In February this year a new exhibition of Doctor Who props and costumes opened in London, at the Olympia 2. What makes The Doctor Who Experience different from the previous “Close Up” events that have happened over the country over the past few years, is this is the first time they have put the paying punter in the middle of a Who story (to paraphrase their words!).
There have been exhibitions around the country off and on for almost as long as the show has been running. Having been to the wonderful Manchester Close Up in 1997 and the Blackpool exhibition, which sadly closed in 2009, I have seen how these things can be a geek's dream.
I am not what you would call a die hard Who fan, I do recall watching it the 70s, being more interested in the monsters than the stories, of course, as most kids are. I have a vivid recollection of seeing Tom Baker turning the Blackpool Illuminations on in 1975. I'm pretty sure there were Cybermen there too. Apparently his companions of the time, Lis Sladen and Ian Marter helped him, but I do not remember them, just the Doctor. There in front of me, complete with hat and scarf. Strange how I hardly remember anything they tried to teach me in school, but that memory remains. I had a few of the annuals, I ate Weetabix for months to collect the cards given away inside, I can almost still taste the minty chocolate ice lolly Wall's brought out and I got the wonderful talking Dalek that woke the whole house up one Christmas at some silly time in the middle of the night. It was Santa's fault.
Then I zoned out in the 80s, but I chose to give it a try when it was resurrected by Russell T. Davis. Mainly because of Christopher Eccleston, I think. He is a bit of a local hero, coming from a mile or so away from where I live. Got to give the local lad a chance. And the fact I often saw him shopping in the local supermarket made me like him more. To my surprise I really enjoyed it. Even when he was replaced with David Tennant. And now, Matt Smith. It is perfect Saturday tea time viewing. Just like it was when I was growing up. Only now I do not have to put up with the football pools results before it starts.
Now, like I mentioned this time it is different. Before the main exhibition hall there is a “walk through experience” This really filled me with dread when I first heard of it. I knew I would be going on my own. I'm in my 40s. Do I really want to be acting like a kid interacting with wannabe actors pretending to be the Doctor, or the Doctor's enemies? Could I not just bypass this bit and go straight to looking at models and costumes? Please?
Well, no I could not. I did a bit of research online before deciding to go. “No photography on the walk through part of the experience” Hmm. Well one of the reasons I wanted to go was to take photos. You are allowed to take them in the exhibition hall, however. Good. Well that's something.
So, with a lot of nerves it had to be said, I made my way down to the Olympia. I had decided to go to the first tour of the day, 10am. When I got there and saw no queue my heart sank. Did I really want to go on this walk through thing on my own? With no children to detract the hired hands pretending to be Daleks? My fears were eased when a few families turned up. And even a young lady on her own. I was not the saddo I thought I was! Well, not the only one at least.
Strangely, the Olympia 2 is only accessible via a lift from the main entrance, almost giving you a feel like you are going into a hotel convention or something. I spotted a missed chance here, maybe they could have made the outer lift doors resemble the Tardis? Or maybe I am just expecting too much.
We are ushered into a waiting area near the box office, where a few costumes are set up to look at. Then we are allowed in, being told again that no photography is allowed on this part. Boo.
We sit in a small screening room, where a short film is played. Basically, a quick overview of the first Smith series, with the crack in time being a big part.
Well, to be honest, I do not really want to give you too many spoilers about what happens next, because if you go in, like me, not knowing what to expect I think you will get much more out of it.
I will say, though, my fears were unfounded and there was no audience participation that was forced on you, making you feel stupid. In fact, the interactive part of it was well handled and enjoyable. Is that a smile breaking out on my face?
It is no secret to say Matt Smith has filmed special pieces for this and they are not too bad, they do seem a little more forced and “dumbed down” than the series, but as this is a major London tourist trap, I guess that is to be expected I suppose. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it, old and young alike.
So no spoilers from me on this part, only to say there is a brief 3D film which is brilliant use of the format.
So onwards we go into the main exhibition hall. Here it is every geek to him (or her) self.
We pass the Pandorica box (where, we are notified by a sign, the toilets are behind. Good to know).
The walls are decorated with blown up covers of Radio Times through the ages, and I found myself getting all nostalgic over the earliest ones I remembered.
The first stop for most people was a chance to have your photo taken in the Pandorica chair or coming out of the Tardis. A Chroma key (blue screen) computer trick, but a nice keepsake for those with the disposable income. And it looked like they were doing very well from it too. I saw a few of the results, and they did not look too bad, so maybe worth it for some?
The first room is dominated by the big blue box, and a mannequin of it's current owner. Not a bad likeness either. This is surrounded by costumes from all the other 10 Doctors. There are cabinet displays of the Doctor's Sonic Screwdrivers and Tardis keys, as well as a few props used in the last series.
