Having been the production home of Doctor Who for more than ten years, Cardiff Bay itself has become an immersive set tour for Whovians. Standing upon Roald Dahl Plass, beneath which the cavernous Torchwood base was located, you’re surrounded by buildings that have doubled as alien landscapes and streets that pretend to be London. Even looking out to sea, obscured slightly by the gleaming Norwegian Church Arts Centre, the plump blue-and-silver Doctor Who Experience building swells across the view.
This was my second time visiting the exhibition, after going in 2013 under the Matt Smith administration. I’ll spare you a detailed account of the Doctor Who Experience itself for three reasons. One: there are already plenty of blog posts about that on the Web. B: The interactive portion is better experienced than read about and contains a smidge of fan service that I don’t want to spoil and iii: that’s not really why I was there.
This time, I was going in the TARDIS! The real one! Well…real in the sense of the working set at Roath Lock Studios used by the BBC production team.
After leaving the exhibition through the gift shop, where I’d grappled with my inner child over the merits of spending £50 on a 13-foot scarf and ultimately won/lost depending on how you see it (I didn’t buy it), we joined a group of people hovering around the foyer. Promptly, a smiling young woman in a branded black fleece came over and introduced herself to the group as Lauren. She handed out our lanyards and led the group a quarter-mile up the road to Roath Lock Studios – a white and blue building adorned with shapes to represent various shows filmed there including Casualty (plus signs), Upstairs Downstairs (arrows) and, of course, Doctor Who (circles/roundels). We were led into the reception and buzzed through a barrier by a security man eyeing each lanyard carefully.
After turning into a corridor, we were funnelled down the immediate right into a large warehouse; a shuttered door in the far corner, air conditioning vents lining the walls at intervals. The room split almost in half by its contents: at the front, to your left as you walk in, stands an enormous structure, like a wooden pumpkin, punctured with walkways and scaffolding and studio lights. At the back of the room sits a familiar blue box, adorned with the graffiti that was added in the recently-concluded ninth series to memorialise fallen companion Clara. Left of the box an empty wire birdcage hung open, flanked by a lifeless Dalek. On the right, a large publicity print filled out the space.
Rather than let 22 people stampede through the TARDIS set at once, our party was split in half. We were led off to the trio of props at the far end of the room and introduced to Brad and Andy. Brad was young and skinny, wearing a dark jumper rolled up to the forearms and a mop of black hair graying at the temples. Andy, the older man who Brad introduced as a collector providing many of the exhibits to the Doctor Who Experience, chuckled as he described himself being from the “early days of fandom”.
Brad talked us through the items that had been put out, even disassembling the Dalek – a working prop that is still used in filming – to show us how the operator gets inside and controls its movement. “We were meant to have the Trap Street set left standing for the tour,” said Brad with an almost apologetic tone. He’s referring to the Diagon Alley-esque alien refugee camp that featured in the series nine episode ‘Face the Raven’ – the scene of Clara’s demise. The set, or at least parts of it, were needed for another production and it was disassembled. As I looked around the vast unused space in the studio (besides the TARDIS pumpkin) and the sparse selection of props on display, I couldn’t help wondering if the loss of Trap Street had happened at the last minute. Nevertheless, Brad and Andy spoke with a knowledge and enthusiasm that more than made up for it.
The other half of the group, the ones who had been sent straight to the TARDIS, had been divided further and were being taken through (as we soon would be) in groups of around six. Gradually, the crowd around Brad was starting to grow as people trickled out of the other side of the console room set. As the last stragglers of the first group were starting to emerge from the pumpkin, Lauren reappeared to take the second wave of fans through.
Lauren ushered us, in small groups, up a steep flight of metal stairs to a scaffolding – this tour has a lot of stairs but seems to be wheelchair-friendly. The tour group included a woman in a wheelchair and, though I didn’t see how exactly they took her around as she was in the first group, it appears that she was able to go inside and around the set without any problems. At the top, protruding through a black curtain that revealed the hint of a green-screen beneath, the bright blue police box doors waited. We lingered there for a while as the others in our group wanted photos at the door. While I snapped a few photos, I don’t appear in any of them. Mainly because I felt that I wanted the experience; to feel, not to pose. I slightly regret that now.
However, I did discover that not only does the “Pull To Open” smaller door not house a phone, but it needs to be pushed open! Eventually, Lauren stepped through the doors and strode to the console, now fully visible through the opening. Steeled in the presence of a set I’ve always wanted to see for myself, I stepped forward and entered the TARDIS.
