A TARDIS is a type of time machine in the long-running British science fiction television programme Doctor Who. The name is an acronym of Time And Relative Dimension (or Dimensions) In Space, and is larger insider than out. Such is the popularity of Doctor Who that the word TARDIS has become firmly established in popular vocabulary, even appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary, and used to refer either to something that appears bigger on the inside than outside, or as a general-purpose term for a time machine.
From the first episode of Doctor Who in 1963, and for most of the series's run, the TARDIS used by the programme's main character, the "Doctor", has remained in the shape of a police box, a type of telephone booth designed for contacting and supporting the police and a common sight in the UK until the advent of police radios. The explanation for this is that this type of time machine is able to blend in with its surroundings, but the mechanism enabling this - later called the "chameleon circuit" - failed in the first episode. Nowadays, the Doctor seems to prefer to keep the exterior that way.
The UK's remaining police boxes are now more firmly associated with dimensionally atypical time machines than with the police itself. For example, the London-based Metropolitan Police service have been largely unsuccessful in keeping their police boxes out of the realm of science fiction. As well as the name TARDIS being a registered trademark of the British Broadcasting Corporation, in 1996 the BBC applied to the UK Patent Office to register the image as a trademark. This was challenged by the 'Met', who felt that they owned the rights to the police box design. However, the Patent Office found that there was no evidence that the Metropolitan Police — or any other police force — had ever registered the image as a trademark. In addition, the BBC had been selling merchandise based on the image for over three decades without complaint by the police. The Patent Office issued a ruling in favour of the BBC in 2002.
The TARDIS in Doctor Who
Some spoilers below
A product of Time Lord technology, a properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in Time and Space. The interior of a TARDIS is much larger than its exterior, which can blend in with its surroundings through the ship's chameleon circuit. In the series, the Doctor pilots an unreliable, obsolete Type 40 TARDIS whose chameleon circuit is stuck, giving it the shape of a 1950s-style London police box.
When Doctor Who was being developed in 1963, the production staff discussed what the Doctor's time machine would look like. Due to budgetary constraints, it was decided to make it resemble a police box. This idea came from BBC staff writer Anthony Coburn, who is believed to have conceived the time machine's external form after spotting a real police box while walking near his office on a break from writing the episode. At the time of the series's debut, the police box was still a common fixture in British cities, and with some 700 in London alone, it was a logical choice for camouflaging a time machine. In that first episode,An Unearthly Child, however, the TARDIS is first seen in a junkyard; it subsequently malfunctions, retaining the police box shape rather than changing its external form to blend in with a new landscape.
To a degree, the idea may have begun as a creative ploy by the BBC to avoid building a new TARDIS for every adventure, and indeed the original police box prop itself was an existing 1950s structure from the BBC police drama series Dixon of Dock Green, pressed into service as a time machine. This saw action only in the untransmitted pilot episode, as it proved difficult to manhandle through the studio; a lighter replacement was built which lasted until 1975.
As the old-style police box was phased out of use, the TARDIS's anachronistic appearance become more obvious, with very few police boxes of that style left in Britain. Despite this, the TARDIS has become the show's most consistently recognisable visual element.
The police box props for the television series were originally made out of wood, and later on from fibreglass, for easy transportation and construction. They have also varied slightly in their dimensions and designs over the years, and do not conform precisely to their real-life counterparts. The type of police box the TARDIS resembled was normally constructed out of concrete, surmounted with a flashing light to alert passing police officers of an incoming call. The TARDIS has been shown to contain a non-working telephone behind an information panel, but the light flashes while the machine is in flight.
The production team conceived of the TARDIS travelling by dematerialising at one point and rematerialising elsewhere, although sometimes in the series it is shown also to be capable of conventional space travel. The ability to travel simply by fading into and out of different locations became one of the trademarks of the show, allowing for a great deal of versatility in setting and storytelling without a large expense in special effects. The distinctive accompanying sound effect — a cyclic wheezing, groaning noise — was originally created in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop by Brian Hodgson. He produced the effect by dragging a set of house keys along the strings of an old, gutted piano. The resulting sound was then recorded and electronically processed with echo and reverb.
TARDISes are grown, not made (The Impossible Planet; the spin-off media, which are of uncertain canonicity, suggest that they are "birthed"). They draw their power from several sources, but primarily from the nucleus of an artificial black hole, known as the Eye of Harmony the 1996 Doctor Who television movie). In The Edge of Destruction (1964), the power source of the TARDIS (referred to as the "heart of the TARDIS") is said to be beneath the central column of the console, with the rise and fall of the column an indication of its functioning.
