Lewis, the Wardrobe and the Police Box
If, like me, you tend to read a great deal of significance into things, it won’t have escaped your notice that C. S. Lewis died about an hour before John F. Kennedy, the U.S President. I wonder, though, if you will have noticed that he also died the day before Doctor Who was first broadcast.
Lewis, who had invented a wardrobe which contained or led to an entirely different world (and, in the final story of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, a stable which was similarly bigger inside than out) didn’t live to see the first companions of the Doctor, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, stumble into the TARDIS, the now famous blue Police Box which was not only bigger inside than out but which also was capable of transporting its occupants anywhere in time and space. I don’t know if Sidney Newman, the originator of the idea of Doctor Who, or the set designers of the time, had read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or even The Last Battle -it’s quite possible that they had, considering that they had been published several years before and were best-sellers— but however it happened, the concept of an ordinary object that was a doorway to different realities lived on in the television show, parallelling the popularity of the wardrobe in Lewis’s work.
It’s almost as if Lewis had ‘handed on’ the idea. Not only was the story of the wardrobe told so enchantingly that I have checked every single wardrobe I’ve owned since (even the ones I’ve assembled myself) to see if they would lead me to Narnia, but those few Police Boxes that remain in Britain -like the one in Sheffield (even though it’s green) and the one in Earl’s Court in London- have had a magnetic attraction and a lingering ethos of mystery for me ever since.
It’s not only the allure of other worlds. There are plenty of ways of getting to other worlds in fiction, either scientifically or by magic. We can even get to other worlds (eventually) in rockets. No, it’s the juxtaposition of another world and a commonplace object. Most people have wardrobes, and Police Boxes were once everywhere too. That’s what sticks our attention: the mysterious association of the ordinary and the extraordinary; the idea that something normal is resonating with the power to change everything; the feeling that escape from the confines of this world or even this universe is going about among us in disguise.
One of Lewis’s cleverest notions -generated partly simply by the necessities of the story- was that the wardrobe wasn’t always going to lead to Narnia. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. Indeed, it was almost as though if you expected it to work it wouldn’t -surprise was part of the package. The TARDIS is also only sporadically workable (though always amazing). Consistency isn’t a quality of objects like that. In fact, you could argue that logic and rationality are consistent by nature, but magic, by definition, isn’t. Magic, by its very nature, is unpredictable.
’Obviously’ a wardrobe can’t lead to a whole other world; ‘clearly’ an object can’t be bigger inside than it is outside. The ‘can’ts’ have it, in the world of the rational. Consistency is all. Where would we be if it were otherwise? Spaces folding out of each other? Doorways leading who knows where? No, to keep things still and orderly, we must have consistency. A wardrobe is for clothes and possesses defined dimensions; a Police Box is for putting criminals in, it must stay put and be cell-like. If it ever turns out otherwise, it must not be something that can be rationally predicted or controlled. And so wardrobes and Police Boxes are dormant, humming with potential.
The ‘stargates’ and ‘inter-dimensional portals’ of other fiction aren’t quite the same precisely because they lack this juxtaposition. They are clearly objects of power and their purpose is written all over them. They respond when switches are switched and open when you need them to open. The trick with the wardrobe and the Police Box is that they suddenly decide to do something utterly different from anyone’s expectations, usually at a time when no one would have expected it. The unpredictability is the fount of mystery; the world-bridging quality is the heart of their power.
As I say, I don’t know if the creators of Doctor Who back in 1963 were familiar with Lewis’s children’s books or not, or whether they just had a bright idea so that they could make a time machine within the BBC’s limited budget, but whether it was by accident or design, the transition from wardrobe to TARDIS was a fortunate one for anyone who likes the idea that the universe is full of remarkable and transcendent surprises.
-Grant P. Hudson
Grant P. Hudson is an editor, management consultant, founder of Clarendon House Publications, an online venue for independent writers, self-publishers and others around the world, and the author of several books including How Stories Really Work and the 12-week e-course How to Write Stories That Work - and Get Them Published!