TARDIS Set Tour – Roath Lock Studios

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.

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff
Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff

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.

Roath Lock Lanyard
Roath Lock Lanyard

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.

TARDIS Telepathic Circuits
TARDIS Telepathic Circuits

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*.

The Telltale Lever
The Telltale Lever

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.

Under the Hood
Under the Hood

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

Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice (Fanboy Ramble)

From the revival up to the end of the Russell T Davies era, the Time War was meant to serve as a great big eraser to make space for new fans. All the forced continuity of 26 years of television episodes and countless spin-off audios, books and comics culminated in this war that saw the end of everything – Daleks/Time Lords, Skaro/Gallifrey, Davros/Rassilon. All you needed to know, when Eccleston first grabbed the audience’s hand and said “Run” was that he was a time-traveller in a box. Everything else would come later, if it came at all. For the time being, everything you knew about the old Whoniverse was gone.

time war book
The bedtime reading of Rassilon

Unfortunately, this meant the show became a place where everything was dead and also nothing was. The “last” remnants of the Daleks were seemingly wiped out forever twice in the first series alone. Other “last” factions of Daleks would reappear every subsequent series before David Tennant left the TARDIS. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss re-established the Daleks as a regular fixture in the Whoniverse early into Matt Smith’s run, but had to offset their overexposure in the Davies era by hardly using them. Nevertheless, when they did return it was more a case of “Oh, it’s the Daleks. That’s not good!” than “But…that’s impossible…even more impossible than it was last year!”

So the lack of a tiresome backstory for why the Daleks are still around was a welcome relief, since there’s nothing remotely interesting about them. They’re iconic mostly because they were introduced at a time when the country was still recovering from the cultural hangover of its own war and the idea of being subjugated by a tank screeching about racial purity touched a raw nerve. This is why later appearances involved them being given more identifiable characters like Davros, multiple Emperors and modern-day examples like Sec – intelligent Dalek representatives that command/speak for an army of foot soldiers. I can even forgive the lack of explanation for Davros’ survival after the destruction of the Crucible in ‘Journey’s End’. Having a stash of escape pods within arms reach has been his thing since the classic series. The series 9 opener ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ even gave us a possible reason why Davros is always surviving – because he was told as a child that “survival is a choice” and it’s one he’s been making ever since, not just for himself but for his entire species.

twelve and missy
So about that whole ‘repopulating the species’ thing…

Which puts me in the minority of people who really did want to know how the Master survived, despite inexplicably returning from the dead in the classic series several times. Though I’m not sure I wanted an explanation as much as I wanted to see them try and justify that downright offensive CyberBrig thing. Despite saying that I dislike boring survival backstories, I felt as though this was one boring survival backstory too few because of how the Master reflects the Doctor. Unlike the Daleks and Davros, The Master has always been the Nega-Doctor. The Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes. The Voldemort to his Dumbledore. A more personal threat simply because he reminds the Doctor that he’s only a few wrong decisions from becoming like the Master himself. This was touched-on last year, albeit not in as much detail as I would’ve liked, and was a major theme in this episode with the moral dilemma of saving Bubby Davros. So to have Missy axed only to come back from her apparent death twice in the same story (we all know she wasn’t really exterminated) without any good reason means that the Doctor, who’s Missy’s intellectual equal (almost), must also be capable of inexplicable survival. Thus, any sense of risk to the Doctor is lost…except…

…now I have to contradict myself. From a real-world perspective, we pretty much know that major character deaths will be undone quickly. Firstly, because the trailer, unless part of an elaborate hoax by the BBC, shows both Clara, Missy and the TARDIS in later episodes. Secondly, because the modern show has a certain style which means that a companion death, even of an actor we know is leaving the show, isn’t going to happen so casually without fanfare and some protracted farewell. So I was pleasantly surprised when the episode didn’t abruptly end on Clara’s extermination or the TARDIS being blowed up, which we know is going to be reversed. Instead, the cliffhanger was a pitch-perfect example of how to get the viewer’s interest and, for the first time in a while, I’m desperate to see the next part.

