star trek vs doctor who, part 1
Here I present part 1 of what I hope to be a continuing series of discussions comparing and contrasting Star Trek and Doctor Who episodes that aired in the same week. My focus is sound-driven, so there are clips to watch and listen to for illustration and reinforcement. This is kind of like a window into the research I do. Enjoy!
This week I’m giving a talk on my dissertation project, which is an historical study of television production in the UK using Doctor Who as a test subject. An idea that popped into my head to try and highlight the differences (and similarities) between American and British television at the time was to find an episode of Star Trek that aired the same week as an episode of Doctor Who, and play clips to show the difference. It seems like it would be a good jumping-off point into further discussion of the differences in television at the time. A logical starting point is the first aired episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” which transmitted on Thursday, September 8, 1966 on NBC. Two days later the BBC transmitted part 1 of “The Smugglers,” which is unfortunately on the list of wiped episodes. While we have the remaining audio, the video is gone, and if I’m giving a visual presentation I should stick with something that the students can watch. The next overlap of existing episodes is “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” [ST], aired Thursday, October 6th, 1966 on NBC, and the first part of “The Tenth Planet” [DW] aired on Saturday, October 8th, 1966. So that’s where I’ll begin.
A few things to consider first:
1. Star Trek is an episodic program, and each aired episode is designed to be a self-contained story. Doctor Who, on the other hand, is an ‘episodic serial’, meaning that there were individual stories in each season that within themselves contained anywhere from 2-10 episodes. This is important to keep in mind because it creates a totally different narrative structure for the two shows.
2. Being an American production, Star Trek was therefore produced for ad-supported television. This means that each episode has built in breaks for commercials, usually with musical cues that lead into and out of each break (‘stingers’). Doctor Who, being produced by the royally funded BBC, does not contain pre-planned commercial breaks and lacks commercial stingers. It does, however, have what I like to call ‘transition cues’, meaning that transitions from scene to scene are accompanied by a short musical idea to aid in the transition.
3. Star Trek was recorded all in color, while Doctor Who was transmitted in black and white until 1970. This creates an obvious difference in visual quality and coloration. The association of color and sound versus black & white and sound is an interesting one to me.
"What are Little Girls Made Of?"
The first thing I notice while watching is the cold open, a typical occurrence in Star Trek. It’s a clever production method as well; establish the story, hook in the viewer, build up the drama, then create tension by cutting away into the melodramatic opening theme. I really admire the use and reuse of material from the main theme; that horn call is borrowed from the main theme, and is used quite frequently with imagery of the USS Enterprise. Nearly all establishing cuts are of the Enterprise circling a planet, and have that same cue accompanying the imagery. The tune is frequently adjusted to match the mood of the following segment: when in peril, it’s often in minor mode, or using low brass, sometimes the speed is increased or decreased for happy/excited or sad/melancholy sequences. This is a quite marked difference from the cues of Doctor Who, which I’ll get to below.
There is A LOT of music in this story. Nearly every scene has underscoring of some kind, even dialogue. (There are also lots of pointy boobs, but that’s neither here nor there.) The music is very obviously synched with the dialogue and action on screen, and based on the on-set noise we hear (chairs moving, shuffling, footsteps, etc.) there were mics set in stage to pick up dialogue. This is actually quite apparent after Nurse Chapel has dinner with the android Kirk; when Korby comes into the room to discuss the merits of the android to Kirk and Chapel you can hear his voice get softer as he turns his head towards Kirk. The mic must have been hanging above the dinner table.
There’s also quite obvious thematic use of musical material in Star Trek. Aside from the reuse of the “Enterprise motif” there is a prominent use of a romantic/femme fatale cue used for Andrea, Korby’s android companion. Each time she has any kind of action on screen, or is talked to by any other character, a string-heavy, melodramatic, stereotypical Classic Hollywood vixen cue plays. It makes sense that they give her a specific musical cue, as she becomes so important to the conclusion of the episode. The use of a full orchestra was standard for NBC programmes in the 60s; they frequently tapped into the NBC Radio Orchestra to record tracks for tv shows. In the case of Star Trek, these cues were often created in the first season for a specific episode and were then reused in seasons two and three, sometimes to the cue’s detriment (a discussion I’m saving for a later post). The use of the full orchestra gives a cinematic sound to these stories, mostly because of our familiarity with those sounds from Classic Hollywood epics of the 40s and 50s. Which, at the time of this airing, was not that long before. We’re used to that large, acoustic sound now on television. But in the 60s, it had a very clear connection to cinematic quality. Shows like Star Trek made television hours into mini-movies. Before then the dominant programme types were variety, sitcom, anthology, and live performance shows that rarely lasted more than 30 minutes. This is a clear departure from those. And possibly part of why Star Trek took so long to catch on with a general audience.
