From YouTube sensation to BBC One: the story behind Doctor Who's new title sequence

Doctor Who: new title sequence
Doctor Who: new title sequence

The new series of Doctor Who burst on to our screens this weekend, with Peter Capaldi in the lead role and a brand new title sequence. Graphics designer Billy Hanshaw explains how he was approached to revolutionise a famous TV moment.

It began in September 2013, when I uploaded my ‘original concept Peter Capaldi intro’ onto YouTube (see below).

It was really done as a portfolio piece, to showcase my skills to potential clients. Title sequences have always been my passion, and the area of the industry I wanted to crack. My partner had suggested I do a Doctor Who intro, and it seemed like a good plan.

I did have a few ideas that hadn’t been done before, and it was the kind of show that you could really let your imagination run free on. The hit rate on the video was incredible, far exceeding my expectations. Radio Times picked up on it, asking if the BBC could top it. The Huffington Post followed suit. I was amazed.

Not as amazed as I was when I received a Linkedin request from [Doctor Who executive producer] Brian Minchin.

Series eight

My first thoughts were that it was a wind-up, someone playing a prank on me. It seemed to check out though, so I sent a message asking if there was anything I could help him with. The reply came back: both he and Steven Moffat loved my sequence, and wondered if I could help them out with the new titles for series 8. Like I had to give that one much thought!

I know that the show has a long tradition, especially when it comes to the title sequence. Sometimes holding on to this can stifle creativity

A post-production meeting followed and, armed with a new brief, I decided to build a completely new sequence based around the original YouTube posting. Even though it wasn’t going to be used in the actual show, the build was BBC Wales VFX’s responsibility. It could be used to provide the stills for the concept story board, and would be a good reference point for the VFX team.

In terms of the concept, it seemed to me that the Steampunk aesthetic really resonated with the way the show was progressing and I wanted to hint at that with the creative approach. 

Steven Moffat calls it a radical change in direction. I know that the show has a long tradition, especially when it comes to the title sequence. Sometimes holding on to this can stifle creativity, as there's nowhere else left to go. So I went ahead and did something outside of those boundaries. 

Time Lord

A large part of the rationale behind the concept is that the Doctor is a Time Lord, not a Space Lord.  I wanted to get that across in the narrative.

The technique used for the spiralling clock faces is known as the ‘droste effect’. The appearance is recursive: the smaller version contains an even smaller version of the picture, and so on.  The thought behind it is in part homage to the video feedback, howl-around technique used in the very first William Hartnell sequence in 1963. The concept is also about familiar things being unfamiliar, surreal. There's nothing more unusual than time travel.

I created two different sequences, one with and one without the face. The cogs now came into view through the ‘mists of time’, with certain cogs pulsing with light in time to the theme music. The cog tunnel now turned.

My version had the TARDIS bursting out through the Doctor Who logo, an idea that was ultimately jettisoned further down the line. The BBC team had some ideas of their own, such as the clock spiralling off into the distance, an idea I very much approved of. Capaldi’s face was replaced with just his eyes, and it works really well.

As the deadline approached for the title sequence to be finished, I again found myself in Cardiff. I spent the day watching the finishing touches being made and making a few suggestions of my own.

The BBC team were obviously very proud of what had been created, and rightly so. The new sequence is beautiful. I’m aware it is very different from anything that has gone before. That was always our intent. The sequence is a true collaboration between myself and the BBC Wales VFX Team, and I’m extremely grateful to have been given such a wonderful opportunity.

Watch the new sequence in full on BBC iPlayer or take a look below.

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