And now, as ever, we end on wild speculation as to what’s going to happen next. I think that this is going to be the start of a series-long story arc. Davros, weary, remorseful and having taken everything away from the Doctor, even his screwdriver (and somewhere a Character Options exec is hanging himself), asks the Doctor to go back in time to kill his younger self, averting the creation of the Daleks and the apparent death of Clara. The Doctor knows that, the Daleks having been such a major factor in his life, the resulting paradox will likely destroy him too. But the Doctor refuses out of his sense of morality, saying Davros had his choice to create the Daleks and doesn’t get a redo. Moffat willing, a lengthy philosophical discussion will ensue between him and Davros.

twelve and gun
Coming to a morbid toy shop near you this Christmas

Meanwhile, Missy and Clara – having most likely been teleported away – will have to evade capture and/or extermination in the Dalek city on Skaro to keep the action up. I’m not sure how the entire series will play out, but I suspect the cliffhanger scene won’t be paid off until the finale. The Doctor continues to refuse so Davros sends a Dalek back to do the deed instead, only really needing the Doctor’s knowledge of time travel extracted from a not-destroyed TARDIS to do so. The Doctor escapes and follows the Dalek to where Young Davros remains trapped and uses the gun to destroy the Dalek sneaking up behind him. He aids Davros’ escape from the Hand-Mines (which are fabulous, by the way) and finds himself back on the TARDIS with Clara and everything restored. The moral of the story is that though saving Davros (“I’m going to save my friend…”), showing him compassion (“…the only way I know how”), probably didn’t change how he turned out, saving his life was the right thing to do and gave him the choice to become the monster he did. He can’t blame the Doctor for indirectly being responsible for the Daleks.

P.S. Did anyone else think it was lazy of Moffat to use the ‘Genesis of the Dalek’ clip to bring up the Fourth Doctor’s conundrum? Given that Moffat is capable of truly masterful writing (listen to what Davros says about predator/prey and you’ll see what I mean) it felt like a bit of a waste not to have rephrased the “Would you kill baby Hitler?” dilemma with the words of Moffat and the performance of Capaldi. The original “Do I have the right?” speech is an iconic part of Who history so to have it simply rehashed with an archive clip was disappointing – as I said last year, don’t just reference the past, outdo it!

Doctor Who: Dark Water (Review)

Doctor Who can officially add ‘scared a generation of kids out of becoming organ donors’ to its long list of fear factors. Not to mention the chilling, piteous sob of a “burner” certain to mean a sharp decline in cremations over the next half-century. But scaring the viewer is what Doctor Who is meant to do and Dark Water succeeds with a superb blend of psychological and visual horror that hasn’t been done quite so effectively in years.

Danny Pink died the way he lived: on the phone and pointlessly. Looking back at every episode since The Caretaker, all but one of his previous appearances involved him calling Clara for no other reason than to remind the audience that he’s there. Giving him a tragic backstory was a nice change, considering most recent companions have barely left school let alone seen conflict, but we didn’t see him develop enough as a character to care what happens to him now. Cutting back to Danny repeatedly while building up to the final reveal was irritating. He certainly didn’t deserve the final shot of the episode, which should have stayed on the Doctor’s reaction. Hopefully Danny will press the in-joke button before the next episode and we won’t have to waste any more time with him.

Dark WaterDo it. Do it. Do it. 

Whilst Clara throwing the TARDIS keys into a volcano was an effective way to show how Danny’s death affected her, the whole thing fell flat for anyone who’s been paying attention. Since the Doctor has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to open the TARDIS doors by snapping his fingers – which even Clara can do for some reason – it was obvious this would turn out to be a ruse. Though, given how fractured their relationship has been since the regeneration, it was a nice moment when the Doctor continued to help her regardless of what just happened. Sure it was obvious trailer-bait, but it led to a very strong character moment that rounded off a plot thread from this series so neatly it was justified.

