The chamber is amber and sparsely lit. We gather around metal walkways, surrounded by broken remnants of machinery, things long past, in a battle-scarred landscape drenched by a setting sun. Our guide warily picks himself through the throng to what is presumably the optimal vantage point for addressing the whole group. Suddenly a hatch opens. Pressing further into the room we can make out a bulky shape, sloped with odd protrusions: the cylindrical minimalism of a familiar-looking sink plunger, counter-balanced on the other side by what looks rather like an egg whisk. The lights go on, just in time for a grating recorded voice to bellow “EXTERMINATE!”.
That’s when the eight-year-old says “I need the toilet.”
They don’t let you take photos in the first part of the Doctor Who Experience. I’ve probably broken some sort of contractual law just by telling you about that bit – we didn’t sign anything, of course, but there’s presumably some sort of Mafia, and I’ll wake up tomorrow with a Slitheen’s head on my pillow. Not that it matters, really, given that the entire first paragraph was constructed almost entirely from memory and is almost certainly false, or at least inaccurate. Certain things slip out through the cracks. There were Daleks; I do remember that much, but the rest is a bit of a haze.
It worries me because it was only a couple of years ago. I can recollect sixth form parties from a quarter-century hence with more clarity. On the other hand were distracted that day; we spent most of our time wandering around worrying about Daniel, who had made it through to ‘Day of the Doctor’ but who still ran screaming from the room whenever a Weeping Angel turned up (or swiftly covered his eyes, which in itself is curiously ironic). A couple of months before I’d briefly encountered Steven Moffat at a press screening for ‘The Pilot’, and had passed on – at Daniel’s request – the information that his favourite episode was ‘Blink’. Not that this is in itself unusual – the Angels’ inaugural (and, we might argue, only really successful) venture is regularly at the top of the polls, or at least top five, but to be honest I think he’s just pleased he got through the damned thing without wetting himself.
That’s in very real danger of happening today, though, and it is for that reason that Emily never actually got to do the Experience properly. But I’m getting ahead of myself: we’re going to rewind several hours and shuffle a few hundred yards to the west, where the six of us are standing in front of an eight-year-old shrine to a dead fictional character.
“So when did he die?”
“Hmm?” I say to Josh. “Oh, it was 2009. I mean this is a spoiler, really, but the aliens gassed the chamber, and – ”
“No, not him. The actor who played him.”
“He’s not dead.”
Josh looks at me quizzically, so I explain. “This is the shrine for his character,” and I swear I can see him rolling his eyebrows.
Don’t get me wrong. I was as affected by ‘Children of Earth’ as the rest of you. Peter Capaldi confronting the 456 is still among the most electrifying moments Torchwood has to offer. Jack kills his own grandson, for pity’s sake. And yes, the climax of episode 4 – a sobbing Ianto dying in Barrowman’s immortal arms – is sudden, shocking and unexpectedly moving. But the public outpourings of grief have long perplexed me, particularly given the propensity of many fans to refuse to forgive Davies for killing one of his darlings. Eight years for a Welsh admin assistant? Isn’t that over-egging the pudding just a tad? Mind you, we’re in a world where people old enough to know better routinely travel to King’s Cross in order to visit a platform that doesn’t exist and celebrate a day that doesn’t exist, where characters who didn’t exist were about to travel to a place that didn’t exist, on a magical steam engine. Perhaps a few dried bouquets down by the lapping surf are small fry in comparison.
Our timed tickets for the Experience proper don’t start until after lunch, so I’ve suggested we come here first, just so I can show the kids what happens when you let fandom get the better of you. This whole day is a birthday present from Emily, as we’ve talked about coming for years and have learned, comparatively recently, that the thing is closing, which has led to a public outcry from fans who haven’t got around to actually seeing it yet but will, honestly. I scratch my head at such responses. I would very much like to go to the Who North America store, for example, but Indiana is beyond my travelling budget and if it were to suddenly close up shop tomorrow I’d feel a small pang of regret for the staff and then I’d move on. Listen: the Experience at Porth Teigr was only ever supposed to be a five year plan and it only closed so they could move it somewhere else. There’s no sense in throwing your toys out of the pram because you have to scrub something off the bucket list, or at least move it down a couple of notches. Change is the very nature of the show; deal with it.
