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The Third Doctor emerging from the TARDIS (from the 1970 serial Spearhead from Space).

The TARDIS is a fictional time machine in the British science fiction television programme Doctor Who. The name is an acronym of Time And Relative Dimension (or Dimensions) In Space.1 A product of Time Lord technology, a properly piloted and working TARDIS is capable of transporting its occupants to any point in space and time. Its interior exists in multidimensional space, leading to it being significantly larger on the inside than it appears from outside.

In the series, a Type 40 TARDIS is piloted by the Doctor. Although TARDIS is the name of a class of vessel, rather than a specific craft, the Doctor's TARDIS is usually referred to as the TARDIS or, in some of the earlier serials, just as "the Ship". Externally, the TARDIS resembles the shape of a 1950s British police box (a phone booth designed for police communications), and the programme has become so much a part of British popular culture that the shape of the police box is now more immediately associated with the TARDIS than its original real-world function.

As an acronym, TARDIS is correctly written in upper case, but there are many examples of the form Tardis in media and licensed publications.2 In the 2005 series episode World War Three, the caller ID of the TARDIS is displayed on Rose's mobile phone as "Tardis calling".

The word has also entered popular usage and is used to describe anything that seems bigger on the inside than on the outside. The name TARDIS is a registered trademark of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Conceptual history

A 1950s style British police box.

When Doctor Who was being developed in 1963, the production staff discussed what the Doctor's time machine would look like. Due to budgetary constraints, the concept of having it resemble a police box was settled on. This was explained in the context of the series as a disguise created by the ship's "chameleon circuit", a mechanism which is responsible for changing the outside appearance of the ship in order to fit in with its environment. It was further explained that the circuit was broken, therefore explaining why it was "stuck" in that form.

The concept of the police box disguise came from BBC staff writer Anthony Coburn, who rewrote the programme's first episode from a draft by C. E. Webber. Coburn is believed to have had the idea for the time machine's external form after spotting a real police box while walking near his office on a break from writing the episode. At the time of the series' debut in 1963, the police box was still a common fixture in British cities. With some 700 in London alone, it was a logical choice for camouflaging a time machine.

The idea may have begun as a creative ploy by the BBC to save time and money in props, but soon became an in-joke genre convention in its own right as the old-style police box was phased out of use. The anachronism has become more pronounced since there have been very few police boxes of that style left in Britain for some considerable time. Despite slight changes in the prop, the TARDIS has become the show's most consistently recognisable visual element, and the shape of the police box is now more immediately associated with the Doctor in the public mind than with the police.

The type of police box the TARDIS resembled was normally constructed out of concrete. However, the props for the television series were originally made out of wood, and later on from fibreglass, for easy transportation and construction on location as well as within the confines of a studio set. The props have also varied slightly in their dimensions and designs over the years, and do not conform precisely to their real-life counterparts.

In 1996, the BBC applied to the UK Patent Office to register the TARDIS as a trademark. This was challenged by the Metropolitan Police who, not unreasonably, 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.

In general, the TARDIS travels from place to place by dematerialising from one point and rematerialising somewhere else, although it is occasionally shown to travel through space in the manner of a conventional spacecraft. The ability to fade in and out of existence 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 sound of the accompanying effect — a cyclic wheezing, groaning noise — was originally created in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop by Brian Hodgson. He produced the effect by dragging a set of house keys along the strings of an old, gutted piano. The resulting sound was then recorded and electronically processed with echo and reverb.

General characteristics

The console room from the first episode of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child (1963).

TARDISes draw their power from a variety of sources, but their primary source of power is remotely transmitted energy from the nucleus of an artificial black hole created by the legendary Time Lord Omega. The black hole is also known as the Eye of Harmony.

Other elements needed for the proper functioning of the TARDIS and requiring occasional replenishment include mercury (used in its fluid links), the rare ore Zeiton 7 and "artron energy". The latter is a form of temporal energy, generated by Time Lord minds, which is also said to help power TARDISes.

