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.

  • Bob James

    For every positive action or position the BBC has taken regarding Doctor Who, it seems there is still a stupid and negative action soon to follow. We now have a BBC and a BBC Worldwide that seem to appreciate what they have in Doctor Who, not only in its significance in the UK but to the world as well. And yet for whatever their reasons, they allow this to happen. I live in the US and have never and now will never get to experience the Experience. In a time when there is dramatic change afoot, as well as expansion for the show with it (2005 onward) now being licensed for broadcast in China, one would think all the stops would be pulled out to keep the show/brand highly accessible and visible. This isn’t just sad, it’s stupid. I sincerely hope that it does open again in a new location. It seemed to be absolutely wonderful.

    • Philip

      Couldn’t agree more, apart from you saying that the BBC now appreciate DW. Not sure that’s true, at the mo, but BBC Worldwide certainly seem to. Sorry you never got the chance to visit, Bob, but I do think it’ll reopen in some form sometime. Hopefully!

      • Bob James

        You’re probably right, and I concede about the BBC part. But Worldwide can turn a profit, and revenue has a way of bringing smiles to faces. I hope it’s more than that, though. We Americans have created our own iconic genre television, but we’ve never produced anything, in my opinion, to rival Doctor Who in its sublime essence. I don’t understand the politics or the machinations of British government, but I’ve often wondered why Doctor Who hasn’t long since become an entity solely in the domain of BBC Worldwide. One would imagine that the budgets would be greater, and that the marketing and promotion could be better as well. To my mind, the British built a British institution that became a worldwide, global phenomenon. And now they’re in the process of destroying what they’ve built.

  • Wayne Shaun Cunningham

    I was told by a couple of DWE staff in a recent visit that the BBC were considering relocating the DWE to either an alternative site in Cardiff or back to London or to Salford, Manchester. However the BBC didn’t realise that the announcement of a female Doctor would cause such a huge split in the fans. Now the BBC just don’t know what to do because there it is likely the gamble to attract more fans has backfired immensely. There is a good chance that the viewing figures will CRASH and the show will be axed. Therefore there is no point in relocating the DWE. So everything is now going into storage until further notice.

    • Philip

      Hey Wayne. That’s interesting; I’d heard something similar too. Right now, Manchester sounds most likely (for some reason). As far as I know, everything’s going into storage because the Beeb don’t know what to do with it all. The BBC not realising how much that announcement would split fans sounds mental, but I feel like there’s some truth there. I don’t think viewing figures will crash tbh – after initial interest in the first few eps, they’ll drop down to roughly what we’ve been getting under Capaldi’s tenure, except they’ll have lost some older fans who have formed the core audience for decades now; they’ll be replaced by some new fans, and as ever, it remains to be seen if they’ll stick with the series. The BBC are risking a lot here.

    • Bob James

      Even if the viewing figures CRASH (and that CRASH would have to be global, the entire worldwide market that now consumes Doctor Who), I don’t necessarily see a complete cancellation. There might be a “hiatus”, or a “resting” of the show, to give the BBC time to assess and evaluate what they would deem necessary to bring the profile back up. It will get a second “second wind”. Because global revenue for BBC Worldwide has to be to factor, and no new Who being made might negatively impact that. And don’t underestimate China now being in that global mix. So it’s wait and see. Either way, I still see DWE or something like it being out there as a positive thing to have in place. That’s the part John Nathan-Turner had absolutely right. Keep Doctor Who visible. Keep Doctor Who in people’s faces as much as possible. Rediscovery is a much more viable notion now than reintroduction.

      • Wayne Shaun Cunningham

        Chibnall has created a no win situation, The decision to have a female Doctor has caused more arguments, anger, bitterness, nastiness and division between fans than anything else ever. Whether you are for it, against or on the fence, there is no doubt you have to take note that damage has been done. I don’t think there is anything particular against Jodie Whittaker, it would have been the same whichever actress got the part. The biggest problem now is, what happens if Whittaker fails? Does Chibnall replace her with another female actor? How would this improve things? It is likely to cause more anger because he had the chance to rectify things and is just rubbing salt in the wounds? So what happens if he replaces her with a male actor? All those for a female will be angry so the roles will be reversed. Whatever happens, the split in the fans is very real and likely to be around for a long time. No one wins.

