Top or Flop: The Capaldi Titles Conundrum


Image Credit: Adapted from DnetSvg (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Image Description: James and Ian standing at podiums

“D,D,D… D,D,D… D,D,D… Da,Da,Da… D,D,D… D,D,D… D,D,D… Woo-eee, woooooo…” (Attrib. Delia Derbyshire, 1963)

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. In the case of The Time of the Doctor, this saw us introduced to a new, renally inclined Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi. As the opening of Deep Breath rolled around, we waited with bated breath to see what the new Doctor would be like. He was certainly older than his predecessors, at least in New Who, and seemed to be a big fan of the series, if his writings and comments were anything to go by. We had six minutes of Who before the titles rolled around, and opinions were already diverging…

At first, the fog clears to reveal a series of cogs, which form into a ring before revealing a clock beyond. A clock forms, stretching out into the vortex through which the TARDIS flies. As it disappears, the clock stretches, revealing planets and the time vortex beyond, as well as the lead actors’ names. A certain pair of eyebrows make their appearance, the logo and title cards flash up, before the episode begins. It had taken just 35 seconds, and now a new division had been driven into Who fandom.

In an effort to heal this rift, two fans go head to head, arguing why their view of the Capaldi Titles is ultimately correct.

For the Defence: James Ashworth

You may have noticed that James, an aspiring journalist, happens to be one of the Editors. He would like to reiterate that there is no editorial bias in the presentation of this debate, and why he is overwhelmingly correct

For the Prosecution: Ian Bayley

Ian is a lifelong fan. His favourite Classic Who Doctor is Tom Baker. His favourite new Who is Peter Capaldi. He doesn’t like Capaldi’s title sequence, however.

The Case For the Capaldi Titles – By James Ashworth

Over the years, the Doctor has “had many faces, many lives.” He’s also had plenty of title sequences. Some of these toe a line, and others break out in a new direction, of which Peter Capaldi’s are certainly a part of the latter. My esteemed colleague argues why these titles should be consigned to the Doctor Who dustbin, but evidence is not on his side. Indeed, a show of hands on the issue at a screening of Oxygen failed to go in his favour. I will also provide further evidence to the grand jury of readers why these titles deserve reappraisal from the fan community.

Firstly, the titles show just what Doctor Who is best at: the abstract. Whether it’s a sentient universe in the shape of a frog, or a world composed of fictional creations, the show always excels when it pushes boundaries. Capaldi’s titles pick up on this, becoming a visual metaphor for the time vortex through the swirling, relentless cogs that give way to a helical clock face and planets beyond. Never before has the duality of the TARDIS’s ability to travel in both time and space been depicted so well in the title sequence, with hints of the nature of the vortex itself in the whisps beyond. If you were to go by the titles of the 1980s, for example, you’d probably think it could only travel in space, given the use of stars and galaxies. The clock metaphor also complements the soundtrack, the relentless ticking reinforcing the unstoppable nature of time, that even the Doctor, old as they may be, is powerless to resist.

The titles also offer references to both the series as a whole, and the character of the Doctor. The roman numerals on the clock faces count up to twelve, indicating the present Doctor’s era while honouring the past. The Circular Galifreyan on and around the clock faces provides hints of the Doctor’s non-terrestrial origin, and being pervasive throughout the sequence, the ever-present role of the Time Lords across the Universe. As for the Twelfth Doctor himself, we are reminded of his triumphant entrance into The Day of the Doctor eyebrows-first by their depiction before/after the logo, depending on the series you are watching. The eyebrows also hint at this Doctor’s more cynical nature; Peter Capaldi being one of the undisputed champions of the eyebrow raise. The high pitch of the theme, meanwhile, makes it somewhat abrasive, giving further hints of the Doctor’s character before the episode has even begun.

The titles also lean in to the deconstructive nature of this era of Steven Moffat, who sought to understand the Doctor by breaking him down. Whatever your opinion of this, it is clear to see that the titles are at least a part of that, changing multiple times throughout Capaldi’s run. When Clara tells the Cybermen that she is the Doctor in Death in Heaven, whose eyebrows should appear but Jenna Coleman’s to drive the point home? Perhaps unwittingly, it also acted as something of a knowing nod towards the ‘Clara Who’ section of online fandom at the time, who complained about how they saw a character other than the Doctor taking charge of the narrative. Later on, for Last Christmas and The Husbands of River Song, the titles become festive, especially in the case of the latter. Is it a coincidence, perhaps, that of Capaldi’s Christmas episodes, those that got into the spirit were much better than those whose titles chose to remain as usual? Last, and by no means least, The Doctor indicates how self-aware both he and the titles are by playing his own theme music in Before the Flood. The titles have always changed to reflect the nature of the show, and this time, they reflected its stories as well.