Before a TARDIS becomes fully functional, it needs to be primed with the biological imprint from a Time Lord. This is normally done by simply having a Time Lord operate the TARDIS for the first time. This imprint comes from the Rassilon Imprimatur, part of the biological makeup of Time Lords, which both gives them a symbiotic link to their TARDISes and allows them to withstand the physical stresses of time travel.

Without the Imprimatur, molecular disintegration would result; this acts as a safeguard against misuse of time travel even if the TARDIS technology were copied. Once a time machine is properly primed, however, and the imprint stored on a device called a "briode nebuliser", it can be used safely by any species.3 According to Time Lord law, the unauthorised use of a TARDIS carries "only one penalty", implied to be death.

Apart from their ability to travel in space and time, the most remarkable characteristic of a TARDIS is that its interior is much larger than its exterior appearance would imply. The show has explained this by saying that a TARDIS is "dimensionally transcendental", meaning that its exterior and interior exist in separate dimensions. In The Robots of Death, the Fourth Doctor tried to explain this to his companion Leela, using the analogy of how a larger cube can appear to be able to fit inside a smaller one if the larger cube is further away, yet immediately accessible at the same time (see Tesseract). According to the Doctor, transdimensional engineering was a key Time Lord discovery. To those not familiar with this aspect of a TARDIS, stepping inside the ship usually results in a reaction of shocked disbelief as they see the interior dimensions for the first time.

Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter, claimed to have coined the name TARDIS.4

The Doctor's TARDIS

The secondary console room from the 197677 season.

In the programme, the Doctor's TARDIS is an obsolete Type 40 TT capsule (presumably TT stands for "time travel") that he unofficially "borrowed" when he departed his home planet of Gallifrey. There were 305 registered Type 40s, but all the others had been decommissioned and replaced by new, improved models. However, the changing appearance of the primary console room over the years and the Second Doctor's statement in The Three Doctors ("You've redecorated. I don't like it.") implies that the Doctor does upgrade the TARDIS's systems every now and then.

As noted above, although the TARDIS is supposed to blend inconspicuously into whatever environment it turns up in, it invariably retains the shape of a police box because of a faulty chameleon circuit. The circuit was first mentioned, but not given a technical name, in the second episode of the series. It was first termed the "camouflage unit" in The Time Meddler (1965). The name was changed to "chameleon circuit" in the Target Books novelisations of the serials, and eventually made its way on screen as "chameleon circuit" in 1981's Logopolis.

Despite his considerable ingenuity in other fields and his ownership of a sonic screwdriver, the Doctor has been unable to fix the chameleon circuit. Attempts to repair the circuit were made in Logopolis and Attack of the Cybermen, but the successful transformation of the TARDIS into the shape of a pipe organ in the latter serial was later followed by a return to the status quo. In the 2005 episode Boom Town, the Ninth Doctor implied that he had stopped trying to fix the circuit quite some time ago because he'd become rather fond of the police box shape.

For most of the series' run, the exterior doors of the police box operated separately from the heavier interior doors, although sometimes the two sets could open simultaneously to allow the ship's passengers to look directly outside and vice versa. The entrance to the TARDIS is capable of being locked and unlocked from the outside with a key, which the Doctor keeps on his person and occasionally gives copies of to his companions. In the 2005 series, the keys are also remotely linked to the TARDIS, capable of signalling its presence or impending arrival by heating up and glowing.

The doors are supposed to be closed in-flight; in Planet of Giants, the opening of the doors during a dematerialisation sequence caused the ship and its occupants to shrink to doll size. In The Enemy of the World, taking off while the doors were still open resulted in rapid decompression, with the villainous Salamander being sucked out of the TARDIS. The Second Doctor and his companions managed to cling to the console, and the crisis passed when Jamie managed to shut the doors.

