Chasing the Dragon: The Original Doctor Who Experience

The stuff of nightmares, reduced to an exhibit. I’m getting old.

– The Ninth Doctor, Dalek

“It’s moved!”
“Eh?”
“The Doctor Who Experience. It’s moved. It’s not where we thought it was.”
“It’s not at the Dragon Centre?”
“No,” I said. “It’s in a completely different place. Out… there.”
Emily peered at the screen. “That’s out in the middle of the bay.”
“So it would seem.”
“Good thing we checked the sat nav, rather than relying on our own memory.”

The murky world of sat nav is – as any seasoned traveller will tell you – one to be experienced with a pinch of salt even at the very best of times. At its best it will take you more or less straight to your destination, on an optimal route if you’re really lucky. If it is feeling particularly malevolent, it will make you drive into a river. But this was one of those days when technology won out over the power of recall, as we realised that the place we were intending to visit was actually somewhere entirely different. Because I have, only just recently, visited the Doctor Who Experience – the bona fide one, the one we’re writing about all this week – but it was only the day before that we realised it wasn’t the place we’d visited the last time we were in Cardiff.

Let me rewind a few years. It’s February 2011, and we’ve come to the tail end of a holiday in Minehead. It’s been a week of jerky funfair rides, windswept beaches, and general over-indulgence. We have seen LazyTown Live (verdict: having puppet characters you’ve previously only seen from the waist up run around stage in human form, with weird animatronic masks, is like watching Matt Smith bellow “LEGS! I’VE STILL GOT LEGS!”) and I have recorded a series of Talking Heads monologues in an attempt to diarise the whole thing. No, you’re not allowed to see it. There are some things best left undisturbed by the curiosity of man.

But we’ve taken a detour on our way home and stopped off in Cardiff, where we’ve arranged to meet up with an old friend at the Doctor Who Up Close exhibition, one of several similar exhibits dotted around the country – and which will serve as Cardiff’s premier tourist attraction until it regenerates into the DWE in 2012. Up Close is nestled in the Red Dragon Centre, which contains assorted eating establishments and (more recently) an IMAX Odeon. It is a short walk from Roald Dahl Plass, home of the Torchwood hub, and caters for all comers, assuming your wallet is comparatively thick and you can actually navigate the roads. Established fans, particularly British ones, keep getting asked on forums about the Experience – whether it’s worth a visit, any tips that we can give – and I always tell people that driving in Cardiff is not for the faint of heart, even if you have a sat nav. (“Ha!” said Emily, as we travelled through the industrial estate. “This road is so new it isn’t even on Google Maps. It thinks we’re flying through mid air.”)

Beth is waiting outside the Red Dragon Centre when we arrive. Beth and I go back years; we’ve never dated as it would be too much like dating your own sister, and that indeed is how I refer to her. She is not a fan of the Doctor – Star Trek is more her line – but she’ll try anything once. She has recently married (and will eventually divorce) a man who works on the show and who will impart a couple of disappointing revelations about one of its leads. I won’t say any more, but let’s just say sometimes it’s a good thing you don’t get to meet your heroes.

We go in: there is a life-size cardboard cutout of Amy Pond, who (when we visit) has yet to become irritating. This bodes well.

“Ooh,” says Beth as we walk past the TARDIS. “Is that modelled on an actual police box, then?”
“Up to a point,” I tell her. “The phone’s just a dummy and the windows are the wrong size.”

Beth gives me a look that says “As your friend I’m telling you, you need to get out more, or at least a little”, whereupon I hastily reassure her that it’s a line from Blink.

That was then. Scrub through to 2017 and we’re back in Cardiff, exploring the Doctor Who Experience, which is due to close in three months. There are numerous petitions requesting a lease extension, mostly from people who say things like “I know it’s been open five years but I would like to go one day”. We have decided simply to go and enjoy it. Everything has its time, and everything dies. If there is a single lesson that fans should take from the show, or even from the Whoniverse in general, it ought to be that one.

The current Experience is a curious beast. It is one part interactive adventure to one part museum. First you walk through a series of chambers, guided by a role-playing Time Lord who ‘interacts’ with the pre-recorded sequences of Capaldi (in full-on short-back-and-sides grumpy mode), staring at you from a screen on the wall. I don’t want to give away too much, because if you’ve been you’ll know about this already and if you haven’t it would be a shame to spoil the story, but suffice it to say: floors shake, walls move, and nothing is as it appears to be. I gather from friends that it’s similar to Alien Wars, minus the shouty marines.

