The TARDIS (/ˈtɑːdɪs/ (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is a time machine and spacecraft in the British science fiction television programme Doctor Who and its associated spin-offs.
This being the 50th anniversary of the first incarnation of ‘Dr. Who’ and me not having been inside the Tardis for over 40 years I think that I can now safely reveal some secrets … although I should add that for the sake of Universal Copyright (“in this world, all known worlds and all worlds yet to be discovered”) this article was written under the terms of the Protocol of Perpetual Silence determined by the Council of Gallifrey on the Doctor’s first incarnation in ED1963.
I once worked for two Time Lords. The first, reincarnation 2, was an anxious, slightly dotty bohemian described by his creator as a “cosmic hobo” The second, reincarnation 3, was outgoing, dynamic and over fond of the ruffles, velvets and big hair that some people in the early 1970’s thought were groovy. My Doctors were Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee… and between 1968 and 1972 I was their Film Editor.
Because they spend their time sticking lengths of film together – a ‘close-up’ of this to a ‘wide shot’ of that – making scenes longer or shorter, moving characters from here to there, heightening the excitement or cooling down the mood some film editors start to believe that they really are the masters of time and space and in the case of ‘Dr Who’ they are – because of what they do. One of my primary tasks for example was the materialisation/de-materialisation of the Tardis a.k.a the police box on alien planets. This is how we did it…
How to materialise/de-materia lise the tardis
- Find an alien planet, (a disused quarry in the Home Counties will do nicely.)
- Set up a general wide shot of the area and ‘lock-off’ the camera so that it won’t move.
- Film about 30 seconds of this alien planet…and then stop the camera.
- Move the Tardis into the shot – and put the characters inside.
- Start the camera again and then ‘cue’ the actors to do their thing. (Usually they step out of the Tardis and say something like “Where are we, Doctor?”)
- Now you have two identical shots of the ‘alien planet’ – one without the Tardis and one with.
- At the film laboratory (or electronically if shooting on video) dissolve one shot into the other and the Tardis slowly appears as if by magic. Reverse the process and the Tardis will disappear.
- Add some Tardis sound effects created by Brian Hodgson at the BBC Radiophonics Workshop – and you’re done. (The Tardis sound FX were made by running a door key along the bass strings of an old piano and then electronically ‘cooking’ the resulting noise.)
Barry Letts, who produced ‘Dr Who’, once told that he received many draft storylines sent in by fans. One regular opening sequence had the Doctor and chums landing the Tardis on an alien planet. As they stepped out of his companions would ask…“Doctor? Why are those three men hanging on crosses?”
How to be in two places at the same time
Because Time curves it is possible to shorten space-time experience by cutting out the bend – rather like taking a short cut across a roundabout instead of going round the outside. By this method you can travel forwards or backwards in time or even be in two places at the same moment. (My wife tells me that most women already have this particular gift.) The paradox would allow one actor to play two characters in the same scene at the same time. In “Inferno” transmitted in May 1970 Roy Scammell, playing a member of the recently introduced UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), was able to shoot himself playing a mutated fascist RSF Trooper – and then fall from the top of a cooling tower. At the time it was filmed, the fall was the highest ever performed by a British stuntman.
The destruction of planets, galaxies and other big bangs
In the days before CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) it was difficult to simulate very large explosions. In fact the only way to create a very large explosion was by filming a very large explosion – which is a bit of a problem if you are filming on the beach at Brighton or in a field near Potters Bar. Apart from any lingering smoke or falling material most explosions are over very quickly indeed. To make our explosions look bigger and more destructive I would cut clear frames of film into the footage of the blast. These ‘flash frames’ would give the impression of multiple and more destructive detonations. As for the sound of planets being destroyed the BBC ‘gram swinger’ sound engineers had a repertoire of recorded effects they could mix together to simulate a violent cataclysm. Favourites included cement mixers, Saturn V rockets taking off and electrical pumps. (We did receive complaints from purists who said that because of the vacuum of space you wouldn’t hear any sound at all so we shouldn’t bother!) Another method was to record the sound of many hands simultaneously crashing down onto a piano keyboard and then slowing down the tape. Try this at home.
There are ‘flash frame enhanced’ explosions at the end of “Invasion” when UNIT uses a Russian built anti-missile-missile to destroy the cyber-fleet sent by the Cybermen – and their vengeance weapon, the planet shattering ‘megatron bomb.’
I don’t know what the eminent British scientist and writer Arthur C. Clarke thought of ‘Dr Who’ – he lived in Sri Lanka so probably didn’t see the programme – but he was certainly in a ‘Dr. Who’ frame of mind when he complied his “3 Laws of Prediction”…
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
“Dr Who” has moved on from my time of wobbly sets and doubtful special effects into a production that is now ‘indistinguishable from magic’. As Russell T. Davies who resurrected the series in 2005 has said…
“… it’s full of invention – and digital effects today enable you to do so much more. The only connection it has with its previous life is the title and the premise, but it’s light years ahead.”
Of course it’s light years ahead. That’s the nature of science. That’s what happens when you challenge the space-time continuum. That’s what happens when you take a short cut across the middle of the great roundabout of time. I did – and now I’m 14 years, 7 hours and 23 minutes younger than I thought I was. Well, that’s what my wife says.
Dr Who notes:
- Terry Nation, the creator of the Daleks, once claimed that he got the name “Dalek” from a telephone directory in his office labelled DAL-LEK… even though no such telephone directory has ever been found to exist. Some sixty years earlier, L. Frank Baum, who wrote ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, claimed that he got the name “Oz” from a filing cabinet in his office labelled O-Z.
- William Hartnell who played the first Doctor between November 1963 and October 1966 used to live at 51 Church Street, in Old Isleworth.
Clip from “Dr. Who and the Sea Devils” TX from 26/02/7
— from Martyn Day