The TARDIS usually travels by dematerialising in one spot, traversing the time vortex, and then rematerialising at its destination, without physically travelling through the intervening space. However, it has been seen to be able to fly through physical space, first in Fury from the Deep (1968) and more recently in The Parting of the Ways (2005), The Christmas Invasion (2005) and The Runaway Bride (2006). As seen in The Runaway Bride, however, this puts a strain on the TARDIS's systems.
Apart from the ability to travel in space and time (and, on occasion, to other dimensions), the most remarkable characteristic of a TARDIS is that its interior is much larger than it appears from the outside. The explanation is that a TARDIS is "dimensionally transcendental", meaning that its exterior and interior exist in separate dimensions. In The Robots of Death (1977), the Fourth Doctor tried to explain this to his companion Leela, using the analogy of how a larger cube can appear to be able to fit inside a smaller one if the larger cube is farther away, yet immediately accessible at the same time. According to the Doctor, transdimensional engineering was a key Time Lord discovery. To those unfamiliar with this aspect of a TARDIS, stepping inside the ship for the first time usually results in a reaction of shocked disbelief as they see the interior dimensions.
Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter, claimed to have coined the name TARDIS: "I made [it] up from the initials". However, the word TARDIS is used to describe other Time Lords' travel capsules as well. The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Keith Topping and Martin Day suggests that "[she] was an influential young lady, and her name for time machines caught on." The Virgin New Adventures novel Lungbarrow by Marc Platt records Susan telling the First Doctor that she gave him the idea when he was, implicitly, the "Other".
As one of the most recognisable images connected with Doctor Who, the TARDIS has appeared on numerous items of merchandise associated with the programme. TARDIS scale models of various sizes have been manufactured to accompany other Doctor Who dolls and action figures, some with sound effects included. Fan-built full-size models of the police box are also common. There have been TARDIS-shaped video games, play tents for children, toy boxes, cookie jars, book ends, key chains and even a police-box-shaped bottle for a TARDIS bubble bath. The 1993 VHS release of The Trial of a Time Lord was contained in a special edition tin shaped like the TARDIS.
With the 2005 series revival, a TARDIS-shaped DVD/CD cabinet, standing 22 inches (55 cm) tall with adjustable shelves, was made by Cod Steaks Ltd, a Bristol-based model-making company. Other TARDIS-related merchandise announced in conjunction with the new series included a TARDIS coin box and a TARDIS that detects the ring signal from a mobile phone and flashes when an incoming call is detected, a TARDIS "Zipperdrobe" (wardobe made of fabric), as well as a children's book, the TARDIS Manual which contained information on the ship and a pop-out-and-make cardboard model. The complete 2005 season DVD box set released in November 2005 resembles a TARDIS. Firebox, a UK based manufacturer of computer peripherals have made a 4-port USB Hub shaped like a TARDIS.
The TARDIS has frequently appeared or been referred to in popular culture outside Doctor Who.
- TARDIS has come to be used for anything surprisingly spacious (appearing in adverts for small cars, for example) and it has been immortalised in space: Asteroid 3325 was named "TARDIS" in its honour. In the 1989 movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, the two protagonists travel in a time machine disguised as a phone booth, although it is no bigger inside than outside, and humour is derived from its being crowded. In the 1995 movie Blue Juice, JC, a character played by Sean Pertwee (son of Third Doctor actor Jon Pertwee), talks up his rather small caravan as being "a lot bigger on the inside — you know, like the TARDIS".
- When answering children's questions on an episode of the BBC television programme Blue Peter in October 2006, British Prime Minister Tony Blair compared the interior of his official residence at 10 Downing Street to the TARDIS when asked if it was larger on the inside than it looked from the street. "Yes, I mean a lot bigger, we call it like the Tardis."
- In 1988 the band The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (later known as The KLF) released the single "Doctorin' the Tardis" under the name The Timelords. The song is a mix of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Part 1)", Sweet's "Blockbuster" and the Doctor Who theme, with sparse vocals inspired by the Daleks and Harry Enfield's "Loadsamoney" character, in addition to sampling the original theme music composed by Ron Grainer. The TARDIS also gets a mention in the lyrics of the song "How Long's A Tear Take To Dry?" by the Beautiful South (from their album Quench), and in the lyrics of the song "All Things To All Men" by The Cinematic Orchestra (featuring Roots Manuva on vocals).
The Doctor's TARDIS
In the programme, the Doctor's TARDIS is an obsolete Type 40 TT capsule (presumably TT stands for "time travel") that he unofficially "borrowed" when he departed his home planet of Gallifrey. By the time of The Ribos Operation the Doctor had been flying it for 523 years (though it is not clear whether these are Earth years or Gallifrey years).
