This past weekend saw the finale to Doctor Who’s sixth season and has left us with new questions to contemplate and new facts to digest. If, however, you’re already craving another hit of the good Doctor, then you may want to consider taking a trip to London and the Doctor Who Experience. This review does contain significant spoilers of what you will see and experience during your time there, so if you are a planning a trip and would rather not read any *ahem* spoilers, you probably want to stop reading about now.
Opened in February 2011, the Doctor Who Experience is a combination of an interactive “walk-through” adventure and a more traditional exhibition. Located upstairs in an otherwise unremarkable concrete conference building in an obscure part of London, you wouldn’t think of this as a great place for a day out, until you notice the TARDIS crashed into the building. On arrival, you first experience the approximately 20- minute-long interactive segment of the experience. You are seated in a small room to watch a film about the Doctor on a screen which later “cracks” in a rather familiar way, allowing us to walk through the screen and into the museum of Starship UK, where you will recognize many of the artifacts around you as the “tour group” is guided around them by one of the Nodes (a statue with a real human face) last seen in The Library. Naturally, something goes wrong and we are soon interrupted by the Doctor himself, who has found himself trapped in a second Pandorica — which he is rather annoyed about, especially as its creators didn’t even both to change the color, which is “boring!”
The Doctor then guides us through a series of adventures, beginning with the TARDIS itself materializing in the museum, an impressive (if rather obvious to us jaded adults) effect that had the kids in the group gaping open-mouthed. On entering the TARDIS, we all stand around the central console, in front of a series of smaller consoles with joysticks mounted on the barriers. Together, and with the Doctor’s help (he’s on several video screens around the room), we fly the TARDIS… but not quite where we were supposed to. The Doctor ushers us quickly through a “back door” he’s just installed and we’re obviously on a spaceship, but where? As we enter the next room, the tension begins to mount until we hear a horribly familiar voice, and several multicolored Daleks appear, surrounding us.
Now, up until this point the kids in the group had been pretty much trying to laugh it up. The older ones who were obviously at the point of being unsure whether all this was “real” or not were trying to act pretty nonchalant about the whole experience, but at the moment the Daleks cruised into view, the doubts seemed to fall away and most were clinging on to their amused-looking parents. From this point on the experience got far more frightening as wall-sized viewscreens were opened and we found ourselves looking out into space as a battle raged between the new technicolor Daleks and their older counterparts. The Doctor naturally got us out, but only into a darkened pathway through a forest where occasional flashes revealed Weeping Angels in attack positions just to our sides. If you have young children or those prone to nerves, this is not an experience for you.
For me, the interactive part of the experience ended on a let-down. We at last discovered the Pandorica Two and freed the Doctor, but when it opened it revealed a second screen. We had already been given “protective goggles” to wear and the final few minutes consisted of various Doctor Who baddies flying toward us out of the time vortex in what felt like a very forced and unnecessary use of 3D technology. (You can see a few seconds in the promotional video above.) I love 3D films, but this felt like someone had realized that 3D is the current “cool” thing to do and had crow-barred it into the experience at the eleventh hour just for the sake of it. I don’t know what would have worked better, but this ending just feels tacky.
Once you have exited the final room, you enter the exhibition proper. This has more of a museum feel as the costumes and models are off limits — no touching. The exhibits mostly focus on the rebooted post-2005 series, but there are plenty of items from the earlier Doctors to keep classic Whovians happy. The costumes of all eleven Doctors are on display and nearby are costumes for all the modern-day companions. Sarah Jane’s costume had a touching notice beside it paying tribute to actress Elisabeth Sladen and was placed beside K-9. The “villains” also have their own costume section where the Master is central.
One of the highlights of the exhibit is full size TARDIS set with gangways that allow you to walk inside. This is the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s console room and a staff member was always on hand to take your photograph standing on the set. The only problem I had with this set was the large video screen erected beside it which was showing Ten’s Regeneration scene (“I don’t want to go”) on a continuous loop. It’s lovely to watch once but if you’re taking your time looking around the exhibits, it does begin to grate on the nerves a little by the fifteenth time.
The central console used by the Fifth through- Seventh Doctors is present, as is the console built by Eleven and Idris in “The Doctor’s Wife.” The organizers are doing a great job of keeping the exhibition up to date. New items have recently been introduced that cover the show up to the mid-way break in season six, with Idris’ dress and several Silents now to be found.
There were plenty of smaller interactive areas to be found with activities to keep kids occupied. Voice-changers allowed you to hear your voice as a Dalek or Cyberman, and a room was set aside for kids to learn to walk like the Scarecrows with a professional choreographer on video screens talking them through it. A favorite activity of mine was a looped video of the aerial battle at the end of “Victory of the Daleks” that was missing the sound effects. An array of buttons, each with a picture representing its sound, were below the screen and you could either press the button that flashed up on screen to put the correct sounds in, or you could make your own choice of effects. In a corner of the main exhibition floor, green screens have been set up that allow you to be placed inside Doctor Who pictures (for an additional charge). You can choose to be flying with the TARDIS or you can sit in the actual Pandorica seat. These photos don’t come cheap but they do make a great and unique keepsake. (The giftshop was sadly lacking in unique items – nearly everything there could be purchased elsewhere, and often much cheaper.)
The Doctor Who Experience is having some special events for Halloween this month. On October 28th and 29th it will play host to a “Walk Like a Monster” masterclass, and also on the 28th children dressed up as Doctor Who characters will get free admission with a paying adult. On the 29th, face painters will be around to make you up as a monster and finally, live monsters will be roaming the Experience on the 30th as meet and greets will be available with the Scarecrows and Cybermen. The Doctor Who Experience will be moving to Cardiff in 2012 but for now, London is the place to go for Whovians of all ages.
The Doctor Who Experience is at the Kensington Olympia, London, and is open Thursday – Tuesday from 10.30am until 5.30pm (last entry at 4.00pm.) Tickets cost £20/$30.85 per adult and £15.50/$23.90 per child on the door. Discounts are available on tickets pre-purchased online and for groups of 12 or more. Under fives go free (they still require a ticket) but the attraction advises that the recommended age is five plus.