cast to crew to its lead actor every few years to keep the show fresh and vibrant. For the eleventh season of the revived series, virtually every molecule of the show has been altered: Chris Chibnall took over as showrunner from Steven Moffat, Jodie Whittaker stepped into the TARDIS as the first female Doctor, and the show’s aesthetic has grown considerably more cinematic.

However, one of the biggest (and most welcome) innovations has been the introduction of new composer Segun Akinola to the series, who takes over for Murray Gold, who composed for the first 13 years of the revived show. While Gold’s work was brassy, kinetic, and deeply orchestral, Akinola’s approach is subtler and more atmospheric, making greater use of electronic and found sounds amid a deep well of modern influences.

Much like his stripped-down theme tune, which rumbles with the energy of the original Ron Grainer arrangement from the 1960s, Akinola’s inventive new work hearkens back to the more minimalist experimentation of Delia Darbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. At the same time, episodes crackle with stylistic, emotional odes to the eras in which the Doctor and her pals find themselves, from 1950s Americana in "Rosa" to the Indian-inspired sound of “Demons of the Punjab.”

SYFY WIRE sat down with Akinola to talk about his history with the music of Doctor Who, the artistic freedom granted to him by the production team, and his approach to some of the season’s more ear-opening cues thus far.


Courtesy of BBC America

What was your history with the show before getting the job? Did you grow up with classic Doctor Who?

My history with Who is a bit more music-based than it is with the actual show. I didn’t really watch the show – not because of some big great reason, but I didn’t really know anyone who watched it. No one was around me saying, “Oh, you should watch this.” I compare it to Top Gear, whereby all of my friends watch that and are always talking about it; that just wasn’t happening with Doctor Who.

But musically, it’s quite different – I knew all about the [BBC] Radiophonic Workshop, and I had learned about them at school, so I knew about the original series’ history. I also knew about Murray Gold and his work on the new series, and read interviews about him. I knew about the new show, and the fantastic stuff Murray had done, and his unique taste as well in having this big, wonderful orchestral score. I knew about the music of the show, but hadn’t actually watched it. At the same time, it’s such a big part of British society and culture, and such a big global brand. When you talk about film and TV and things that people recognize, Doctor Who is right up there.

So the show changes hands – Chris Chibnall takes over as showrunner – and he’s looking for a new composer. How did you come to be hired? Were you approached, or did you seek it out?

All the stuff I’d done to date had been for the BBC, so I got a call one day saying, “We put you forward for [Who], the exec would like to talk to you. Is it okay if we pass along your phone number?” I obviously said yes, right away. It was quite surreal, I think it was a Wednesday morning or something, not the kind of thing I expected that day. From there, it was a case of talking to [executive producer] Matt [Strevens], then talking to Chris, then writing some music and talking some more. That’s roughly how it went.

But I have to say, they knew my work very, very well. It was a warm surprise – they even knew some of the more experimental things I’ve done. They were very thorough.

Doctor Who 13th Doctor TARDIS

As someone who mostly knew of the show from a musical perspective, did you end up having to do any homework in terms of watching other episodes of the show?

Not so much – I did do some homework while I was being considered, yes. But I think there’s so much you know about the show beforehand. For me, there was so much I knew before getting into it. I may not have known intricate details about storylines and everything, but I knew a lot about its impact and audience, its role within U.K. television.

Doctor Who is the family show; it’s not a 9 p.m. crime drama for the adults. So yes, I watched a couple of old episodes, but I didn’t go through and watch the whole thing. I didn’t feel like that’s what they were looking for, and it was really about a clean slate and fresh perspective on the music.

Did it feel intimidating at all for you to jump onto this show not just with 55 years of musical history, but following Murray Gold, someone who’d composed the show for more than a decade? Gold’s work on the show was very bombastic, concert music kind of stuff, whereas your approach feels a deliberate departure.

The team – Matt, Chris and everyone else – were simply amazing the entire way through, and did not put one ounce of pressure all the way through on me in any shape or form. It was more about me occasionally realizing, “Oh yeah, this is Doctor Who.” Because you can’t escape that context of the huge global brand that everyone knows – even if you don’t watch it, you know about it – with a very loyal and passionate fanbase. Which is amazing, because upon my announcement, they were really positive and supportive, and continue to be so.

Much as I would try not to think about that too much, and think about stories and the team and what we’re trying to do, the truth is it’s Doctor Who, so you do have to think about the scale of it. I was really just having so much fun, and truly enjoying working with the team, trying to do our best and to do something we thought was right for the show.

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When it comes down to the process of scoring the show, what were the early conversations like with the production team? What kind of influences did you have in approaching the show’s new sound?

What’s so great about working with Matt and Chris is that they really wanted to bring myself to the table. I’d go in for a meeting, then see some filming, and they’d say, “What do you want it to be?” We’d had some looser conversations prior to this, and each time it was a case of wanting it to be fresh and have a modern outlook. Whilst we were getting down to the nuts and bolts in the early phone meetings, I asked them what they’d like to do, and they basically said, “Well, what do you want to do? What do you want to bring to it?” They really had a sense of my stuff and wanted me to bring myself to it. By then, we’d already had a few discussions about what Doctor Who is and what the new Doctor’s about, emotion being a big part of the show’s new direction and so forth.

