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Who's got my Tardis

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After 50 years, Doctor Who's time travelling is still going strong — thanks to the help of an inventive Aussie. Chief Arts Writer Patrick McDonald explains.

It's arguably the most recognisable ship in science fiction – but Doctor Who may never have spent the past 50 years travelling through time and space in a big blue phone box if it wasn't for an Australian writer.

The Tardis – that's short for Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space to the uninitiated – was the invention of Anthony Coburn, a Melbourne-born writer who had moved to the UK.

It was his idea that the craft's "chameleon circuit" – intended to make the Tardis blend in with whatever setting and time period it landed in – had become permanently jammed in the form of a 1960s London Police Box, at the time a common sight on street corners, from which people could phone for help.

While the Doctor himself has changed appearance 11 times now (or regenerated bodies, a trait subsequently invented to explain different actors stepping into the role) the Tardis has remained essentially the same ... at least on the outside.

As every sci-fi fan knows – and as most of the Doctor's many companions have observed upon first entering it – the Tardis is bigger on the inside. Its internal appearance has altered greatly over the years and it appears to have endless potential configurations, as well as an almost sentient intellect.

Little is known about Coburn, who was born in 1927 and moved in his early 20s to London, where he joined BBC Television and was working as a staff writer.

In fact, a new telemovie called An Adventure in Space and Time, which details the creation of Doctor Who and will screen after the 50th anniversary episode on the ABC tomorrow night, completely ignores Coburn and his contribution.

Instead, it focuses on the BBC's then head of drama Sydney Newman, who conceived the show, its producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein, along with the First Doctor actor William Hartnell.

Coburn – who actually had misgivings about the first episode's prehistoric setting – only wrote one other serial for Doctor Who called The Robots (also known as The Masters of Luxor) which was ultimately rejected, after which he severed ties with the show.

He died of a heart attack while producing the series Poldark in 1977, before interest in the history of Doctor Who really took off. According to his son Stef, who emerged in the news this month, it was Coburn's idea for the Tardis to externally resemble a police box, after seeing two of them during a walk on Wimbledon Common and thinking they looked suitably alien.

Other sources say it was also Coburn's idea for the first companion, Susan, to be the Doctor's granddaughter, circumventing the possible sexual connotations of an old man travelling with an unrelated teenager.

Stef Coburn is now in dispute with the BBC, claiming that any informal permission his father gave the broadcaster to use his work expired with his death, and that the copyright of all of Coburn's ideas – in particular the Tardis had been passed on to him.

"The only ends I wish to accomplish, by whatever lawful means present themselves, involve bringing about the public recognition that should by rights always have been his due, of my father James Anthony Coburn's seminal contribution to Doctor Who, and proper lawful recompense to his surviving estate," he says. Coburn's script for An Unearthly Child, which saw the Doctor and his companions travel back in time to encounter a tribe of cavemen, was initially intended as the second serial for the series but was elevated when the producers rejected another writer's script for the pilot, which featured giants and other special effects that were deemed too expensive

It has been suggested that the Tardis was originally intended to change design to blend in with new locations each episode, but this also was too costly.

Instead, in the first episode when the Tardis lands in prehistoric sand dunes, the Doctor exclaims: "It's still a police box! Why hasn't it changed? Dear, dear, how very disturbing."

The arrival of the Doctor coincided with another momentous event which also has its 50th anniversary this weekend: The assassination of US President John F. Kennedy.

Popular legend has it that the first episode of Doctor Who went to air five or 10 minutes late because of news coverage of the Kennedy assassination – some accounts even say that the premiere was postponed for a day – but in fact it was only delayed by 90 seconds.

However, a blackout meant that it wasn't seen in some parts of the UK, so the first episode was rebroadcast the following week.

Of the classic series Doctors, the Fourth incarnation played by Tom Baker and his immediate predecessor John Pertwee proved to be the most popular and enduring.

This was probably due, in part, to theirs being the first episodes broadcast in colour.

The series ran here on the ABC in almost constant repeats, but programmers were less eager to rescreen the older, black-and-white episodes.


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  • APA 6th ed.: McDonald, Patrick (2013-11-23). Who's got my Tardis. The Advertiser p. 54.
  • MLA 7th ed.: McDonald, Patrick. "Who's got my Tardis." The Advertiser [add city] 2013-11-23, 54. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: McDonald, Patrick. "Who's got my Tardis." The Advertiser, edition, sec., 2013-11-23
  • Turabian: McDonald, Patrick. "Who's got my Tardis." The Advertiser, 2013-11-23, section, 54 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Who's got my Tardis | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Who%27s_got_my_Tardis | work=The Advertiser | pages=54 | date=2013-11-23 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=4 March 2021 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Who's got my Tardis | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Who%27s_got_my_Tardis | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=4 March 2021}}</ref>