Next we have a full size recreation of the 10th Doctor's Tardis interior. Like all the exhibits you can get close enough to see every detail, but of course no touching! It is a shame you could not walk all around this one though, but it is still wonderful. The whole interior is lovingly brought to life, right down to the entrance doors. You could almost expect the Doctor to come running in and start pulling levers and pressing buttons. There is a loop video playing in the background of some of Tennant's moments, which after hearing a few dozen times gets a bit much.
In this section there are costumes of the Doctor's companions too. New Who dominates here, with only K9 and Sarah Jane being a nod to the old days, but relevant of course from their new appearances. The Time Lords are represented by three costumes, the Time Lord President (as played by Timothy Dalton), a regular Time Lord outfit (from the classic series) and the rather dapper Master suit as worn by Derek Jacobi and John Simm are all here. Over in the corner is the 5th Doctor Peter Davison's Tardis interior. Much smaller than the new one, and a lot less complicated. This shows the bigger budget the current run has over the good old days of wobbly scenery, and that the attention to small detail in the art department has been increased. A copy of an 80's Tardis is being guarded by Melkur from The Keeper of Traken story from Tom Baker's days.
Two modern Cybermen lead into a selection of Cyber heads through the ages. These are mostly replicas, rather than screen used but I guess they were so quickly made back then that they did not survive the passage of time. It was quite nice to see the crude looking 1st Doctor Cyberman head with what looked like a miner’s lamp on top of an opaque stocking mask. A bit like a steam punk Slipknot really.
We are now faced with the Evolution of the Daleks, including their master Davros. Its wonderful to see the slight differences between them all. The monsters continue with a smattering of classics, an Ice Warrior, Zygon, and a trio of Sontarans from their various appearances. The most recent one looking rather small and cute next to the older versions. More modern monsters surround the Giant Robot (K1) from Tom Baker's first Doctor story. It is not very giant really. The ghostly child in the gas mask still gives me the creeps just like he did in the show. It's a shame they have not gone the extra mile and added sound clips to some of these displays. How great would it be to hear a chilling “Are you my mummy?” when you approached this one?
It is here we get to have a bit of a sit down and watch a short behind the scenes film from the last Christmas special focusing on the sleigh ride through the sky. It's here we can get up close and personal with The Face Of Boe, too.
The behind the scenes theme continues with a recreation of the BBC Wales art department office complete with untidy desks, walls full of location pictures and reference material thrown all over. It is a shame we can not get closer to all this to see everything in more detail.
We see the development of the Ood, from head sculpting to the fully finished model which is very interesting. Abzorbaloff stands looking ugly in the corner. If I recall correctly this was a monster created by a kid from Blue Peter, and played on-screen by comedian Peter Kay. The best thing about this is getting to see the faces of the “absorbed” people forcing themselves from the big fat belly of the beast.
A child friendly ‘hands on’ section follows, which gives the kids, old and young, a chance to play about talking like a Dalek, and to mix the theme music using an oversized fader. Giant mirrors enclose an area where we can learn to walk like a Cyberman or a Scarecrow from the choreographer from the series. I must admit, I gave that a miss, but I'm sure the young ones would enjoy watching themselves strut around with their arms stiff.
A small selection of items from the Christmas Carol episode from last year completes the display, before the inevitable gift shop. There is a dedicated WI-FI site that you can access while you are in the exhibition which is worth looking at because you can get some discounts which are only available if you have this access.
Did I leave straight away? No sir, I went back to the beginning and checked it all out again. In all, I spent nearly 3 hours there so I guess I got my monies worth (always important in this day and age)
A few down points, a small number of the monsters were missing “for repairs” and there is so much more that could be on display. Not a major criticism because it is packed with things to see, but I'm sure some of the items from the old Blackpool site could have been put on display. I believe a lot of the pieces they had have been sold at auction (I may be wrong, but I think that's what I heard) which is a shame, because that was crammed pack full of classic monsters and props. The Cardiff exhibition is apparently closed for refurbishment at the moment so maybe they have a lot of what is not here. It would have been nice to have at least Weeping Angel in the exhibition area, though.
It it certainly worth checking out if you happen to be in the London area. Being at the Olympia complex it is a bit out of the way I feel for the passing tourist though. Having said that, at no time while I was there did I feel like the only one there, so it certainly is successful. I even shared the lift down with Aled Jones and his family. I can imagine in school holidays the place will be buzzing with little Cybermen and Daleks. So, if you are planning to go solo like I did, check your dates! You can find out more at http://www.doctorwhoexperience.com