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Doctor Who: Step inside the TARDIS

Doctor Who: Step inside the TARDIS

The epic tale of a madman with a blue box.

Doctor Who is one of the finest science fiction shows ever produced by the United Kingdom. It first appeared on British television screens more than 50 years ago and, although the original run ended in 1989, the popularity and brilliance of the show's entire concept led to a TV movie in 1996 and then a continuation of the series starting in 2005. Having grown up with the classic series, I still remember how excited I was when the BBC announced that they were bringing it back!

As an Englishman in Canada, I find that Doctor Who often ends up in conversation. I was amazed to discover that it has developed an incredible following outside of the UK. From time to time I also meet people who are interested in watching it, but they find the idea of doing so to be quite daunting given how long the show has been running for. With a string of twelve Doctors and a thirteenth on the way, who can blame them?

Starting with a brief introduction about the show, this will be the first in a series of articles all covering the history of the different eras and different incarnations of the Doctor that we've seen over the last 50 years.

What is Doctor Who?

I'm going to preface this by saying that it is, quite simply, an absolutely barmy concept. Doctor Who is often described as the tale of a mad man in a blue box who travels throughout all of space and time. He's a mysterious alien known as a Time Lord who has lived for several hundreds of years and has the ability to regenerate into a different person when faced with certain death. 

But that concept, that simplicity of the entire show is what's allowed it to continue for so long after its inception in 1963. It is a show where literally anything can happen. One episode may be set in ancient Pompeii right before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, whilst the next may be set on a spaceship in the distant future, saving people from an attack by alien monsters. It's ridiculous, it's fun, it's cheesy in the way that British Sci-Fi often has been, and there's a certain beauty in that.


Who is the Doctor? 

His real name has never once been revealed to the audience. The name "Doctor" is an alias that he chooses to go by, which is what often prompts the response "Doctor Who?" from those he introduces himself to. But one of the reasons I love the show is because of who the Doctor is. There is something to be said about a hero whose weapon of choice is essentially a screwdriver; a tool used for fixing things rather than something capable of causing death or destruction. He looks at violence as a weakness and will only turn to violence himself as an absolute last resort. He's a different kind of hero to the ones that we normally see.

It’s like when you’re a kid the first time they tell you that the world’s turning, and you just can’t quite believe it, because everything looks like it’s standing still. I can feel it. The turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour, and the entire planet is hurtling round the Sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go...

That’s who I am.
— The Ninth Doctor

His ability to regenerate as a way of cheating death also keeps the show fresh. He's the same person at his core; he is wildly eccentric, often unpredictable, exceptionally compassionate with a sense or morality that often outweighs our own. But every time that he's on the verge of dying he regenerates every cell in his body and emerges with a different face and a different personality. In some regards you could loosely compare it to the James Bond franchise in the sense that many actors have portrayed the legendary 007, but that's never something that's been commented on within the movies themselves. The idea of regeneration in Doctor Who is engrained within the storyline. It's part of it. When you regenerate the Doctor, you regenerate the entire show. That's what makes it so compelling to keep watching and that's why it has been able to continue for several decades. It can be anything, it can be set at any point in time, and the Doctor can change.

Some of his incarnations have appeared physically old, some have appeared relatively young, but irrespective of his outward appearance the Doctor is incredibly wise and deceptively ancient. As he's grown older we've learned that despite his benevolence and compassion, he also hides a terrible darkness within him that has been described as being like "fire and ice and rage", making him far from being a goodie-two-shoes running around the universe.




The TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) is the Doctor's time-travelling spacecraft. It was an obsolete and decommissioned model which the Doctor stole from his home planet. A TARDIS has many functions, including serving as a universal translator for its occupants via telephathy. It typically also has the ability to blend itself into its surroundings by taking the appearance of something from the location that it materialises in. When it arrived in London in 1963 (during the first episode) it took on the form of a 1960s police box. However, the "chameleon circuit" responsible for the disguise malfunctioned, leaving it stuck with that appearance. The Doctor grew to admire the look and so never bothered to fix it.

In the real world, this was merely a way of keeping the budget down on a television programme produced in 1963. It seemed like a brilliant disguise to use given how widespread police boxes were in use at the time, but by the 1970s police boxes were being phased out in favour of two-way radios. For a ship that was supposed to blend in, it suddenly became something that stood out and the design became far more associated with Doctor Who than with the original police boxes that it was based on. Some real-life police boxes still exist, one of the more famous ones being outside Earl's Court tube station in London. I also used to take the train past a derelict one located near Collindale every day on my way to work that was being used by the police to store traffic cones for police motorcycle training.

But one of the most fascinating things about the TARDIS isn't what's on the outside, but rather what's on the inside. The Doctor takes great pride and joy in seeing the reactions of his companions upon their first realisation that it is in fact bigger on the inside, something which is seemingly impossible. We often see the control room (pictured below), but the TARDIS is really a massive ship containing several rooms that extend on far more than we usually get to see. There's even a swimming pool

Kyle Hill from the Nerdist has an excellent video as part of his Because Science series that briefly explains How Doctor Who's TARDIS is Bigger on the Inside from a real-world physics point of view.


Like the Doctor, the TARDIS changes appearance from time to time too. The outside has changed colour and dimensions several times over the years, yet none of the props have ever been a faithful replica of the original police box models. Within the context of the show, this is explained as the chameleon circuits displaying a bit of "drift" if left in the same setting for far too long, which is the case given that the circuit has been malfunctioning.

The inside has also undergone many changes, but that is more of a design aesthetic akin to changing your computer's desktop wallpaper or redecorating your kitchen or bathroom. 



The Doctor rarely travels alone. He likes to share his journeys with people who have a certain spark of potential that captures his attention. If you imagine your favourite place or your favourite movie and being given the opportunity to introduce a loved one to it, that's what it's like for the Doctor. His companions are usually human but have also included various alien races and a robotic dog.

Adventures with the Doctor can be dangerous, however. Some companions have died, others eventually decided to leave out of fear. But we've also learned that the Doctor can lose himself to his inner-demons if left without a companion to help keep him grounded.


All of time and space

It's rare that a show has the ability to constantly change as much as Doctor Who does. There is always a mix of emotions when a Doctor leaves; there can be a certain sorrow knowing that we've finished our adventures with that particular incarnation of the Doctor, but it also fills us with excitement about the endless possibilities that are yet to come. That is the magic that keeps the show alive.

Whether you've seen plenty of the show already or are just jumping in now with the latest season, I hope that this series of articles will help fill you in on some of the Doctor's 50 year history that you may have otherwise missed. In the next installment I'll be focusing on the 1960s; exploring how the show was developed, what the Doctor got up to and how the series-defining idea of regeneration came to be.