The first thing that struck me as I crossed the threshold was, ironically, how much smaller it seemed on the inside. Though I know that camera trickery is used on TV, I assumed a set built for the lanky Peter Capaldi would still dwarf me. Though the ceiling studio lights were switched off, the console room was ablaze with the light of the column and roundels. A subtle pulsing noise plays while the set is active, as though the place were alive (which, in the show, it is). I didn’t even notice until, as we were leaving, a momentary break in the audio loop made the silence more obvious. Between the fiery orange lights, the bookcases (filled with real books, Lauren informed us) and the warmth of the enclosed set, the room could have been a cosy library decorated with sci-fi kitsch. The only thing switched off, Lauren told us, was the steam vents built into the floor that would go off during filming to make the TARDIS seem more spacey. But, since I’d left my Marilyn Monroe dress at home, it wasn’t needed today.
Admittedly, the set may have merely felt smaller because, as you might expect given this is a working set on one of the BBC’s most popular shows, a lot of the console room is roped off. Despite the screaming protests of my inner fanboy, I resisted the urge to limbo under it and go careening around the set. We were later told that the restrictions can sometimes invoke the ire of younger children who want to properly play in the TARDIS. So they’d compromised by only roping off the walkways and allowing unobstructed access to two of the console’s frontmost panels. “Please don’t touch the controls!” said Lauren sharply, as though just realising she’d forgotten to tell us. “The console’s a bit fragile so please don’t play with it in case anything breaks. Matt Smith was notorious for doing that,” she name-dropped casually, “but if you want me to take photos of you looking like you’re about to then that’s fine.”
From the moment I’d bought my ticket I knew that, even if it meant being kicked out or banned, I was going to use a TARDIS control. Luckily, several of the people in our group were alone so, in order to get photos, they had to enlist our guide to take them. One woman was brandishing a complex DSLR and starting giving Lauren a detailed tutorial in using it correctly. With everyone distracted, I seized my chance! Hurriedly, I groped for the console, found the lever closest to me (below) and, without looking, yanked it down with a satisfying *thunk*.
If Lauren noticed, she gave no indication, still being lectured about how to achieve focus despite the harsh orange lights of the column. Not wanting to push my luck and risk breaking anything, I resisted another go. Though I’d always assumed the lights and column rotation were controlled externally, we were later told that one of the big levers was wired up to activate the set’s mechanics, since Peter Capaldi tended to pull it as a dramatic flourish when the scene involved the TARDIS taking off. My surreptitious lever pull had been random and, though the Dramatic Lever was safely roped off on the other side of the console, part of me was disappointed that I couldn’t have the giddy thrill of setting it off.
When we’d had our time at the controls, we trailed left down a short flight of stairs to the lowest level of the console room. There we were able to explore the underside of the console level where blackboards, workbenches, a guitar and amp (unfortunately lacking in clockwork squirrel) and other Twelfth Doctor staples were dotted around. Among the TARDIS architecture at the lower level the base of the central column and the recently reintroduced round things. After our guide listed off all the times the column base had been used on-screen, I asked if she’d had to memorise that or just knew it. “I’d watched and liked Doctor Who when I started working here, and we are given a basic script to follow, but that extra stuff just sort of comes with time,” she responded. I nodded, taking in the time machine around us.
We exited the TARDIS through an archway and emerged into cooler air on the other side of the great wooden pumpkin. We hung around here for a minute as people got their final photos and drifted back to Brad and Andy’s crowd, Lauren answering questions from the group the entire way. Then, almost as quickly as we’d entered, we were led back through the corridor, out through the security gate and deposited into the mild Welsh evening.
Conventional wisdom says you should never meet your heroes and I suppose the same goes for fictional spaceships too. Seeing the set in person (and it very much is a set) has irrevocably changed how I imagine the TARDIS console room, but for the better. It now has a texture, a temperature, a scale both grand and intimate. It really is an experience, one that no camera can really capture. The guides and people involved in the tour clearly care about giving visitors the best time in the TARDIS they can, hence the lights and the sounds and screens – things that someone has to be operating – all being active. Brad asked us not to take photos of the TARDIS set from the outside (despite the fact most of us already had), to preserve the surprise for those who come later. Though I’m pretty certain you can find images of the TARDIS pumpkin online, I’ve removed that photo from the slideshow below because they seem to earnestly want to give people the Doctor Who Experience.
Photo credit: Stew Elliot