Doctor Who@50: The Box of Delight

TARDIS 1Continuing the on-going Sci-Fi Bulletin series of thematic essays exploring the icons of Doctor Who during its 50th year…

Viewers of the very first episode of Doctor Who may have been lulled into a false sense of security by the first few minutes of the programme. Two schoolteachers discuss and then decide to investigate a mysterious pupil, and follow her through the fog to her home. Chances are the audience has forgotten the opening scene, with a police box emitting a strange hum…

Police boxes were a common sight in 1963 when Doctor Who began. Although they came in various different shapes and sizes – and even colours (some were red in Glasgow) – the most common design was created for the Metropolitan Police in 1929 by Gilbert MacKenzie Trench, and by the mid-1950s there were around 700 of them scattered around the capital. They were places of safety, from where members of the public could call for help; they were utterly routine, something everyone simply took for granted.

They weren’t meant to be a doorway into adventure, but that’s what the police box in the junkyard at 76 Totters’ Lane became. Like the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, those who entered went into a completely different world. The shock schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright experienced was mirrored by the audience who watched that episode – or caught it on the repeat the following week.

TARDIS 2It wasn’t just that it was bigger on the inside than the outside: it was the entirety of the TARDIS interior that came as a shock, the gleaming white control room, the roundels on the wall, the odd hexagonal console in the middle. As an audience we knew, because we’d seen Ian walk around it, that it was a standard issue police box, even if there was a faint vibration coming from it. We understood Ian and Barbara’s incomprehension even before the Doctor explained that it wasn’t just an impossible-sized room, but actually part of a ship which could travel anywhere in time and space. Ian’s often-quoted line sums up the amazement of the audience: “Just let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?”

It’s a scene that has been repeated with varying degrees of success over the past half-century. The reboot of the series in 2005 is probably the best recreation, even if it is done at a considerably more frenetic pace than its forebear. Rose and the Doctor are being pursued by an Auton version of Mickey, and the Doctor goes inside the police box. Rose follows him in, can’t believe her eyes, and runs out again, goes all the way around the TARDIS (just as Ian did), and then re-enters to see the impossibility of the console room. It was a great reintroduction of the concept for the audience who pretty much hadn’t seen Doctor Who for nearly 16 years even if to most of them, a police box was as alien a sight as the TARDIS interior. What was once commonplace was now a relic of the past, to the extent that the BBC had successfully been able to beat off a lawsuit from the Metropolitan Police as to who had the rights to the design.

TARDIS 3By 2005, police boxes – bar the odd one or two kept for decorative purposes – had been withdrawn from British streets with the increased use of personal radios by police officers. During the 26-year run of the classic series, the show began to acknowledge that – although it’s now quite amusing to watch the consternation of the TARDIS crew when they arrive in 22nd century London at the start of The Dalek Invasion of Earth and believe that there’ll be a problem trying to retrieve the TARDIS from behind a pile of rubble. (“They’ll want to know why we’re trying to break into a police box,” the Doctor, of all people, points out – surely he must have known that no one would bat an eyelid.) In the real world, the image of a police box was indelibly associated with the TARDIS, and even those who only vaguely remembered Doctor Who recalled that it was something bigger on the inside than the outside.

The physical shell of the TARDIS underwent a few changes during the classic series, most of which were not commented on within the fiction of the show: in Logopolis, Tom Baker’s final story, the Doctor makes an effort to correct the dimensions by measuring what he believes is a real police box. The alterations were usually made because of practical considerations caused by damage to the prop. (The ship often looked different in early effects shots, because the dimensions of the model used didn’t match the full-size version.) More changes, to bring it in line with the original police boxes, were made for the show’s return in 2005, with yet more occurring at the start of Matt Smith’s tenure.

TARDIS 4The interior, on the other hand, changed considerably. Elements in the control room came and went as the story demanded; the dimensions of the room itself expanded and contracted as required – compare the Pertwee version of the TARDIS with early Hartnell and the difference is clear. Photographic flats would sometimes be used to represent the roundels on the wall, which the restored DVDs show up in all their lack of glory. The scanner screen would alter in form – sometimes a television monitor, other times a full wall screen. However, for 13 years, it was recognisably the same place.

