I’ll tell you why the Doctor Who Experience is genius. It’s because it really gets fandom.
Its creators know that, while it might be interesting to look at a row of Daleks through the ages, or that being in the same room as Tom Baker’s scarf will give some people a thrill, what most of us really want is to be in the Doctor’s world. More than any amount of exhibits or merchandise, we want to walk into a small blue police box and end up inside the heart of a massive, whirring, alien spaceship. So, that’s what they’ve let us do. Sort of.
In addition to a generous set of exhibits, for about twenty minutes of an ordinary day, in an ordinary part of central London, you can have a more or less extraordinary experience. Granted, you’ll need to squint a bit to ignore the other people, construction wires and polystyrene ceiling tiles, but that’s hardly a challenge for Doctor Who fans. It’s a show that’s always relied on its audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief when it comes to plywood, paint and glue guns, so it’s really no bother to engage our imaginations one more time at London’s Olympia.
The approximated adventure part of the experience involves you and a gaggle of strangers being swept around a series of prop-laden rooms, accompanied by an entertainingly babbling video monologue from Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor.
Scripted by lead writer, Steven Moffat, the video segments narrate your TARDIS experience with an identifiably series 5 sense of humour and plenty of nonsensical timey-wimey stuff from the Doctor himself. You’ll have to face one or two familiar foes along the way (as well as a 3D bit designed to make children wet themselves), but the real star of the show has to be the trip in the TARDIS itself.
After passing through a crack in time and being ushered past those famous blue doors, you take position around the current incarnation of the TARDIS console and, well, I won’t give it all away, but it’s fair to say the whole thing’s a bit of a thrill. The more jaded amongst you might want to check in your cynicism at the cloakroom, but you’ll be rewarded for the effort.
It goes by in something of a flash, probably just right for some of the younger fans at whom a fair chunk of the experience is understandably aimed. So, make the most of it and keep your eyes open. I managed to miss almost an entire corridor of weeping angels as we were hurried along to save the Earth, or whatever it is we were supposed to be doing, and would have certainly been exterminated by a lurking Dalek had it not been for the far superior enemy detection skills of my own companion.
In terms of exhibits, original props and costumes as well as painstaking recreations have been brought together in the largest collection of Doctor Who artefacts seen this side of curator Andrew Beech’s shed.
There’s a demonstrable and understandable bias towards post-2005 adventures, with a huge chunk of the fiends and foes faced by the ninth, tenth and eleventh Doctors on display, but fans of the original series shouldn’t be at all disappointed.
One exhibit documents the transition Cybermen heads have undergone since starting off as essentially a terrifying pair of grey tights, while another shows the similar evolution of the Dalek race. There’s not one, but three iterations of the TARDIS console. You’ll see Ood, Scarecrow and Pig Slave as well as Zygon, Ice Warrior and Sontaran, a host of sonic screwdrivers, K1, K9 and iconic costumes from each regeneration of the Doctor, as well as a pair of genuinely tiny Amy Pond shorts.
Family-friendly activities are dotted around the exhibition. Learn to walk like a scarecrow from The Family Of Blood, pose for a green screen photo inside the Pandorica, fiddle about with the theme tune and see what you’d sound like as a Cyberman. There’s even a Dalek you can get inside and wiggle its whisk bit around, which I duly did until being ousted by a small child demanding his own go.
The shop is pretty overwhelming, depending on how you feel about merchandise. If you’re the sort of person who squeals at rows of foam Cybermen masks and cardboard cut-outs of weeping angels, then you’ll be in Doctor heaven, which is essentially what the whole experience is aiming for, and what it probably will be for many.
Tireless attendees of previous exhibitions may well have already seen much of what’s on display, but overall, it’s a fabulous, well presented collection that will please aficionados and thrill younger fans. Some might ask for a little more behind-the-scenes stuff to be revealed, but surely the Confidential series more than caters to that need. Write-ups calling it a theme park are overstating the case and doing a disservice to what is essentially a solid exhibition served up with a little bit of fantasy.
What is sure to warm the cockles of anyone who feels that they’ve got a relationship with the show is the ‘experience’ section. During his time in the role, tenth Doctor, David Tennant, told journalists that his infatuation with the show as a three-year-old kick-started his desire to become an actor, making his first step onto the TARDIS a pretty poignant one. While not all of our own experiences with early fandom can, obviously, be rewarded in as circular and satisfying a way as Tennant’s were, now at least we get to pretend. For a bit, anyway.
Yes, it’s an approximation, but it’s as real as most of us are going to get. Especially since 2005, the companion role in Doctor Who has paralleled that of us fans, intrigued, surprised, sometimes annoyed and a little bit obsessed with the Doctor.
Like Jimmy Olsen to Superman, or Xander to Buffy, the companion brings down-to-earth humanity to an out-of-this world scenario. Like sci-fi itself, the mad man with a box takes us away from the everyday and the humdrum, and the Doctor Who Experience gets us that little bit closer to the adventure.