The TARDIS looks like a Police Box doesn't it?  So why have I made so many different models?


Well believe it or not,  the TARDIS doesn't look exactly like a Police Box, and it never has.  Since 1963 the BBC prop that the Doctor gets in and out of every week has changed in several subtle (and some not so subtle) ways.  A lot of those changes are down to budget and repair, but some of them are down to the way that Television has changed in the years that the Doctor has been on our screens. 


But first let's look at the Police Box itself. 



The Metropolitan Police Box


Police Boxes have been around in Britain since the 19th Century, but it wasn't until 1929 that Scottish architect Gilbert McKenzie Trench produced a design for the new standard type of box to be installed by the London Metropolitan Police.


This is the box that was the inspiration for the iconic TARDIS of Doctor Who fame, and it is worth noting one large difference between London boxes and the TARDIS: 


Although early Police boxes were made of wood, the one that the TARDIS was based on wasn't. 


They were built from a concrete mould, with only one part of them made of wood - the right hand door. That's right, the TARDIS may be an old wooden box, but a Metropolitan Police Box wasn't.


It's also worth noting that not only does only one of the "doors" open (the other "door" being part of the concrete shell), but it also opens outwards, not inwards.  There are two reasons for this:

  • The inside of the box isn't big, so there wouldn't be a lot of room for the door to open inwards.
  • The concrete floor inside slopes slightly upward from the doorway, to allow for drainage, so the door wouldn't be able to open inwards anyway!

However, just to muddy the waters a bit more, not all Metropolitan Police Boxes are the same. As London's boxes were built at different times (between the years 1929 and 1948) and by different contractors, there are slight but noticeable differences that can be seen in old photographs.  The sign boxes are slightly wider in some models, and the stacked roof slightly higher.  Not only that, but the placing of the signs on the door panels has also changed over the years.


All Metropolitan Police Boxes however have a roof-top lamp made of glass of a distinctive "Fresnel" design, similar to those used in lighthouses, and contrary to popular belief they did not flash with a blue light, but with a white one.  The lamp was connected to a ringer circuit, so when the phone inside the box rang, the light flashed in time, to alert the policeman on his beat.  Most of the window panes are clear glass, except for the bottom two corner panes of each window, which are "hammered" or "pebbled" glass, and of a darker tinted blue. 


Although Police boxes have now disappeared from London streets, there are surprisingly still a few around if you know where to look. The iconic McKenzie Trench box was not only confined to London.  Glasgow had them too, and although these Scottish boxes have some slight differences (they were painted red instead of blue, and their lamps tend to have a metal frame around them), they are recognisably the same design.  There are currently three of these boxes still on the streets of Glasgow (and a couple in Museums).  But if you want to see an existing Metropolitan Police Box then take a trip to the Crich Tramway Museum in Derbyshire, where you can see the original Wimbledon box.


Well that's the Police Box, but how is the TARDIS different?



The Brachaki Box (1960's) 


The first ever TARDIS was realised by BBC designer Peter Brachaki in 1963.  It is generally well-known that the decision to keep the TARDIS as a Police Box (even though it supposedly could change its appearance every week) was down to saving money, but the oft-repeated fact that it was a reused Police Box from Dixon of Dock Green is incorrect.  The Brachaki Box was built specifically for the show, and is very different from a real Police Box: 

  • It has been reduced in height by about 16% and is correspondingly thinner
  • It only has two roof stacks as opposed to the three of the Met Box
  • The pitch of the Brachaki Box roof is also less steep than a real box, giving it overall a taller and thinner "flat-topped" appearance
  • The door opens inwards, whereas a real Police Box door opens outwards
  • Finally, a minor point, but one that is replicated on almost every prop afterwards - the central divider between the doors only goes as far as the bottom of the "steps" (the stepped panelling just below the sign-box), whilst the divider on the Met Box goes all the way up to the sign boxes

On the other hand, like a real Police Box, it does have the same mixture of tinted, pebbled and clear glass windows (as do most subsequent props), white window frames and a St John Ambulance sign.


However it has no door handle (it doesn't need one, since the door opens inwards), and the keyhole is on the left of the central divider, just under the Phone Sign. Since a real box was made of concrete, the left door was not a door, so putting a lock on it would be absurd. The lamp however is a faithful copy of the Police Box's distinctive Fresnel.


