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August 14, 2019

The Doctor Calls

A composer savors the privilege of scoring the new Doctor Who.

Jon Burlingame
  • Charlie Clift

When Jodie Whittaker assumed the title role on England's long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who — becoming the first female Doctor in the show's 55-year history — producers decided to change directions musically, too.

Though he had only a handful of credits, composer Segun Akinola so impressed showrunner Chris Chibnall that he got the job based on an early demo of the new theme. Akinola scored all 11 episodes of the season and hopes to be asked back.

"We talked about her being warm and very clearly a hero, but also being fun, having lots of energy and being very inspiring for the people around her,"Akinola says by phone from London. "Those were the traits I was looking to bring out musically, in a very clear and direct way."

More than two dozen composers have scored Doctor Who since the serialized drama began on the BBC in 1963. Over the years, the music has ranged from fully orchestral to totally synthesized. Akinola has slightly modified and updated Australian composer Ron Grainer's original electronic theme, which was realized by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Although he had never seen the show before being asked to join the team, Akinola knew its music. "Doctor Who is such a big part of the fabric of popular culture in the U.K., and it has remained so for decades," he says. "But I always knew about the Radiophonic Workshop, and about Murray Gold's brilliant music," which was part of the show from 2005 until 2017.

Akinola's soundscapes draw on electronic, ambient, popular and traditionally classical music. The core instruments are cello, French horn and electric guitar, augmented by synthesized sounds he creates in his London studio. "And sometimes vocals as well," he adds.

Some episodes inspire thematic departures: when the Doctor and her companions encounter Rosa Parks in 1955 Alabama, the score features conversations and Americana trumpet and strings.

When they witness the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, we hear Indian vocals and a sarangi (traditional stringed instrument). For a visit to the 17th-century court of King James I, Akinola's early classical approach features a string quartet.

He spent weeks toiling over the first episode but, predictably, postproduction time shrank as the season progressed, leaving him an average of six days to produce more than 40 minutes of music per episode.

Born in Britain to Nigerian parents, Akinola recalls, "There was music around all the time" during his childhood. He graduated from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and later earned his master's from the National Film and Television School. Prior to Doctor Who, his most significant credit was 2016's four-part BBC Two documentary, Black and British: A Forgotten History.

As the first person of color to score Doctor Who, Akinola acknowledges, "It's a real privilege. There aren't that many people of color scoring the biggest TV shows or the biggest films. It would be really lovely to see more, to get more voices, to bring something we haven't heard before."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 6, 2019

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