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There are two designs that the team behind Doctor Who got absolutely right from the very start, that continue to work in the same way—with relatively minor alterations—as they always have. One is the Daleks, and the other is the TARDIS interior.
As we head towards the broadcast of An Adventure In Space and Time, in which Doctor Who is conjured up from nothing, using just the imaginations of some highly-skilled TV professionals – the miracle of the original TARDIS set becomes more and more remarkable. But what is it about that set that makes it so appealing, given that TV spaceships seem to come and go with warp speed and never leave much of an impression?
Well here are some of the elements, common to almost every TARDIS, that make it so unique.
A hexagonal plinth for a dashboard
Other spaceships have a control area that resembles that of a car or a plane. The drivers sit in a chair in front of a screen and you can see where you’re going. The TARDIS doesn’t even have a front, let alone a windscreen. So the console can be approached from any angle. Sometimes lots of people fly the TARDIS, sometimes it’s just the Doctor, but there’s already a sense that this is technology that is beyond our own, made by people who don’t need to see where they’re going. Plus the hexagon thing is compellingly geometric without being square.
Buttons and switches and knobs
No one ever knows what the buttons and switches and knobs on the TARDIS console actually do. And as such, no one really knows what the TARDIS is capable of. This means it can sometimes contain holograms, can obey voices, can dispense sonic screwdrivers, can open the doors if the right person clicks their fingers outside, and can even bar the wrong people from coming in. Even when she is entirely made up of bits of old Earth technology, as the Eleventh Doctor’s first console was, the TARDIS is an unknowable beast, and that’s the way we like her.
The moving column
Because how else can you tell if you’re moving, in a ship with no windows? Something has to represent travel and so the TARDIS has a column that goes up and down. It starts when the ship takes off, and it stops when it lands. That is what it is for, a kind of space-time reverse indicator light that looks like a time piston. But there’s an extra element that makes it truly otherworldy…
It’s a brilliant noise. We all love that noise.
It’s bigger on the inside
The appeal of the bigness takes two forms: the bits we can see are clearly set in a larger space than the inside of a telephone box, which is thrilling. Then there are the bits we can’t see, which must also be around somewhere. The swimming pool, for example, or the bedrooms, or the intergalactic space toilet and squash court (probably). This is what adds enticement to an already magical concept. What else would a ship like the TARDIS contain? And no matter how often we visit the insides of the ship, there are still other rooms, elsewhere, that serve to fire the imagination still further.
The 3D wallpaper
Whether it’s the original circles and columns above, or the Tenth Doctor’s cave-like interior, the walls of the TARDIS have to obey two rules: they are not flat, and they emit light. Human walls are boring by comparison.
The Doctor picks up stuff on his travels, and he has been traveling for a long time. Consequently the TARDIS is well stocked with stuff: old books, dressing up clothes. Even the Sixth Doctor’s coat of many colors was found in the TARDIS, which does rather suggest that it was first collected by one of his previous incarnations. My money is on Two.
Other forms of transportation have seats; to reduce motion sickness, to keep you strapped in and safe, or just to prevent a bad back. The TARDIS sometimes has wooden chairs, or what appears to be the passenger seats from an old car, or a metal bar with foam rubber rudely taped to it, but by and large if you want to be in the console room, you have to stand.
A large wooden hat stand
Because even if you’re not going to sit down, there’s no reason to keep your hat on indoors.