Holiday for Whovians
Dallas Morning News
My replica Sonic Screwdriver doesn’t necessarily make me a nerd when it comes to Doctor Who, the world’s longest-running sci-fi TV show. But my TARDIS-patterned bathrobe and remote-controlled Dalek are conclusive evidence of a slavish love for all things Gallifrey.
And if you understood any of those references, you’re probably just as excited as I am about the weekend of Nov. 23, when the BBC show’s 50th anniversary special will be simulcast around the world.
Gearing up to toast the Doctor — for the uninitiated, he’s a mysterious, humanlike alien traveling in space and time and battling baddies — Britain is stuffed with opportunities for diving into the family-friendly Whoniverse.
On my recent visit, I started in the heart of the matter, in Wales.
Two hours by train from London, Cardiff’s regenerated bay area is home to the studios where Doctor Who (and spin-off Torchwood) is filmed. Secrecy shrouds its operations, especially with the recent announcement of a new actor in the lead role, but you don’t have to sneak past security to satisfy your curiosity.
Just steps away, the Doctor Who Experience (doctorwhoexperience.com) is Britain’s top Whovian pilgrimage spot. It’s part interactive adventure and part museum.
On my visit, there were many young families, plus the kind of middle-aged men who own every episode on DVD. (Just for clarification, my collection is incomplete.)
Wearing my bathrobe and wielding my Sonic Screwdriver (just kidding), I wandered a walk-through adventure that started in the TARDIS — the Doctor’s preferred mode of transport. It looks like an old, blue-painted police call box — and encountered a phalanx of Daleks, those pepper-pot-shaped cyborgs bent on extermination.
A supporting cast of other baddies, including the statuelike Weeping Angels that only move when you blink, added to the sense of jeopardy as I followed flickering TV screens and inched through the darkened corridors. The current Doctor was guiding me safely, I hoped, back to Earth.
Next up was the extensive exhibit area. The show has changed radically over the years, and it’s fun to spot the clunky sets and quirky costumes of old.
There were also mannequins displaying the eclectic costumes of the 11 actors who have so far played the Doctor, including the stripy-scarfed Tom Baker from the 1970s, when I first discovered the show, and the leather-jacketed Christopher Eccleston, who ushered in its highly successful new era in 2005.
But it’s the monsters that trigger the most camera action. I spotted evil Dalek creator Davros looking typically grumpy (I suspect he just needs a hug). There were also the white-fanged snowmen from a recent Christmas episode. And then there were the Sontarans. Formidable in newer shows, earlier versions looked like leather-faced simpletons with ear hair issues.
Back on the London-bound train, I plotted the rest of my adventure. The British capital is synonymous with Doctor Who: spaceships have hit Buckingham Palace, the Daleks invaded in a 1960s movie version (with Peter Cushing playing our hero), and the Doctor hung out with Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre in a time-traveling yarn.
Guided location treks are available via Brit Movie Tours (britmovietours.com). Launching your own self-propelled expedition is also easy, so long as you know where to go.
I started at Earl’s Court Underground Station, where a TARDIS sits incongruously outside, luring giddy fans to snap themselves for posterity. I discovered another — with dual Dalek accompaniment — inside the South Bank’s London Film Museum (londonfilmmuseum.com).
But there’s an even better museum slightly off the beaten path. Hopping the Underground — not quite as fast as the TARDIS — I headed to East London’s Upton Park area.
The near-legendary Who Shop (thewhoshop.com) is a must-see for fans. Its comprehensive merchandise selection includes Cybermen teapots, K-9 T-shirts, Slitheen action figures and Sonic Screwdriver TV remotes. But the chance to mix with die-hard Whovians is the main attraction.
The biggest fan around is Kevan Looseley, who runs the shop with his wife, Alexandra. He has appeared as an extra in Doctor Who stage and screen productions and is always up for a chat about the show’s lore.
“We tell people to come in with a trivia question or two, but I haven’t been beaten yet,” he told me.
Several Doctor Who lead actors have appeared in the shop for autograph signings over the years. And they probably spent some time reminiscing in the amazing backroom museum. Accessed via a pair of TARDIS-like doors, it’s a jaw-dropping treasure trove of costumes, props and photos.
I was soon drooling over original Daleks and Cybermen outfits, plus reminders of the last movie-length birthday special: 1983’s 20th anniversary show, in which five Doctors appeared in the same episode. The story was awful, but for some (OK, me) it was like a Beatles reunion.
Looseley has high hopes for the upcoming birthday special, when at least two Doctors will appear together.
“I’m looking for a celebration of everything that’s great about the show,” he said, pointing out a TARDIS cookie jar I might like to buy. “For me, Doctor Who is almost perfect escapism.”