Event Review: THE DOCTOR WHO EXPERIENCE - CARDIFF BAY

PrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount

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After a successful stint at the Kensington Olympia 2 in London’s Earls Court last year the lavish, interactive Doctor Who Experience - which combines the best of the fondly-remembered 1970s and 1980s costume exhibitions at Blackpool and Longleat House with state-of-the-art visual effects and immersive 3D trickery - has moved into its new permanent home in a 3,000 square metre purpose-built complex in Cardiff Bay, just a stone’s throw from the Roath Lock studios where the series itself is now produced. Starburst’s Paul Mount armed himself with his sonic screwdriver and psychic paper and set his co-ordinates for Cardiff Bay for a date with the Doctor and some of his deadliest enemies…

There’s a very definitive buzz about the BBC Doctor Who Experience which isn’t just the thrill of a new venture opening its doors to an eager public for the very first time at its new long-term home. Nestled in a corner of former waste ground at Roath Lock in Cardiff the Experience is based in a massive, rather forbidding and vaguely-futuristic looking building and is especially noticeable by the amount of pedestrian traffic crossing the footbridge into an area of the city which has, since the disappearance of Cardiff’s traditional docklands industrial activity, been largely unloved and unvisited. The regeneration of the area - if you’ll pardon the pun - is set to continue with a number of new restaurants, cafes and retails units in a remaining section of long-abandoned former dock workings right outside the new BBC complex. What impact this activity will have on filming of long-running Welsh soap Pobol-y-Cwm just inside walls of the BBC Wales remains to be seen…

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If you’ve been to the Doctor Who Experience in London - and I’d be willing to wager a month’s worth of grotzits that you have - you’ll be immediately struck by the sense of space at its new home, even if much of the core content has remained basically unchanged. Entering into the bright, airy vestibule, its walls decorated with snazzy artwork illustrations of the Doctor’s most famous enemies, including the Daleks (obviously), their creator Davros, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, the Silence, the first pleasant surprise is the presence of Bessie, the third Doctor’s canary-yellow T-Ford roadster roped off just inside the main doorway. It’s a reassuring sign that the Exhibition won’t be new-series obsessed and that the show’s rich heritage, as it approaches its fiftieth anniversary, hasn’t been brushed aside in the glare and glamour of the 21st century version. Visitors are ushered into the Experience itself in groups of thirty - Starburst spent about three hours on or around the premises and saw a steady stream of customers throughout the morning after an initial rush of groups during the first hour of opening - and into a small viewing area where Matt Smith prepares us for what’s ahead via a voiceover as images from his first two seasons - and did I see some sneaky new footage from as-yet-unscreened episodes in there? - rush by on a screen to the accompaniment of composer Murray Gold’s rousing ‘I Am the Doctor’ theme. 

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The just-visible ‘crack’ on the screen splits open and the visitors enter ‘Starship UK’, inspired by the ‘Beast Below’ episode from 2010 where an ‘information node’ (from 2008’s ‘Silence in the Library’ two-parter) welcomes us aboard before being disrupted by an unauthorised transmission… and screens dotted about the room show the Doctor, trapped in “The Pandorica 2 - they had a spare” desperate for help and, in the absence of Amy, having to resort to a bunch of “shoppers” to get him out of his latest predicament. Impressive smoke-and-mirrors trickery sees the TARDIS materialise right before out eyes; the doors swing open and we’re hurried into a corridor leading to a wonderful facsimile of the 11th Doctor’s TARDIS console room. In a section especially aimed at the youngsters, the Doctor encourages his “shoppers” to navigate the TARDIS via some control panels dotted around the safety rail until it touches down and the crowd are moved out through more metallic corridors… and an encounter with the big ugly white Dalek from the 2010 series who, typically, threatens to exterminate everyone before the Doctor appears on screen again and tells him to give it a rest. Two more of the big new Daleks slide out the shadows before the Dalek spaceship we’re on comes under attack by an army of proper gold Daleks and the screen lights up and displays a CGI space battle with Dalek saucers ducking and diving and exploding. It’s a comic strip come to life.

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Out of the Dalek section we move into a dimly-lit forest and the Doctor gives us just one warning - “don’t blink.” Weeping Angels lurk in the shadows as we collect our 3D glasses and the Doctor, freed from the Pandorica 2, unleashes all his deadliest enemies and 3D Daleks, Cybermen and Angels lurch out of the screen and lunge at the crowd before being flung back into the Time Vortex via a bit of Time Lord mumbo jumbo magic.

That’s it for the interactive part of the Experience and whilst it’s clearly aimed at the younger end of the Doctor Who audience it’s a lot of fun and it’s genuinely touching to see the little ones cowering from the barking Daleks and flinching as a 3D Angel reaches out from the screen. Cynical adults can sometimes be a bit sniffy about the show’s appeal to kids but let’s all remember that the reason we’re watching this show now is because it got its hooks into us when we were knee-high to a Sontaran…

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Out from the Experience itself it’s up to the stiflingly-hot mezzanine area (fans and blowers can only do so much - the rising heat was always going to be a problem at the new Experience) and a big, sprawling, fascinating display of props and costumes from the show, some of them dating back to the 1960s. Alongside the usual array of Daleks-through-the-Ages and the costumes of all the Doctors and the post-2005 companions, Cardiff exclusives include the Silence in their spaceship control room, the junkyard TARDIS from ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and the Wooden King and Queen from that Christmas Special from last year we’ve all forgotten about. Elsewhere there are Cybermen (generally under-represented, Starburst felt), Ood, Hath, Judoon, the Absorbaloff, Time Lords and, for the older fan, a refurbished Ice Warrior, Zygon and Giant Robot K1. There are photo opportunities, the chance to ‘move like a monster’, a Dalek for tiny hands to manipulate and displays of concept designs for props, sets and costumes.

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You’ll easily spend an hour or so gazing at the exhibits - Tennant’s TARDIS console room is there alongside more basic control rooms from the 1980s, old TARDIS props, K9  - before drifting into the merchandise area. With little in the way of new stuff released since the show’s been off-air there’s not much here for the more determined collector - there are a few season 6 action figures reduced to about a fiver if you need an extra Silence or corroded Cyberman - but there are exclusive posters, T-shirts, torches and mugs alongside a selection of books and DVDs. Prepare to pay top dollar for most of this stuff too.

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Out of the exhibition area visitors can spend some time in the bright, spacious café area - Starburst recommends the sausage sandwiches - soaking up an atmosphere where the Doctor Who theme is playing in the background on a loop and visitors of all ages and from all over the world can revel in the glorious, imaginative, rich and colourful heritage of the greatest show in the galaxy. The Doctor Who Experience will be based at Cardiff for at least the next five years and a visit - possibly even regular visits - are a must for all fans of this most remarkable and indestructible of television legends.

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