        • Bob James

          Short of a complete fanbase epiphany, where everyone gets on board, it does create a no win scenario. Not suggesting I can speak for them, I believe most of the female fans would have been fine with another inspired choice of male actor to portray the 13th Doctor. I would also hazard a guess, that a younger/sexier choice (in the vein of Tennant and Smith) might have gone over even better with the younger female and male demographic. That’s where a lot of the current fanbase came in. The older guard, like myself, seemed to find Peter Capaldi an excellent choice, but I fear the BBC perceived a loss among the younger fanbase. So, go younger again, or go female? Moffat and Chibnall’s gender agendas seemed to help them make up their minds. And now we have the current state of things. If this fails, I believe the BBC with retool with a new showrunner and a 14th male Doctor. But how would that not scapegoat Whittaker? She is a talented actress, who has simply and understandably taken on what is considered a plum role. I’m sure she will work hard and do her best with the material she is given. She might even be brilliant in that context. But if the global viewing figures plummet? The fail should be on Moffat and Chibnall, not to mention the BBC itself for signing off on this. And anything after will look like a course correction and/or damage control. I would anticipate the accusations that a sexist, misogynistic, anti-equality viewing public would be to blame for not embracing this bold new direction. Either way, some of what I believe will be permanent damage has been done. Much of the older fanbase will depart, and be disrespected for doing so. In trying to be progressive, expansive, and inclusive, they really have put our “Madman With A Box” into a box that it might not be possible to extricate him from. I fear the beginning, at least, of the end has come. And then the loss of wonderful places and event centers like DWE won’t even be an issue anymore.

  • Planet of the Deaf

    I can see the attraction of maybe having thew DWE somewhere else in the country to give it a “reboot” and maybe attract new visitors (who were put off by the Cardiff location) or bring back previous visitors with something new, but the fact that it was next to the studio was such an advantage, as it made it feel much more authentic, especially as you then walk out and see the filming locations and eat in Clara’s diner!

    I can’t see any replacement happening until 2018 or 2019 now, I imagine they’d want to include the S11 props which won’t be for another year at least. The “interactive” part of the DWE I imagine is quite expensive to create, and would need the new Doctor too.

  • Frank Danes

    Thanks for the article, Philip: it really captured why the Experience was so special. I went twice this summer when working in Cardiff. One of the taxi drivers told me that the council intended to build on the land as the exhibition is on a prime site. Probably homes, he thought. The same day, I met an American family and a lady from Paris who had travelled to Wales solely to visit the Experience. This just goes to show how much money the Experience must bring in to Cardiff and the local economy. So what does a sensible, responsible council do? Close it down! We have similar ridiculous behaviour from our council in Ely, a city whose Cathedral is one of the seven medieval wonders of the world. The council has sold the coach park for houses, so fewer tourists can now visit in comfort, and has closed public toilets because they are “too expensive” to keep open. But now we have fewer visitors, we need fewer toilets! Far too many local politicians are bloody idiots and the Doctor would shake his head in sorrow.

    • Philip

      Thank you for the lovely compliment, Frank. Glad you liked it. You’re right: councils don’t seem to know a good thing. It’d be utter madness to turn it all into accommodation… so it likely will happen! I can understand if BBC personnel wanted to live near their place of work, but it seems such a loss for the area and for fandom.

  • Rick714

    People wonder why the Experience is going away, why it’s taking so long for series 11 to start, why oh why is the BBC doing *this* or *that* because it makes no sense, or it’s *mental*. They’ve been doing this stupid stuff in regards to DW forever. The show has had too many *rests* in my opinion anyway, just coming off the latest in 2016. The international audience is the biggest audience and most of them don’t much care about the gender switch. Hey, politics and hurt feelings aside, Whittaker could absolutely nail it as the Doctor, or she could be “bleh”. Whatever, just get on with making the show! In the meantime, the BBC will continue to be a lethargic behemoth that doesn’t necessarily behave logically or intelligently in matters of programming. And Doctor Who won’t get cancelled.

  • bar

    I remember going to the Doctor Who Exhibition (they didn’t call it an ‘experience’ in those days!) back in Peter Davison’s tenure, over in Blackpool. People told me the one in LLangollen was better, so I was disappointed a few years later, when passing through, that it had closed. The ‘wildernes years’ had taken their toll.
    I’ve reached, in my own rewatch from the beginning, The Ultimate Foe. And the extras with young Chris Chibnall being lukewarm, to say the least, about what the show was doing. And you know what? I have to agree with him. I love Colin Baker’s Doctor, especially his Big Finish work, but moreso his unstinting support as ambassador for the show. When Eric Saward decided Colin was just not The Doctor, JNT should have stood up to him and focussed on the show, not his own adoring fans. Yes, the BBC was against them, but they didn’t have to fall out with each other and take their eyes off the ball; they didn’t have to give up making WHO appeal to the mass audience in favour of fan-led introspection.
    And here we are again; an ultimate trial (sadly with no wonderful Michael Jayston this time), and a huge row amongst fandom. A hiatus between s9 and s10, another before the new Doctor. Is Chibnall going to repeat JNT’s mistakes, or go with the Buffy audience that RTD courted so successfully in 2005? Or something entirely his own, but with the BBC’s backing?
    We won’t know for months, and like the wilderness years, we keep WHO alive in other forms and arenas, and whatever the BBC does, give it our backing. It would be terribly sad if the Doctor’s execution was decided not by the BBC, but by the fans.

