March 08, 2011

Review: The Doctor Who Experience

Guest post by Michael Williams

Last week I had the unalloyed pleasure of visiting the Doctor Who Experience at London’s Olympia. As a life-long fan of the series (starting with Pertwee, but my memories begin with Tom Baker’s first season), I’ve been to a number of exhibitions in my time. The small, dark labyrinth of the old Longleat exhibition was a place of pilgrimage for me. That venue, enshrined by the 20th anniversary event in 1983 (where John Hood and I unknowingly first crossed paths..), was the first place where I could physically encounter the world of the Doctor, and the monsters that were otherwise safely contained in the TV (aside from their occasional forays into my nightmares..). Later, after Who went off the air, the exhibitions maintained their galleries of sometimes worse-for-wear artefacts of the past. I finally got to the exhibition at Blackpool and Dapol’s extensive ‘BBC Doctor Who Experience’ at Llangollen, in their final throes in the last decade. How things change. With new Who we’ve had exhibitions all over the country, as well as special Proms and the 2010 Doctor Who Live arena shows. Now in 2011, a new Doctor Who Experience promises us the chance to ‘Be Part of the Adventure’.

Evading the crowds gathering for Sky’s Got to Dance show, we found our way to Olympia on a Sunday morning for our 10:30 entry time. As the elevator doors open onto the second floor of Olympia Two, you are hit by Murray Gold’s rousing music and the keen air of anticipation. A small exhibition area features props and costumes from the past season, including those from ‘The Hungry Earth’ and ‘The Vampires of Venice’, and you are informed that photography is permitted everywhere but in the interactive walk-through part of the Experience. There are also codes to be downloaded for use in the shop, so do bring your Wi-Fi-enabled devices with you. A countdown alerts you to the approaching departure, and some small children were clearly fearful about what exactly awaited them inside. Our group of three theoretically more mature Whovians were equally full of anticipation, if rather unsure about what was ahead. It’s time, here we go...

I’ll draw a veil over some details of the walk-through part of the Experience, as you may wish to discover those for yourselves, but the first room presents a montage of season five highlights, which serves as a reminder of the most visually audacious moments of this season. An effective piece of stagecraft sweeps visitors through the crack in time and enter the Steven Moffat-scripted narrative which ensues. Matt Smith promptly takes charge, appearing on screens throughout in the quirky and animated manner you’d expect from the Eleventh Doctor, to welcome visitors as his honorary companions.

One can be cynical about the ubiquity of ‘Experience’ attractions these days (everything, it seems, can be branded into an ‘experience’), but walking through those TARDIS doors onto a replica of the current TARDIS set was genuinely thrilling. While the Doctor does his thing on the screens and encourages kids to fiddle with some knobs, I just looked around this substantial 360° set and let my imagination take flight. This is the closest thing I’ll ever get to being inside the TARDIS. No other exhibition has engendered this feeling so strongly, and I began to imagine what it would actually be like to travel in a ship like this, and to wonder which alien world those TARDIS doors would open onto next. But no time to linger - Geronimo! Off we go again. It is no surprise that the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, the Daleks feature strongly, and yes it is the controversial Paradigm we encounter. The walk-through is aimed at kids, but adults aren’t left out (it knows its fanbase), and can here contemplate the intriguing canonical implications of what unfolds.

The walk-through part of the Experience feels extensive and innovative, featuring real props, often with animatronics, a genuinely spooky (if fleeting) encounter with the Weeping Angels, and even 3D projection. Our group was of a manageable size (with a guide keeping things moving at the back), although we were a little squeezed at our end of the 3D room, reducing the effect somewhat, as did a too-bright screen on the left. The walk-through section was over all-too-soon at around 25 minutes, but it was fun. The advantage of the exhibition section is that you can spend as long as you like, so we did spend over two hours at the venue altogether.

The first part of the exhibition presents costumes for each Doctor, with Smith present as a waxwork standing proud next to his full-size TARDIS prop (no visitor missed this photo opportunity). Speaking of which, a studio was set up nearby where you can either buy the photo taken of you at arrival, or pose against green-screen to have yourself inserted either into the Pandoria or the TARDIS. Walking beyond a display of sonic screwdrivers, was something very special indeed, and my highlight of the Experience: the Tenth Doctor’s TARDIS set. This is the genuine article (see Doctor Who Magazine 431 for more info on the exhibits). The set is a little charred around the edges following its own regeneration with the death of David Tennant’s Doctor, scenes of which play on an adjacent screen to powerful effect. The set is impressive and substantial and, crucially, you can get up close to it and absorb the detail from different angles. You can really start to imagine Tennant leaping through those TARDIS doors and plunging us into a new adventure. Corny as it seems, just standing there amid surroundings so fantastic, and yet so familiar, was a strangely affecting experience.

Nearby is the classic TARDIS interior from ‘The Five Doctors’. Smaller and simpler than its modern counterpart, with somewhat plasticky hard-edges instead of the organic forms seen today. But it’s still special. And part of history, both of the series itself and, for those of us who grew up in the 70s or 80s, of our own childhoods too. Yikes, I recalled seeing this very console at the 1983 Longleat event. 28 years later (!), here I was again. And just look at what we have now, as the tour continues to celebrate the memories of a whole new generation of fans. Here, a display that would make Henry van Statten proud presents heads of every iteration of Cybermen, along with Davros and Daleks old and new. And there’s K9! The new series predominates, of course, but there are illustrious representatives of monsters past too: an original 1967 Ice Warrior, Sontarans, the impressive K1 ‘giant’ robot, and my favourite, a Zygon (who are surely deserving of a return to the series..). The Experience is brought up-to-date with props from ‘A Christmas Carol’, including Kazran’s beautiful cloud control machine. Doubtless, once Season Six airs, the Experience will continue to evolve.

As our visit was part of a birthday weekend, we indulged in the ‘Gold Ticket Package’, which is on the pricey side, but does come with a numbered limited edition print, brochure and laminate and lanyard set (plus 5% discount in the shop). If you would buy these souvenir items anyway, then the deal isn’t bad. However, it would be a better package if it included one of the green-screen photographs mentioned earlier, so I’d advise either getting the more streamlined Silver Package, or just the standard ticket. The latter is good value. The inevitable shop (where all such adventures end!) sold the standard array of Who goodies, including Experience t-shirts and brochures, but was a little disappointing in terms of exclusive merchandise. A few posters or art cards wouldn’t go amiss. Yet, it’s probably a good thing that it is the experience itself that counts at Olympia. In bringing out the child in you, in the best possible way, the Experience succeeds in making you feel part of the adventure that is Doctor Who. It will remind you why you love the series and that there’s nothing else quite like it. I can’t wait to go back...

The Doctor Who Experience is currently booking until 4th September 2011.

To view more of Michael's photos click here. *Contains spoilers*

If you would like to submit a guest post, please use the contact form.