Mad Dons and TARDISfolk: Doctor Who in Oxford


A Doctor Who tour of Oxford, by James Ashworth, co-editor of The Tides of Time. First published in Tides issue 41, published June 2018.

‘THERE’S A CITY OUT THERE WHERE THE SKY IS BURNING, WHERE THE ISIS’S ASLEEP AND THE SPIRES DREAM, WITH PEOPLE MADE OF SMOKE AND CHAPELS MADE OF SONG.’ Had Doctor Who been set exclusively in Oxford, the Seventh Doctor, played by Kevin Whately, may have spoken these words as he walked off to adventures unknown. While this may have not come to pass, The Doctor has come to visit this fair city many a time, more so than his well-known visit to ‘the Other Place’. Don your academic gown, and join us on our tour of the undercurrent of Doctor Who permeating the city.

Beginning in Radcliffe Square, you’ll find yourself in the very heart of what Oxford is perhaps most well-known for, a certain university. Like the Doctor’s past, the origins of Oxford University are uncertain, with its own website tentatively giving 1096 as the earliest date that teaching was known to be taking place. From his perspective, the Doctor, in his fourth incarnation, first visited the city in 1278 with Nyssa in the novel Asylum (2001) by Peter Darvill-Evans, although this was a Nyssa from some time after she had left the Fifth Doctor in Terminus (1983). While there, he may have noticed a church near the centre of the city, that of St Mary the Virgin. The church provides the south side of Radcliffe Square, but it is far older. For at least two centuries, the church was the administrative hub of the university. Its many roles included serving as the meeting point for the Convocation of senior university members until 1637, another part of it being used as the university library and another as the university court. In 1488 the books moved to the new library, Duke Humfrey’s, named after King Henry V’s brother the duke of Gloucester. It’s now the oldest part of the Bodleian Library, so named after the university library was refounded by Thomas Bodley in 1602. Its buildings fill the centre and north side of Radcliffe Square.

The Radcliffe Camera in the middle of the square is a firm favourite of any of the Doctor’s trips to Oxford, whether it includes battling the Kreevix, whose iterative time machines litter the square in the audio Destiny of the Doctor: The Time Machine (2013) by Matt Fitton (himself formerly of Exeter College), or the Garvond in the novel The Dimension Riders (1993) by Daniel Blythe (formerly of St John’s). The Time Machine also introduces the Gladstone Link, below your feet under the square’s cobbles, with its suitably space age corridors and mix of modern and nineteenth-century book shelving (the latter designed by Liberal prime minister W.E. Gladstone). There, it becomes the perfect hiding place for the TARDIS, a time machine with the same dichotomy of appearance. The Doctor, Amy and Rory were also once Trapped in the Pages of History here by the Buukvirm, who sought to consume them along with the book they were trapped in. They were able to use the Index Jump to leap from book to book, eventually reaching ‘The History of the Metropolitan Police’, using the Police Box within to return to reality. They then we’re able to trap the Buukvirm within ‘Pudget’s History of the Teabag’, and safely ensconce it within the TARDIS library. To your right you’ll observe All Souls College, best known in the Whoniverse for one of its fellows, Marcus Scarman, the noted archaeologist who accidentally released Sutekh from his prison in Pyramids of Mars (1975).

Continuing across the square, go through the archway and into the Old Bodleian. Entering Schools Quad, keep an eye out for Les. More than a rival for Wilkin of St Cedd’s in Cambridge (as met in Shada [1980]), he controls access to the library, bowler hat firmly on head. Among the books he so steadfastly will include those by the author Colin Dexter, among others. A noted favourite of the Time Lord Epsilon Delta, sometime president of St Matthew’s College (in The Dimension Riders – more on that later), he attended ‘the Other Place’ before joining the staff of the university and beginning to write about the investigations of one Endeavour Morse. Exiting under the grand arch on the east side of the quad and into Catte Street, you’ll find yourself admiring the Bridge of Sighs, as Bernice Summerfield once did (again, in The Dimension Riders) while hunting for Professor Rafferty, chair of Extraterrestrial Studies (unfortunately, as far as I’m aware, not a real position). Heading out onto Broad Street, you’ll see the King’s Arms ahead of you. It is owned by Wadham College, which educated Anna Hope, the actress behind Novice Hame in New Earth (2006) and Gridlock (2007).

Turning left, you may want to pop into the Museum of the History of Science. Chief among its many artefacts is a preserved whiteboard on which Albert Einstein wrote his model of the universe during a series of lectures given at Rhodes House in 1931. Albert Einstein has appeared twice in Doctor Who, first as one of the kidnapped scientists in Time and the Rani (1987), where he admired the Doctor’s TARDIS. Presumably using the deductions made from this trip home, he is later seen in the Blue Peter special Death is the Only Answer (2011) through his own attempts to develop a time machine. Both the whiteboard and Death is the Only Answer contain conversion errors, the former featuring an error converting the Hubble constant, while the latter features Einstein’s inadvertent transformation into an Ood!

