The Tardis was the shock reveal in the very first Doctor Who episode in 1963 when two London schoolteachers forced their way into a police box and found that its doors led into a vast hi-tech control room – the pride and joy of the first Doctor, William Hartnell. It was a jaw-dropping surprise for BBC viewers 55 years ago as they too struggled to grasp the concept of a vessel that was bigger on the inside and could traverse space and time.
Ever since, the discovery of the Tardis has been a key moment for each new companion, while its evolving design has been a gift – and a challenge – for the cast and programme-makers…
1960s Tardis, Doctor Who (Radio Times Archive/Don Smith)
The original 1963 Tardis design concept with a six-sided control console and walls with circular indentations (roundels) was dazzling in its day, but Doctor Who’s first director, Waris Hussein, tells RT in 2018: “It was actually created with a degree of indifference by the designer Peter Brachacki, who didn’t have much enthusiasm for the project. It was also born out of a lack of finance and the result was very spartan, but in an odd way the simplicity worked in the long run. The hexagonal centrepiece has become a classic. What amuses me is that it’s been elaborated upon over time into the incredible set we have today.”
1980s Tardis, Doctor Who (Radio Times Archive/Don Smith)
Peter Brachacki’s concept was retained, with a few facelifts, for most of Doctor Who’s original 26-year run. (Tom Baker’s Doctor used a mahogany-panelled room during his third series, 1976/77, designed by Barry Newbery, which would influence many of the later redesigns.) When Peter Davison was the fifth Doctor in 1983, visual effects designer Mike Kelt was allowed to spruce up the control console. Talking to Patrick Mulkern in 1986 (then reporting for Doctor Who Magazine), Kelt recalled: “The BBC visual effects department felt the console had needed a facelift for some time. I suggested it to producer John Nathan-Turner just before The Five Doctors, and he said it seemed a very good idea to do it for the [20th anniversary] special.”
Visual effect designer Mike Kelt with the dismantled Tardis console, 1986 (Patrick Mulkern)
“I made it so that it could be easily dismantled into several basic parts – the six fibreglass panels, an aluminium frame they slot into, the base and the column in the middle. We gave it a more functional look with a lot more buttons and TV monitors. I was almost given carte blanche with it, although the producer insisted we retain the big red-knobbed door button.”
1996 Tardis (Radio Times Archive/Marc Bryan Brown)
After seven years off air, Doctor Who came back as a feature-length, American-backed co-production starring Paul McGann. With a budget of $1 million at his disposal for a new Tardis interior, Canadian designer Richard Hudolin conceived spectacular, spacious chambers with a Jules Verne/ Victorian vibe. The console retained its six panels but was now made of varnished oak. Alison Graham went on set in Vancouver and described the Tardis as “a cross between a gentlemen’s club and a library, littered with the accumulated souvenirs of centuries of time travel”.
The Tardis, Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper (BBC)
Doctor Who finally blasted back onto our screens in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper — and of course a totally new Tardis, albeit retaining the central console and hexagonal motif. Designer Edward Thomas told RT: “It’s much more of an organic time machine than electrical. A vast cathedral of space. What made previous Tardises look like sets was the flat floor, so I raised it up and gave the Doctor the chance to get down underneath and really work at the console.” Showrunner Russell T Davies added: “Inside, it used to be a bit like a laboratory, but Edward has turned it into this fantastic environment, with magical lighting and pillars like coral.”
Incoming Doctor David Tennant took on this Tardis design in Christmas 2005 and kept it for his whole tenure.
David Tennant, Tardis (BBC)
Tennant’s years in the Tardis (2005-10) weren’t always trouble-free. He tells RT: “There’s something very pleasing about stepping out of that iconic box wherever it might land, but with the actual box itself it was always quite hard to close the door, because it was flat-packed. It would be assembled usually rather quickly — and very expertly of course — but sometimes, like any Ikea cabinet, the doors weren’t always as flush as they might be when you were making a big exit or entrance.”
Karen Gillan, Matt Smith, Tardis (Radio Times Archive/Mark Harrison)
Matt Smith’s Doctor debuted with a vibrant, multi-levelled new Tardis that was also designed by Edward Thomas. Former showrunner Steven Moffat tells RT in 2018: “We had the old framework from the Torchwood base and so Ed Thomas decided to use that, and make an even bigger Tardis set. We had a madder, wackier Doctor, so I think we decided to let the set reflect that. Who has bath taps on their console? How do you sum up Matt’s Doctor? BATHTAPS! Oh, and I remember Ed offset the view through the Tardis doors, so kids visiting the location wouldn’t get a glimpse of the new Tardis on the translight hanging in the police box. Once, long ago, that seemed important.”
Peter Capaldi, Tardis (Radio Times Archive/Ian Derry)
Christmas 2012 and the 50th anniversary in 2013 brought in an all-encompassing, vault-like Tardis, which saw out Matt Smith’s Doctor and lasted for all of Peter Capaldi’s tenure. Designer Michael Pickwoad told RT in 2013 that he saw the workings of the vessel as “a mixture of steam, electronics and atomic power”. He took the Hadron Collider as partial inspiration, while other aspects were “modelled on a cross-section of a Wellington bomber, in honour of [inventor] Barnes Wallis, whom I met when I was at university”.
Maybe time does go round in circles… In 2015, the 1960s Doctor Who director Waris Hussein was invited back on set, where he was shown round the latest Tardis by Michael Pickwoad.
Director Waris Hussein and designer Michael Pickwoad in the Tardis, 2015 (Patrick Mulkern)