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7-1-08 Doctor Who – The Time Tunnel

Posted by Sean on July 1, 2008

Well, since the subject was BBC sci-fi

Doctor Who’s theme music is one of the most recognizable pieces of music out there and, beginning with Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor, it was mated to a singular video sequence: the time tunnel.

Here’s a clean version of the Pertwee time tunnel, which first ran in 1973. Courtesy of AJDian (created by merging the start of the Pertwee title sequnce with the end of the Tom Baker title sequence)

And here’s a clean version of the Baker time tunnel, the one that I’m most familiar with. The very start, with that bluish strip expanding into an outline of the TARDIS, is a “whoa” moment for me. Courtesy of timelord726 (who, amongst the Timelords, is called That Guy Who Makes Those Really Nice Egg Sandwiches, I believe).

Now, most of what I’m gonna tell you – or at least link to – in this post is old hat for you Doctor Who fans. But please be patient with me, for the uninitiated’s sake.

Composer Mark Ayres has compiled a pretty comprehensive history of the theme music here. It was composed on a single sheet of letter-sized paper by Rob Grainer and realized by Delia Derbyshire, both of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Putting together a piece like this is relatively easy today with the mighty mighty microchip. I say “relatively” because, when Derbyshire did it, it was a nightmare.

Accrording to Ayres, Derbyshire had to create every single note on a Frankenstein’s lab conglomeration of test tone generators, equalizers, white noise generators and other electronic doodads, record it to tape and then cut the tape to bits and mix them. Since there weren’t any multitrack tape machines available, they had to play all those bits on separate, synchronized tape machines and record them all together… and God help poor Delia if they were out of sync, cos they’d have to make adjustments and start the whole mixing process over again. How she managed to retain her sanity I have no idea, cos I would have lost mine.

But the results were worth it. It was the first purely electronic TV theme and, even after 45 years, doesn’t sound dated. It was first broadcast on Nov. 23, 1963 (the day after the JFK assassination! And on the 23rd day of November, no less! Well, whaddya know) and was used with minor fixes and fiddlings until 1980.

The title sequence is another matter.

Up until 1973, Doctor Who used something called “howlaround” to create the video for the title sequence. When I first heard the world “howlaround”, I was very excited, because it suggested to me that the BBC had found a way to use Doctor Who to turn people into werewolves, and werewolves, as everyone knows, rock. So imagine my disappointment when I found out what howlaround really is: pointing a camera at its own video monitor. Wimpy… I mean, no werewolf apocalypse, no feeding on the flesh of the innocent, no Salad Days-esque fountains of blood, nothing.

But by 1973, series producer-at-that-time Barry Letts had gotten tired of the howlaround sequence, which had been tweaked and reshot since the series premiere a decade earlier. So he asked Bernard Dodge, who had come up with the howlaround sequence in the first place. Dodge decided to use something called slit-scan photography, which was used for the stargate sequences in 2001. As an aside, said sequences were digitally unwrapped by Greg Ercolano; the link is here.

Slit-scan phtography sounds like a fairly specialized kind of pornography, but it’s not. Probably the best description of it is on the BBC’s h2g2 site here, and it’s getting late, so I’m just gonna punt and steal cite their description of the sequence:

…The essence of the technique is the use of long time exposures. The rostrum camera, normally shoots a series of frames while tracking towards artwork, but for slit scan the camera tracks while exposing only one frame, towards a slit which is the only light source. As the camera tracks down, backlit patterns on the rostrum bench, pan laterally behind the slit. The result is that the slit ‘paints or scans a perspective image of the pattern on that one frame. For subsequent frames the rostrum bench begins its pan from a different point, so, over a series of frames the pattern appears to move along the wall or tunnel, its shape depending on the shape of the slit. A single vertical slit creates a wall, a circular slit creates a tunnel, a slit traced around an image of Doctor Who creates a Doctor Who shaped tunnel, and so on.

One of the patterns Lodge used to pan through his various apertures was created by placing torn strips of polythene plastic between pieces of glass. Filmed through polarising filters, the stress in the polythene showed up a spectrum of colours.

The distance tracked by the camera restricted the length of each tunnel: the camera Lodge hired could travel only about 1.5 metres, so to create an illusion of greater depth, a bright glow was superimposed at the end of each tunnel and for the end titles, a soft dark patch. At 25 frames per second, the filming and the final optical assembly took three months to complete.

We can come to three conclusions from this information:

  1. Bernard Dodge was very glad when CGI was developed.
  2. Today’s special effects guys are wimps. They can use computers instead of engaging in hand-to-hand combat with their own equipment, as detailed above.
  3. The process for creating the title sequence video was every bit as complicated and maddening as its audio.

All this effort and therapy resulted in what 99% percent of the TV audience would ever see: just over half a minute of video and audio.  But I think you’ll agree with me that it was all worth it.


2 Responses to “7-1-08 Doctor Who – The Time Tunnel”

  1. […] 7-1-08 Doctor Who – The Time Tunnel […]

  2. AJDian said

    Hi, this is AJDian from YouTube. The video you are currently linking to from me is now removed, and therefore your embedded player of that video no longer works. However, I have uploaded a clean CLOSING time tunnel sequence at which may be of interest as a replacement (if it’s possible to change it – I don’t know as I don’t use this site :-P).

    Ian (AJDian – YouTube)

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