Ahead of you is Trinity College, with its imposing walls and blue gates. As Mortarhouse College is described in BBC Books Eighth Doctor novel The Banquo Legacy (2000) as having views of the Sheldonian Theatre, Trinity seems likely to be the Whoniverse equivalent of Mortarhouse. Mortarhouse’s dean in 1883, the Reverend Ernest Matthews, appears in Ghost Light (1989), while The Banquo Legacy features the Natural Sciences Professor Sowerden, like Matthews a fellow of Mortarhouse and his former student Gordon Seavers.

Continue past Balliol College on the north side of Broad Street. Balliol’s past students include Louis Marks, author of Planet of Giants (1964), Day of the Daleks (1972), Planet of Evil (1975) and The Masque of Mandragora (1976). Then turn left into Cornmarket Street, take the first right onto St Michael’s Street, and look for the bookshop named Arcadia on your right. Iris Wildthyme, transtemporal adventuress and sometime ally/flame of the Doctor, once owned a bookshop named after herself on this street, containing rare books collected from many times and places. Its clientele included Alice Liddell, the ‘Alice’ of Wonderland fame, whose author Lewis Carroll – a pseudonym for Christ Church mathematician Charles Dodgson – is also noted for having been a photographer, with Victoria Waterfield numbering among his subjects.

Crossing the street, behind the red brick wall, you will see the Oxford Union, the noted debating society founded in 1823. It’s perhaps best known to the Oxford Doctor Who Society for visits from the great and good of Doctor Who, including Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Murray Gold. In the Whoniverse, it has played host to the Brigadier as a speaker defending Britain’s military, while a certain Time Lord also makes full use of its whole life membership in The Dimension Riders (1993).

At the end of the street, turn left, and walk until you reach the Westgate shopping centre. Turn right, and continue along New Road until Oxford Castle emerges on your left. Now part hotel and part prison museum, the castle has been a part of the Oxford landscape since 1071, when a motte and bailey castle (of which the motte remains today) was built by Robert d’Oilly. It was also where Empress Matilda found shelter during her war with King Stephen in the twelfth century. In the novel Asylum, another Matilda was lady of the castle in 1278, with the Doctor and Nyssa witness to her grand gardens in the bailey (though these didn’t exist in our world). According to the audio The Cloisters of Terror by Jonathan Morris (2015), a further Matilda became beatified after seeing an alien spaceship crash in 985, and a college was later named after her. The Doctor and Leela investigated the disappearance of students there in 1977, when the college was destroyed after the buried spaceship exploded. New Road, which you are currently walking along, cuts through this outer area of the castle, and as you turn right into Worcester Street at the west end of Nuffield College, you may imagine the neatly regimented flowers and plants that could have existed 800 years ago.



Cross the road by Nando’s, and follow the stone wall up towards the set of traffic lights. When you reach them, the edifice before you is Worcester College. This has considerable pedigree as the alma mater of Russell T Davies, who studied English Literature here between 1981 and 1984, and also of Gemma Chan, Mia Bennett in The Waters of Mars (2009). Follow the road around to the right as it becomes Beaumont Street. There is a plaque on the north-west corner commemorating the births of King Richard I in 1157 and King John in 1167, both in the royal palace that once stood on the site. The Doctor met Richard I in The Crusade (1965) and appeared to meet John in The King’s Demons (1983), before discovering that this king was actually the shape-changing android Kamelion. Continuing along the south side of Beaumont Street, and towards the end of the street, you may find yourself greeted by a doorman of the Randolph Hotel, where Bernice Summerfield stayed during the events of The Dimension Riders.

Cross the road at the traffic lights and head north up the west side of St Giles’, past the Ashmolean, keeping an eye out for a golden eagle against a blue background, the sign of the Eagle and Child. The pub is best known for its connection to the Inklings, a literary set whose members include C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and also parodied by Paul Magrs as the ‘Smudgelings’ in his BBC Books Eighth Doctor novel Mad Dogs and Englishmen (2002). While he would never live to see it, dying on the 22nd November 1963, C.S Lewis in particular is owed a debt of thanks by Doctor Who. As An Adventure In Space and Time (2013) puts it, the Doctor is ‘C.S Lewis meets H.G Wells meets Father Christmas’, and the concept of the TARDIS certainly took inspiration from the land of Narnia within a wardrobe. Indeed, the Whoniverse is something of the opposite, with the Doctor and Amy, as members of the Inklings, critiquing Lewis’s early draft of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in The Professor, the Queen and the Bookshop (comic story, Doctor Who Magazine 429, 2010). Indeed, the Doctor himself suggests the wardrobe over a transcendental bookshop, later providing a similar adventure for the Arwells in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (2011).