The TARDIS was already old when the Doctor first took it, but exactly how old is a matter of conjecture; the spin-off media have, on a number of occasions, had the TARDIS wait around for the Doctor for decades and even centuries in relative time. In The Empty Child (2005), the Ninth Doctor claimed that he has had "900 years of phone box travel", meaning the TARDIS is at least that old or has been stuck in that shape for that amount of time from the Doctor's personal perspective.
As noted above, although the TARDIS is supposed to blend inconspicuously into whatever environment it turns up in, it invariably retains the shape of a police box (which it first took when landing in 1963) because of a faulty chameleon circuit. The exact nature of the fault has never been specified. In Boom Town (2005), the Doctor implied that he had stopped trying to fix the circuit quite some time ago because he'd become rather fond of the police box shape — a claim the Eighth Doctor likewise made in the 1996 television movie.
Despite the anachronistic police box shape, the TARDIS's presence is rarely questioned when it materialises in the present-day United Kingdom. In Boom Town, the Doctor simply noted that humans do not notice odd things like the TARDIS, echoing a similar sentiment expressed by the Seventh Doctor in Remembrance of the Daleks (1988), that humans have an "amazing capacity for self-deception."
For most of the series' run, the exterior doors of the police box operated separately from the heavier interior doors, although sometimes the two sets could open simultaneously to allow the ship's passengers to look directly outside and vice versa. The entrance to the TARDIS is capable of being locked and unlocked from the outside with a key, which the Doctor keeps on his person and occasionally gives copies of to his companions. In the 1996 television movie, the Eighth Doctor (and the Seventh before him) kept a spare key "in a cubby hole behind the 'P'" (of the POLICE BOX sign).
The TARDIS lock's security level has varied from story to story. Originally, it was said to have 21 different "holes" and would melt if the key was placed in the wrong one (The Daleks, 1963). The First Doctor was also able to unlock it with his ring (The Web Planet, 1965) and repair it by using the light of an alien sun refracted through the ring's jewel (The Daleks' Master Plan). In the 2005 series, the keys are also remotely linked to the TARDIS, capable of signalling its presence or impending arrival by heating up and glowing. The TARDIS keys have varied in design from an ordinary Yale key to an ankh-like key embossed with an alien pattern.
The exterior dimensions can be severed from the interior dimensions under extraordinary circumstances. In Father's Day (2005), a temporal paradox resulting in a wound in time threw the interior of the ship out of the wound, leaving the TARDIS an empty shell of a police box, only restored after the paradox was resolved.
Once through the doors of the police box, the TARDIS interior has a vast number of rooms and corridors. The exact dimensions of the interior have not been specified, but apart from living quarters, the interior includes an art gallery (which is actually an ancillary power station), a bathroom with a swimming pool, a medical bay and several brick-walled storage areas (all seen in The Invasion of Time, 1978). Portions of the TARDIS can also be isolated or reconfigured; the Doctor was able to jettison 25% of the TARDIS's structure in Castrovalva to provide additional "thrust."
A distinctive architectural feature of the TARDIS interior is the "roundel." In the context of the TARDIS, a roundel is a circular decoration that adorns the walls of the rooms and corridors of the TARDIS, including the console room. Some roundels conceal TARDIS circuitry and devices, as seen in the serials The Wheel in Space (1968), Logopolis, Castrovalva (1981), Arc of Infinity (1983), Terminus (1983), and Attack of the Cybermen (1985). In the secondary console room, most of the roundels were executed in recessed wood panelling, with a few decorative ones in what appeared to be stained glass. In the new series, the roundels are built into hexagonal recesses in the walls of the new console room.
Although the interior corridors were not seen in the 2005 series, the fact that they still existed was established in The Unquiet Dead, when the Doctor gave Rose some very complicated directions to the TARDIS wardrobe. The wardrobe is mentioned several times in the original series and spin-off fiction, and seen in The Androids of Tara (1978), The Twin Dilemma (1984) and Time and the Rani (1987). The redesigned version, from which the tenth Doctor chooses his new clothes, was seen in The Christmas Invasion (2005) as a large multi-levelled room with a spiral staircase. Designer Ed Thomas has suggested that more rooms may be seen in coming episodes.
The console room
The most often seen room of the TARDIS is its console room, where its flight controls are housed. The console room was designed by Peter Brachaki and was the only set he designed for the show. The set was costed over several episodes since it was expensive. The basic design of the hexagonal console and wall roundels has persisted to the present day.
In the 2005 series, the console room became a dome-shaped chamber with organic-looking support columns. The interior doors are now absent, with the police box doors being clearly visible from inside the TARDIS.
The TARDIS console
The main feature of the console rooms, in any of the known configurations, is the TARDIS console that holds the instruments that control the ship's functions. The appearance of the primary TARDIS consoles has varied widely but share common details: hexagonal pedestals with controls around the periphery and a moveable column in the centre that bobs rhythmically up and down when the TARDIS is in flight, like a pump or a piston.