How best then, to sum up the Capaldi-era titles? I think The Moment had the right idea, when it described the noise of the TARDIS as a sound that “brings hope wherever it goes.” In a similar way, so do the Doctor Who titles, and none more so than Capaldi’s. These titles demonstrated that even in an increasingly corporate media landscape, there’s still the possibility that a fan at home can design their own titles, and eventually have them featured in the very show they enjoy. Our work can be appreciated by more than we may ever realise, and if that’s not a reason to support the Capaldi-era titles, I don’t know what is.

The Case Against the Capaldi Titles – By Ian Bayley

The opening title sequence is the bridge from our own mundane time and place to the world of the Doctor. I believe it should evoke the mystery of the title character; after all, the very name of the show can be read as a question. The theme should evoke the wonder of an unpredictable time vessel that can literally materialise anywhere in the universe at any time. We hear this wonder in the Season 1 to 4 titles when the opening low-pitched brooding builds to a dramatic crescendo just as the words “DOCTOR WHO” are formed.

The shapes we see are meant to represent the space-time vortex. We have known this since the very first televised flight of the TARDIS in An Unearthly Child where Bernard Lodge’s howl-around effect is superimposed on the faces of the Doctor and Susan. Later titles show the TARDIS travelling in the vortex. There is plenty of scope for artistic interpretation in the design of the vortex because we know so little about it from the dialogue in the show itself. Sid Sutton, when designing the titles used for Seasons 18-23, thought the space-time vortex would be a star field like the outer space we glimpse in our night sky. The Series 5-7A titles show the TARDIS being buffeted by lightning strikes. Perhaps both of these are a little too close to our everyday terrestrial experiences and lacking the required sense of mystery. In my opinion, the best titles are the ones so abstract that you can’t recognise anything, like those of Series 7B and 11.

So what is the Series 8-10 vision of the time vortex, that magical place through which the TARDIS travels, making possible all the adventures we watch? The answer, abysmally, is that it’s the place where the clocks live, because clocks measure time. The clocks we see are inscribed with Circular Gallifreyan, and while that does suggest they are out of this world, I always see their outline first and I cannot explain why they would be in the time vortex.

What makes the arrival of the clock faces even more appalling for me is that it is preceded by eight seconds of cog wheels. It’s as if the title sequence is smug enough to present as a revelation the surprise that we were inside a clock all this time. It’s possible that the turquoise swirls at the end are what really represents the vortex since we see it on the show, when the Doctor stares at something in the opening seconds on Time Heist, but if so why is the TARDIS travelling through a clock beforehand? Why do the circling planets look like grisaille sketches rather than the coloured spheres we’d see on the show itself? It’s as if the designer was being deliberately cartoonish. While this might suit the comic strip-homaging The Return of Doctor Mysterio, it feels out of place for any other episode.

As for the theme tune, I believe Murray Gold makes two mistakes in his final arrangement. Firstly, the opening bars are now accompanied by heavy percussion, like the sound you would get from a steel drum. While this complements the cogwheels, it also draws too much attention to them. Worse still, the loudest and highest pitched point, at which the TARDIS appears, sounds like the McCoy title music. Both versions are pitched so high that they sound as if they are being sung by someone who has inhaled helium. The Capaldi version is made even worse by a tremolo effect in the final few seconds, which I can only describe as an irritating mosquito flying past my ear.

There is a theoretically heart-warming back story to the Series 8-10 titles. After seeing the work of graphic artist Billy Hanshaw, Steven Moffat arranged for his concept to be produced professionally. This story even echoes the journey from life-long fan to starring role by Peter Capaldi himself. However, this parallel then reminds me of the eloquent words Capaldi used to describe the titles for Seasons 12-17: “within seconds of starting, the title designer has drawn us into the world of Dr. Who and suspended our disbelief”. Unfortunately, I cannot believe the realm of the clock people that my eyes behold and, far from being drawn in, my ears want to leave the sonic landscape I hear as quickly as possible.

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