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TARDIS Console Rooms: Then, Now, and Soon…

I love a good design. Amidst watching a selection of various Peter Capaldi episodes recently, I found myself once again taken with the amazing console room of the Twelfth Doctor. It got me thinking of past and future versions, both good and bad. Over 50 years, there have been a decent amount, so I thought a very basic digital tour might be fun. I have the ever reliable Philip Bates standing by, TARDIS technical manuals at the ready in case of emergency, the need to jettison the pool or provide the name of any designer I omit because I don’t like a specific model. Now, let’s give that helmic regulator a good twist.

Starting at the beginning… One of, if not THE finest console room: the William Hartnell original. What springs to mind first is that it not only works but it doesn’t look like a 1960s version of a future design; it’s simply odd and alien. If An Adventure in Space and Time is even close to accurate as to the actual development of the design, it was simply thrown together in a moment of distracted brilliance by Peter Brachacki. Simple is always better and we got the “roundels” out of it, plus this fantastic main console itself, which is still the gold standard. Little levers with different colour knobs. Dials, levers, switches, lights, and that beautiful work of art, the center time rotor that was actually able to rotate as it rose and fell.

Add to that, the angled, overhead, six sided ceiling piece, the various bits of furniture and instrumentation walls behind the glass casing. This was a very large and expansive set for Lime Grove Studio D and as magnificent as it was, after a few stories, they had to downsize a bit to take back some of the studio space. So it got trimmed down somewhat. At one point, they replaced one whole roundel wall with a flat print of the roundels, likely on a canvas sheet. Surely a budget consideration but although it wasn’t too obvious back the day, modern DVD resolution tends to spot these things a bit easier. Then again, these tales weren’t created to be rewatched!

At its most expansive, this set really gave a good impression of the TARDIS’ sizable interior, especially when Susan had to go check the fault locator or any of the banks of controls. This basic set, large and small, was used throughout the Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee years — the interior not getting much screen time during the exile — but was tweaked for Season 8, recreating the look of the first console yet adding more colour for this brave new world. The roundels were also replaced by hollowed-out circles.

The one exception during this time was the total redesign of the walls for the story to end Season 9, The Time Monster. Here, we saw a new selection of sunken bowls replacing the standard roundels. The Master just happened to have the same design in his TARDIS as well – imagine that. It was an interesting departure but we never had to get used to it as it didn’t survive to see Season 10.

Season 13 saw a complete rebuild of the console room from scratch. A variety of back-lit roundels, sometimes filled or flattened. The console itself had a couple of panels redesigned sadly, with small additions including a screen. The center rotor was changed too and didn’t seem to revolve as it rose and fell. This may have been the most compact console room to date, or close to it. All in all, it was basic, sticking to the status quo.

Season 14 marked a wild change, with the Fourth Doctor introducing Sarah Jane Smith and us to the “secondary control room”: Victorian style, with wood, brass and stained glass completing the design. This was quite the classy look and I believe was quite popular, especially complimenting the Philip Hinchcliffe/ Robert Holmes era of gothic horror. Unfortunately, during the break in between seasons, the wood walls had warped and could no longer be used, so goodbye to the most elegant of console rooms.

Season 15 through 20 saw them bringing back the set from Season 13, just making some tweaks here and there – adding a couple pillars to the corners, rearranging wall sections and redesigning different console panels, often resulting in a far less complicated and in my opinion, bland end product. By the end of the Fourth Doctor era, the control panels seemed to not have many working bits other than the door control and the Randomiser. This stretch was all rather unremarkable yet recognisable.

Now into the John Nathan-Turner era, The Five Doctors saw a brand new main console. Far more complicated and packed with controls, it was quite popular and the rest of the set got a fresh paint job as well. It was certainly brightly lit! This remained for the rest of the classic era.

The 1996 movie came under fire for certain decisions but one of the more praised elements was the rather lovely big budgeted “galactic study”. Part library, part cathedral, this was an unusual treat. Sylvester McCoy was especially excited to finally get a “proper” TARDIS set before, you know, getting shot. Plenty of wood, brass, and marble made for truly impressive set that was never to be seen again.

Then came 2005 and really, I was just happy to have the show back. So much so, I wasn’t thinking a great about the aesthetics of the new console room. I guess the Eleventh Doctor was right in that it was his grunge phase but it was a Doctor coming off the Time War, so a dark, rather dingy atmosphere wasn’t surprising. It certainly struck a markedly different tone than anything we’d seen before. It was definitely the most “organic” looking control, with coral beams and the molded main console. In fact, its design influenced Torchwood: we hear, in The Impossible Planet, that the TARDIS was grown, not built, so on Captain Jack Harkness’ desk, we see a lump of coral – actually the former Time Agent’s attempt to grow a TARDIS.