The console can be operated independently of the TARDIS. During the Third Doctor's era, he occasionally detached the console from the TARDIS to perform repairs on it. In Inferno (1970) the Doctor rides a detached console into a parallel universe.
The central column is often referred to as the "time rotor", although when the term was first used in The Chase (1965) it referred to a different instrument on the TARDIS console. However, the use of this term to describe the central column was common in fan literature and was finally used on screen when the Doctor referred to the central column as the time rotor in the 1996 television movie. The current production team uses the term in the same way.
The new series' console is circular in shape and divided into six segments, with both the control panels and the central column glowing green, the latter once again connected to the ceiling. In Boom Town, a portion of the TARDIS console opened and a luminescent vapour could be seen within, described by the Doctor as the "heart of the TARDIS", harkening back to the description in The Edge of Destruction. In The Parting of the Ways (2005) it was shown that this is connected to the powerful energies of the time vortex.
Because the TARDIS is so old, it is inclined to break down. The Doctor is often seen with his head stuck in a panel carrying out maintenance of some kind or another, and he occasionally has to give it "percussive maintenance" (a good thump on the console) to get it to start working properly. Efforts to repair, control, and maintain the TARDIS have been frequent plot devices throughout the show's run, creating the amusing irony of a highly advanced space-time machine which, at the same time, is an obsolete and unreliable piece of junk.
Spoilers end here
- BBC: A Beginner's Guide to the TARDIS.
- Generally, 'TARDIS' is written in all upper case letters, but many examples of the forms 'Tardis' or 'tardis' are found in media and, occasionally, licensed publications. In the 2005 series episode World War Three, the caller ID of the TARDIS is displayed on Rose Tyler's mobile phone as "Tardis calling." This usage is consistent with current British press style, in which acronyms are referred to with only the first letter capitalised (for example, Nato), while initialisms (which are not pronounced as words), such as BBC, are capitalised in their entirety. The capitalisation of the initial letter and having the rest in lower case is also the default setting for Nokia mobile phones.
- There is some disagreement over whether the "D" in the name stands for "dimension" or "dimensions"; both have been used in various episodes. The very first story, An Unearthly Child (1963), used the singular "Dimension" and other episodes followed suit for the next couple of years. The 1964 novelisation Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks used the plural "Dimensions" for the first time and the 1965 serial The Time Meddler (1965) introduced it to the television series. Since then both versions have been used on different occasions; for example, it is singular again when mentioned in Frontios (1984). In Rose (2005), the Doctor uses the singular form (although this was a decision of the actor Christopher Eccleston — the line was scripted in the plural).
- This was not a new idea. It had been used in 1956 by C. S. Lewis in chapters 13 and 16 of The Last Battle. (Earlier, Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) had used it in The Master and Margarita (chapter 22), but this book was suppressed by the Soviet authorities and had not appeared by 1963.)
- Ask Oxford: The Essence of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED's verdict: "This is not a new term by any means (Dr Who [sic] was first broadcast in 1963), but over the years it has gradually become established as a way of referring to something larger on the inside than it appears from the outside, as well as meaning 'a time machine'. Our database reveals several examples of the former sense, e.g. 'the high-ceilinged back bar of this Tardis-like pub' (1990 Good Pub Guide)."
- Case details for Trade Mark 1068700. UK Patent Office. Retrieved on 2007-01-28.
- Case details for Trade Mark 2104259. UK Patent Office. Retrieved on 2007-01-17.
- The link to Doctor Who is unacknowledged on the official police box webpage: Metropolitan Police Service: Police Boxes.
- Knight, Mike. IN THE MATTER OF Application No. 2104259 by The British Broadcasting Corporation to register a series of three marks in Classes 9, 16, 25 and 41 AND IN THE MATTER OF Opposition thereto under No. 48452 by The Metropolitan Police Authority (PDF). UK Patent Office. Retrieved on 2007-01-17.
- BBC wins police Tardis case. BBC News (2002-10-23). Retrieved on 2007-01-17.
- Howe & Walker (2003: 23).
- Howe & Walker (2003: 15-16).
- Policeboxes.com: History of the TARDIS.
- Doctor Who Tardis 4-Way USB Hub. Firebox.com. Retrieved on 2007-01-31.
- Miniature Tardis sells at auction, BBC News, 2005-12-15. Retrieved on 2006-04-19.
- No 10 'like Tardis', says Blair. BBC News Online (2006-10-03). Retrieved on 2006-10-03.
- Time Lord handed permanent home, BBC News, 2006-07-27. Retrieved on 2006-07-28.
- Inside The Spaceship: The Story Of The TARDIS (2006).