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I restarted watching Doctor Who from the beginning, but I think I may have missed something and it's made me wonder if they ever explain, during the Marco Polo episodes, for example, how is it possible for the main group of characters, with the exception of the Doctor, to understand Tegana and the other Asian characters?

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    I literally only know this because of Tumblr... But the TARDIS has a built-in translator that translates for The Doctor specifically. I can't answer you for other characters, but it may extend to them as well. – Zibbobz May 28 '14 at 14:50
  • Well, that explains the Doctor. Thanks. I will edit my question to reflect this. – Urdungo May 28 '14 at 15:10
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In the words of the Doctor, it's a "gift of the TARDIS, a telepathic field that gets inside your brain — translates."

The TARDIS creates a psychic bond with everyone who travels in it, by which said person instantly and effortlessly can understand (almost) any language they encounter, and automatically speaks the correct language back to everyone they meet. On the other hand, the Doctor has also said in the past that's it's a gift of the Time Lord that he grants to his companions; that it seems to be related to both him and the TARDIS suggests to me that it's actually somewhere in between, that it's a function of the two of them together.

Of course, sometimes the TARDIS seems to do it for non-travelers as well, and other times (most notably Clara's first trip) it seems to be a bit testy about who it will give the gift to, or how "complete" the understanding actually is; out-of-universe this is lazy writing and/or deliberately done for dramatic/humorous effect, but in-universe it's just because the TARDIS doesn't like you, or is just having a spot o' fun at your expense. Sometimes too the translation circuit simply fails altogether. Other times it seems to just like messing with you, like when Donna was heard by a local as speaking Celtic when she spoke actual Latin while in ancient Pompeii ("The Fires of Pompeii").

Note that the gift is not limited by distance from the TARDIS, either in space or in time (except when it is), although companions who cease to travel with the Doctor seem to lose it at some arbitrary point. Also note that some languages are simply "not translatable", e.g. written Gallifreyan.

  • Thank you so much. Do you know at what point they mention or explain this? – Urdungo May 28 '14 at 15:32
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    @FuzzyMcNubNubs The quote at the start is from the Ninth Doctor's episode The End of the World (first trip he takes with Rose, IIRC). It's at least mentioned to almost every companion their first time to a new place with him -- if they ask (some companions seem to just take it in stride and/or don't even notice!). There is no single time when he sits down and explains its entire inner workings to the audience, though, so it's all gleaned from dozens of comments and remarks rather than a single coherent explanation. – Kromey May 28 '14 at 15:36
  • That's very helpful information, thanks. – Urdungo May 28 '14 at 15:38
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    If including the original series, I think the first on-screen explanation of it was in "The Masque of Mandragora", when the Fourth Doctor explain0ed it as "a gift of the Time Lord" that he let (in that case) Sarah Jane share - that's probably the story Kromey is referring to. Among others, Moffat has made some amusing remarks in a story or two, about exactly why the companions don't seem to question it - and what the implications of that might be. See e.g. "Continuity Errors" (short story). – JimmiTh Jun 5 '14 at 9:54

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