50 Years in Time and Space: Evolution of the TARDIS

Before Bill Hartnell made his crotchety debut on 1963’s silver screen, there was the TARDIS. The Model A Ford of time machines, the TARDIS was a character in her own right, and her face changed with a frequency close to the Doctor’s himself.

This was due to a number of reasons – namely the producer of the time. But how did these changes manifest themselves? This post will outline notable changes to the TARDIS interior from 1963-2013, over the set’s 50 years on screen.

The 1963 TARDIS


The original TARDIS hum chilled a generation of young spines. Run with the aid of a mercury-filled “fluid link” and sporting a Fast Return switch, the dials and knobs of the TARDIS console were at the whim of the show’s writers. A new function invented here, an old function forgotten there – Neither the actors nor directors were too sure of which. The large hexagonal object on the roof, while never explained, provided much-needed shielding for the draped-curtain backdrop’s seams and harsh studio lights. If the bigger-on-the-inside premise and circular wall pattern weren’t enough, a central console column was thrown in to lend an air of mechanism to the “living machine” atmosphere.

This TARDIS design spanned two Doctors and a decade, remaining relatively unchanged (with the odd extra room being thrown in) until 1973, when John Pertwee’s Doctor regained access to its transportational powers.

The 1973 TARDIS


…but the change was only subtle. As the TARDIS plunged into colour, its knobs and switches were all altered slightly, and the dreaded Fast Return switch was left behind. Perhaps the biggest change to the TARDIS’s interior was the plastic-isation of the wall discs. Yes, the TARDIS rode the wave of the plastic revolution, and entered into the 1970s. After the Doctor’s exile to Earth, his ship became irrelevant. But The Three Doctors saw the redemption of the “dematerialisation circuit” after The Doctor aided the Time Lords in a little affair regarding the end of the universe, and he went on his merry way back into time and space. Throughout this TARDIS’s days, John Pertwee was noted to have memorised the functions of each button, and, unlike a certain previous actor playing The Doctor, actually knew what he was supposed to be pressing.
The TARDIS then saw a change back to non-semisphere circular wall panels and yet again more control changes with the hand-over from Third Doctor into Fourth. But no changes were as big as…

The Wooden Console Room TARDIS


This console room, the “secondary” console room, was a flash of retro. Going Victorian, the new interior featured an entirely wooden finish, a small wooden console (craftily omitting the central column), and a behind-the-console entrance rather than a next-to-the-console one. The floor added colour to its previously bland repertoire and decor was improved tenfold. The circular panels of the previous TARDIS console room were kept, but converted into wood along with the rest of the room.

This TARDIS model was beautiful but short-lived. It was soon succeeded by…

The Classic Fourth-Doctor TARDIS


This TARDIS – similar to the 1973 TARDIS – introduced a whole set of new, fancy buttons, as well as columns scattered around the walls and a scanner built into the wall (as opposed to the 1973 TARDIS’s wall-mounted television screen). The most significant change to this TARDIS was the inclusion of organic elements in Tom Baker’s last story, Logopolis. Here, a darkened room is seen with vines growing throughout. This element would be mirrored in 2005’s TARDIS interior.

The 1980s TARDIS


The 1980s TARDIS had several faces. However, most significantly of all, its control panel had a complete makeover. Firstly, a television screen was implemented on the forward-facing panel. This is was the first model to feature an forwardly-accessible screen, and every TARDIS model from then on featured one (with the debatable exception of The Movie TARDIS). The inner workings of the central column changed from a transparent complex of plastic to a set of red and white vertical lights. The door-opening button changed to a lever with a large, loud, ludicrous red ball on the end – something very suited to the 80s. What separates this TARDIS from its successors is the attention to detail: The console was treated with a shaped trim, and underneath the console featured hexagonal detailing. This was the last “white room” TARDIS on Doctor Who, as of 2013.

The Movie TARDIS


6 years after the downfall of classic Who, the TARDIS received an overhaul unlike anything seen before – even more of a change than the Victorian-style wooden console room of the Fourth Doctor. The room was increased from the size of a living room to the size of a warehouse, and a giant metal structure was constructed around the console. The centre-column of the console stretched to the roof, and large Time Lord symbols (“Seals of Rassilon”) were placed around the room. Candles became the main source of lighting, and, as a result, the atmosphere of mystery was significantly improved. The Victorian element returned and the wooden panels came back – the cluttered surroundings even more so. This large-budget TARDIS model set the standard at an all-new high for interior design. Many loved it, some hated it. But it would be another 9 years before the TARDIS underwent a change.

The 2005 TARDIS


This TARDIS design, featured from 2005-2010, was based largely on sea coral. The colour scheme changed to oranges and browns, and the room became circular again. The floor became grated metal and new rooms were introduced; One room, from the 2005 Christmas special The Christmas Invasion, featured a beautiful spiral staircase and more organic structural beams. The “circular wall panel” theme from the classic series was restored, with orange lights being scattered around, it seems with gay abandon. The rest of the design, however, borrowed aspects from The Movie TARDIS, with “cluttered” being the go-to description for designer. Hanging wires and exposed cables were commonplace in this console room.

This TARDIS model was the only model to be destroyed, as the 10th Doctor’s regeneration sparked explosions, fire, and structural collapse. It would then be replaced with…

The “Madman with a Box” TARDIS


This is the strangest of the TARDISes. Constructed from odds and ends including a gramophone and a typewriter, the TARDIS took a leap into Retro Land. With a non-circular room and irregularly sized circular wall panels, this design is much less consistent than its predecessors. The colour scheme went fluoro – bright orange and green was the theme. This is the first multi-level TARDIS, with two stories separating the control deck and the console maintenance area. Rotating knobs were thrown in for good measure, and stairs leading off to unseen rooms were included to maintain the mystery of the previous two TARDIS models. These rooms weren’t seen until The Doctor’s Wife, when Amy and Rory Pond are forced into one of Doctor Who’s most famous recurrences: Endless, endless coridoors. The Doctor’s Wife also saw The Doctor and the TARDIS effectively communicate for the first time, as she – the TARDIS – becomes trapped inside a human’s body. The TARDIS is given a name, too – “Sexy”. Some believe this to be accurate, some don’t. This “Madman with a Box” interior sparked many a debate among Doctor Who fans – and one that will carry on for years to come.

The “Mid-Series Change” TARDIS


Mid-way through Series 7, the TARDIS got a reboot for the third time since the series’ revival. The console room shrunk, and the lighting scheme changed dramatically to darker, cooler, flatter colours. Pulsating roof lights were brought in to spice things up, and the steampunk-style gimmicks of the “Mad Man with a Box” TARDIS (such as the typewriter and glass floor) were tastefully removed. This is the darkest of the TARDISes, suiting the Doctor’s Victorian make-over that came with the Christmas special, “The Snowmen”. It is also the first TARDIS to feature a large mechanical structure, with the overhead “time rotor” working through the power of motors, rather than CGI (thanks to Dave for pointing this out).

The TARDIS has changed immensely over the last 50 years. From its humble blue-box beginnings 1963, to the blazing Ferrari of a time machine that was Matt Smith’s debut, these nine variations of that police box we know and love prove that Doctor Who is a television show of style, of finesse, of creativity, and most of all, of change.

Bring on the next 50 years of time travel, BBC.

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