Independent and intelligent Doctor Who publishing from I.B.Tauris. Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 2010.
BBC1. 6.30 pm. 27.04.2013.
Written by Steve Thompson
Directed by Mat King
Other than, perhaps, ‘I’m the Doctor’ and, of course, ‘Run!’, the most oft-repeated line in Doctor Who surely has to be ‘It’s bigger on the inside!’, which is the inevitable response of every new entrant into the Doctor’s TARDIS. The TARDIS is, famously, dimensionally transcendental, which is a useful piece of pseudo-scientific jargon that at least sounds better than ‘magic box’. Interestingly the Doctor himself has never seemed entirely certain of the science, or pseudo-science, of his magic box. William Hartnell’s Doctor compared it to projecting a picture of a large building on a small television screen (television screens were small in the 1960s), while even the uneducated Leila was not taken in by Tom Baker’s perspective trick with two boxes.
Over the years Doctor Who has built up a great deal of mythology about the TARDIS, not all of it entirely consistent. It’s a Mark 40, which the Doctor stole from his own people, the Time Lords, either in order to explore the universe, or, in ‘An Unearthly Child’, to move with his granddaughter Susan to a self-imposed exile on Earth. The TARDIS can travel anywhere in time and space, though the Doctor is rarely entirely in control of the destination and might materialise in Cardiff in 1860 rather than Naples in 1870 (‘The Unquiet Dead’), or spark a panic by returning his companion home a full year rather than the one day later he had intended (‘Aliens of London’). This device does not apply, however, when the script requires the Doctor to materialise the TARDIS precisely, such as in rescuing Rose Tyler from the Dalek ship (‘The Parting of the Ways’) or to go on a farewell tour of his recent companions (‘The End of Time Part 2’). The TARDIS is to all intents indestructible, except when it is destroyed in ‘Frontios’, and is invulnerable to attack, except in ‘The Mind Robber’. A defence mechanism prevents energy weapons from being discharged inside the TARDIS, except for those of the Cybermen in ‘Earthshock’. And the TARDIS has a chameleon circuit that should allow its exterior shape and appearance to blend with its surroundings – except that it’s broken and the Doctor has been unable to repair it, his one considered attempt at doing so in ‘Logopolis’ being flawed from the outset when he unknowingly materialised his TARDIS around a real police box that already contained the Master’s TARDIS. These inconsistencies are in sharp contrast to, say, Star Trek, where the capabilities of the USS Enterprise are established and do not deviate. It’s due, of course, to so many different writers being involved in Doctor Who, and without the equivalent of Gene Roddenberr’s ‘bible’ of do’s and don’ts. But it also suggests a degree of uncertainty about what to do with what is, potentially, one of the best plot devices in the series.
In theory the inside of the TARDIS is infinite (which, as Zaphod Beeblebrox might have said, is pretty cool, dude), and therefore offers all sorts of story opportunities. Star Trek did this with episodes set entirely, or mostly, on board the starship, an idea taken further with the Holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation (though Holodeck malfunction quickly became as tired a plot device as transporter malfunction in the original series). But Doctor Who has never really explored the TARDIS itself. ‘The Edge of Destruction’, the third story of the classic series, was entirely TARDIS-bound, but that was a two-part filler story cobbled together at a fairly late stage and did not venture far beyond the established console room set. The last two episodes of ‘The Invasion of Time’, which also give the impression of having been hurriedly conceived, see the Doctor leading a group of Sontarans in a chase around the TARDIS interior, albeit one that disappointingly resembles a run-down municipal swimming baths. Other than the Cloister Room in ‘Logopolis’, all we saw of the inside of the TARDIS in the 1980s was one anonymous corridor shot from different angles.
One of the features of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who has been the greater attention paid to the TARDIS as a central aspect of the series. Matt Smith’s Doctor has already seen two new control rooms, for instance, and there have been references to the swimming pool and the library (even to the swimming pool being in the library). And Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ – planned for Series 5 but in the event held back for Series 6 – gives the TARDIS ethereal shape in the form of Idris (Suranne Jones) whose flirting with the Doctor reveals much about the relationship between the Time Lord and his time machine. ‘You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go.’ ‘No, but I always took you where you needed to go.’
Like many other Doctor Who fans whose childhood hobbies included drawing plans of the TARDIS interior (I did the same for the Starship Enterprise, it has to be said), I was intrigued and excited in equal measure when I heard this series would include an episode that would show us more of the TARDIS than ever before. It was an imaginative idea. The Doctor temporarily switches off the ‘shield oscillators’ as he shows Clara how to pilot the TARDIS, whereupon it is caught in a ‘magno scoop’ by a group of outer space scrap merchants called the Van Baalen Bros – characterised as a more serious variation on the Red Dwarf crew with the android from Alien thrown in for good measure (except that he turns out not to be an android after all). There were some nice nods to the classic series, including the ringing of the Cloister Bell, and the image of the TARDIS caught like a toy in a giant claw that recalled the moment in ‘Carnival of Monsters’ where a giant hand descends and plucks the miniaturised TARDIS from the mini-scope (a sort of galactic peep show) where it has accidentally materialised. There were also echoes of ‘The House That Jack Built’, a famous episode of The Avengers in which Emma Peel is trapped inside a maze-like house. Here it turns out that the TARDIS’s self-defence mechanism includes the ability to rearrange its internal structure to confuse would-be impostors and to protect its crew by duplicating the control room.
There were so many incidental delights in this episode that it seems churlish to admit that, overall, I was left rather underwhelmed by what we saw of the TARDIS itself. A lot of scenes were set in budget-conscious identikit corridors that in design terms represented little advance on the notoriously shoddy Liberator sets from Blake’s 7. The two big reveals were the library and the Eye of Harmony. But the library was represented by one rather unimaginative CGI shot, suggesting its vastness but entirely lacking in character (unlike, say, the library in the 1996 Doctor Who television movie, or the one in ‘Silence of the Library’), while the core of the TARDIS with the Eye of Harmony (‘An exploding star – on the point of becoming a black hole’) turned out to be a Big Orange Fiery Ball of the type that we’ve seen so often in science fiction. Again it reminded me of scenes in SF films and TV series such as The Black Hole and Battlestar Galactica. Altogether I felt this was an opportunity lost as far as visualising the interior of the TARDIS goes. And that causes me to reflect that perhaps there’s a good reason why we haven’t before seen much of the interior: that the TARDIS is so vast that any design would be a disappointment. Perhaps it is, after all, better left to our imaginations.
There was, however, one remarkable moment in this episode that deserves comment. The Doctor, realising that Clara is in danger, tricks the Van Baalens into helping him rescue her. This reveals a manipulative side to the Doctor (‘The salvage of a lifetime. You meant the ship. I meant Clara’) that recalls his deliberate sabotaging of the TARDIS fluid link in order to explore the mysterious city in ‘The Dead Planet’ – a decision where his thirst for knowledge endangers the lives of his companions. While, in the event, it turned out that the Doctor’s setting of the TARDIS self-destruct was a bluff to make the Van Baalens help by convincing them their lives were in danger, it is an indication of the strength of Matt Smith’s performance that I believed it was for real. Only occasionally has the Doctor revealed his darker side, and it suggests there is more to come. In the meantime Clara’s discovery of a manuscript entitled The History of the Time War in which she reads the Doctor’s name either is laying down a marker for the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary special or will turn out to be another red herring. ■
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, a second edition of which will be published by I. B. Tauris in September 2013.