These changes in design were probably down to the viewing size of a 405-line black & white broadcast, and an accurately sized Police Box would have been just a bit too large.  Also of course, the smaller the prop the easier it is to lug around between takes.





The Brachaki Box (1970s)


Peter Brachaki's TARDIS prop lasted from 1963 until 1976, although during that time there were several noticeable changes, mainly due to repairs and repainting.  The following list is just a few examples, and is not exhaustive:

  • The St John sign was painted over in 1966 (though it can still be detected underneath the paint in early close-ups)
  • The window frames were painted the same colour as the box
  • Repairs due to deterioration resulted in the roof becoming even lower and flatter from the late 60s onwards - there is now only one roof stack and the roof pitch is practically nonexistent
  • The Phone Panel sign, originally black text on white, changed to white on blue, and eventually white on black, while the text itself ("Free For Use of Public", "Pull to Open" etc) underwent periodic rewrites
  • The Phone Panel Sign lost its handle, while the right-hand door gained one
  • The Police Public Call Box signs alternated between black/white and white/black
  • The glass Fresnel lamp was eventually replaced with a simple opaque plastic cylinder

By the time the prop was retired, it looked very different to its first appearance 13 years earlier, so much so that the prop from 1963 probably appears very strange to someone familiar with the mid-70s TARDIS.




The Barry Newbery Box


Peter Brachaki's TARDIS eventually deteriorated beyond repair during Tom Baker's time as the 4th Doctor, and was replaced in 1976 by a newly-designed version.  The Newbery Box was even shorter than its predecessor, but slightly wider, and retained the almost nonexistent pitch roof, making it just as flat-topped.  The roof single roof stack was barely an inch above the corner posts, and the roof-top lamp remained a simple white cylinder, apart from one story when it was replaced by a blue rotating police lamp!  The Phone Panel sign was white text on blue.


The original Metropolitan Police Box had a series of steps between the top of the door and the bottom of the sign boxes.  The Brachaki box had replicated these, but the Newbery box reduced them to one.  The Newbery box also had an incongrously black painted base, and is probably the least like an original Police Box of all the TARDIS props.  It only lasted for 4 years, although it was brought out of storage for Tom Baker's final story - Logopolis - when the plot required the TARDIS to land next to a "real" Police Box. 


Ironically if the story had been filmed earlier there would have been a real Police Box next to the TARDIS!  It was intended to use the last existing Police Box on the Barnet By-Pass layby, but unfortunately it was demolished just prior to filming, requiring the Newbery box to be brought out of mothballs.



The Yardley Jones Box


Created by Production Designer Tom Yardley-Jones in 1980, the "TYJ Box" was an attempt to make both a more durable prop (it was made of fibreglass) and a more accurate one.  The TYJ has two roof stacks and a steeper pitch, and although still not as tall as a real Police Box, it is the same height as the original 1963 prop.  The "steps" between the door and the Sign Boxes have returned as well.


This TARDIS lasted for the next 9 years until the show's cancellation in 1989, and was used by Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy.  Although closer in feel to a Metropolitan box, it does have one very noticeable difference: the roof-top sign boxes.  The "Police Public Call Box" sign now takes up the whole length of the sign box, whereas on earlier props (and Met boxes) it only stretched as far as the edges of the windows.


The colour of this box (and the colour of the signs) alternate slightly with each Doctor, and the door handle and keyhole alternate between left and right (with the keyhole sometimes above the handle, sometimes below).


In fact to be accurate there were actually two versions of this prop - the Mark 1 and the Mark 2.  The Mark 2 was produced in 1985, and was created from a mould of the Mark 1, although any differences between the two are incredibly slight. 


Although the Brachaki box lasted longer, it went through many structural changes in its 13 years.  Being made of fibreglass, the TYJ consequently did not change much between Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy, so is probably the most recognisable of all the TARDIS props.



The TVM Box


Also known as the Movie or Hudolin Box, this TARDIS prop was designed by Richard Hudolin for the 1996 TV Movie Doctor Who. Still not quite as tall as an original Police Box, this was nevertheless a much more accurate representation. 


The second roof stack is higher than the TYJ, the lamp has returned to the original Fresnel type, the panels and side posts are slightly deeper, giving it a more substantial "chunky" feel, and the roof sign has returned to it's original shorter length.


It is also a very richer, almost satiny, blue.  The Hudolin Box was never used beyond the Movie.