Once through the doors of the police box, the TARDIS interior has a vast number of rooms and corridors. The exact dimensions of the interior have not been specified, but apart from living quarters, the interior includes an art gallery (which is actually an ancillary power station), a bathroom with a swimming pool, a medical bay and several brick-walled storage areas (all seen in The Invasion of Time). Despite this, the TARDIS is light enough to be lifted by several men as if it were an actual police box and any movement of the exterior has also been known to be transmitted to its interior. The fact that the Doctor was able to jettison 25 per cent of the TARDIS's structure in Castrovalva to provide added "thrust" also implies a finite volume.

Other rooms seen include living quarters for many of the Doctor's companions, although the Doctor's own bedroom has never been mentioned or seen. The TARDIS also had a "Zero Room" — a chamber that was shielded from the rest of the universe and provided a restful environment for the Fifth Doctor to recover from his regeneration in Castrovalva — but it was among the 25 per cent jettisoned.

The exterior dimensions can be severed from the interior dimensions under extraordinary circumstances. In Father's Day, a temporal paradox resulting in a wound in time threw the interior of the ship out of the wound, leaving the TARDIS an empty shell of a police box.

The TARDIS was already old when the Doctor first took it, but exactly how old is a matter of conjecture; the spin-off media have, on a number of occasions, had the TARDIS wait around for the Doctor for decades and even centuries in relative time. In The Empty Child, the Ninth Doctor claimed that he has had "900 years of police box travel", meaning the TARDIS is at least that old.

The console rooms

The console room of the Fifth Doctor's era, as seen in The Five Doctors (1983).

Obviously, the TARDIS actually consists of two sets: the police box shell and the internal sets representing its dimensionally transcendental interior. The most often seen room of the TARDIS is its console room, where its flight controls are housed.

The TARDIS has at least two console rooms — the primary, white-walled, futuristic one most used throughout the programme's history and the secondary console room used during the fourteenth season (19761977), which has wood panelling and a more antique feel to it. Two other console rooms have also been seen, in the 1996 Doctor Who television movie and the 2005 series. The cavernous, steampunk-inspired console room of the television movie may have been a reconfiguration of either of the previously mentioned console rooms (as first suggested in Virgin New Adventures spin-off novels and later in the Big Finish Productions audio plays) or another one entirely.

In the 2005 series, the console room became a dome-shaped chamber with organic-looking support columns. The interior doors are now absent, with the police box doors being clearly visible from inside the TARDIS. Although the interior corridors have yet to be seen in the new series, the fact that they still exist was established in The Unquiet Dead, when the Doctor gave Rose some very complicated directions to the TARDIS wardrobe. New series designer Bryan Hitch confirmed in an interview in Dreamwatch magazine that at least one more room would be seen in the 2006 series.

The Virgin novels introduced a tertiary console room, which was described as resembling a Gothic cathedral (Nightshade by Mark Gatiss), and suggested that the "native" configuration is so complex and irrational that most non-Time Lords who witness it are driven mad from the experience (Death and Diplomacy by Dave Stone).

The main feature of the console rooms, in any of the known configurations, is the TARDIS console that holds the instruments that control the ship's functions. The appearance of the primary TARDIS consoles has varied widely but share common details: hexagonal pedestals with controls around the periphery and a moveable column in the centre that bobs rhythmically up and down when the TARDIS is in flight. The central column is often erroneously referred to in fan literature as the "time rotor", although in The Chase, the time rotor was actually another component on the TARDIS console. However, the use of this term passed into fanon and then finally, into canon when the Doctor referred to the central column as the time rotor in the 1996 television movie. The current production team also uses the term "time rotor" to refer to the central column.

The console room from the 1996 television movie.

The secondary console was smaller, with the controls hidden behind wooden panels, and had no central column. The 1996 television movie console also appeared to be made of wood and the central column connected to the ceiling of the console room. The new series' console is circular in shape and divided into six segments, with both the control panels and the central column glowing green, the latter once again connected to the ceiling.

