Space Suits on Doctor Who

After last weekend’s lunar adventure, “Kill the Moon”, I got to thinking.  There was quite a bit of scientific nonsense in it, but oddly one bit is always a pet peeve for me: spacesuits.  And the Doctor’s suit from “The Impossible Astronaut” (which he apparently liked so much he went and got more copies of for his companions) bugs me because although it’s had some thought into it and clearly is inspired by the real-life Advanced Crew Escape System suit worn by Space Shuttle astronauts, it falls short in one crucial element: it obviously does not provide pressure.  And this is true of nearly ever space suit in nearly every movie or TV show because it’s really a pain to try to pressurize a suit and then work in it.  Plus, inflated space suits make people look like the Michelin Man.  So filmmakers almost never try to get around it.  Some find innovative solutions; in “2001”, the suits aren’t pressurized, but the costumers sewed ridges into them which kept them stiff, as if they were pressurized and also articulated.  This neatly obscured the lack of real pressurization.  But how do various other suits used on “Doctor Who” stack up?

“Impossible Planet Suit”


David Tennant in the suit, exploring the Impossible Planet — note the suit is not pressurized in any way.

We’ll start with this one, because actually I do like it.  😉  For a Doctor Who spacesuit, some real effort was made to make it authentic.  As a real suit, it has some clear advantages — a sturdy helmet that unfortunately isn’t conformal and doesn’t turn with the astronaut’s head, but which would offer protection from cave ins and carries a good set of lights.  It’s also bright yellow, a good emergency color.  The suit itself is blaze orange, the perfect color for helping rescuers find you.  What stands out the most to me are the velcro strips on the knee, which are used on real suits to hold pens and checklists and other items in the absence of gravity.  It also has some nice pockets on the legs, also modeled after ACES, and it’s also rear-entry.  The costumers took the time to include a metal locking ring at the neck, like a real suit, although the gloves are less authentic (but doubtless more practical for filming).  One surprising bit of realism was revealed in the “behind the scenes” featurette for “Kill the Moon” — at least for filming at Lanzarote, they included a water-cooled vest so the actors wouldn’t completely pass out from the heat.  The real ACES is worn over a full-body thermal cooling undergarment that works in basically the same way but is linked into the spacecraft’s systems to provide thermoregulation.   But it does have one major problem: as you can see by the way the material drapes, it’s not pressurized.  This is the drawback of using a normal cloth material for your spacesuit costume.  It will give itself away in its drapes and folds.  For reference, here’s what the ACES suit looks like when pressurized:


STS-130 crew during a pad abort training session. Their suits are fully pressurized here (note the ballooned-out legs), and they’re heading for the slidewire baskets to escape the imaginary crisis brewing behind them.

The suit from Impossible Planet was also recycled for the suit worn by Colonel Orson Pink in “Listen”.  It would be pretty plausible for that, given its close visual similarity to the ACES suit (which will probably also be worn in the upcoming flights aboard Orion, CST-100, and Dragon V2, though hopefully with some updates), were it not for the suit also turning up just two episodes later in “Kill the Moon”.  😉  (Note: it will also turn up again later, as location spies did see someone else — either an extra or a stunt double or a new character — wearing the suit during filming of an episode that we haven’t seen yet.)

The Impossible Astronaut


The mysterious astronaut stands in Lake Silencio, ready to meet the Doctor — and destiny.

This is, of course, the most authentic spacesuit ever to appear, since it’s a replica of the A7L suit worn on Apollo and the Skylab program, predecessor to the modern Extravehicular Mobility Units introduced on Shuttle an the modern ISS variant.  There are a few quibbles.  First, of course, once again, it’s visibly unpressurized.  But also, not all of the cables and hoses for the Personal Life Support System (PLSS) backpack are connected, and it’s significantly less bulky than the real deal.  A more crucial error is seen in “The Wedding of River Song”, when River raises her faceplate so she is no longer sealed away and can have a conversation with the Doctor.  But the A7L wasn’t like ACES, where the visor swings down to seal.  Instead, astronauts wore a glass bubble barely larger than their heads as the pressure vessel.  The big helmet you see here was more like a protective hood, offering protection against shattering the pressure vessel in a fall, thermal protection, and a visor that was used to shield against the glare of the Sun.  The last problem with this suit is that with PLSS (which River would have required while submerged), it weighs about 200 pounds.  Unless your’e on the Moon, you really can’t walk around in it unassisted.


