Ben Foster has orchestrated and conducted Murray Gold's music for Doctor Who since 2005, comprising 83 episodes to date, as well as previous performances of Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular. Ben spoke to Viv Mah ahead of the Melbourne opening.
Despite the twenty-something hour flight from London to Melbourne, Ben Foster sounds remarkably chipper. It’s two in the afternoon, two days prior to the first staging of MSO’s Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, and we’re speaking on a tinny phoneline with poor reception – I’m sorely tempted to hang up out of sheer frustration with my tech, but there’s something unspeakably rude about prioritising your own selfish impulses over a man who’s taken ten minutes out of an otherwise packed day to phone you.
We speak briefly of his time thus far in Australia and it’s summer weather: he confesses himself relatively fond of the heat over the current winter gloom of the United Kingdom. Despite his travels (think, world tour with Peter Gabriel in 2012) it’s where Foster is primarily based, and as should be expected, where he traces the beginnings of his success. At a concert following his graduation from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2000, key Doctor Who composer Murray Gold liked a piece of Foster’s and asked him to join the Doctor Who production crew – and the rest, as they say, is history (the Doctor would disagree).
It’s been nine years since and his enthusiasm for his work on the show hasn’t waned. The appeal, Foster says, lies in the human heart of Doctor Who. A lifelong enthusiast for science fiction – as demonstrated by his progressing on to score for Torchwood by Russel T Davies – Foster attributes the emotional appeal as beginning in Russell’s time. “The way he’s regenerated (the show),” Foster says, “has more heart than it used to have – and kids, particularly teenagers, engage on an emotional level. They see viable and valid relationships between the companions and their Doctor which are familiar and aspirational. We admire him – we want to be his friend.”
The recent fiftieth anniversary and the breadth of MSO’s planned festivities are surely testament to how Davies’ and Moffats’ efforts have transformed an initially subversive show into an immersive and resonant piece. This too, can be spotted in the score: while Foster isn’t outright against the “pop and rock” soundtracks of shows such as Supernatural, he believes that that the music requires the “character motifs” that he may creatively invent in the orchestra, which has the resources (instruments) to “paint a picture this way” in comparison to the tech-heavy soundtracks; having worked with both, he’s certainly qualified to make this judgment call. “There’s a depth in this emotional resonance."
"Doctor Who music historically used to be stark and cold and now the new show has an emotion to it.” says Foster, who goes on to explain why a more classical style of score has been chosen – “there are fewer options to move somebody or reduce them to tears; few things have the depth and strength of power that a string section might. And this is important because you’re dealing with such huge issues like loss and death or ideas of the human race being wiped out and you need to play dramatically with that as an orchestra.”
He cites the BBC as a “tremendous organisation” in being able to “recruit the National Orchestra of Wales” among others. He adds that “the reason there’s so much depth in the score is because there’s eighty-six people in it and they play the piece emotionally – they give their heart to the stuff. That’s why using symphonies or large orchestras or even smaller groups, such as parties of twelve that we’ve previously used, do so well; even having a few strings makes all the difference.”
Despite this, the hours can be gruelling; Foster works “sixteen to seventeen hour” days with scores requiring a much swifter turn-around. Work weeks stretch out into nine, ten day endeavours in comparison to the Classic era, wherein episodes and their scores could be churned out in around ninety-nine days. But this is hardly a dampener for work that’s otherwise engrossing – and perhaps, ought to be expected as part of the process. As for the showrunner’s input, well, Foster admits that there’s little. “Steven (Moffat) might comment upon work,” he says, “but Murray (Gold)’s a dramatist and he looks at a sense of what’s significant. He’s very trusted to deliver something.”
“When you’re a part of the team, what you say or what you believe will work is taken on board. It’s great to have an opportunity to be collaborative, and when you provide something unique the score might change. We’re given the opportunity to create new turning points.”
(Which is the primary point of Doctor Who for the rest of us, isn’t it?)
Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Venue: Plenary Hall, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre
Dates: 31 January at 7:30 and Saturday 1 February at 2pm and 7:30pm
Bookings: 03 9929 9600 or visit www.mso.com.au