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TARDIS Design Changes

By Jon Preddle

The police box used as the Doctor's TARDIS in Doctor Who has not always been the same prop - in fact there have been almost as many different versions of this famous mainstay of the series as there have been incarnations of the Doctor. At a glance, the various boxes appear identical, but a closer examination reveals that there have been some significant changes over the years.

The only time an actual police box was used to represent the TARDIS was in the pilot episode. The prop had previously been used in the BBC police series, Dixon of Dock Green.

Box 1

When the first episode was re-recorded, a heavy-duty prop, specially constructed to withstand regular shifting was used instead. This box is easily identified by its white window frames, a white telephone hatch sign, and a large gold-coloured key lock (which could be withdrawn from the door, as seen in The Sensorites). The middle of the panel opposite the telephone hatch featured a St John's Ambulance emblem, which appeared on real police boxes. This box also had a layered roof. The windows opened just like a real police box (as seen in The Dalek Invasion of Earth).

The original prop was used right through until the end of the third recording block, which concluded with The Smugglers. The prop was taken on location for the first time for The Savages. It was also taken on location for The War Machines and the next serial The Smugglers, which required the TARDIS to materialise in a cave on a beach. Getting the prop to the remote location in Cornwall for the serial proved to be a tricky operation as the prop had to be moved down steep slopes from the cliff top, along a beach and into the cave. Although this was achieved the experience got the production team thinking about the manoeuvrability of the prop. As a result, a new prop was commissioned for the next recording block.

Box 2

The new prop was first seen in The Tenth Planet. It had the advantage of being readily collapsed down into flat sections and assembled much like a house of cards. Its kitset nature not only made it easier to transport on location, but also meant that it was possible to use just one wall when the whole box couldn't be used in shot. This was the case in The Seeds of Death because of the confined nature of the museum set, and in Frontier in Space when the TARDIS is located in an alcove.

The collapsible box was also much easier to store in the BBC's prop warehouse. The previous box did not fit through the elevator doors and had to remain in the studio corridors, where it occasionally got damaged.

The box can be distinguished by its flat roof, a door handle on the right side door and a handle on the left side of the telephone hatch (the hatch itself had been cannibalised from the previous prop). Unlike its predecessor, there was no St John's emblem or white window frames, and the windows were now fixed shut. One other feature of this box was that both doors could open outwards as well as inwards as seen in The Ice Warriors.

During the prop's decade of use on the show, the box was modified slightly on occasion as continual assembly and dismantling took its toll. A handle was affixed for the first time to the right side door during the sixth season, and a new telephone hatch was introduced for The Space Pirates which was black with white lettering (the layout of the wording on the hatch varied over the years). Fresh coats of paint were applied every year, and a new lamp housing was introduced during the Tom Baker era. The box was last seen in The Seeds of Doom, during the recording of which the prop reputedly collapsed in on Elisabeth Sladen.

Box 3

This prop first appeared in The Masque of Mandragora. Designed by Barry Newbery, it was far lighter than the previous wooden boxes. The prop was made up of six components, including a square base with castors and channelled grooves into which the four side and door panels slotted. The roof section fitted last, and all the panels were then secured with latch pins. The prop was far more faithful in its design to the original Metropolitan police boxes than the previous two versions, being a lot wider, with the telephone hatch set back into the panel. There was no door handle. Only the right side door could open, the left one being fixed shut (which meant that K9 could not be seen to actually enter the TARDIS). The keyhole was located on the right side door (it is on the left on other props). The keyhole itself was modified in season fifteen. The roof was again flat.

[TARDIS]

This prop was used regularly up to the end of the seventeenth season. The prop was superseded by Box 4 at the start of the eighteenth season, but was brought back in to service for Logopolis. Two police boxes were required for Part One when the TARDIS materialises alongside a 'real' police box on the Barnet Bypass. The prop was modified to resemble the newer version. These modifications included a new layered roof. The two door panels were completely remade with a handle mounted on the right hand door. The two props can also be distinguished by the different sized 'Police Public Call Box' signs above the doors. The inside of the box was dressed to look like the interior of an actual police box, complete with flares, hazard signs and markers, for the scene in Part Two when the policemen open up the box. The prop was also used for the scenes set in the TARDIS cloisters and in the console room as the Doctor and Adric measure the box, and for these scenes the telephone hatch was fitted with a telephone.

The prop continued to be used in conjunction with Box 4 during Peter Davison's first season, but only for location filming. The prop made its last onscreen appearance in the location sequences of Time-Flight. The box was stored at the BBC for many years, and used from time to time for publicity purposes. It's final major appearance was for Sylvester McCoy's first press photo session in February 1987 - although in this instance it looked in dire need of repair.

Box 4

The arrival of new producer John Nathan-Turner at the beginning of season eighteen saw the introduction of a new prop, which was made from fibreglass rather than wood. The design of the box, first seen in The Leisure Hive, in some ways resembled Box 1, most notably in its layered roof. There were two door handles; one on the right hand door and one on the telephone hatch, but on a different level. Also both doors could now open. This box was used throughout the eighteenth season and was joined by Box 3 for Logopolis. Since it was made of a lighter material, Box 4 was subsequently used for only studio work during the recording of the nineteenth season, while the modified Box 3 prop, which was much more sturdier, was used for all location work.

Box 5

A slightly different looking prop first appeared in Arc of Infinity, and was last used in Revelation of the Daleks. This story saw the box receive a makeshift lamp housing when the old one was accidentally left behind. It is unclear if this was a brand new box or simply the old one given a major overhaul. It may be that Boxes 3 and 4 were cannibalised to make a single prop.

Box 6

A different prop made its debut in The Trial of a Time Lord, with little to distinguish it from previous boxes and has been in use right up to Survival. The prop has since appeared in special productions such as the BSB Doctor Who weekend in 1990 and Dimensions in Time in 1993.

This item appeared in TSV 24 (August 1991).

Reprinted in: TSV: The Best of Issues 21-26