  Buzz Aldrin on the real Moon; note reflective faceplate is down to protect against the glare of the Sun, and suit is pressurized.


ASTP crew heads for the pad; this is a great chance to see how the bubble helmets looked without the extra hardware worn for an actual EVA. Notice also how white and clean the suits are; the grey color we associated with moonwalkers is moon dust, which got absolutely everywhere.

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe – Exploding Ship Suit

doctor widow wardrobe space suit

The suit the 11th Doctor used to survive reentry. Note that although it’s designed to look like it’s on backwards (note the visor covering the face), it’s actually forwards like this.

We don’t know what alien species was on that spaceship that blew; all we know is the Doctor somehow grabbed a suit and pulled it on (backwards) in time for it to help him survive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.  (A dubious accomplishment, scientifically speaking.)  This suit is unrelated to any actual suits, but it does a good job of using rigid suit materials to avoid the whole “I can see it’s not pressurized” thing.  Joints are articulated, which you see in a great many future spacesuit proposals.  Modern EMUs do have articulated joints, since if it was pure fabric it’d be impossible to bend once pressurized, but not as flexibly as this.  It’s actually quite lovely.

Olvir and Kari’s boarding suits, “Terminus”

doctor who terminus 7

It wasn’t really clear if they were spacewalking in or not, but still, I don’t see how those domes would be much help against anything.

Oh dear.  We had better hope they aren’t in vacuum at any point, and are really just wearing those bubbles in case of poisonous fumes.

Oxygen Helmet, Doctor’s EVA, “Four to Doomsday”


The Doctor is supposed to be spacewalking to the TARDIS, but he’s gotten stuck; a cricket ball and Newton’s Third Law will fix that (and oddly enough, not cause him to spin slowly end over end).

Oh dear oh dear.  Time Lord biology apparently makes up for a lot, as the Doctor has neither suit nor even faceplate here.  Supposely this is providing him with oxygen, but one wonders how the oxygen is meant to get into his lungs; inhaling only works if there’s atmospheric pressure to shove the fresh air in for you.

English space program suit, “Ambassadors of Death”


The alien extends its hands menacingly….

Considering this dates back to Jon Pertwee’s first season, this one is pretty good.  It’s got a plausible helmet, connection lines, and the quilted structure of suit helps give it structure.  We never get to see how the helmets come off; this is a plot device to conceal that they’ve been replaced by aliens.  The suits are again obviously unpressurized, but as they’re on Earth at this point, that’s much more forgivable; there’s plenty of atmospheric pressure here, after all.  This one was shown while the Apollo program was in high gear, but to me references more the suit worn by Ed White on America’s first spacewalk, during the Gemini program.


Ed White, hanging out above the blue marble


English Space Suit Mark 2, “The Android Invasion”, and also Thal suit, “Planet of the Daleks”

android 2 (2)

Guy Crawford, in the cockpit of his rear-projection spacecraft (this was not the best funded episode, evidently)

dw Planet of Daleks 1

Jo Grant discovers a deceased Thal pilot, still wearing his suit.

Here’s another recycled suit: hapless English astronaut Guy Crayford wears the same suit seen a couple of seasons earlier on the Thal astronauts encountered on the planet Spirodon.  Again, quilting is used to great effect, offering a futuristic look and also giving the impression of bulk, of pressurization, and articulation.  However, the sleeve cuffs totally ruin it for me, as they’re totally impossible to even pretend are sealed.