A distinctive architectural feature of the TARDIS interior is the "roundel". In the context of the TARDIS, a roundel is a circular decoration that adorns the walls of the rooms and corridors of the TARDIS, including the console room. Some roundels conceal TARDIS circuitry and devices, as seen in the serials The Wheel in Space, Logopolis, Castrovalva, Arc of Infinity and Terminus. The design of the roundels has varied throughout the show's history, from a basic circular cut-out with black background to a photographic image printed on wall board, to translucent illuminated discs in later serials. In the secondary console room, most of the roundels were executed in recessed wood panelling, with a few decorative ones in what appeared to be stained glass. In the new series, the roundels are built into hexagonal recesses in the walls of the new console room.

In the Third Doctor serial The Time Monster (1972), the console room of the TARDIS was dramatically altered, including the wall roundels. This new set, designed by Tim Gleeson, was disliked by producer Barry Letts who felt that the new roundels resembled washing-up bowls stuck to the wall. As it turned out, the set was damaged in storage between production blocks and had to be rebuilt, so this particular design only saw service in the one serial.

TARDIS systems

The new series console room, first seen in the 2005 season.

Because the TARDIS is so old, it is inclined to break down. The Doctor is often seen with his head stuck in a panel carrying out maintenance of some kind or another, and he occasionally has to give it "percussive maintenance" (a good thump on the console) to get it to start working properly. Efforts to repair, control, and maintain the TARDIS were frequent plot devices throughout the show's run, creating the amusing irony of a highly advanced space-time machine which, at the same time, is an obsolete and unreliable piece of junk. The new series console room has a much more thrown-together appearance than previous consoles, with bits of junk substituting as makeshift controls, including a glass paperweight, a small bell and a bicycle pump.

The TARDIS possesses telepathic circuits, although the Doctor prefers to pilot it manually. In Pyramids of Mars, the Fourth Doctor told Sutekh that the TARDIS controls were isomorphic, meaning only the Doctor could operate them. However, this characteristic seems to appear and disappear when dramatically convenient, and various companions have been seen to be able to operate the TARDIS and even fly it. It has been theorised that either the Doctor was lying to Sutekh or the isomorphic feature is a security feature that the Doctor can activate and deactivate when convenient.

The take off and landing of the TARDIS is accompanied by the famous materialisation sound. In The Web of Fear, the TARDIS console was also seen to have a light that winked on and off during landing, although the more usual indicator of flight is the movement of the central column. The TARDIS also possesses a scanner so that its crew may examine the exterior environment before exiting the ship. In some of the First Doctor serials, the console room also contains a machine that dispenses food or nutrition bars to the Doctor and his companions. This machine disappears after the first few serials, although mention is occasionally made of the TARDIS kitchen.

The Time Lords (as well as similarly powerful beings) are able to divert the TARDIS's flight path (The Ribos Operation), as the renegade Time Lord known as the Rani also did once (The Mark of the Rani). The Rani used a Stattenheim remote control to summon her TARDIS to her. In The Two Doctors, the Second Doctor also used a portable Stattenheim.

Some of the TARDIS's other functions include a force field and the Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS), which can teleport the ship away if it is attacked (The Krotons). The force field may no longer be present on the current TARDIS, as an external device had to be hooked up to provide one in the 2005 series episode The Parting of the Ways. The Cloister Room on the TARDIS sounds the Cloister Bell when "universal disaster" is imminent (Logopolis).

The interior of the TARDIS is said to be in a state of "multidimensional temporal grace" (The Hand of Fear). The Fourth Doctor explained this meant that, "in a sense," things do not exist while inside the TARDIS. This has the practical effect of ensuring that no weapons can be used inside its environs. However, this last function is also inconsistent in its application — weapons were fired in the console room in both Earthshock and The Parting of the Ways. In Arc of Infinity, the Fifth Doctor was planning to repair the temporal grace circuits but was interrupted by the events of that story.