This was business as usual until 2010 when Russell T. Davies and David Tennant left. This one never really impressed me nor bothered me. It served its purpose well enough.

2010 saw a drastic redesign (albeit still by Edward Thomas, who’d created the 2005 set) for the Eleventh Doctor, which fit his style. This was full-on Willy Wonka, maybe with a touch of Dr. Seuss on the side. Colourful, elaborate, and interestingly, four tiered! This was the first time that we got a permanent console room with so many levels and this more 3D thinking prevailed throughout the whole Steven Moffat era.

This console room really shouted FUN. The only bit I didn’t like was some of the silliness present on the main console itself. The old style TV monitor, ‘80s cord phone and glass-blown center time rotor (specially commissioned and created by a firm in Bristol) were wonderful. But the addition of faucets and mustard and ketchup dispensers were a goofy step too far. Sometimes, you have to know when to stop. What’s next? A custard cream dispenser?! Thankfully, those last bits were mostly ignored. All in all, it really was a lovely console room that embraced the ethos of the show itself.

Michael Pickwoad, the show’s designer since A Christmas Carol, did design the next version which debuted in The Snowmen. However, this new console room sadly shifted to the Doctor’s then current mood – that of a hermit, after losing Amy and Rory Williams to the past – and it was fairly depressing, seemingly just a bunch of cold steel. It said “Cybermen” more than “the Doctor”. It was not very welcoming. It stayed the course through Series 7B, and the remainder of the Matt Smith era.

Two special notes from the Smith era should be recognised though. In The Doctor’s Wife, we saw not only a human vessel acting as the TARDIS in Idris, but also a scrap yard lash-up as a makeshift partial, open air console/ platform. Secondly, during the 50th anniversary, we got to briefly see the War Doctor’s unique console room, a mash-up of classic roundels and nu-Who-grunge main console. Love the roundels, whatever they’re for.

Then came a new life cycle for our favourite Time Lord. The amazing thing is that this same room from Series 7B was utilised for Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, yet it was totally different, just by virtue of warmer, more welcoming lighting and the addition of some library books and furniture on the top level, including blackboards at the suggestion of Peter himself. Plus, a top level I never even noticed before!

Once this era began, I could actually appreciate everything this design gave us. The main console had a very diverse set of attractive and functional controls. Once again, we found ourselves going back to the levers, switches, lights. Magnificent.

At the end of Series 9, Moffat even brought back the original console room from the Hartnell era in another stolen TARDIS just to show the love. Seeing Capaldi and Clara in there was great fun.

Then we come to Series 11. Train-wreck. Okay, I’ll expand. In the entire history of the show, even the console room at its smallest or most basic, was always at least recognisable, practical, or designed with some semblance of common sense. You actually have to have people moving about in there, interacting with each other, allowing cameras to be able to move around within, etc. The new room for Series 11 had none of this. It’s bizarre because its designer, Arwel Wyn Jones, is a great talent whose work has graced Doctor Who for many years, though he’s possibly beter known for his Sherlock designs.

For the last several years, we’d had a multi-tiered, impressively sized, well laid-out console room, easily able to accommodate any number of companions but usually housing only one or two. The new Doctor was to have three companions. For whatever reason — budgetary restrictions? — this new console room was seemingly one level and stuffed with giant, plastic, cheap imitation Kryptonian crystals. The main console itself looked to be mostly the scavenged remains from the Tennant era with a few extra bits glued on and added internal lighting. Mostly fanciful, useless bits like the old custard cream and the spinning little TARDIS crystal were added to it. There is one lever though, thankfully, as they need something to pretend to work the time machine with.

There has been a change in the role of head designer. Will there be a new console room? At some point, of course there will be. During the 26 years of the classic series, we only really had two basic looks, the white roundel look – with various tweaks and cosmetic changes – and the Victorian wood panel. During the 15 years/11 series of nu-Who, we’ve already had four distinct looks.

If anything, the dramatic change in the look of the same room from 7B to 8 gives us hope that even the nightmare from Series 11 can be made more attractive with some tinkering, so there’s hope. On a bright note, I did like Series 11’s TARDIS exterior! Old school, battered look.

TARDIS exteriors. Hmm. That gives me an idea…

Rick Lundeen

TARDIS Console Rooms: Then, Now, and Soon…

by Rick Lundeen time to read: 8 min
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