Timey Wimey

How Do You Make a Doctor Who Episode About the Beatles Without the Music?


The Beatles. (Photo by: Universal Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Doctor Who

The biggest band in history, perhaps not surprisingly, has a long history with science fiction and fantasy. But how do you a sci-fi story about the Beatles? The most obvious answer is probably the 2019 alternate universe film Yesterday (imagine there’s no Beatles!) while the more obscure example would be the classic Quantum Leap episode, “The Leap Home,” in which Sam sings “Imagine” to his sister, two years before the song was even released. But both examples come to the same conclusion: If you’re going to do sci-fi about the Beatles, you’ve got to have Beatles songs, right?

According to Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies, maybe you don’t need Beatles music to do Beatles sci-fi. In a new interview with Empire, doing a Beatles sci-fi story without Beatles music paradoxically became a solution, rather than a problem.

Doctor Who and the Beatles

In the upcoming relaunched Doctor Who Season 1 (2024), the Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) will travel to the 1960s in the forthcoming episode “The Devil’s Chord,” and, at some point, cross paths with the Beatles. Interestingly, this is the second time the Beatles have appeared on Doctor Who. During the 1965 1st Doctor (William Hartnell) serial “The Chase,” the Doctor, Vicki, Ian, and Barbara all watched the Beatles on a device called a Time-Space Visualizer. That footage featured the Beatles playing “Ticket to Ride” on the live music show Top of the Pops. Interestingly, this footage was not preserved by Top of the Pops, meaning it only exists in Doctor Who.

But, to make matters even stranger, today, you can’t actually see the Beatles in the 1965 Doctor Who episode “The Chase,” because copyright laws prevent that footage of the Beatles and the song, “Ticket to Ride,” from being heard in Doctor Who. This retroactive change means that when you watch “The Chase” on Britbox, you won’t see the Beatles.

The Beatles copyright challenge

The Beatles in 1965, the same year they released “Ticket to Ride,” which did, briefly, feature in Doctor Who.

Getty Images

As Russell T. Davies says in the new Empire interview: “‘How would you do a Beatles episode without Beatles music?” Previous movies about the Beatles have faced similar problems. The 1994 biopic Backbeatwhich chronicles the Beatles’ early days in Hamburg — features no actual Beatles music. Meanwhile, the 1979 movie Birth of the Beatles (helmed by Return of the Jedi director Richard Marquand!) used cover versions of most Beatles songs to avoid copyright issues of the time.

But, for Davies and Doctor Who, the copyright law problem became “the entire plot.” As Davies says, “I knew instantly you can never play Beatles songs on screen because the copyright is too expensive... That’s where the idea came from — copyright law!”

Could this mean the Doctor and Ruby will inspire alternate Beatles songs? Could the Beatles be getting by with a little help from their time-traveler friends? We don’t know the exact plot of “The Devil’s Chord,” but there’s a good bet that the Doctor will almost certainly inspire a classic Beatles song. We’ll just have to read between the lines to figure out which one.

Doctor Who Season 1 (2024) hits Disney+ on May 11.

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