Friday, April 10, 2015

UK Adventure 2015, Day 4: Experiencing the Experience

This entry was originally written by me and posted on the official (Re)Generation Who blog.

The last time I visited the Doctor Who Experience, I caught a bus. This time I walked from my hotel, and it wasn't even remotely hard to spot. The huge blue roof right near the bay itself is visible for several minutes before you actually walk up to its doors.

Just inside the doors, instead of Bessie and Tricey as I'd seen before, I was greeted by a Weeping Angel and a row of Daleks. I was also greeted by Vicky, the Experience's marketing manager, who told me a bit about the place since the redesign. It went without saying that the place was quite busy, as it's Easter holidays right now, but Vicky tells me they've been doing quite well since the change, and the response has been overall positive. I'd missed by a week an 'invasion' of some live Doctor Who monsters, and by two weeks a visit by Peter Capaldi himself for the tenth anniversary of the new series.

There were no surprise guests today, but there was a brand new adventure waiting. When I lined up, I (like the others in line) was given a VIP pass with a crystal in it and told it would 'keep me safe' inside the Experience. (No, you don't get to keep the pass -- it's keyed to certain effects and scenes in certain rooms, and actually becomes part of what you do during the Experience.)

Note (if you can) that the pass says 'Gallifrey Museum.' Because that's where you're going in this adventure. You're met by a Gallifreyan tour guide who briefs you on the history of the Time War and its greatest hero, then offers the assembled crowd a chance to spy on him flying around in his TARDIS. Unfortunately(?), you catch the TARDIS right in the middle of a bizarre alien attack, and the Doctor earmarks your nosy tour group to help save him and the universe.

Saying any more than that would wreck a great deal of fun, because walking into each new room is a surprise -- even the ones where the style of them had to be generally preserved from the Experience's previous iteration. What I can say is that 'saving the day' does not mean you stand around, watch videos happen, and wait for the Doctor to tell you to move along. He gives you some jobs to do, and those jobs include you (or at least one member of your party) getting up close and personal with some familiar monsters. That's the really delightful bit of it. You're actually being thrown into unfamiliar places and given hurried instructions you might not necessarily understand, but you haven't got a lot of time to think because there's a Dalek right over there. I will admit to shrieking loudly in fear in one room, causing a few small children to look at me askance.

As much as I loved Matt Smith's version, as he offered frustrated encouragement from inside the Pandorica II, I think a story like this is perfect for the Twelfth Doctor. He berates you at every turn, whether it's for being slow on the uptake or having that awful little human habit of just up and dying. He'll also randomly call people in the group names (I look like an android, apparently), yet all done in that very Twelve-ish way where somehow you find yourself giving him a pass. It can't be easy filming the scenes in advance and making it sound like you really are relaying instructions to people one room away or one floor up, but Capaldi nails it, and Lidster's dialogue for him is spot-on.

The unsung hero of the Experience, though, has to be your tour guide. Ours was a young man who played it humourously frantic without adding undue panic (just enough for the scenes), and did a magnificent job of being simultaneously excited by what was going on, terrified by same, and thoroughly rattled by the Doctor's incessant jabs. His job involved timing everything he did to fit with preset videos and effects while still appearing natural -- not an easy feat, but one he pulled off admirably.

It was also nice to see that both the tour guide and the prerecorded scenes drove home, without breaking the fiction, the necessity of letting any children (or, as the Doctor would have it, 'small adults') do the important stuff. At the end of the day, as fun and scary and exciting as it is for grownups, this is meant for families, and everyone did a very good job of making sure the youngest in the group were the ones most involved.

If you're the sort who likes to lose yourself in immersive shows or haunted houses, you'll find it extremely easy to do that here. The light and sound design (especially in the first 'real' room, which I won't spoil for you), use of video, and repurposing of old special effects, combined with the addition of a character within your ranks, does wonders for the immersiveness of the whole thing. They've really stepped up their game, and I'd recommend the place to any fan who can find even half an excuse to get out to Cardiff.

And there's still the exhibit afterwards!

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When you leave, you step out into the First Doctor's console room (specifically, the recreation in An Adventure in Space and Time), and from there can move through the exhibit looking at props, set pieces, and costumes from every era of the show.

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The bed and Rupert's pyjamas from 'Listen.'
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One version of the Twelfth Doctor's outfit, near the lineup of all the Doctors' costumes.
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Recreation of the barn scene from 'Day of the Doctor' with three TARDISes, the Moment, and the Moment's costume on display.
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Piano wires in a recreation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, used for a certain familiar sound.
The layout of the exhibit is much friendlier to navigate than it had been, with displays organised chronologically by era in large part. Each episode from the most recent series has its own small display area, from 'Deep Breath' all the way to 'Last Christmas.' As before, there's even a small studio where a video teaches you how to move like various notable Doctor Who monsters.

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Final word? The new Doctor Who Experience is better than ever. As much as I enjoyed the original, this is more along the lines of what I'd been hoping for when I first heard of it a few years ago. It also manages to pay beautiful tribute to all 50+ years of the show -- not just in the exhibit, but in the interactive segment as well. If you're a fan and can find any excuse to go, it's worth the time and money to get there.

Visit the Doctor Who Experience website for information on tickets, group sales, walking tours, and more.