Since their presence was spoilt both in the trailers and set photos, the meta-humour made up for the weak Cyberman reveal. But, other than allowing the BBC to reuse costumes under the pretence of paying the billionth homage to The Invasion, there was no real reason for them to be there. They were mere foot soldiers of the Master and could’ve been replaced with any other monster – or, heaven forfend, some newly designed creature – without changing the story. The skeletons in tanks were creepy and just macabre enough to be scary without using gore, so they could have served this role exactly as they were. If the BBC wanted suit actors instead of CGI, put the skeletons in shrouds and have Death personified marching across London. Don’t just reference the past, outdo it!

Dark WaterSo…about that whole repopulating the species thing… 

Considering the push for a female Doctor this time around, having a female Master was inevitable at some point. It’s an interesting direction considering how hard it would be to find new takes on a character that has ranged from Delgado’s sinister gentleman to Simm’s cackling anarchist. While this could easily blow up in Steven Moffat’s face given his dubious reputation for writing female characters, it may actually play to his strengths. That kiss, which has provoked a depressingly predictable amount of gay panic on Twitter, was the manifestation of many previous hints about the Master and a very in-character way to gain dominance over her old nemesis. It may even be used as a commentary on the fluidity of sexuality, especially within the Doctor Who universe. Following the Master’s characterisation under Russell T Davies, the Missy incarnation may actually be a good fit for the otherwise tedious ‘feisty, flirty female character’ stencil Moffat used to create River Song, Tasha Lem and Sherlock’s Irene Adler.

Besides, Michelle Gomez will never out-camp Eric Roberts.

301+ : Interviews with the Internet

301+

301+ is a new series of blog posts I’m starting on the Huffington Post UK, in which I interview popular content creators, YouTubers and public figures on the Web who you don’t ordinarily hear about.

The first interview is scheduled for next Monday (16th June 2014) and there will hopefully be a new interview every subsequent Monday for as long as I can keep doing this. Meantimes, check out the release schedule by liking 301+ on Facebook, following 301+ on Twitter and encouraging everyone you know to do the same. I’ll also use the Facebook page to take suggestions of people to interview and questions to ask upcoming guests.

All 301+ Blog Posts

Series 1:
Part 1: Thug Notes
Part 2: The Blockbuster Buster
Part 3: Geek Crash Course
Part 4: Brock Baker
Part 5: Doctor Puppet

Series 2:
Part 6: Nostalgia Critic
Part 7: Lindsey Stirling

When ‘Her’ Becomes a Reality, She’ll Be a Digital Booth Babe

My latest Huffington Post blog post is up. It starts off with me talking about the Tamagotchi in relation to the Spike Jonze movie ‘Her’ and ends with a denouncement of sexism in tech trade shows. I’m pretty confident that the progression makes sense, but I’ll let you decide:

When ‘Her’ Becomes a Reality, She’ll Be a Digital Booth Babe

Her

An exclusive to this blog post coming soon, as well as potentially some pretty awesome news.

Mat

Moto G Review

Selecting a budget smartphone usually means compromising on performance and features just to stay within a sub-£200 price range. But Motorola’s first smartphone to get a UK release since being acquired by Google – the Moto G – comes packing an impressive set of specs for a paltry £135 price tag. So what’s the catch?

Moto G

The device itself has a fairly typical layout: power button and volume rocker on the right-hand edge, 3.5mm headphone jack atop and micro-USB port beneath. At the fore we have the Moto G’s 4.5-inch LCD touchscreen, speaker, mic and 1.3 MP front-facing camera. The notification light next to the front camera was a great design choice on Motorola’s part, as it glows softly rather than flashing brightly, meaning you could happily ignore it in a darkened bedroom at night but still notice it when you want to.

Unlike a lot of Android phones, the Moto G lacks mechanical touch-sensitive buttons as these are included in the OS. This was presumably a way to save costs on the casing since the gap left behind is not filled with anything and makes the screen seem a little off-centre, though it does act as a handy place to grip the phone while watching videos.