The New Series Box


The Richmond or NST ("New Series TARDIS") Box was used between 2005 and 2010.  Initially introduced with 9th Doctor Christopher Eccleston, the box was used for the whole of 10th Doctor David Tennant's tenure. 


Technically it's inaccurate to say "the" prop as there were at least four, all created by designer Colin Richmond. The NST was much wider than previous props, and even slightly wider than a Police Box.  This was probably to make it easier for members of the cast to enter and exit the TARDIS, as previous stories had sometimes shown it to be a bit of a squeeze, with Jon Pertwee memorably almost pulling the door off with his sleeve on his first appearance!


The upshot of this is that the front panels on the NST look much squarer than a real box.  The window surrounds are the same colour as the box (which is now a dark grey) but the window frames are far thinner than they have ever been before. The windows themselves have completely dispensed with pebbled glass, and are now a fairly opaque back-lit white.


The Phone Panel has reverted to dark lettering on white for the first time in decades and the roof is much higher, though as usual for TARDIS props it still only has two stacks, and the lamp is a complete departure, looking like nothing quite so much as a garden lantern/bird feeder.  The pyramidal roof is steeper than before, but overall the NST is still not as tall as an original Police Box, and certainly looks less accurate than its two predecessors.  The "Police Public Call Box" sign once more extends to the ends of the Sign Boxes.


The Matt Smith Box

In 2010, when the Doctor changed once more, along with almost the entire production team, the TARDIS was slightly redesigned as well.  Although produced from a mould of the NST box, the NST Mk2 box has a number of changes which make it slightly closer to a Police Box than the one before it:

  • Colour.  The NST Mk2 is a rich violet-blue (though ironically with a pronounced wood-grain finish)
  • The St John Ambulance sign is back for the first time in 14 years
  • The window frames and surround are white once more
  • The bottom two outside window panes are tinted and hammered once more, like a real Police Box
  • The lamp has been replaced by a Fresnel design, though the lamp struts and cap still do not accurately match that of a Met Box.

Although many of these changes would seem to be an attempt to replicate an original Police Box, they're actually acknowledged attempts to replicate another, less-well known TARDIS prop from 34 years previously...


The Cushing Box


Sometimes known as the Aaru Box (after the Aaru Film Production Company) this TARDIS prop was created for the two 1960s Cinema films Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD (1966), starring Peter Cushing as Doctor Who. 


It is a far wider and taller prop than had been used before (probably due to the limitations of the TV screen), and the designers appear to have worked to original Metropolitan Police plans rather than copy what would have been on Television at the time, choosing to simply stretch the design to produce wider doors.  This has produced a fairly accurate (if somewhat fatter) copy of an original Police Box:

  • The windows are white
  • The phone panel sign is black on white
  • The Roof Signs don't take up the whole of the Sign boxes
  • The roof has three stacks, but the pitch of the roof is slightly shallower than a Police Box, and the stacks slightly higher giving the Cushing Box a somewhat solid and blocky appearance
  • Uniquely for a TARDIS (though accurate for a Police Box), the doors open outwards

The unmistakable similarities between the Cushing Box and Matt Smith's TARDIS are no coincidence, and the current Doctor Who head writer, Steven Moffat, has acknowledged that he is a big fan of the 1960s Dalek movies and requested that the TARDIS be redesigned to look more like the Cushing Box..


After appearing in the two Dalek movies, the Cushing Box disappeared into the Pinewood Studios Prop Stores, until it was unceremoniously blown up in a 1979 episode of The New Avengers.



The Earls Court Box 


The What?? I hear you cry!  This is a very unusual beast. Not a prop, this is a real live Metropolitan Police Box, and it still exists.  Situated outside Earls Court Tube Station in London, this box (correctly known as the "Metropolitan Police Watch Box") was built in 1996.  Although based on the McKenzie Trench design, there are some major differences: 

  • The windows only have 4 panes instead of 6
  • There is no "phone" panel sign, and consequently no "public" phone
  • The box is wider than a Met box 
  • There's no lamp. Instead a CCTV camera is mounted on the roof

On the other hand it does stick fairly closely to the original design, the Roof Signs are as short as a Met Box, and the Roof has a reasonable pitch and 3 stacks.


The Earls Court Box is still there, though for how long is anyone's guess, as it was originally to have been the vanguard for a return of the Police Box to London streets.  However this didn't materialise, the Met did not maintain it and it has fallen into disrepair.