(An ongoing writing project in which I catalog and quantify my extensive TARDIS collection.)
As I’ve written before, owning a TARDIS toy was something I had wanted since I was a wee lad in the 4th grade, but for many years the only TARDIS toys I ever saw were in my dreams. They existed, of course, but primarily in the UK, from where Doctor Who originated. And, in those pre-interweb days, were not on my radar at all. In the early 1990s, however, that changed.
In 1988, a Welsh model railroad company called Dapol began producing a line of Doctor Who action figures. While there had been action dolls and a TARDIS playset produced by Denys Fisher Toys in the late `70s, this was the first attempt to produce a line of action figures in a 3.75 inch G.I. Joe/Star Wars scale. This was during the sunset years of the show’s original run, just as the Sylvester McCoy era ended the show seemingly for good. So the initial run of Doctor Who toys from Dapol featured Sylvester McCoy and his companion Mel. Dapol released a number of individual Doctor Who figures as well as a variety of Daleks, which did well enough for the company. Unfortunately, the creators at Dapol in conjunction with the licensing people at the BBC, were not always so good at capturing the details of the show in the toys. For instance Dapol created and the BBC approved a figure of Davros, the power-chair-bound creator of the Daleks. The figure they made, though, possessed two whole arms instead of just the right arm with his presumably non-functional left arm tucked down into his chair housing, as per every single Davros appearance on the television show to that point. Their solution to this problem, according to an interview I read with Dapol’s president, David Boyle, from the Toys & Games special issue of Doctor Who Magazine, was to simply rip the left forearms from all produced figures in the second run and simply not make that piece in runs after. Dapol also made a green K-9 figure. Boyle says in his interview that the only reference photo the BBC sent him was of K-9 on grass, which reflected greenly in his silver finish. (The photo in question was used in Dapol’s publicity material and does indeed show a similarly green-tinted K-9, so this checks out for me. Still, the BBC licensing department saw the green sample figures and approved them readily). And, in the most glaring example of Dapol’s inattention to detail, their figure for Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor (you know, the one Doctor Who figure I had most desired to own since the age of 9) was missing a key costume element which the character on the show was renowned for possessing: his excessively long scarf. Even though the package art features it, it was missing from the figure. One might also argue they’d left off his hat, and one would be correct in this as well. But the scarf, even to this day, is the most remembered feature of the character among non-fans other than the TARDIS.
“Doctor, why is K-9 green?” “Must’ve gone off his kibble, Mel.”
Oh, but then there was the Dapol TARDIS, which was actually part of the very first set they offered for sale, which was originally part of a limited edition 25th anniversary set, featuring the 7th Doctor, Mel, the green K-9, and a TARDIS complete with control room playset. Conceptually this was something of a dream as the TARDIS toy worked both as the TARDIS prop, with functioning doors and a blue LED that would light up and flash with the flip of a switch, but could also come apart to be reassembled into a TARDIS control room diorama complete with a central control console. The interiors of the TARDIS side panels were painted gray with sculpted white TARDIS roundels, allowing the walls to be linked together to form the interior control room walls. And the console, which both lit up and had a clear time rotor in the center that would rise and fall was a handy addition for play. Unlike the control console on TV, though, Dapol’s had five sides instead of six. Boyle says this was again down to the production stills from the show, which didn’t clearly show the number of sides. He even called the show’s producer, John Nathan Turner, to ask and, Boyle says, JNT asked him which number was easier for Dapol to produce, to which Boyle said “Five” so JNT told him to roll with that. Later, JNT was apparently angry about the inaccurate console and that Boyle hadn’t “pestered more to get the correct information.” It was then agreed that after the company had sold it’s first 10,000 units of the toy, they would have to revise it for six sides. Boyle says Dapol only ever sold 1200.