But it’s easy to say that when you’re in South Oxfordshire and Cardiff is an hour and a half on the M4, and perhaps I didn’t do myself any favours by sneering about it the way I did at the time. It’s a lesson in kindness, and it’s one you learn the hard way. It’s something I’m trying to correct, although not always successfully. A part of it is knowing the difference: being kind doesn’t mean you can’t hold certain people in withering contempt, depending on their actions (one minute Capaldi’s ranting about how important kindness is, the next he’s chiding the Master for his “stupid round face”). Silly ideas are still silly and poorly-conceived logic is stilll…well, you get the idea. It’s all in the way you tell people, and sometimes you probably shouldn’t.
What happens in the Doctor Who Experience is this: you enter a series of rooms, led by a costumed Time Lord, and interact with Peter Capaldi (the earlier, grumpier version), who appears on screen via a series of pre-recorded interludes. There are buttons to press and things to carry – at one point you get to fly the TARDIS – and over the course of your journey you encounter a variety of creatures, but notably Daleks and Weeping Angels. We know this because we have done a little research – nothing spoiler-heavy but our family’s needs more or less demand it – and the eight-year-old does a good line in ‘suddenly queasy’. Or perhaps he really was feeling ill; it’s a hot day and while the Experience’s dark corridors and atmospheric rooms (“It’s not a restaurant for the French!”) are decently air-conditioned there’s only so much you can do when you’re suddenly inundated by sweating tourists.
Emily knows how much this means to me, and when Daniel says he feels sick she offers to take him out, so the Time Lord guide briefly breaks character to shepherd them through the fire doors. We continue the walkthrough without them, and they catch up with us in 1963 London, which is where you wind up when you’re finished. What remains is two floors of props and scenery and costumes – oh, so many costumes – from fifty-four years (as was) of Doctor Who, ranging from vintage Daleks to the Veil that pursued the Twelfth Doctor in ‘Heaven Sent’. There are antique consoles, an interesting Radiophonic Workshop display and there’s a bit where you can hide inside a Dalek and dance like a Cyberman. Or something like that.
It’s all very comprehensive, of course – the costume centrepiece, in particular, is like the final frame of ‘Day of the Doctor’, only we all missed the Rapture. But there’s something a little sterile about the whole thing, something oddly flat and almost clinical, the lighting a little too harsh, the monsters arranged in neat displays in the manner of a police lineup, rather than the immersive casket of wonders from which you’ve recently ventured. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so we won’t dwell on it, but the original Cardiff exhibition over at the Dragon Centre was better: darker and more thrilling, a coherent whole rather than two disjointed halves. In layman’s terms it’s ‘Blink’, while Porth Teigr is….oh, I don’t know, ‘The Girl Who Died’ and ‘The Woman Who Lived‘. You will have your own choice, but you can see where this is going.
It’s a shame, because there are some lovely pieces. My family are all fans – even Edward – but I’m the one who knows it best, and in places like this I’m like a puppy off a leash, prancing and jumping around the exhibition like Willy Wonka in the Inventing Room or Matt Smith early in ‘Rings of Akhaten’ (“Panbabylonians…a Lugal-Irra-Kush…some Lucanians…a Hooloovo!”). Here there was a 1980s Cyberman. Over there the Special Weapons Dalek, the Fisher King from Series 9 and BLOODY HELL THAT’S A MANDREL!
They gave Emily a commemorative sick bag. It was a good few months before it became sufficiently tatty to wind up in the bin; we never did get round to auctioning it on Ebay like we’d planned. Better still, she’s managed to grab a slot in the day’s final tour, which is quiet, and so she and Daniel get to do it all again, at least until they get to the Daleks, which is when he announces he needs the toilet and they have to once more make a swift exit through the fire doors. The two of them eventually join us in the park, half a mile round the bay, my son sheepish and insistent that it really was his bladder and nothing to do with the Angels; my wife quietly simmering.
“Well,” I say, trying to make her feel better, “The best bits were in the first half. You didn’t really miss much.”
She gives me a look. “Oh, don’t say that. It just makes the whole thing worse.”
I have more photos than paragraphs, today, so what remains is the gallery: Daleks and pinballs and round things. What are the round things? No idea. I’m glad we went, if only for the first half – which does make you feel like you’re in an episode of Doctor Who, even if it’s one of the slightly rubbish ones. To those of you who never got the chance: fret not; there’ll be another one along soon, presumably with Jodie Whittaker on the other side of the screen and presumably involving some sort of story where you have to save the world from bigots or internet trolls or people who don’t flush the toilet when they’re done, complete with enormous monsters made up of festering excrement.
Actually that might be half-decent. They could call it The Doctor Loo Experience.