The TARDIS[nb 1][nb 2] (//; “Time And Relative Dimension In Space”[nb 3]) is a time machine and spacecraft that appears in the British science fiction television series Doctor Who and its various spin-offs.
The TV show Doctor Who mainly features a single TARDIS used by the central character the Doctor. However, in the series, other TARDISes are sometimes seen or used. TARDISes are built with a chameleon circuit, a type of technology that changes the exterior form of the ship to blend into the environment of whatever time or place it lands in. The Doctor’s TARDIS always resembles a 1960s London police box (which were very common at the time), owing to a malfunction in the chameleon circuit after the events of An Unearthly Child, the pilot episode of the show (although it was temporally repaired in Attack of the Cybermen, which ends with it returning to the form of a police box). However, in the revived series (since 2005), it has been stated that despite the broken chameleon circuit, the TARDIS is able to generate a “perception filter”, so that it is ignored by anyone not already aware of its presence. The Doctor had also stopped trying to repair the circuit around that time as he had become fond of its appearance. The other TARDISes that appear in the series have chameleon circuits that are fully functional. While the exterior is of limited size, the TARDIS is famously “bigger on the inside”, with the interior being a whole separate dimension containing an infinite number of rooms, corridors and storage spaces, which can all change their appearances. Once the Doctor claimed that there was a swimming pool, and we sometimes see a changing room. The Doctor once claimed “the weight of the TARDIS would bring down the planet!” The TARDIS also has the ability to translate various languages to English. Whilst every TARDIS has a consciousness of sorts, the Doctor’s TARDIS is notable in that it has a distinct personality. While it is unable to conventionally communicate with living beings, the Doctor is shown to have conversations with the ship on several occasions. It is also able to act independently of the Doctor, often taking him to places it deems he needs to be rather than he wants to be, and refusing to carry out his instructions if it considers them “wrong”.
Doctor Who has become so much a part of British popular culture that the shape of the police box has become associated with the TARDIS rather than with its real-world inspiration.[nb 4] The name TARDIS is a registered trademark of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The police box design has also been registered as a trademark by the BBC, despite the design having been created by the Metropolitan Police.
When Doctor Who was being developed in 1963 the production staff discussed what the Doctor’s time machine would look like. To keep the design within budget it was decided to make the outside resemble a police telephone box: this appearance was explained as being as a result of the mechanism, a “chameleon circuit”, that changes the outside appearance of the ship the millisecond it lands (in order to blend in with its environment) being faulty, and thus it caused the TARDIS to be stuck appearing as a police box. The First Doctor explains that if it were to land in the middle of the Indian Mutiny, it might take on the appearance of a howdah (the carrier on the back of an elephant). Within the context of the series, the TARDIS’s faulty chameleon circuit has been rationalised as one of its familiar characteristics. Despite being shown several times trying to repair it, the Doctor claims to have given up the attempt as he has grown accustomed to its appearance.
The idea for the police-box disguise came from a BBC staff writer, Anthony Coburn, who rewrote the programme’s first episode from a draft by C. E. Webber. While there is no known precedent for this notion, a November 1960 episode of the popular radio comedy show Beyond our Ken included a sketch featuring a time machine described as “a long police box”. In the first episode, “An Unearthly Child” (1963), the TARDIS is first seen in a scrapyard in 1963. It subsequently malfunctions, retaining the police box shape in a prehistoric landscape.
One of the designers for the first episode, Peter Brachacki, created the first Tardis. Nevertheless, one story has it that the box came from Z-Cars, while Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat has said that the original TARDIS prop was reused from Dixon of Dock Green, although this is explicitly contradicted by the research cited on the BBC’s own website. Despite changes in the prop, the TARDIS has become the show’s most consistently recognisable visual element.
The dimensions and colour of the TARDIS props used in the series have changed many times, as a result of damage and the requirements of the show, and none of the BBC props has been a faithful replica of the original MacKenzie Trench model. This was referenced on-screen in the episode “Blink” (2007), when the character Detective Inspector Shipton says the TARDIS “isn’t a real [police box]. The phone’s just a dummy, and the windows are the wrong size.”[nb 5]
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. In the 2006 Christmas special, “The Runaway Bride“, the Doctor remarks that for a spaceship, the TARDIS does remarkably little flying. 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. When employed in the series, the sound is usually synchronised with the flashing light on top of the police box, or the fade-in and fade-out effects of a TARDIS (see “Controls” below). Writer Patrick Ness has described the ship’s distinctive dematerialisation noise as “a kind of haunted grinding sound”, while the Doctor Who Magazine comic strips traditionally use the onomatopoeic phrase “vworp vworp vworp”.
In 1996 the BBC applied to the UK Intellectual Property Office to register the TARDIS as a trademark. This was challenged by the Metropolitan Police, who felt that they owned the rights to the police box image. 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.