It was originally for budgetary reasons that upon departure from the junkyard at Totter’s Lane that the Type 40 Mark III Time Travel capsule commonly known as “the TARDIS” retained the shape it had chosen upon its arrival there, that of an early sixties London police telephone box, the chameleon circuit having (conveniently) malfunctioned, yet as Doctor Who celebrates its fifty-fifth anniversary of first broadcast it is this distinctive shape which has become the enduring icon of the show.
As former showrunner Steven Moffat once explained during his time in charge of the “mad man with a box,” the TARDIS is cunningly disguised as an object which is now only recognisable to most people as a time machine, but for generations it has become a symbol synonymous with escape, adventure, joy and infinite possibility.
While the non-interference directive of the Time Lords has always been something the Doctor has only adhered to in the loosest sense, historically the interactions of all the incarnations of the Doctor across time and space have been on a personal level or in relation to an outside threat, never allowing future technology to tall into the hands of those who are unprepared for it.
For that reason, the closest anyone is likely to come to a TARDIS in the immediate future is the glimpse offered by BBC Books’ TARDIS Type 40 Instruction Manual, a small format hardback of 160 pages written by Richard Atkinson and Mike Tucker and wonderfully illustrated throughout by Gavin Rymill in addition to the numerous stills from across the history of the series, from An Unearthly Child to the latest upgrade of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor as first seen in The Ghost Monument.
Considering the disparate elements they have had to weave into a convincing continuum, Atkinson and Tucker have done an admirable job, though the malleable nature of the show encourages certain conclusions which have been implied, that the archaic interfaces of the control room are a conscious choice of a semi-sentient organism which enjoys being “retro” and wishes to ease its passengers through the culture shock of encountering an advanced technology beyond their comprehension.
That it has remained a police box is because that is a role it has embraced, offering advice and assistance to those in need, though the exterior plasmic shell has undergone several cosmetic changes as well as a conspicuous variations in size through the years, illustrated here and explained by periodic software patches and the first symptoms of the “dimensional leak” of the interior which will become more pronounced as it approaches the end of its lifespan, as witnessed on the planet Trenzalore.
Inevitably, considering the nature of the subject, paradoxes will arise, and the manual takes the opportunity to clarify points which were sometimes obfuscated in the original episodes, Trenzalore being one, the planet where the Doctor did not die despite having previously visited his own tomb, though no amount of revision will make the promised wonder of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS less than disappointing; in fact, this book is a considerably more satisfying and comprehensive exploration.
A generic manual synchronised to a specific instance, the Doctor’s TARDIS being the most widely travelled and the only one its class still in active service, sometimes the phrasing shows its origins in what some regard as a throwaway children’s television show, but bearing in mind that it has been rendered telepathically from Gallifreyan, a language for which there is no direct translation, that there will be glitches and nuances which are not expressed correctly is unavoidable and no liability can be accepted for the failings of the reader’s understanding.
The largest section of the book focuses on the control room and the central console, a celebration of the exquisite design of the classic Peter Brachaki original and all that has followed from it, but while that, the secondary control room of The Masque of Mandragora, the major refurbishment of The Five Doctors and the current “crystalline” version all receive double page spreads, as do the control rooms of Missy and the Rani, disappointingly others which are equally deserving do not receive the same coverage.
The attention to detail of the authors and their encyclopaedic knowledge of the show sufficient to silence all but the most critical fans of Doctor Who, it would also have been nice to see conceptualisations of areas only ever mentioned, preferably looking more grand than those seen in The Invasion of Time, though there has long been a persistent reticence by the BBC to “firm up” an area of the ship in a publication which may be superceded by a later episode.
The current interior seeming to extend no further than the control room during series eleven, perhaps for that reason it is not explored in any depth, and if there is one major criticism of the manual it is that there is not enough of it; many of the pictures are too small to discern any detail, and only two of the consoles receive full diagrams detailing their layout, and it is to be hoped a revised and expanded version may some day materialise.
Regardless, what is present will spark speculation and debate beyond what lies in the pages, the concepts inside far bigger than the cover implies, as well as stirring many joyful childhood memories for fans old and new as they explore; over half a century on, the words of the Moment still hold true: “You know the sound the TARDIS makes? That wheezing, groaning? That sound brings hope wherever it goes, to anyone who hears it.”
The TARDIS Type 40 Instruction Manual is available now from BBC Books