Published on August 7th, 2018 | by Joseph Saulnier0
Interview With Doctor Who Composer Blair Mowat
Recently I spoke with Blair Mowat about his work as a composer and especially his work with Doctor Who. As part of our San Diego Comic-Con coverage we were able to do a pre-and post show interview and here are the questions.
Being a lifelong fan of Doctor Who, were you intimidated by the opportunity to work on Class? Which elements from Doctor Who did you know you wanted to keep, or change?
I think every time a composer or writer sits down in front of a blank page it’s intimidating! Creating something out of nothing feels rather counterintuitive a lot of the time, though sometimes is does just flow out! However, I didn’t feel too intimidated by Class – I’d effectively been preparing for that job for well over a decade so I felt very comfortable on what the existing musical universe of Doctor Who was, and how/why we should subvert it. I knew that we should have melodic Easter eggs and references to the parent show but that sonically it should feel very different. A lot of that was achieved by using unusual and distinctive sounding instrument combinations – for example Quill’s music often features electric cello and musical saw. In general I used a lot of solo instruments rather than the big orchestral sound Doctor Who has. The musical history of Doctor Who did play on my mind though. I was scouting for weird instruments in London and came across a custom amplified single string instrument. I remember Delia Derbyshire supposedly used something similar to create the Doctor Who theme back in 1963 so I bought it without hesitation and bowed it aggressively to create the Shadow Kin ‘shings’ which make up their theme.
If given the choice, would you want to be a Doctor’s companion? Which Doctor, and why?
The 7th Doctor was my Doctor growing up so it’d have to be him for nostalgic reasons! He’s also a fellow Scotsman so we could have fun rolling our R’s whilst speaking to each other.
With a regime change in show runners, what are you hoping to see come out of the Doctor Who Universe moving forward?
Personally I think it’s fantastic that we have a female Doctor. Doctor Who is a show that literally survives though regeneration so change is in its very nature. I’d like to see it trying to being as different as possible – bold and taking risks. I think the most successful showrunners play to their strengths, so if Chris Chibnall comes at it from his own experiences as a writer, then the show will adapt to him and become something different, just like it did with Russell and Steven.
Bill was certainly a fan favorite this past season, but many feel that her role was too short-lived on the show. Are you hoping for her return in some point, and in what capacity?
I thought Bill was fantastic but I feel her story has been told for now – I’d much rather see a classic companion such as Ace or Jo Grant reunited with the doctor – wouldn’t that be fun?
What is the most difficult part of the scoring/composing process when you sit down to write for a brand new show, and what have you done to make it easier for you each time?
Time! Time is the commodity that is most useful. The more time you spend experimenting and failing the more interesting and distinct the music will be. Coming across a melody or a texture that feels fresh is a wonderful feeling but you have to give yourself a chance to explore that. With Class I was keen to start work as early as possible so I badgered them to send me scripts and rushes etc, so I could get a feel for what was going to work. Writing something like the Shadow Kin theme takes a few days so I’m glad I had time to do that early on as there was very little time to work to the locked edits at the end of the process.
Recently, you’ve worked on Class and Happy, two very excellent shows for different reasons. What was different about your approach to each show in order to make the score feel natural?
On Class I was able to allow my own musical voice and instincts to guide me, whilst on Happy the showrunner Brian had very particular musical ideas he wanted to get across, as he’s quite musical himself, so the process was very different. In Class the music feels like a distinctive character in it’s own right, and stylistically consistent: whereas Happy is more fragmented and chaotic, almost like a collection of needle drops; more similar to how Tarantino goes about using music.
You’re walking down a dark alley, and the most terrifying villain (to you) from the Who-niverse appears. Who/what is it? What do you do?
As a child I was always terrified of the Cybermen, especially the ones from the 80s. They’re allergic to gold so I’d try and find some to throw in its chest plate. If I couldn’t find any I might just have to accept the ‘upgrade’…
What is your favorite project you’ve worked on, be-it Doctor Who or another story?
Class will always have a special place in my heart – you don’t always get to write the music you want to but I feel they really trusted me on that show, and I had the budget to use some wonderful musicians. I’m usually excited about the thing I’ve just done or about to do. I can’t say what I’m working on next yet but I’ve just finished an unmade Dennis Potter adaptation of The White Hotel for BBC Radio 4, working with director Jon Amiel. It was all done in a few days and I’m still somewhat shell-shocked from the emotional process of writing music for a project about The Holocaust. There’s a scene of mass genocide where I wrote this funereal string/choir piece, which has had quite a profound effect on me. I’ll need a day or two to decompress from writing that.
If your Tardis’ chameleon circuit failed, what would it look like? Still a police box?
Yes! Always the police box – it’s too iconic: if not that, then something tiny and innocuous like one of those red and yellow playschool cars that four year-olds pretend to drive around in.
Other than Doctor Who, what else are you a big fan of? Is it on par with your love of Doctor Who?
I’ve always loved Star Wars, and very much enjoyed The Last Jedi recently! I’ve always loved Buffy The Vampire Slayer too – I think it still stands up very well a couple of decades later. More recently, The Leftovers and The Americans are the two best TV shows I’ve watched in the last couple of years. Doctor Who was the show I watched most as a child so it will always carry a special place in my heart.
What is your dream project? If you were offered to work on any film or TV show (other than Doctor Who), what would you like to do?
Whilst I adore the Star Wars universe, I’m in two minds as to whether I’d ever want to work on one of the films. Honestly, whilst working on Doctor Who was great, it does totally ruin the experience of watching the show as a viewer. Actually, I’d love to score a Star Wars TV show – you could branch off and sort of do your own thing to a certain extent. And I’d love to work with Damon Lindeloff on something new and original, something weird and cool…
Class is having something of a renaissance this summer with the soundtrack and audio adventures coming out soon. Can you tell us a bit more about what to expect?
Yes! We’re finally releasing the Class soundtrack! It took a while to get all the paperwork in place but the fans were so keen to have it out there, so we made it work. It’s being released by Silva Screen Records so follow them @SilvaScreen or me @blairmowat on Twitter to get all the updates. We’re doing a limited edition marbled vinyl with unique artwork and a bonus CD that contains over 70 minutes of music not available anywhere else. The main CD will be available through all the usual digital outlets. The Big Finish audio adventures they’ve done of Class are really great fun; I think fans of the original show will get such a kick out of hearing some new stories. All the original cast are back and many of their musical themes make a return. The highlight has to be the episode In Remembrance, which features Charlie, Quill and Ace battling a Dalek from the Sylvester McCoy episode Remembrance of The Daleks. Some of the score very much apes the 80s sounds from that episode too, which I had a lot of fun with. Hopefully if they sell well enough then we’ll get to do some more…!