Considering Motorola’s history of designing handsets with quirky and interesting form factors, it’s a little disappointing that the Moto G is such a generic black rectangle, but this is understandable given the price. Many low-cost phones try to make up for lacklustre specs with a gimmicky design and the results are often hideous and tacky, so Motorola’s cost limitations may have turned out to be a strength.

Having said that, the Moto G comes out of the box sporting a glossy black back-cover that gives it a fragile and distinctly toy-like feel. The back can be replaced with a selection of coloured shells (£8.99) or flip covers (£18.99) slated to reach UK shores before the end of the year. The flip covers in particular, as they’re made of a more durable textured plastic, seem like they’d offer the best protection against the elements long-term, though they strike me as a little pricey for what they are.

Moto G Flip covers and back shells

But really it’s what’s under the shell that has everyone talking about the Moto G and for good reason. The Moto G is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 CPU with a quad-core Cortex-A7 chip clocked at 1.2GHz, not mind-blowing but very impressive for the price, and packs a respectable 1GB of memory. Navigating menus and using less processor-intensive features were as slick as you’d expect, even coping admirably when switching between apps rapidly with no visible latency. Though you wouldn’t expect a supposedly budget device to be much good for gaming, its Adreno 305 graphics chip is shared by a number of mid-range phones and, combined with the decent frame rate enabled by the CPU, makes the Moto G a competent gaming device.

It comes with comparatively meagre 8GB storage capacity, though a 16GB model is available for an extra £25, and there’s no way of supplementing that with an SD card. It also lacks 4G connectivity, which may be a dealbreaker in the US and some other countries but isn’t really a problem if you’re in the UK and live outside the major cities.

The Moto G flaunts a crisp 720p screen, matching that of yesteryear’s mid-range phones like the Nexus 4 and Galaxy S3, and plays HD video with incredible sharpness. My only complaint is that the LCD display lacks the colour richness you’d get with an AMOLED screen, giving videos a slightly washed-out appearance. The rear camera is perfectly serviceable and about what you’d expect for this price bracket. It won’t win any awards, but it’s decent enough for the casual photographer and is run on Motorola’s own software featuring a varied but straightforward menu of settings to control photo quality.

None of this comes at the expense of draining the phone’s power source either, since the 2,070 mAh battery is a stalwart companion in keeping the Moto G running. With Android’s built in battery saver systems, I was able to eke out a good 36 hours of life with moderate use and even a little over 12 hours when I was hammering it with updates, games and music streaming. Given the hardware it has to support, Motorola might have rendered the Moto G almost unusable if they’d skimped on the battery, so it’s encouraging to see thought went into even these minute details.

Android KitKat

At the moment, the Moto G comes running the slightly older Android 4.3 Jelly Bean but is slated to receive an update in January to the latest version (KitKat), with reports this has already begun rolling out for certain devices. Whilst the Android OS itself hasn’t undergone much alteration, Motorola has thrown in a ‘Migrate’ app that streamlines the process of copying the data on your old handset over to the Moto G (assuming it was also an Android). There’s also ‘Assist’, a somewhat over-auspiciously named app that simply lets you set times for your phone to fall silent automatically, such as during meetings or at night.

Along with the normal selection of apps for Google’s services pre-installed on the phone, you’ll be invited to enable ‘Google Now’ on first startup. This is effectively a system to deliver time and location-sensitive information to your phone’s notifications window automatically, such as traffic conditions for your commute home, weather and nearby restaurants. It’s an nice idea but I found it lacking in customisation, since it’s almost entirely automated rather than letting you adjust when certain notifications arrive. Eventually I just switched it off.


The Moto G is a great device all-round and almost indistinguishable in performance from a mid-range handset costing upwards of £100 more. It’s not without compromises, but clearly Motorola has taken pains to ensure these were done strategically: saving money in specialist areas, like the camera and case design, and putting it into improving the experience for a general user. It’s received rave reviews elsewhere and I think you can fairly predict that it’s going to be a game-changer in the budget mobile arena for 2014.