Before we get into this skip through the sentient metal daisies of TARDIS-lore, you will need to watch this video, because it handily encapsulates everything that is magical (or, if that’s too loaded a term, supernatural) about the Doctor’s travelling box – the box in which everything that we know that is scientifically impossible, becomes possible:
So why is it so magical? What makes this time machine better than all the other time machines in time machine history (an unfinished history, written in non-chronological order for obvious reasons)? And can this information be organised into some kind of easy-to-digest list, for Twitter-addled brains to process, one nugget at a time?
I’m so glad I asked:
“It’s bigger on the inside”
The first and best of all the impossibilities that the TARDIS contains, because the fact that it is bigger on the inside comes not from science (although it is often explained using science) but from supernatural children’s literature: the TARDIS is a wardrobe that contains Narnia. To cross the threshold is to enter another place entirely, a bigger place in which astonishing things happen. And to add fairy dust to this particular conjuring trick, once you go back across that threshold, you’re somewhere else entirely.
“I was in the library… so was the swimming pool”
It may be that the formula of the stories for Doctor Who dictates that he can’t spend too much time indoors, tidying up or dusting his home, but one of the most delightful sidebars in the show is that the TARDIS has a ton of rooms inside with lots of different purposes. Anything you can imagine is probably in there somewhere, from an extensive wardrobe of bizarre clothes that he has picked up on his travels, to an ice rink (I did say probably). There has certainly been a swimming pool and library, plus extensive guest bedroom space (which raises an interesting question: does every companion get their own room, and are they left unchanged when the companions leave?) and presumable some kind of interdimensional space toilet too. The unplanned genius of this conceit is that this aspect of the TARDIS is never really explored in too much detail. It’s just left open to the imagination.
Unless you’re running a warehouse and don’t want to pay excessive rent for floor space, what’s the use of a blue box that contains enough mansion room for the staff and residents of Downton Abbey several times over? Well possibly quite a lot of use, but we don’t have to worry about this because the TARDIS can travel. Not just in space, although that would be impressive enough, but in time as well. Although, and this is really a footnote for any scriptwriters who want to use this aspect as an easy way of saving the day, there are rules, and you cannot break them. The most notable being that you can’t go back on your own timeline, which would make it possible for you to fix any problem in any story by having multiple goes at it until everything finally works out for the best. Apart from that, you can pretty much go where you want, and (theatrical pause, raised eyebrow) WHEN you want (smug glow).
It was made originally by running a set of keys up and down piano strings and then heavily processing the sound, making a noise that is pitched somewhere between a miffed swarm of bees and an equally miffed bull elephant. So it’s a sound that is both granular and solid at the same time, like a thing that is angrily appearing out of nothing. And it’s a perfect set up for that River Song line about the Doctor having left the brakes on.
Now here’s a thing that uses scientific terms in order to create a magical incantation. The acronym Time And Relative Dimension In Space may spell out TARDIS, but it doesn’t really define what the vehicle we know as a TARDIS actually does. In fact, while hinting heavily at the purpose of the ship, it’s merely an opaque series of words: an unfinished sentence with no verb and no useful noun. Time And Relative Dimension (singular, please) In Space WHAT? WHAT does time and its relative dimension DO in space? It’s like calling a pair of roller skates Fun And Relative Feeling In Street (or FARFIS, for short).
A hexagonal robot mushroom with a neon plinth thrusting up out of it, which allows actors to move around busily, while talking, so that even if their back is to the camera for a second, you know it won’t be for long. And it looks thrillingly plausible as an interface for a time machine, so much so it’s difficult to remember that it has been designed by a TV set designer. And part of that plausibility is that it looks fiendishly complex. It’s really important that we, the audience, don’t ever know too much about which switches do what in the TARDIS. Which leads us neatly to…
Fiddling With The Console
Without meaning to let daylight in on magic, one of the chief jobs of any actor playing the role of the Doctor is to make the TARDIS console look like it is fully operational. It doesn’t really matter whether the switches are shiny and fresh or tarnished and brassy, in the real world, none of them do a thing, so they have to be invested with power, and that’s what the Doctor does. Sometimes it’ll be a worried grab at a lever, other times an imperious twist of a knob, or a triumphant smack of the hand down on a button, but if there’s any electrical spark in that strange octagonal plinth, it’s the Doctor that provides it.
The Ghost In The Machine
Another tick in the ‘magic’ column is that the TARDIS appears to be sentient. It delivers the Doctor to places where he can do good things (or be taught a valuable lesson), without always following his direction. Sometimes it becomes the agent of salvation – as it did in The Parting of the Ways, when it allowed Rose to view the time vortex, and therefore defeat the Daleks – and sometimes it’s a mule that won’t be told where to go. Long before the spirit of the TARDIS was taken out and placed inside a girl called Idris, we knew what she would be like: impulsive, wise, capricious, indulgent, stubborn, and yes, sexy.
The Chameleon Circuit
We’ve said this before, but a crucial difference between British sci-fi and American sci-fi is that the machines in British sci-fi tend to look a little more careworn, don’t always work to full capacity, and often break (the most notable exception on the American side being the Millennium Falcon in The Empire Strikes Back, and even that got fixed in the end.). This is because an explosive collision of lofty concept and low achievement is the bright light under which we Brits tend to enjoy looking at our own reflections. So while the TARDIS is undoubtedly the most incredible device in all of science fiction, as it belongs to a very English sort of Gallifreyan, it’s also a little bit broken. Hence the police box thing.
Oh one last bit of hidden astonishment on this point:
The TARDIS Graveyard – The Doctor’s Wife
This is a deleted scene, but it says something very eloquent about the secret life of a TARDIS – one that is not the Doctor’s idiosyncratic TARDIS, at any rate – in that they are supposed to blend in, and even when smashed into bits in a junkyard, that instinct is within their machinery at some primal level. So you could argue that the Doctor, being an extrovert sort, has led his particular TARDIS astray. Not that she seems to mind, of course.
Don’t forget, if you want to see The Brit List countdown of the best things you’ll only see on Doctor Who, as voted for by Anglo readers, watch BBC America this Friday at 10/9c.