Farewell to the Doctor Who Experience

Hello, old friend. And here we are: you and me, on the last page.

Earlier this week, I visited the Doctor Who Experience for the final time, and yes, it did feel like the last page. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been a number of times because it’s only about an hour and a half away by car (though many trips have been by train). I even went there twice for my birthday, both for the same birthday and with the same people. (Yeah, I forgot to check if it was open the first time, so after dragging mates over to Cardiff, we were informed that it’s always shut on a Tuesday. Oops. I have lived that down, fortunately.)

Suffice to say, the Doctor Who Experience means a lot to me, and I know I’m not the only one.

There’s talk that it will reopen somewhere else, but this is nonetheless the end of an era – for at least two reasons.

The first is that the place was perfect for its purpose.

The previous exhibition had been just over the way at the Red Dragon Centre, by the Millennium Centre, and that also meant a lot to me. But it was part of something else. It was nestled in a corner, by restaurants and a bowling alley and a cinema. The Doctor Who Experience is different. The place was built specially to house this exhibition, stretching out into the sea, a short walk away from the Torchwood Hub, Eddie’s Diner (The Impossible Astronaut; Hell Bent), and Ianto Jones’ Shrine (where they also filmed Boom Town).

It looks like it’s come straight from the show: an alien-esque shape, streamlined and proud in the water. Heck, there’s even a path there called TARDIS Walk.

On one side of it: The World of Boats, including a TARDIS port.

On the other: the BBC Cymru Studios.

That’s right: they actually film Doctor Who next to the Experience. For some very lucky folk, that meant a visit to the actual TARDIS. Again, I was fortunate enough to go there, and it’s amazing. The crew were there to answer all questions (and boy, did I have questions!), take photos, and generally be enthusiastic about the series.

Those TARDIS Tours evolved too. The first time I went there, we had to answer questions to determine the order in which people could go on. All for fun, of course. We had to shout out a list of planets the Doctor has visited more than once in the TV show alone. Earth, yes, but the group took some time to get to Gallifrey. My own contributions were Peladon – “a classic one; nice” – and Telos.

Finally going on the TARDIS was naturally amazing. And that feeling doesn’t go away. By the time the final tours took place, it was an even more relaxed and yet informative atmosphere. Things might’ve changed by the last few days, but the tour I went on near the end of its run had a laissez-faire “spend as long as you want on the TARDIS” vibe – although we were nonetheless against the clock. The guides were always very enthusiastic, very easy to chat to, and could answer most questions you threw at them.

The roundels? They’re the bottom of plant pots. One did open, however, and I asked if it was still in there. “Glad you asked that,” the guide responded. “Because this is the actual one – the only one – that does open.” Yes, I was stood right by it, and no, that wasn’t a coincidence.

(In case you can’t recall, the swinging roundel, as I’m not going to call it, was seen in The Husbands of River Song. She kept booze in it.)

Another benefit from being in Cardiff is the chance to do a Walking Tour, which takes about 75 minutes; I’ve not managed to get on that, but rumour has it that they’ll continue in some way in the future, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

So why’s it closing now? Because Cardiff Council has been very short-sighted, or perhaps BBC Worldwide lost interest. Either way, the five-year lease is now ending, so the land reverts back to the council. As I say, the place was built specially for the Experience, so honestly, this seems mental. But there we are.

In some ways, it stinks because its closure has worked out rather well for the exhibition. Friday and Saturday have both been sold out, the Merchandise Packages have been unavailable for a while, the tour times have increased to cater for increased demand, and the shop is practically empty. All that exclusive memorabilia has gone, and they also shut the Target covers exhibition, which has been housed by the shop for a little while now.

It was incredibly sad to see the shop so devastated, although it’s understandable. I’m nonetheless aghast at the BBC’s foresight, or lack of…

I called this an end of an era for two reasons, and the second is that the Experience has been an ideal complement to Steven Moffat’s reign as showrunner. I know his time has been divisive – find a tenure that isn’t! – but for me, he’s delivered my definitive Doctor Who: that is, Matt Smith’s time as the Eleventh Doctor.

His moving on is necessary but still sad. I remember first chiming along to “are you my mummy?” at the end of The Empty Child, and in the space created by time, he’s done some marvellous things for this show. I quibble about Series 8 and 9, but 10 was largely great, and those former two still have things going for them.

The first time I went to the Experience, I entered through the exit. I was allowed, don’t worry. It was in October 2012, a special invitation to meet My Doctor, Matt Smith. I was very fortunate. I’ve experienced it all as few actually have: open only to the press, all eager to interview the Doctor, and snap photos of the newly-unveiled Series 7 exhibits, which included props from Asylum of the Daleks to The Angels Taken Manhattan. Matt was great, very giving of his time, and very friendly too – a real ambassador for the show.

Subsequent visits, the exhibition changed. It highlighted the most recent stuff: a Day of the Doctor section; Handles and the children’s drawings from The Time of the Doctor; Series 8 and 9 props, like the Teller, Davros, and (my favourite) the genuinely massive and imposing Fisher King; and – the most recent addition – a lovely space for Series 10.

And as with Moffat’s Who, it also featured older exhibits. Some remain sadly neglected: the Vervoid is just a mask and some leafy gloves; the Silurian can’t stand up; the Sea Devil’s face has collapsed; Drathro is missing his arms and head; and the Tractator has a massive hole in his neck. And yet they were still wonderful to see. Opposite, the restored props stood in all their glory. A Tetrap reaches out. The K1 Robot looms. Morbius threatens all. A Yeti, controlled by the Great Intelligence, stands tall, its eyes glowing.

How do modern audiences react to those Classic monsters? I’m pleased to say that I went with two mates who have never seen the 1963- 89 run (and truth be told, they’re not avid viewers now either). And they actually preferred the Classic monsters, thinking they look less human, more alien.

That’s what made the Doctor Who Experience special. Inclusivity for all. Who wouldn’t be excited by stepping on the TARDIS?

Every day, fans saved the universe. “Not bad for a bunch of people”, indeed.

And now, it’s all over. But for so many, the memories will remain. For big kids and small adults.

Goodbye, old friend. Miss ya.