Thank you for the music? Looking back on ‘Doctor in Distress’

Image Credit: James Ashworth

Image Description: ‘Doctor in Distress’ on vinyl

By Sam Flower

When the history books are written, it’s certain that 2020 will be remembered for many things. Amongst the many standouts of the year, however, none is more notable than the 35th anniversary of the seminal ‘charity’ single, ‘Doctor in Distress’, first released in 1985. Having never listened to it myself, and after being press-ganged by the Editor (He volunteered! – Ed.), I decided to subject myself to it and write a few words about the experience. So, here’s how it went. 

Things start well, for all of a few seconds. You can’t really go wrong with that wheezing, groaning sound of the TARDIS. But then, in come some classic synth beats, and the fever dream begins at full blast. As this is, after all, a protest song – albeit perhaps the most niche protest song ever – we have some good old-fashioned chanting. It is strange to think that an 18-month gap caused so much anger back then, when two years between series is feeling increasingly common these days, and I don’t hear Jodie and co. chanting on their own protest single. 

We continue to a plot summary of An Unearthly Child, accompanied by a disco beat. I’m sure, when Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman were sketching out ideas for Doctor Who in the ‘60s, this was the kind of thing they had in mind, à la The Pitch of Fear. What feels particularly striking, listening now, is that the lyrics speak of events 22 years beforehand to emphasise the then long history of the show in 1985. But now, the song itself is even older than the show was at the time. Perhaps someone should write a song about the history of ‘Doctor in Distress’. 

“It was a cold wet day in March, 35 years ago, there were a bunch of stars in a studio, who didn’t know what to do…” 

Oh god, I’m giving James ideas again. (It’s not a bad idea! – Ed.)

Soon enough, we find ourselves in the chorus, which I must admit is rather catchy, even if the idea of the Doctor sending out an SOS feels a bit odd for some reason. Perhaps he sent out a mind cube with a plea in, as in The War Games? I’m sure many fans of the time would have liked the Time Lords to have answered that call, and put Michael Grade on trial. But despite the catchy chorus, I must ask, why the triangle? Or is it a Xylophone? Regardless, it feels weirdly out of place in this high intensity disco track. Also, “we won’t take less”? I’m sure the Beeb were quaking in their boots.

Heading out of the chorus, we’re into a rather groovy mini instrumental. I must admit, the actual music is pretty solid – at least compared to the lyrics – so the B-side of the record is currently eclipsing the main song. Perhaps this could be due to the influence of legendary film composer Hans Zimmer, who inexplicably plays the synth for this song. Yes, you read that right! Unlike fellow Oscar winners Peter Capaldi and Olivia Colman, I think Zimmer is probably less keen on advertising his association with Doctor Who. Despite being a big fan of the composer, I don’t think this will end up on my Zimmer playlist, alas – yes, I have one of those. 

Of course, Who wouldn’t be Who without monsters, so the next verse is dedicated to the three most iconic: the Daleks, the Cybermen and… the Ice Warriors? With four appearances to date, they were definitely one of the more prolific of the Doctor’s foes, but they hadn’t been seen on TV for 11 years. Surely the similarly frequent Sontarans, who had been on TV only a few weeks before in The Two Doctors, would have been a better fit? Before I can consider such worries further, however, they are completely overshadowed by one of the worst Dalek impressions I’ve ever heard, by Colin Baker no less! It’s just so high pitched and comes out of nowhere. That said, if someone were to create a video with Colin’s “Exterminate!” edited into the TV show, I would definitely watch it – once. On a more positive note, a “bubbling lump of hate” is a great description of a Dalek. Bonus marks to songwriters Ian Levine and Fiachra Trench for putting these words into the song, as well as ‘cybernetic’ and later, ‘canine’. Trust me, they need points wherever they can get them! 

If the last chorus wasn’t exciting enough, we have an extended one now, warning us that the Doctor will “be in a mess” if the show doesn’t return. Isn’t the point that  they’re in a mess in most episodes anyway? We are then warned of “the galaxy falling to evil once more!”, which sounds jolly worrying, with “nightmarish monsters fighting a war”. Which war? All the same war? Many different wars? This is one the great mysteries of the Whoniverse. Maybe, when someone writes a Black Archive on this song, we’ll get some answers.

Oh, and of course, there’s no forgetting the immortal words: “No, no, no, nooooo!”. No to what? The show coming back? But that goes against the point of this song. Maybe she’s portraying the BBC here? I have so many questions.

After all that head scratching, let us proceed to the final verse, which discusses the Doctor and their companions. We begin with another bizarre lyric: “we’ve come to accept six Doctors”. This sounds like we’re just tolerating their existence, and seems a bit #NotMyDoctor. We haven’t come to know six Doctors, or love six Doctors, just to accept them. The description of the companions neither running nor hiding from danger is also, on the surface, plainly wrong. Running and hiding from monsters is, after all, a trope of the show. However, I believe there is a deeper meaning, that it refers more to the fact that our heroes don’t run from the situation but stand up to do what’s right. In this sense, the lyric is truly indicative of the show’s essence. Less indicative is the inclusion of ‘a’ Master alongside the Brigadier and K9. The Master’s not a companion! Yes, they work alongside the Doctor on occasion, such as in Terror of the Autons or Logopolis, but that’s generally to clean up a mess of their own creation.

To cap off this final verse is perhaps the most objectionable lyric, where each “screaming girl” hoped the “Yeti wouldn’t shoot her”. It doesn’t help that I heard “do” rather than “shoot” the first time around, but either version of the line implies a troubling sense of powerlessness and helplessness of the show’s female characters. This feels not only contradictory to the ethos of the show, but even the earlier line regarding not running or hiding. 

With one last chorus – it really is quite catchy, I almost like it – the song ends, and we return, thankfully, to reality. At least, until our most wonderful editor asked me if I would review some other ‘iconic’ Doctor Who tracks…

To be Continued…

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