Virtually Good: Hands on with The Runaway

Birmingham’s a funny place at the moment. It’s a sprawling metropolis that currently resembles a building site. The shops are still open; it’s just it takes a long time to actually get to any of them, at least if you’re up at the International Convention Centre. Millennium Square is one great line of construction fences and pedestrian detours. You ascend to the top floor of the impressive library, where a Gladiators-style travelator takes you to a balcony that overlooks the opening of The Lego Movie. It’ll be lovely, I expect, when they’ve finished it.

But work your way through the plastic barriers and temporary lights and there is a hidden treasure down by the canal, in the shape of the BBC Birmingham studios. We’re killing time between visiting Sea Life and the Legoland Discovery Centre and my wife thinks it would be a good idea to pop in, largely because a Dalek lurks amidst the Archers display panels, and a TARDIS lingers just outside the open plan offices upstairs. It is as we’re milling around the visitor area that I spot the VR headset, which includes new Doctor Who story The Runaway amidst its list of titles. This leads to an inevitable (and oh so British) stand-off as there are three of us who kind of want to try it out but everybody’s too polite to actually stick their pound coin on the edge of the pool table.

“You do it,” Emily says after a moment’s indecision. “I suspect you’re the one who wants to play it the most.” And thus the headset is strapped to my temples while everyone else watches it on the TV.

When I’m in the process of recounting this to Phil later, he says “Are you up for a review?”

“You can have a thing,” I tell him. “It won’t be a straight review, because it doesn’t lend itself to that sort of write-up. But it will be a thing.”

The Runaway was announced with a flurry of trumpets as this year’s Big News, but if the BBC were expecting the red carpet treatment then it seems they were in for disappointment. The absence of any actual episodes in 2019 is no doubt part of the problem – “Why can’t they give us Series 12 instead?” seethes a good portion of the fandom, which is rather like asking why money spent on particle physics research isn’t going towards the homeless. The restrictive format is another brick wall: VR is big business these days but it’s not exactly mainstream, and despite the BBC endeavouring to reach the masses this is forever going to be consigned to the ‘niche interest’ cupboard. But the central issue is that Lego Dimensions aside, Doctor Who just doesn’t work in video game format, with numerous developers dedicating the best years of their company lives to proving this in abundance. There’s the occasional diamond in the rough, but when you have to put up with dross like The Eternity Clock, can you really blame the fans for wanting to pop their heads back under the covers until it’s all blown over?

Undeterred by all this, I’m interested in finding out what the rest of the community thinks. Surely someone must have gone out of their way to find a library that’s running the thing? There must be a Steam user with a headset and a modicum of curiosity? You’d like to think so – but when I ask, the results are disappointing, consisting as they do of a single response. “I’d like to play it,” it reads, “but I don’t use VR.”

“Out of principle?” I reply. (It really wouldn’t be such a stretch with this chap: he refuses to click any links that are posted anywhere, on the grounds that they’re “all clickbait”, so he won’t read this.) Clearly we are in a social media cul-de-sac, and in the absence of any other ideas I get on to an old friend. “I’ve never done VR either,” he says, “although my parents took me to one of those Cinema 180 things years ago.”

Cinema 180! Now there’s a blast from the past. Instantly I’m 10 years old and exploring Thorpe Park with my family, hundreds of us standing in an immense dome where a colossal picture is projected onto the curved surface in front. The sheer size of the screen is enough to maintain the illusion of immersion – at least up to a point – and I can still recall the whoops and wails of crowds as the camera moved along roller coaster tracks, across crashing oceans, and through the streets at high speeds amidst the clang of a fire engine’s bell, before the entire audience involuntarily lurches when a young woman steps into the road with her pram.

I was trying to explain all this to the kids the other week – these days Thorpe Park has a 4D cinema, although it’s Angry Birds and it’s really quite good – and the best I can find is a YouTube video that really doesn’t do it justice. “Look, just trust me,” I tell them. “When I was your age, this was the bee’s knees.”

Bees don’t actually have knees, of course, but my children are too polite to bring this up. We’ve paid for Merlin passes this year and they know they’re on to a good thing: it has been a wild few months of thrill rides and CBeebies characters and more 4D cinemas than I care to count (read: 3D, but they spray you with water and the seats rumble a bit). I’ll be honest – I don’t really get on with 3D, which I still refuse to see as anything more than a gimmick. It is at its best in short bursts – stretched out over a 120-minute feature, it becomes a tiresome chore, a novelty stretched to breaking point, rather like Star Wars Day, or parenthood.