The Jade Pagoda, art by Peter Elson.

The TARDIS also grants its passengers the ability to understand and speak other languages. This was previously described in The Masque of Mandragora as a "Time Lord gift" which the Doctor shared with his companions, but was ultimately attributed to the TARDIS's telepathic field in The End of the World.

At times the TARDIS appears to have a mind of its own. It is heavily implied in the television series that the TARDIS is "alive" and intelligent to a degree (Inside the Spaceship), and shares a bond with those who travel in it; in the television movie the Doctor calls the TARDIS "sentimental". In Boom Town, a portion of the TARDIS control panel opened and a luminescent vapour could be seen within, described by the Doctor as the "heart of the TARDIS". In The Parting of the Ways it was shown that this is connected to the powerful energies of the time vortex. These characteristics have been made more explicit in the spin-off novels and audio plays. In the Big Finish Productions audio adventure Omega, the Doctor meets a TARDIS which "dies" after its Time Lord master has passed away.

In the novels, a portion of the TARDIS could be separated and used for independent travel. This was featured in two Virgin novels, Iceberg by David Banks and Sanctuary by David A. McIntee. This subset of the TARDIS, resembling a small pagoda fashioned out of jade, had limited range and functionality, but was used occasionally when the main TARDIS was incapacitated. A Yahoo! Groups electronic mailing list dedicated to discussion of the Doctor Who spin-off novels adopted the name "Jade Pagoda".

Other TARDISes

File:Rani TARDIS.jpg
The interior of the Rani's TARDIS

Other TARDISes have appeared in the television series. The Master had his own TARDIS, a more advanced model (identified by the Third Doctor as a "Type 41" in Terror of the Autons). Its chameleon circuit is fully functional, so it has been seen in various forms including a filing cabinet, a grandfather clock, a fireplace, an Ionic column, and an Iron Maiden. While a TARDIS can materialise inside another, if both TARDISes occupy exactly the same space, a Time Ram will occur, resulting in total annihilation (The Time Monster). In Logopolis, the Master tricked the Doctor into materialising his TARDIS around the Master's, creating a dimensionally recursive loop, with each TARDIS appearing inside the other's console room.

Other Time Lords with TARDISes included the Meddling Monk and the Rani. The War Chief provided dimensionally transcendent time machines named SIDRATs to the alien race known as the War Lords. In The Chase and The Daleks' Master Plan, the Daleks named their time machines DARDISes.

In the spin-off media, Gallifreyan Battle TARDISes have appeared in the comic books, novels and audio plays, which fire "time torpedoes" that freeze the target in time. The renegade Time Lady Iris Wildthyme's own TARDIS was disguised as a No. 22 London Bus, but was slightly smaller on the inside than it is on the outside. The Eighth Doctor Adventures novels have stated that future model Type 102 TARDISes will be fully sentient, and able to take on humanoid form (Alien Bodies). The Eighth Doctor's companion Compassion was the first Type 102 TARDIS (The Shadows of Avalon), and she was seen to have enough firepower to annihilate other TARDISes (The Ancestor Cell).


In the Big Finish Productions audio play The One Doctor, confidence trickster Banto Zame impersonated the Doctor. However, due to incomplete information, his copy of the TARDIS (a short range transporter) was called a Stardis instead, resembled a portaloo rather than a police box, and was not dimensionally transcendental. In Unregenerate!, the Seventh Doctor and Mel stopped a secret Time Lord project to download TARDIS minds into bodies of various alien species. This would have created living TARDIS pilots loyal to the Time Lords and ensuring that they would have ultimate control over any use of time travel technology by other races. Those created before the project was shut down departed on their own to explore the universe.

Since the destruction of Gallifrey and the Time Lords as stated in the 2005 series, whether any other TARDISes still exist is uncertain. The removal of Gallifrey — and by implication the Eye of Harmony — may also be why the TARDIS in Boom Town needed to refuel using radiation from a space-time rift.

