High concepts fuel a hazardous Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS as the Doctor’s beloved timeship faces destruction and plays host to some of the most dire secondary characters in the history of the series.
Throughout 50 years of Doctor Who the beloved fixed heart of the series has been the TARDIS. Whilst various companions come and go and the Doctor regenerates into different guises the beloved TT Type 40, Mark 3 TARDIS remains. With only slight cosmetic changes happening to that police box exterior the TARDIS is the one of most ingenious, incredible and iconic concepts in the history of science fiction – an infinite otherworld dimension concealed within the incongruous camouflage of an everyday object.
From 1963 to 1989 the various production teams occasionally attempted to show what lay beyond the familiar console room but were usually defeated by a lack of time and money. Over the years came the Cloister Room in Logopolis, the Zero Room in Castrovalva and the secondary console room and boot cupboard (courtesy of a blown-up photo!) in The Masque of Mandragora. Before Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS the greatest extent to which the TARDIS interior had been explored was in 1978’s The Invasion of Time and the 1996 TV Movie. In the not-so-classic Tom Baker tale a disused hospital near Redhill was used to represent the supposedly baffling and labyrinth-like interior of the TARDIS and much ridicule from fans followed. More successful were the elaborate steampunk-themed TARDIS interiors constructed upon a Vancouver soundstage for Paul McGann’s only television outing to date as the Eighth Doctor. Complete with console room, including accompanying library, and a grandiose Eye of Harmony, for the first time the TARDIS truly began to feel bigger on the inside that the outside.
But it just wasn’t possible for Doctor Who to adequately represent the supposedly infinite interior of the timeship until the advent of affordable CGI and far greater budgets from the BBC. With Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS the interior of the Doctor’s timeship has finally been seen on a scale that it always deserved thanks to striking sets, evocative locations and special effects. Though the supporting script was lacking in many areas.
Scriptwriter Stephen Thompson may have sent Sherlock to his supposed death in the acclaimed The Reichenbach Fall, but his previous contribution to Doctor Who in the shape of 2011’s The Curse of the Black Spot gained fewer plaudits. Thompson was on stronger form with his follow-up as Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS tapped into the writer’s interest in multi-dimensional geometry to produce a grand high concept story in which the mathematical fabric of the TARDIS was torn asunder and past, present and future collided.
Thompson’s take on the fundamental nature of the TARDIS was not a million miles away from the computer technology concepts that Christopher H Bidmead applied in the early 1980s. Bidmead was script editor for the final Tom Baker season and in Logopolis and Castrovalva he introduced the idea that complex space-time events such as the TARDIS can be constructed by mathematical methodology (in this instance the fictional block transfer computation).
Thompson and Bidmead, along with the likes of Neil Gaiman in The Doctor’s Wife, correctly treat the TARDIS as a living breathing entity and a character in its own right but too often the the timeship has been treated like a Number 9 bus, there simply to insert the Doctor and his companion(s) into the narrative and not given the screen time it deserved. This was particularly true during the Sylvester McCoy years when the series was in decline and another reason why Andrew Cartmel is one of the worst script editors the series has ever had. Though the framing story of the three Van Baalen brothers in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is without doubt one of the most dire in the history of the series and even Cartmel and the notoriously naff duo of Pip and Jane Baker could have done better.
Clearly there to act as audience surrogate characters whenever Clara wasn’t in a scene the brothers’ backstory of riding around in space salvaging whatever valuable material crossed their path and arguing the rest of the time was a bizarre cross between Steptoe and Son and Red Dwarf. And the whole idea that one of the brothers had been fooled into believing he was an android was farcical. Surely he’d have discovered that he was human and not artificial when he needed to go to the toilet or eat? Other androids such as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation aren’t known for their requirement to visit the bathroom or have a snack.
A bolder move for the production team would have been to make the story a two-hander with just Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman. A story with only the TARDIS regulars hasn’t been done since The Edge of Destruction in 1964 and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS was an missed opportunity to do so once again. In the Hartnell story the First Doctor suspected Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright of sabotage and it would have been an interesting plot line for the Eleventh Doctor to have suspected Clara of harming the TARDIS, especially given his uncertainty over her nature and very existence. Coleman was less annoying than in proceeding episodes, dare it be said pretty good, though she remains far more ineffectual than most previous companions. Matt Smith was back on top form after the horrendous performance glitch that blighted Hide and conveyed the breathless desperation of a man fighting against the odds to save his home and friend of 900 years.
The Doctor always works best when there’s an edge of darkness to him and that came in abundance as he attempted to hide the truth about the “zombies” and conceal his true identity as recorded in The History of the Time War. Though surely as the only Time Lord to survive the Time War wouldn’t he be the only one who could have written that book? Wouldn’t it be silly to write down his real name? With the unveiling of the book it would seem that Steven Moffat began to lay the groundwork for Series 7b’s finale of The Name of the Doctor.
Aptly in the Golden anniversary year, vast swathes of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS involved kisses to the past of the series, especially with the temporal echoes of past Doctors and companions as one of the Van Baalen brothers attempted to dismantle the TARDIS console. Out of the past came the following:
An Unearthly Child (episode 1): the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan explains how the initials of TARDIS stand for Time and Relative Dimension in Space.
Colony in Space (episode 1): the Third Doctor explains to Jo Grant that the TARDIS is dimensionally transcendental.
The Robots of Death (episode 1): the Fourth Doctor discusses trans-dimensional engineering with Leela.
The Doctor’s Wife: The TARDIS asks if ‘sexy thing’ is her name!
Rose: the Ninth Doctor assures Rose that the assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn’t get through ‘that door’.
The Beast Below: Amy Pond reflects that she is in space…
Smith and Jones: Martha Jones struggles to understand the TARDIS.
An Unearthly Child (episode 1): Ian Chesterton expresses astonishment at the nature of the TARDIS.
With only the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors appearing in the forthcoming 50th anniversary special touches such as the dialogue echoes are rewarding caveats for the long term fans and an acknowledgement of the series’ rich heritage. Other little touches for the attentive came with the reappearance of the Doctor’s cot from A Good Man Goes To War, Amy’s model TARDIS from Let’s Kill Hitler and the voice of Timothy Dalton’s Rassilon from The End of Time as the Encyclopaedia Gallifreya toppled and leaked. Even Attack of the Cybermen got a nod with the implementation of the self destruct mechanism, though on that occasion the Sixth Doctor seemed deadly serious about the result when the countdown reached zero. A massive bluff from Colin Baker’s under appreciated incarnation?
Despite incredibly lame supporting characters and a companion that has yet to live up to the standards of her predecessors the production team should give themselves a well-deserved pat on the back for delivering the enjoyable Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS and its phantasmagorical voyage into the very heart of the most unique vessel in the history of science fiction.