But then, when the spectacle is over, you find yourself in the exhibition – clutching the flimsiest of narrative threads to get you there – and… well, it’s all a bit sterile. There are all the usual displays, memorabilia, a hideously overpriced photo opportunity, and some looped videos explaining the delights of the Radiophonic Workshop. Upstairs there is an admittedly impressive collection of costumes and monsters. And the Murray Gold lingering in the background is, for once, held at a reasonable volume. But the lighting is harsh and flat, nothing’s particularly well-organised, and the whole thing feels a little like the BBC hired a bunch of people to unpack the boxes only to have them go home immediately afterwards because of union regulations. It’s the Series 9 of exhibitions: multi-part adventures, jarring in terms of contrast and mood; two houses, both unalike in dignity.

If I sound perhaps a little critical about the current set-up (and don’t worry, the DWC will be celebrating the place throughout this week), it probably doesn’t help that my experience of the Experience was marred by a certain eight-year-old who chickened out not once but twice. The first time – in the chamber with the Daleks – he suddenly felt nauseous, which meant my wife had to leave abruptly through the emergency exit (on the upside, we can confirm that the DWE fully complies with UK fire regulations, plus we were given a commemorative sick bag that we plan to auction on Ebay). The boys and I wandered through the rest of it, enjoying the spectacle of the 3D bits and thrilling at the Weeping Angels that appeared to be ACTUALLY MOVING TOWARDS YOU, but there was a sense of loss in that two of us weren’t there to enjoy it with everyone else.

Emily and Daniel caught up with us in the exhibition. They’d managed to nab a place on the last interactive tour of the day, so we left them to do that while I argued with an American in the shop over whether Enemy Of The World was any good before I took the others to the park further up the bay – only to have Emily and Daniel join us prematurely because Daniel had decided, in the same room of the interactive tour, that he desperately needed a wee. Whether this was because he knew the Angels (of whom he once had a pathological fear) were coming next, thus motivating him to engineer plans to avoid them, we’ll probably never know – but the sad fact of the matter is that if Jimi Hendrix were to magically appear and ask “Have you ever been Experienced?”, only four of us would be able to look him in his vacant, drug-addled eye and respond “Well, I have”.

Logistical fumbling aside, there is a contrast between the old and the new. When I recollect the simpler, broadly NuWho-centred exhibit we saw some years earlier, it’s the atmosphere that I remember. Emily agrees. “It’s just a bit flat now,” she says. “When you compare the two, the Red Dragon one felt like you were in Doctor Who. This felt like you were in it for the first half hour, and then when you’re in the museum, you’re out of it again.”

And you can’t go back in. Well, you can, if you’re escorting children with additional needs who sometimes need a break from the crowds. (The staff of the DWE were, it must be said, very accommodating in that regard; it’s a generalisation but I suspect that people with autism make up a significant chunk of their numbers.) Nonetheless, there is a production line feel to the whole thing, rather like the giant pie machine that Ginger and Rocky navigate halfway through Chicken Run. You’re in, you see what you can see, you’re out. Timed tickets and pre-ordained slots: it’s not a bad way to run a museum because it keeps the numbers manageable, and I suspect this workflow was adopted to keep the place from becoming overcrowded.

But in Up Close, you could go back again. The ticket was valid for the whole day, allowing ample time for you to go off to buy expensive coffee and then revisit (ah, I see what you did there, Red Dragon Centre). You could wander through at will from one darkened room to another, marvelling over the decrepit, battle-damaged K9, or the Weeping Angel on the balcony, or the interactive Cybermen who peered down at you through empty, soulless eyes. The place was simply but atmospherically lit and full of wonder – and maybe it’s years of increasing disillusionment with the Whoniverse, or maybe I was just having an off day, but it’s a sense of wonder that the 2017 Experience simply couldn’t replicate. I can recall wandering those rooms back in 2011, irritated at the NuWho-centricity (is that a word? I’m making it a word) but pleased, if nothing else, that my children were seeing some of the monsters that had terrified them solidly rendered, and… well, Up Close.

“Ooh, look,” Emily said, pointing up at a familiar figure. “A Slitheen.”

Joshua and Thomas gasped.

Beth raised an eyebrow.

Daniel, who was two at the time, pointed at the bulbous figure, smiled in recognition and said “Daddy!”

Some things never change.

  • bar none but PC

    Should I be worried that I can recognise a James Baldock piece by the first paragraph, without having to look up the author? Always amusing, whether I agree or not, whether I have been Experienced or not. Maybe I too should get out more.

  • The Lazy Womble

    I too miss the old exhibition. The first part of the “Experience” leaves me cold. Especially when the guide starts off by asking us if we are excited and then asking again because he doesn;t think we are enthusiastic enough. But then I have never liked pantomime. I d like the museum though.

    • bar none but PC

      Oh no you don’t!