But virtual reality is a different and largely unpoured kettle of fish. My experience of VR (if you don’t count those plastic Viewmaster things we all had as children) stems back to the 1990s and even today I still can’t remember if I actually tried it out or only think I did. It was stodgy and unreliable – the technology still, then, in relative infancy – and sensationalised dross like The Lawnmower Man didn’t exactly help. Largely dismissed as a fad, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that (thanks to Oculus) it started to be taken seriously as a gaming technology. There is a sense of inevitability about this: first person shooters have never looked more realistic, and horror games are more frightening than ever, but you still have to experience them on a display, surrounded by coffee mugs and paper and the flashing lights of hard drives. If you want to get people truly involved in the world you’ve created, wouldn’t cutting out the middle man be a logical next step?

Things start badly. I’ve strapped on the headset and I am holding a plastic device in my right hand: it has a couple of triggers, like a miniature Laser Quest pistol. It takes me a full minute to calibrate the device, during which I am sitting there, trying to get the little cursor to hover over the ‘START’ icon so that it lights up, squeezing and shaking to no avail. I feel like Finn’s dad in Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, hopelessly outgunned by technology he doesn’t understand. Eventually – and with no indication as to why – it seems to work, and the opening theme starts up, and bang! We’re in.

The first thing you notice is the Doctor’s abnormally sized head. The TARDIS is present and correct, if lit with perhaps a little more warmth than it was in Series 11 – we’re in early Matt Smith territory, if anything – and you can have a decent look round it while the Doctor is monologuing. Looking is all you get to do, for the moment, but that’s no bad thing: the last time I did this was in Destiny of the Doctors and it seems that we’ve moved on a lot since 1997. My God, that head is enormous. It’s got its own weather system. It’s like looking at a pop vinyl figure. I know it’s to help with facial expression, but how on earth does she stay upright?

The story of Runaway – such as it is – concerns a volatile force inside the TARDIS, which arrived there around the same time as you did. If you’ve seen Ready Player One you will be familiar with the concept of motion platforms to detect movement: such things are beyond the remit of the BBC, and while most games have workarounds, Runaway has you rooted to the spot. Thankfully the console is just about in reach, as is the Doctor’s screwdriver when she hands it to you. There is, inevitably, a lot of technobabble, as Whittaker explains that – well, look, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that you get to fly the TARDIS a bit, and there’s a rather endearing sequence involving a squeaky toy.

A curious thing happens in the midst of this little escapade: the Doctor and I find ourselves bonding. Well, I bond with her. She’s a scripted algorithm. But I feel a curious sense of camaraderie over the course of our 10 minute adventure – the notion that we’ve gone somewhere and done something together. It is easy to see, in moments like this, why lonely people fall for the likes of Siri, Alexa, Cortana, or Mrs Google (as we call her). Or, in this instance, the Doctor herself. It might be the prolonged eye contact. She spends an awful lot of time looking at you, and they are big eyes, these CG-rendered things; I’m reminded of Capaldi at the opening of Dark Water, muttering “It’s like they inflate”.

But seriously: the last time I felt this protective over a computer generated character was back in 2013, playing Bioshock Infinite. The plot is multi-layered and ludicrously complicated (if rather beautiful) but suffice it to say that you spend the bulk of the story looking after a young woman named Elizabeth. She dances with the locals, cleans your wounds, and scavenges for ammo during a fire fight. Approximately halfway through the game there is a scene where you upset her, and for several minutes after this she refuses to speak to you. The most ludicrous thing about all this was that even though the argument is unavoidable, and played out in a cut scene that runs without the input of the player, I found myself experiencing guilt.

It’s strange, but decently rendered characters can have that effect on you. There is that sense of being drawn into a story – which is sometimes easier when you’re an active participant – and it helps that the Doctor feels like the Doctor, thanks to Whittaker’s pleasing voice work. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the whole thing is just how easy it is to shut out the outside world: once the headset is correctly fitted and I’ve got the hang of the controls and the sound is up, it’s a matter of minutes before I’m no longer aware of my surroundings. There could be a throng of Libyan terrorists out there, swarming through the building like they did in The Young Ones, and I probably wouldn’t have any idea.

Still, once the credits roll, I unstrap the set from around my chin and am pleasantly surprised to discover that, back in the harsh light of day, the room is still intact and the world has continued just as it should. My family have become bored of watching me twist and turn on the BBC-issue swivel chair and have gone off to explore the rest of the visitor centre: the youngest is tapping at an iPad, while the 10-year-old has plonked himself in front of a green screen and is reading out the weather. I was going to say something about the reality beyond the headset, but it seems that a headset can take many forms.

Am I a VR convert? Well, I’m not about to rush out and buy an Oculus. It’s completely impractical in a house full of children: either they’re fighting over who gets to use it next, or you’re constantly undoing the straps to investigate ominous noises in the kitchen. Uninterrupted immersion is not an option in this house – I spend my life with a finger permanently wedded to the pause button and the Escape key, which is less tedious than you might think. But as a one-off, it was fun – not really the sort of thing you describe as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but enjoyable, if you like that sort of thing. Oh, and apparently there’s another one coming in September, only this one has Daleks, so that’ll be worth a spin. As long as I can get the bloody thing to calibrate, anyway.