Dimension_RidersMake your way across to the east side of St Giles’, and to the Lamb and Flag. Perhaps the biggest place present in the Oxford of the Whoniverse, but not in reality is the college of St Matthew’s, introduced in The Dimension Riders (you may be noticing a theme developing). Its geography is somewhat uncertain, certainly existing on St Giles’, and in the interests of fitting everything in we’ll say that it exists where St John’s Kendrew Quad stands. Further extrapolating, let us presume that when the land of the former St Bernard’s was sold by Christ Church, it was divided into two lots, the more southerly of which developed into St John’s while the more northerly became St Matthew’s. It certainly seems to be a college of the old school, what with its many quads, Latin graces, and wood panelling. Indeed, the histories of figures involved with Doctor Who itself may have changed, with the Hinchcliffe building suggesting that perhaps one producer never attended Pembroke College, Cambridge. (St John’s has a Holmes building…) As for the college that actually occupies the site, you will see the walls of St John’s College stretching away down St Giles’. The Eighth Doctor first met Alan Turing here, as the latter gave a lecture on computable numbers in December 1944, before the two undertook an adventure in occupied Europe (see The Turing Test by Paul Leonard [BBC Books, 2000]).

Continue along Lamb and Flag Passage and Museum Road, and cross Parks Road to the University Museum of Natural History, the scene of the famous 1860 debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce on the theory of evolution. Given his interest in evolution (or the disproving of it), it seems likely that Reverend Ernest Matthews was present. (in the audio story Bloodtide by Jonathan Morris [Big Finish, 2001] Charles Darwin himself fought alongside the Sixth Doctor against the Silurians on the Galapagos Islands.) Behind you is the red brick façade of Keble College, where Frank Cottrell-Boyce, writer of In the Forest of the Night (2014) and Smile (2017), once studied.

Follow South Parks Road into the science area, and stop when you reach a striking stone and glass building. This is the Earth Science Department, temporarily taken over by the Physics Department and Professor Chivers during his construction of a time machine provided by the Kreevix. Further down the road, you’ll come to a large, gated road entrance. To the left of this is the Geography Department, perhaps home of the Travers Building, named after the former professor of the University associated with the incursions of the Great Intelligence.

Continue to follow this road as it turns right to become St Cross Road, and past the concrete building formerly known as the Zoology Department. Keep going until you eventually come to a former church by the junction with Manor Road. If you choose to turn left, you can visit St Catherine’s College. With apologies to our membership secretary, it is described by The Dimension Riders as ‘a glorious example of what should not be done with glass and concrete’. Keep following St Cross Road as it becomes Longwall Street, until the crenellated wall runs out at the High Street. Turn left and cross the road, until you reach a gap in the low hedge. In here are the Oxford Botanic Gardens, the oldest in the United Kingdom. Inside, stare into a pool while contemplating your existence, as the Seventh Doctor once did, then sit on Lyra’s Bench and in the spirit of Philip Pullman wonder about parallel universes, perhaps that of Inferno (1970) or Pete’s World as seen in four episodes in the Tenth Doctor’s first series. You will probably see some punts on the river, providing further evidence of why the Doctor was wrong when he said (in Shada) that ‘with something as simple as a punt nothing can go wrong’.

Turning around and heading back up the High Street, you’ll encounter St Edmund Hall up Queen’s Lane on the right. Like Worcester College, you won’t find it in the Whoniverse, but it nonetheless provided the education of Ian Marter who played the Fourth Doctor’s companion Harry Sullivan as well as novelising several stories, Roland Oliver who played Neman in The Keeper of Traken (1981), and comics and BBC Books writer Dan Abnett. Returning to the High Street, continue along until you find St Mary’s Church once more. Across the road is Oriel College, whose alumni include Peter Harness, author of Kill the Moon (2014), The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (2015) and The Pyramid at the End of the World (2017). Rounding the corner to the left, you’ll find yourself back in Radcliffe Square.

Having returned to the beginning, consider all the other references to Oxford men and women in the Whoniverse. Luke Smith went to study here, accompanied by K9 Mark Four, and his anxieties about such led to the manifestation of the eponymous Nightmare Man of the Sarah Jane Adventures serial. Meanwhile, it’s been said (In Matt Fitton’s The Time Machine) that Ian Chesterton was himself an Oxford student, a contemporary of Professor Rafferty, and was also the science teacher of the future Professor Chivers. I hope that you’ve enjoyed a tour through the Oxford version of the Land of Fiction, and we can but hope that Doctor Who proper will visit sometime soon!

Tides 41 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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