Other appearances and merchandising

As one of the most recognisable images connected with Doctor Who, the TARDIS has appeared on numerous items of merchandise associated with the programme. TARDIS scale models of various sizes have been manufactured to accompany other Doctor Who dolls and action figures, some with sound effects included. Fan-built full-size models of the police box are also common. There have been TARDIS-shaped video games, play tents for children, toy boxes, cookie jars, book ends, key chains and even a police-box-shaped bottle for a TARDIS bubble bath.

With the 2005 series revival, a TARDIS-shaped DVD/CD cabinet, standing 22 inches (55 cm) tall with adjustable shelves, was made by Cod Steaks Ltd, a Bristol-based model-making company. Other TARDIS-related merchandise announced in conjunction with the new series include a TARDIS coin box and a TARDIS that attaches to your telephone and flashes when an incoming call is detected. When the complete 2005 season DVD box set is released in November 2005, the box will resemble a TARDIS.

The TARDIS has been the subject of artistic works apart from Doctor Who. In 1988 the band The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (later known as The KLF) released the single "Doctorin' The Tardis" under the name The Timelords.

The TARDIS made a background appearance in "Marooned", an episode of the science fiction comedy series Red Dwarf (in a corner of the Starbug launching bay). The TARDIS also appeared, abandoned and ignored, in a corner in Doctor Strange's study during the Marvel Mangaverse event published by Marvel Comics in 2002. The main artist on this series and architect of the event, Ben Dunn, is a big Doctor Who fan, and has even included a Doctor-inspired character in the cast of his Ninja High School comic.

Outside of Doctor Who, the TARDIS has been immortalised in space: Asteroid 3325 was named "TARDIS" in its honour. In the 1989 movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, the two protagonists travel in a time machine disguised as a phone booth, although it is not bigger inside than out. It also gets a mention in the lyrics of the song "How Long's A Tear Take To Dry?" by the Beautiful South (from their album Quench).


  • 1. There is some disagreement over whether the "D" in the name stands for "dimension" or "dimensions"; both have been used in various episodes. The very first story, 100,000 BC, used the singular "Dimension" and other episodes followed suit for the next couple of years. The 1964 novelisation Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks used the plural "Dimensions" for the first time and the 1965 serial The Time Meddler introduced it to the television series. Since then both versions have been used on different occasions. In Rose, the first episode of the 2005 series, the Doctor uses the singular form.
  • 2. This is consistent with current British press style, in which acronyms are referred to with only the first letter capitalised (for example, Nato), while initialisms (which are not pronounced as words), such as BBC, are capitalised in their entirety.
  • 3. The Sixth Doctor stated this in The Two Doctors. However, the veracity of this information may be suspect, as the Doctor later revealed that he had made some facts up to confuse the Sontarans and their allies, who were trying to duplicate the Imprimatur to prime their own time vessel.
  • 4. The term TARDIS, however, appears to be used by others to apply to all Time Lord time machines. This apparent inconsistency, like others over the course of the programme's history, has generated some lively debate among fans. In the Virgin New Adventures novel Lungbarrow by Marc Platt, Susan tells the First Doctor that she gave him the idea when he was, implicitly, the Other. As with the other spin-off media, the canonicity of the novel is unclear.

See also

External links


  • Harris, Mark (1983). The Doctor Who Technical Manual UK: Random House, ISBN 0394862147.
  • Nathan-Turner, John (1985). The TARDIS Inside Out UK: Picadilly Press, Ltd, ISBN 0394874153.
  • Howe, David J & Walker, Stephen James (1994). The First Doctor Handbook London, UK: Virgin Publishing, ISBN 0-426-2-430-1.
  • Howe, David J & Blumberg, Arnold T (2003). Howe's Transcendental Toybox: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who Collectibles UK: Telos Publishing, ISBN 1-903889-56-1.