Can a father and son share Doctor Who fun?

Andy and Joshua McSmith find out if a new attraction dedicated to the sci-fi show can keep two generations of fans happy

Saturday 19 February 2011 01:00

The things you learn. Ice warriors are green, scaly, and a bit reptilian. The right arm of a Dalek, close up, looks like a black rubber plunger and its left arm seems to be a whisk. There is a robot called K1, not to be confused with the robot dog K9. And the Doctor has a name. No, it isn't "Who" – even I knew that – it is a secret name, known only to the Doctor and his wife.

His wife? No, I didn't know that either. I wonder if it was a church wedding or a civil ceremony.

I was on a steep learning curve yesterday because The Independent sent me to London's Olympia to preview the Doctor Who Experience which opens to the public tomorrow. It will be on for most of the rest of the year and is sure to be a sell-out, given the size and dedication of the fan base at which it is aimed. In the hope that I would not be shown up as a total ignoramus, I went with a 13-year-old adviser/ researcher, Joshua McSmith (yes, we are related), who at least knows his Rose Tyler from his Amy Pond.

It was a bit like one of those school trips when I was taken around a museum to have my head filled with knowledge about Egyptian civilisation or the combustion engine, under the threat of being tested later. Except in those days, the experts were old. The sad thing is that, judging by the company at Olympia yesterday, they mostly still are. Groups who booked their tickets early were being admitted for a preview, and though there were a few children taking pleasure in the nonsense on display, most of the visitors were adult, solemn and knowledgeable.

Myself, I could soak up the occasion with that bemused pleasure that comes from near total ignorance, but I don't envy the organisers their task, for I fear that if they have one fact wrong, they would face an irate horde of anorak-clothed Doctor Who wonks. For that very reason, I am sure they researched and assembled their exhibits with the same reverential care as a team of paleontologists assembling dinosaur bones.

I have an early recollection of a grainy, terrifying Doctor Who adventure in black and white, in which the Doctor and his companions are trapped on a pleasure cruiser in which the same events happen over and over again, as in Groundhog Day. They realise they are inside a machine where they are being watched for someone's amusement. They escape, only to land in another part of the same machine, which is infested by carnivorous dinosaurs.

I offered these scraps of memory to Andrew Beech, from BBC Worldwide who put the experience together. His official title is artefacts manager, but everyone calls him The Curator.

"The Celestial Toymaker, 1966, with Bill Hartnell, Peter Purves, and Jackie Lane as Dodo," he replied, without hesitation. "There are only bits of it left, because parts were wiped. It's a shame, because the toymaker was played by Michael Gough, who was a big name even then."

The start of the Experience involved – inevitably – being in a queue, but at least there was stuff to look at while we queued, including a Dalek with a Union Jack on what might loosely be called its forehead and some 1940s kit around its waist. "That's the episode with Winston Churchill in it," my teenage expert said. "There's a professor who thinks he made the Daleks but actually they made him. It's complicated."

We pass a screen on which flashes an image of James Corden, not someone I associate with science fiction. "That was probably the worst episode of the series," I am told. "Basically, his house was underneath a spaceship."

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The queue moves on and we are into a large cluttered room where a disembodied head informs us that we are Information Node 8251/Amber, and suddenly Matt Smith, the current Doctor Who, is on an overhead screen, spouting incomprehensible nonsense with manic energy until the familiar image of the police box materialises, accompanied by the unchanging Doctor Who theme tune.

Yes, the Tardis really is bigger inside than out, and the kids got a chance to fiddle with the controls, but something went wrong, and we all had to flee into the next room where we were surrounded by three large, brightly coloured Daleks who vouchsafed that we were inferior and would be exterminated. This, according to my companion, was the best bit of the whole Experience.

I don't want to ruin the suspense, but I can reveal that we were not exterminated. Soon, we had special glasses on and three-dimensional baddies from outer space were leaping at us out of a screen. I am told that in recent years, the Doctor has been confronted with an enemy creepier than the Master and scarier than a Dalek, called a Weeping Angel. There was a ripple of something like fear in the audience when one of these things extended his arm out of the screen with a very unfriendly look on its face.

After that excitement, we were into the static part of the show, where there is a host of exhibits, including the green fibre body armour worn by Bernard Bresslaw when he appeared as Varga the Ice Warrior in 1967, and the actual innards of the very Tardis in which David Tennant metamorphosed into Matt Smith, amid fire, explosions and agonised ham acting.

I learnt that there were other Doctor Whos between Tom Baker and David Tennant, including Peter Davison and Christopher Eccleston.

And finally, the good news. There is another series on the way. Don't ask me what it's about, but I can tell you that the Doctor still has that unfeasibly attractive red-haired sidekick, that he wears a Stetson hat, and 12 Jammy Dodgers enter into the action somewhere. Some of this stuff stretches credulity.

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