The TV show itself was scary enough – like most kids of my generation, I routinely watched it from behind the sofa – but the thought of actually seeing these alien creatures in the flesh was exhilarating.
The exhibition, whilst doubtless to an adult uninspiring (a collection of tatty old costumes from the series), was thrilling for me. I don’t think I registered that these were just costumes. To a 7 year old they were real Daleks, Cybermen and Ice Warriors. The most frightening were the Sea Devils, which carried torch-like weapons and, despite living under water, wore rather fetching blue string vests. I found their awkward movements unnerving, their heads lurching around in an ungainly fashion as they waded through the surf. Back then this seemed sinister and slightly troubling, much later I realised that the actor inside the costume had his eyes looking out of the creature’s neck, leaving a prosthetic head to flap about above.
A worldwide hit
Although still a very British show, Dr Who today is a worldwide hit. It has long been broadcast in the US on PBS channels and the revived series (after a 25 year run, the show fell out of favour in 1989 and was restarted in 2005) has been a huge success for the BBC, to the extent that it is now frightening children on a weekly basis in over 50 countries.
An altogether more hi-tech experience than the one I saw in Blackpool opened recently at London’s Olympia, the BBC’s brand new “Dr Who Experience”. The experience can in fact be neatly divided into two: the first an immersive timed dark walk show, the second a more traditional exhibit, in which visitors can see costumes and characters from the series. (Image above right shows, from the left Ross Magri, MD Sarner, Michael Bennett, Creative Director Sarner, a waxwork Matt Smith and Paula Al-Lach, BBC Worldwide)
A real sense of urgency and danger
Visitors are taken in batches of 50 through the dark walk, which is comprised of a series of rooms, each highly themed to represent some part of the Dr Who world. The walk is styled as an adventure, so guests feel as if they are taking part in one of the Doctor’s madcap escapades. In a neat touch there is little need of the staff who quietly usher you through to the next room as the actor playing the current Doctor (he has regenerations, he’s been played by many different actors, it’s complicated) Matt Smith, has filmed an exclusive series of clips, one for each room, which serve to hurry along the “action” and drill a sense of real urgency and danger into the experience.
The BBC’s research told them that what people most wanted was to take a ride in the TARDIS, the Doctor’s phone box shaped spaceship – this surprised me as I thought the show was all about the monsters – so one room is a lovingly created TARDIS interior (of a specific vintage).
The next section was the inside of another spaceship, in which we met the Daleks, the show’s most famous and possibly most absurd creations. It has been observed many times before that nothing dates more quickly than our vision of the future and the Dalek, essentially a metal box armed with a sink plunger and an egg whisk, is very much a child of the mid-sixties. Their spaceship however, is state of the art 2011, and guests are treated to a remarkable projected 7 metre CGI rebel Dalek battle scene on a 24 metre painted backdrop.
A breathtaking finale
This – along with the TARDIS “reveal” using transition gauze as we entered the Doctors spaceship – was one of 3 outstanding moments in the show, as the images, though not technically in 3D, had very much that feel about them, were quite breathtaking and in fact rather beautiful.
Another walk then took us through a forest at night in which Weeping Angels, a particular favourite in my own household, advanced at us from the darkness. Finally we reached the show’s finale, a 3D show in which various Doctors and a whole variety of monsters made an appearance. The film was remarkable. The film’s makers had produced a gorgeous piece of 3D; really crisp, clear images and it was among the best I had ever seen. A stunning and fitting climax to a ground breaking and brilliantly produced show.
We then had a good look around the second part of the Dr Who Experience, the exhibition of costumes and kit from the series. Thankfully the BBC had seen the show as one organic whole and so alongside the baddies from the current run, there were also many old familiar faces from the 70s and 80s. Didn’t see a Sea Devil, so I slept soundly that night.