After that, it was a case of me having time to experiment and play around with sounds, record things and manipulate them. There’s a lot of stuff in the score that sounds electronic, but actually comes from a natural sound source – like a plucked piano string or hitting bongos with mallets, taking existing sounds and manipulating them. That idea of experimentation appeals to me; that’s the torch [I carry] from the Radiophonic Workshop. It’s so inspiring how creative and experimental they were. It’s not a case of copying them or doing the same thing, but having that same determination to be creative and free. I also wanted to pull more generally from distances across music – within the series, there’s as much influence from Adele and Imagine Dragons and Rag‘n’Bone Man as there is experimental classical composers like Iannis Xenakis and Georg Friedrich Haas. It’s a big mix of those kinds of influences, and how that comes out depends on the particular story.

If you’ve seen [“Demons of the Punjab”], people are probably starting to clue into the fact that the music’s not the same every episode. There is a series sound, and we start you up with that, but each week depends on the story we play with it, and mess around stylistically within that.

Before we talk about individual episodes though, I wanted to talk to you about putting your stamp on the iconic theme. Like you said, you had the opportunity to start with a clean slate, but then you had this big challenge of the Doctor Who theme to contend with. How did you approach that?

It’s a big deal, the theme – I wanted to go back to the original [Ron Grainer version from 1963], and have that as a basis. Not that Chris was prescriptive, but it just so happened that he was interested in the original theme too, so it was a very natural approach to take. For me, it was a case of honoring the original theme tune, but also being brave and bold with it, bringing my own perspective to it.

Let’s talk about “Rosa” for a bit. Like you said, the score starts with that series sound. but deviates from it as needed – especially with that very Aaron Copland, “Fanfare for the Common Man”-like theme for Rosa Parks. What was your thought process for that episode?

To be honest, it speaks a bit more to the approach of the whole series. We’ve said from the beginning, “We’re interested in going with the story musically,” but we didn’t know what that meant yet. We just knew we would go with a series sound across the whole thing, but we all wanted to move with the episodes. Looking back on it now, honestly, we’ve ended up changing things a bit more than we thought, probably. But every time, it’s always about the story – it starts with us watching the cut and talking about what the story is about, what the music needs to do and bring out. It’s out of those conversations that we end up going to these different places. Sometimes it’s Matt and Chris having an idea, sometimes it’s them asking me where I’d like to go with it, what interests me.

With the “Rosa” episode specifically, we knew it was a period piece, and we wanted to introduce some period score elements, hence the addition of the string orchestra. With Rosa’s theme specifically, she’s very much the hero of that particular story. That’s a part of the music as well, which is where the horns and that very deliberate ode to Copland comes from.

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Which brings us to “Demons of the Punjab,” another period story that brings in a lot of Indian instrumentation and vocals while working to stay within that series sound. What were the challenges there? Had you worked with these kinds of instruments before?

I hadn’t worked with any of them before, actually. For me, it was really important that the entire musical viewpoint was handled with care. Authenticity was important to me; I liken it to Ludwig Goransson’s score for Black Panther, which was amazing for so many reasons. Being a British Nigerian, I felt like my African roots were 100 percent taken care of in the film, and I wanted the same thing for people watching this episode.

I did loads of research – I studied some Indian music in school, so I had a basis at least, but I wanted to build on that to create something absolutely authentic, but also wasn’t pastiche. It was something new that worked with the rest of the series, but wouldn’t also feel like a copy of some Indian music that was actually out there.

It took finding the right musicians as well – we wanted to have a male voice for Prem’s theme, so we worked to find a great vocalist, and a skilled player for the sarangi [an Indian stringed instrument] that Umbreen’s theme is played on. They were truly amazing musicians, and it was a joy to record them. 

And it’s a joy to listen to – I particularly enjoyed that yearning, Indian-inspired version of the Who theme that plays over the ending credits of “Punjab”.

Yeah, that was quite cool, because that was just a case of having a chat with Chris. I said, “What are we going to do in the credits?” The scene before it is a very delicate and emotional one between Yas and her grandma, so I didn’t want us crashing right into the normal theme. I said, "Look, I think we’ve got three options: We either use the theme as is, we carry on with the cue that we’re doing at the moment, or do a version of the theme with Indian instruments." And Chris is great, because immediately he goes, "That’s the most exciting thing, let’s do that!" It was a lot of fun recording it with all the musicians – the vocalist was truly amazing, as are the others.

It was a very special thing, and we worked very hard to keep the surprise. It’s at this point in the series that I think people clue in that they’re not exactly sure what the music will sound like before they’re about to watch it. Hopefully, that’s a point of excitement and interest.

We’re more than halfway through the season, what has the reception been for you from the fanbase, as you’ve experienced it? How does that make you feel as a composer for the show?

It’s really a continuation of the situation with the initial announcement, which has been really warm and positive. As I say, you never know how these things are going to go, so it’s lovely to be accepted and welcomed into not just the production family, but the fanbase. I’m really pleased that people seem to enjoy it and are acclimatized to all the changes in the show, including the music. I’m hoping to keep interesting people, and moving them, and that they keep enjoying it as well.