"The Tenth Planet", Part 1
Just two days later in the UK, the BBC transmitted part 1 of “The Tenth Planet,” the story that would be William Hartnell’s last as the Doctor (or Doctor Who, or Dr Who). I can probably count the minutes of music in the first episode on one hand. There is no cold open here; we start right off the bat with the show’s signature tune. Which, if you play it back to back with the Star Trek theme, sounds like it’s from a totally different universe. Maybe it is? The purely electronic sound created by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is really unlike anything else on television at the time. It really drives home that the aesthetic of Doctor Who is quite different than that of Star Trek. Those slick, colorful sets and super stylish outfits aboard the Enterprise have no place on the TARDIS.
I can count the airtime minutes of music in this episode on one hand. There is no thematic usage of music here; instead, the little incidental music used in the episode is generally atmospheric. The establishing shots of the frozen tundra are accompanied by a small chamber orchestra playing a repetitive ostinato that is clearly meant to highlight the vast, unending frozen landscape around them. We get a glimpse into the life of the men at the South Pole base when one man is shown singing “La donna è mobile" from Verdi’s Rigoletto, which is a rare moment of diegetic performance in the show’s history (much of which happens during the First Doctor’s time, something I’ll be writing about at some point). At minute 00:41 of part 2 (below) we get a subtle, amelodic, woodwind-led cue as the astronauts see a mysterious planet, and a more frantic cue at 01:50 when they realize they’re having fuel troubles. At 02:28 we get another synched cue when the men at the station see the mysterious planet. The cues, based on their synchronization, are meant to represent that planet, or the anxiety/fear/curiosity in the men created by the sight of that planet. It comes back at 3:59 when the ships starts to spin out of control. Yet here, unlike in Star Trek, the cue is not thematic; it is no longer emblematic of a specific character, mood, or idea. It merely embodies panic, and loss of control. It’s meant to reinforce the doubt created by the unknown. It does more for coloration, so to speak, of the visuals than providing information or representing anything.
The lack of music anywhere else can be explained by a few factors. One that comes to mind for me is making space for all the special sound used in this episode. Doctor Who's production team was always very keen on setting a location with atmospheric sounds; electronic whirrs, buzzes, pulses, beeps, and hums, that reinforced the cold metal and computers of space ships and military stations. The best way for these sounds to be heard and understood is to give them aural space, which meant keeping music out of the way. Another reason may be the sheer amount of cast members in the story. There are so many people contributing to dialogue and action that music would diverge attention from the action rather than helping along the story or communicating information to the viewers. Another is that this story uses stock music, and has no specially-composed music for the episodes. Stock music provides an interesting challenge to editors. Unlike specially composed, new music, made just for the programme, stock music is usually concert/orchestral music stored in a sound library. Anyone can use it. Also, since these tracks were not necessarily designed for television, they may not have natural ins-and-outs that one can edit into with noticeably cutting into a musical line. The production team on Doctor Who carefully selected a short fragment for their liking and used its sparingly. The times when it plays longer are over longer sequences that require less cutting.
It’s interesting to see how differences in production attitudes for these two benchmark SF programmes. I can’t get over how modern Doctor Who feels and how Classic Hollywood Star Trek feels. And amazingly, even for being in color, Star Trek feels much more ‘dated’ than Doctor Who. Aside from being in black and white, “The Tenth Planet” has more of a timeless quality than “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” which feels 100% a product of the swinging 60s. (Which was something credited to London, of all places.) Another point for another article in the future.
You can watch the full episode of “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” for free with an Amazon Prime account here:
and a savvy YouTube search can provide the extant episodes of “The Tenth Planet.”.
That does it for part 1 of “Star Trek vs Doctor Who.” Stay tuned for another installment where I’ll dissect another pair of stories that aired the same week.