By Andrea Agardy
As a lifelong Anglophile (lover of all things British), when the opportunity to take a vacation to England presented itself earlier this year, I jumped at the chance, thinking that nothing could be more exciting than strolling the streets of London at Christmastime.
But that was before I realized that in only a few hours’ drive I could be standing in Nerdvana, known to the rest of the world as the Doctor Who Experience.
In the interest of full disclosure, I state what will likely become very obvious in a few paragraphs, if it hasn’t already.
I am a gigantic sci-fi dork (with the notable – and some might say disqualifying – exceptions of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.”)
Can’t get enough of them.
––Sentient computers plotting their domination of the human race?
And don’t get me started on zombies. But standing above them all is The Doctor.
Here’s a little background for the uninitiated. This gets a little complicated – or as The Doctor would say, “wibbly wobbly timey wimey” – so bear with me…
The show chronicles the cross-time and cross-space adventures of The Doctor, the last of a humanoid race of aliens known as the Time Lords, originally from the planet Gallifrey. The Doctor – whose full name remains a mystery after 790 episodes – travels through the universe and history in his TARDIS, an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. This combination spaceship and time machine – which is famously “bigger on the inside” – has resembled a blue 1960s-era London police box throughout the show’s history, thanks to a faulty chameleon circuit intended to blend the TARDIS in with its surroundings. The Doctor, usually with a companion by his side, hopscotches across the universe and history righting wrongs and saving worlds.
Although Doctor Who enjoyed something of a cult following among Americans for decades, the TARDIS made its real splash on our shores several years ago, when BBC America decided to make the show its flagship program, drawing in record ratings. “Doctor Who: The Snowmen” a special holiday-themed episode that aired on Christmas Day drew a record 1.434 viewers in the U.S., up 54 percent from the previous year’s Christmas Special.
While The Doctor’s arrival in the U.S. is a relatively new phenomenon, the BBC-produced series is an institution across the pond. In honor of the show’s 50th anniversary this year, the Royal Mail Service is producing a series of commemorative stamps in honor of the occasion, featuring all 11 actors who have portrayed the Time Lord along with other characters from the show.
Originally opened in London last February, the Doctor Who Experience now has a permanent home at Porth Teigr, Cardiff Bay in Wales, a stone’s throw from BBC Wales Studios, where many of the episodes are shot.
Visitors are immersed in the world of The Doctor immediately upon entering the building. Scattered throughout the lobby are exhibits of Doctor-related artifacts, past and present, including several Daleks (an iconic villain from the show), a display of River Song’s pumps and journal, and a recreation of the TARDIS console built entirely from Legos.
The facility’s staff leads visitors through in groups for an interactive experience in which Matt Smith, the actor currently portraying the Doctor, needs help eluding his enemies. As guests walk from room to room, Smith – in proper Doctor mode – pops up video screens cleverly integrated into the authentic-looking sets with explanations, words of advice and a classic Doctor-ism or two.
To be honest, the “experience” is a little cheesy from an adult’s perspective and there isn’t exactly a strong narrative through line here. But the children who were a part of my group were riveted and loving every second of it. Plus, I got to stand inside a recreation of the TARDIS interior and help fly it, and for a nerd like me, that alone is worth the price of admission.
After successfully helping the Doctor evade the Cybermen, Daleks and Weeping Angels, the experience part of the event ends, and visitors are led into the museum. Here is where any true Whovian finds bliss. Spread over two floors is a vast collection of Who memorabilia, including the costumes worn by each of the 11 Doctors; several iterations of the TARDIS and its interior; iconic set pieces; and a gallery of villains, companions and aliens the Doctor has encountered in his travels.
And what tourist attraction would be complete without a gift shop? Among the offerings here are the standard T-shirts, poster and action figures, along with Who-centric items like a TARDIS-shaped teapot that I would have loved to have brought home if I could have fit it in my suitcase.
While some would argue that Doctor Who is a children’s show, I contend that it is the very definition of family-friendly entertainment. The Doctor abhors violence and goes out of his way to solve conflict without it. The show particularly under current showrunner, Steven Moffat, is clever without being cocky.
I think late-night talk show host and fellow Whovian Craig Ferguson summed up the show perfectly when he began his show one night with a production number featuring the famous Doctor Who theme. In the lyrics written specifically for the number, Ferguson sings, “It’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”
Nerd or not, who can’t get on board with that?
For more information on Doctor Who, log on to www.bbcamerica.com/doctor-who. All the details on the Doctor Who Experience can be found online at www.doctorwhoexperience.com.
Andrea Agardy can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.