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

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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.

Doctor Who – Series 7B Review

In the mid-Eighties, when the popularity of Doctor Who was waning and the show was awkwardly spluttering towards its eventual cancellation, new script editor Andrew Cartmel put together a plan to restore life to the show and mystery to the titular character: the eponymous Cartmel Masterplan. Whilst hints were dropped towards it, the “indefinite” hiatus of Who in 1989 meant that it was never fully realised on-screen.

The revival of the show in 2005 meant that they could start again, with references to an unseen war and a main character radically altered from the cravat-sporting fopp who’d last graced our screens. However, with ever-more candid references to the Time War, this enigma has also been gradually unwrapped to the point of becoming stale and the conclusion of Doctor Who’s seventh series seems to be the beginning of a shake-up. However, before we discuss that let’s look at the series as a whole.

the new tardis
I can’t help it, I bloody love this new TARDIS console!

The previous series saw Smith’s portrayal of the titular Doctor solidify, but it’s only now that the Ponds have been jettisoned that the differences between the Eleventh Doctor and his predecessor come into focus. This is probably helped by the gorgeous new look TARDIS console and the wider variations in what this Doctor wears (anchored by the bow-tie, naturally), but the latter half of this series definitely felt the most like Smith had finally become comfortable in the role. Hopefully, he will stick around for a long time to come so that this incarnation can gain the distinctness that Troughton, Baker (the bescarfed one) and Tennant enjoyed before him.

Though Moffat is often criticised for his cookie-cutter approach to writing female characters, the modern show has always established that a certain “type” of person is suitable for The Doctor to choose them as a companion. This leads to the erroneous claim that each companion is simply a rehash of the same character with a different backstory, but I think this is given the lie in the contrast between Amy and Clara. Whereas Amy wanted to constantly run away from her boring Leadworth life, leaving with the Doctor so quickly she didn’t even bother to get dressed and put off dealing with the consequences until her experiences with the Doctor gave her new focus and enabled her to get over the Raggedy Man and mature. Clara, on the other hand, is torn between her desire to travel (as seen in her book with her age crossed out) and the need to cling on to the memory of her mother, holding on to the leaf and inhabiting a maternal role as a nanny to similarly bereaved children. The fact that she doesn’t live in the TARDIS indicates that travelling with The Doctor allows her to fulfill both needs – going on adventures and back in time for tea.

clara's leaf
Page One

‘Asylum of the Daleks’ notwithstanding, the story arcs over the course of series seven can be nicely compartmentalised into their two parts: the long goodbye to the Ponds for the former half and the mystery of Clara for the latter. As in the Russell T Davies era, the story arc for the series is back to being a background feature of the run, bookended by its introduction at the start of the series and its payoff at the end. Personally, I liked that The Doctor didn’t spend all eight episodes constantly obsessing over Clara’s identity, but you could see it was on his mind enough to influence his choice of locations (such as seeking out the clairvoyant Emma Grayling in ‘Hide’) and never seemed entirely forgotten. The payoff was clever but not exactly hard to figure out, though I definitely didn’t think they’d have the stones to integrate JLC into archive footage in the way they did. Kudos to them on a brave but worthwhile (if somewhat ropey) attempt.

I suggested in my speculation on what would be seen in the anniversary special that it was unlikely we’d get full appearances from past Doctors and some form of trickery would be use to reference them. The finale of series seven has met the fan service obligation of showing past Doctors, and now the event itself is a little more free to call-back to the show’s history as part of its story, rather than for its own sake. Having seen John Hurt in set photos, it appears that the ending of the series is setting the stage for the anniversary special and I suspect that, rather than simply reference the show’s past, Moffat will use this episode to reveal hitherto unseen parts of the Doctor’s history. Other than the fact that he is (in some manner) The Doctor, the real identity of Hurt’s character in the pantheon remains to be seen.

time war book
So that’s Who…

I doubt it will be as clear-cut as Hurt is playing the true but disowned Ninth Doctor, shifting everyone after him down the line, as this will affect a lot of established continuity and Moffat even had Clara affirm Smith’s status as the Eleventh Doctor before the reveal. My prediction is that he’ll be some intermediate form between Eight and Nine – artificially forced into partially-regenerating by the Time Lords and manipulated into fighting a genocidal Time War, against his own nature – “without choice”. The Doctor has freely admitted his actions in ending the Time War already, so perhaps this incarnation broke free of the control of the corrupted Time Lords and ended it – “in the name of peace and sanity” – likely causing the completion of his regeneration. In doing so, he reclaimed the mantle of The Doctor and renewed his promise to help people. In all likelihood, this will come to be mere fanon when the truth comes out in November but I like the idea all the same.

When Cartmel conceived of his plan to renew the mystery around The Doctor, he aimed to retcon large parts of established canon by revealing that The Doctor was actually the reincarnation of one of the founding figures of Time Lord society. The Moffat Masterplan (as I’m calling it) seems to be doing much the same: overturning seemingly entrenched continuity to reveal more about the character, but deepening the mystery by the nature of what we learn and its implications. Of course, it won’t affect the overall premise of the show or the nature of the series going forward, but it will add new depth to the character and reinvigorate the mythos.

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Speculationings

Though my self-imposed blogging exile is still in effect whilst I finish my dissertation and prepare for exams, I thought I’d air my thoughts on recent news surrounding Doctor Who since it’s a topic I know so intrinsically that this will require precious little additional research. This may also be a good place to mention that there are spoilers ahead, so if you’re avoiding hearing about the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special then go away. This will also be a heavily speculative blog that may require detailed knowledge of NuWho continuity, I’ll explain where possible but be prepared.

The Eleven Doctors

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