Dapol Dalek Sampler Pack
(It should be noted that Dapol was hardly the only company guilty of cheap design and construction when it came to Doctor Who toys. For instance, it took decades before ANY company was able to produce a Dalek toy that came close to matching the detail, or even the basic shape of the Daleks on the show. For every Character Options Dalek that gets the recipe right, there are dozens and dozens of processed cheese level Dalek toys that look like they were designed by someone who not only didn’t have actual photographs of the props but had been working entirely from a verbal description of a Dalek given by a person who had once seen one on TV, from across a smoky room, while on LSD. To their credit, Dapol’s Daleks, while not my favorite, got the look right.)
While initially offered in the 25th anniversary set, the Dapol TARDIS went on to be released in a number of different play sets, often with accompanying figures. However, in 1994, while the company was moving its production to a new facility, a fire at the original Dapol factory destroyed the original molds for the control console, along with much of their existing production line of Doctor Who toys. Because they’d allowed the insurance on the old building to lapse as they moved to a new building, the company was suddenly massively in debt. Rather than retool a new one, incurring more costs, Dapol just began producing TARDIS sets minus the console and downplayed the whole coming apart to form the control room feature.
My introduction to the Dapol line came from an issue of Previews in the early 1990s. (Previews is the magazine for Diamond Comic Distributiors, Inc. which was then and remains one of the major direct sales distributors for comic book shops. Comic nerds like myself would pick up Previews each month so we could see what sort of product would be on sale in our local shop in three months and be able to order accordingly.) Some of the Dapol figures, including the TARDIS, were offered for sale there and their grainy little black and white pictures were enticing to my Doctor Who starved brain. Unfortunately, they were not cheap. The 25th anniversary set retailed for 49.99 pounds, which at 1990 exchange rates was around $95. And it wasn’t like they were offered through Diamond every month. Anything beyond initial orders of new product would come with markup for import costs from the UK. So if you were able to find the toys in the US at all they were usually far pricier than your average college student can pay–especially considering the often slapdash nature of Dapol’s quality.
My local shop, the late and lamented Gun Dog Comics, did have a few of the individual figures, but I didn’t have a lot of scratch in the `90s. I think I did manage to cobble together enough to buy a K-9 from them (of the non-green variety) at some point, but a TARDIS was a few years off, when I finally found a reasonably-priced one on the previously mentioned WHONA.com. I ordered it at the same time as the resin model kit, making it my second first(ish) TARDIS.
My Dapol TARDIS is, of course, of the non-console-inclusive later day variety. As far as functionality goes, it’s pretty bare bones, with the whole opening doors and blinking silent roof lamp. However, as you can see from the pictures, Dapol didn’t go out of their way to actually sculpt a proper lamp housing from any of the various ones used on the show. Instead, it’s a bare blue LED bulb inside a clear plastic cylinder. And while the TARDIS does still come apart for assembly into the control room walls, the lack of console gave them the added incentive to stop painting the interior walls, save for the roundels. So instead of the soothing gray/white walls, they’re just TARDIS blue. As far as sculpts go, it’s one of the least impressive and minimalist of designs, probably owing to ease of production. The doors are only slightly recessed from the corner columns, the roof isn’t beveled, the windows are painted into their barely inset panes, and there is no real base to speak of other than a 1/16 inch thick plastic floor. And, much like the TARDIS props have occasionally appeared on the show, the whole thing is kind of rickety in construction. It’s four walls are held together by friction-based notch and tab hinges on the edge of each wall. The bases of the walls have fins that slide beneath other extremely thin plastic fins molded into the nearly as thin base (which I can’t imagine would hold up to actual play), and then the whole assembly is pinned by the roof, which has its own wide tabs that fit into slots in the upper edges of the doors. This means that in order to play with it as a representation of the TARDIS exterior you must hold it firmly around its walls so that the inward pressure keeps them in place, and you must never ever try to lift it by its roof light or turn it upside down, lest the roof fall off.
However, for all its many faults, it’s still a toy I would have loved to have owned in 1981 during the height of my infatuation with the PBS reruns of the show, and I would have played with it gladly as a prized possession. Unfortunately, its many faults and inattention to detail, especially when compared with other TARDISes in my collection (not to mention its lack of even an inaccurate console) lead me to give this one a solid two TARDi. It’s probably two and a half, really.