    • Bob James

      It wasn’t Saward that was wielding the axe taken to Colin, it was primarily Michael Grade looking for a scapegoat. As well as a little personal malice toward Colin as came to light later.

      • bar

        How appropriate that the only Doctor to do ALL his own stunts was the ‘fall guy!’ But yes, Grade and minions at the top axed Colin because of their total lack of connection with a show which was by then made by fans, for fans. Those making it were of strong and differing opinions and frequent failures in communication, which gave ammo to the ptb that wanted to axe the whole thing.
        Maybe it’s the insoluable problem of them trying to make Who that isn’t marmite. The woman interviewing Chibnall on that dvd extra admitted she’d tried to watch and just didn’t ‘get’ Who, and I find the same out here in the real world – most people I know either love it or just don’t get it or want to. To be a hit there have to be a lot of people who will enjoy it on a Saturday night, but not be obsessed like us! I’d hate them to make ‘lowest common denominator’ Who, but want the ethos of the show to go on being there for everyone who needs it. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.

        • Bob James

          It is quite a formidable task. A show about a couple of aliens, an old man and his granddaughter traveling around in a Time and Space machine that looks like a Police Box doesn’t sound like a sell to today’s audiences. When the show skewed younger, it drew younger fans, and the younger/sexier Doctor (Tennant and Smith) making googly eyes at his young, sexy companion, who was in love with him, either returned or unrequited, brought in a new breed of audience. But they weren’t the kind of audience that would necessarily stick around for five or ten years, let alone be of the constitution that the old guard displayed through the “Wilderness Years”. Yet within its own context the Doctor/Donna pairing, the latter Doctor/Clara pairing, and the Doctor/Bill pairing was sound and substantial, just not perhaps to the younger consumer. What I find, to my mind, is happening with this Moffat/Chibnall pseudo pop feminist equality agenda is not unlike the direction that was taken by a number of the Virgin and BBC books. The questions were, “Where do we take Doctor Who, what do we do with it?”. And the results were at times barely recognizable, so far removed from the essence, identity, and integrity of Doctor Who, that if we didn’t have the labels it could have very well been just what it was, NOT Doctor Who. So, how to keep the essence, identity, integrity, and somehow also make it progressive, expansive, and forward. I honestly haven’t a clue as to how that could be done. I’ve been loving it, warts and all. But I also have a few convictions as to how it’s not done. It’s not done with pseudo pop feminist, gender identity gerrymandering, and tokenistic patronizing warped PC capitulation. It’s not done by imposing what is clearly a very wrongheaded take on gender identity infused with a sensibility of pop culture that seeks not what it claims to, namely equality, but the devaluing of gender and relegation of it to some sort of politics or insignificance. The narrative of our times is being allowed to mess up our “Madman with a Box”. The ultimate answers and the right direction lie somewhere, with someone other than the people who are clearly about to take Doctor Who over the cliff, so to speak.

          • bar

            What a thoughtful reply – thanks Bob. I don’t know the books from those years, though I’ve listened to fans’ opinions. There seems to be a different audience for them, who see them as ‘valid exploration, but not canon.’ I can see why you would be concerned that the makers experiment with the TV canon in the same way, though I hope that Who has the strength to come through the miasma of clickbait social media culture and passive agressive political correctness, and retain whatever is true to the show. I suppose in your own headcanon you could put it down to an experiment by the crumbly monks!
            It’s sad that though 10 had some excellent stories, his tenure will be remembered for the love-story soppiness – an experiment best veered away from. I agree about Donna/10 and Bill/12 – could never get ClaraWho at all. Nothing against Jenna, but disliked the unequal pairing; her dominance of the Doctor and the plot.

            Whatever else, I hope they find really gripping STORIES to tell, which don’t twist the characters into plot devices or ciphers.

            The reason I started this conversation with Eric Saward was that he thought Colin B just didn’t have that ‘thing’ that made him The Doctor – I do. Whether Jodie W will have whatever that quality is, we can’t know yet. Let’s hope the parties that want her to be a spokesperson for their extremist agendas will SHUT UP and let her get on with acting the role. (the eternal optimism of the Who fan).