Archeological Expedition Suits, “Silence in the Library”

doctor who silence in the library 5

Silence in the Library — keep your helmet on and visor dark, and maybe the Vashta Nerada won’t get you. Or maybe it’ll just animate your skeleton as a convenient transport mechanism.

These are very good, despite an ever-so-slight 80s vibe, with the rigid shoulder portion that the helmets lock onto.  We never see the suits pressurized, but maybe that’s not a problem as they’re in an atmosphere here and are just trying to keep the Vashta Nerada out.  I adore the helmets.  They helmets to me echo the iconic design from “2001: a Space Odyssey”.

British EVA suit for colony mission, “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”

dino who 4

To maintain the ruse that they’re all on a spaceship, one of the men in charge of the whole scheme pretends to spacewalk over to the ship. He’s here exiting the airlock.

This one isn’t pressurized, but as it’s part of an elaborate fraud, that’s forgivable.  The suit wasn’t made for “Doctor Who” (and it appears only very briefly) but was instead a leftover from the production of “Moonbase 3” in the production lull between seasons of “Doctor Who”.  The helmet is a bit larger than necessary, but otherwise it’s clearly strongly inspired by actual suits that went before it.

Lunar EVA suits, “The Moonbase”


These *might* be adequate for a cleanroom. But that’s about it.


Oh dear.  “The Moonbase”, which is mostly missing today, was the second serial to feature the Cybermen.  And apparently on the Moon, all you need is a bubble helmet, a hose to add oxygen, and some plastic coveralls.

Future Human Spacesuits, “The Sontaran Experiment”

doctor who sontaran 2

The robot probe captures the remaining astronauts.

These suits clearly have taken a beating.  I like the metal neck rings, though it seems the resulting helmets would be unnecessarily large, and as usual, there is no system for joining gloves to the suit.  The suits have been worn as everyday clothes for a long period of time, ever since the crew crash-landed back on the abandoned Earth.

Eternals spacesuits, “Enlightenment

doctor who enlightenment 6

Turlough and the Doctor come face-to-face with the spacefaring nature of this sailing race.

The Eternals are nearly omnipotent (but hardly ever have the originality to make use of that) and certainly can’t die, but they made these suits to offer some emergency protection for their “Ephermeral” (i.e. normal people) crewmen.  They aren’t pressurized, and are not meant for EVA but as an emergency survival suit. This is the same function as the Sokol partial-pressure suits worn aboard Soyuz, but in practice probably works about as well as what NASA was putting their crews in up until the Challenger accident:


Part of the STS-51L crew on the flight deck of an orbiter simulator, training launch and entry procedures prior to the catastrophic STS-51L launch. Left to right: Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnick, Dick Scobee. In the middeck below (not pictured) would be Greg Jarvis, Ron McNair, and Christa McAuliffe. This is seriously how crews used to dress for Shuttle launches. Analysis of the Challenger accident showed a pressure suit would’ve kept them alive after the breakup of the vehicle, although it’s unlikely they could’ve cleared enough debris to safely open their parachutes.


It’s getting late, so I am going to wrap up there.  I know there are more suits on Doctor Who (I still haven’t done “The Invisible Enemy” or “Face of Evil”, a couple of my favorites, or the Doctor’s EVA in “Frontier in Space”), but this is enough to be getting on with.  I’ll do some more tomorrow night.  😉  I still need to do the suits from “Kill the Moon” too!




Filed under Doctor Who, Space

5 responses to “Space Suits on Doctor Who

  1. Tim

    Nice. But none of those suits have anything on the ‘Ohh my God, you killed Kenny; You Bastards!’ suits of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine:

    Capa’s Jump:

  2. Hah! Well, you’re right on that. Someday, maybe I’ll need to write about other franchise’s space suits. 😉

  3. Pingback: More Doctor Who Space Suits! | Calli Arcale's Fractal Wonder

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