Then, in Elisabeth Sladen’s penultimate story, The Masque of Mandragora, broadcast in 1976, we were introduced to the ‘secondary control room’, a much more baroque affair, with a wooden console. That didn’t last for too long – just over a year later, the original control room reappeared (after being redecorated, according to the Doctor), and that lasted for a further six years, before being spruced up for the celebratory story The Five Doctors, in which a more ‘contemporary’ central console was introduced. Extra rooms (such as bedrooms) and corridors were seen periodically, all matching the décor of the control room.

TARDIS 5When the show returned in 1996, one of the biggest shocks was the completely revamped control room, which betrayed roots in Jules Verne and the Steampunk movement. This was no longer simply the ‘bridge’ of the TARDIS, from where the Doctor operated the controls: it was his living quarters as well. An armchair, an old-fashioned gramophone, and a library were now features – as well as multiple uses of the Seal of Rassilon, a Gallifreyan symbol that had actually first appeared in the programme in a Cybermen story a year before The Deadly Assassin. (In his novelisation of the movie, Gary Russell suggested that the Doctor was engaging more with his roots.)

The interior of the TARDIS changed yet again for the 2005 return, with a much more organic look which was a far cry from the gleaming white control room of the show’s roots. The central console was still hexagonal – eventually head writer Russell T Davies included a line reinforcing a theory first expounded in the spin-off novels that the TARDIS was originally designed to have six people working the controls – but little else resembled its forebears. We heard about other rooms, briefly glimpsing the wardrobe, but under Davies’ regime, TARDIS scenes were basically confined to this console room. Matt Smith’s Doctor has had two interiors, the first nearer in style to the Eccleston/Tennant Doctors, the most recent, unveiled in the 2012 Christmas special The Snowmen, hearkening back to the Hartnell era.

Doctor WhoIt was from this console room that the Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS began – a 2013 episode that unfortunately failed to live up to the promise of its title. The Paul McGann movie had introduced us to the idea that the Eye of Harmony (previously understood to be a Gallifreyan artefact) was actually within the ship; the Smith episode tried to explain that, as well as introducing us to what lay at the very heart of the TARDIS.

Far more had been revealed the previous year in Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife, in which the spirit of the TARDIS was placed inside Idris. The idea that the TARDIS is alive has permeated the show across its history – many people forget that Ian Chesterton moots the idea in the very first episode when he feels the vibration coming from the police box. The twenty-first century series has made it clear that TARDISes are grown, rather than manufactured, and Gaiman’s episode even suggested that it was the TARDIS who stole the Doctor rather than the other way around (quite how that tallies with Clara’s actions at the end of The Name of the Doctor, when she points the first Doctor and Susan towards a different ship, hasn’t been clarified yet). It’s another idea pushed heavily in the spin-off novels during the show’s hiatus: a living TARDIS, Compassion, was one of the Eighth Doctor’s companions for a time!

The TARDIS was also linked to the Doctor’s ability to regenerate – in The Power of the Daleks, the new Doctor tries to explain to companions Ben and Polly that the process of renewal is ‘part of the TARDIS. Without it, I couldn’t survive.’ Reinforcing that, the recent regenerations – from Eccleston to Tennant and then into Smith – have taken place within the TARDIS, with the excess energy from the last change causing fires within the ship.

TarDIS 6The Eleventh Doctor’s first season built to Amy Pond remembering the key element of the series – the madman in a box. Not a madman battling monsters such as the Daleks or the Cybermen, or travelling in time and space, but a madman in a box. That box has become a Box of Delights (to use another literary analogy) allowing countless people who have entered through its doors to access many magical worlds. While it has become home to some along the way (and it’s the place where the Doctor is obviously most at home, and indeed where his soul is kept after his death), its key role in the series has been as a magical transportation device.

In the real world, the police box is now once again immediately recognisable as the TARDIS – to the extent that Google Maps have neatly arranged an interior view of the ship as it appears in the current series if you click on the double arrows by their picture of the police box outside Earl’s Court in London. What was once a symbol of staid British normality is now indelibly associated with adventure beyond our wildest dreams.

This essay now forms part of Who Beyond 50: Celebrating Five Decades of Doctor Who. Click here to order it from


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