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By David Ronayne

Over thirty years one of the few constant elements in the program has been the Doctor's TARDIS. Strangely enough, this is also one of the least understood aspects of the programme.

Almost everyone knows the term TARDIS is an acronym for 'Time And Relative Dimensions In Space', apparently created by the Doctor's granddaughter Susan, but this is an acronym in English, not Gallifreyan (I find the suggestion that the Gallifreyan translation of the ship's full title gives the same acronym rather hard to swallow). It has also been suggested that the TARDIS is responsible for translating local languages for the crew (the Time Lord gift mentioned by the Doctor in The Masque of Mandragora). Perhaps once Susan had created an English equivalent for whatever the Gallifreyan name of the ship is, the TARDIS remembered this term and used it when anyone referred to it. Of course the term seems to be used by Gallifreyans in their conversations, but any conversations they would have would be in Gallifreyan. We get a translated version we can understand, and this includes the name of the ship. This explains how a term apparently created by a young exile seems to be in common usage but unfortunately provides no real clues to Susan's identity.

Was the TARDIS working against the Doctor? One of the original mainstays of the early series was the random aspect of the Doctor's travels, and his apparent inability to control the TARDIS. In more recent times this facet of the Doctor's voyages has seemed to diminish. The Third Doctor (albeit eventually) made his way to Metebelis 3, and back again to UNIT HQ (in fact the Doctor's return to UNIT for the Earth-bound stories of the tenth and eleventh seasons seems to be in stark contradiction with the two season attempts to return Barbara and Ian to Earth). The concept of the randomiser in Destiny of the Daleks suggests the Doctor had a certain amount of control over his ship, and on its removal he managed to pilot his way to Argolis. While it took the Fifth Doctor a season to return Tegan to Heathrow, he did manage to get to the Eye of Orion and Little Hodcombe. The Sixth Doctor was more successful, managing only one miss-landing on the way to Kew Gardens and it is hard to credit McCoy's Doctor as the grand schemer without some control over his own travels.

Is it perhaps a coincidence that the Doctor seems to have gained this new-found control at the same time as his exile was lifted? It is generally accepted that the TARDIS is a sentient machine, and that it has a telepathic link with the Doctor. Perhaps its early difficulties were a reaction against it being stolen. When the Doctor 'borrowed' the craft on his original departure from Gallifrey could the ship have sensed that it was being taken by someone other than its rightful owner? Unable to act directly against the Time Lord, unable to return to Gallifrey against its wishes and possibly programmed not to strand its pilot, the ship may have scrambled its navigational systems in an attempt to render itself useless to its abductor. Or perhaps the craft had a more sinister purpose in mind.

Another interesting aspect of the early stories is that there are almost no breaks or intervals between them. This suggests a rapid succession of landings in dangerous areas. Could the ship have been trying to drive them out, or worse still, dispose of its illegal crew. Perhaps once they were out of the way the craft, obeying some primary command, would return pilot-less to Gallifrey. When the Doctor was given a new dematerialisation circuit at the end of his exile, this could be seen not only seen as an official acknowledgement of his freedom to travel, but also as a gifting of the TARDIS to him by the High Council. Once he was the ship's owner it seemed more responsive to his commands. Okay the Doctor still ends up landing in dangerous places, but there is now more chance of a break - and who knows, maybe the TARDIS has learnt its pilot prefers it that way.

This item appeared in TSV 39 (May 1994).