Who One of the remarkable results of the recently announced new series of Doctor Who is that the original series, all twenty-six years is open for rediscovery by lapsed believers. I'm not sure if the ratings of the ongoing reruns on UKtv Gold have shot up, but within days of the press release, video tapes of old stories disappeared off the shelves of Virgin and HMV and DVD sales shot up. It's almost as though the interested are trying to reignite a shared heritage, parents preparing their kids for the time when they can sit down with them on a Saturday for the appearance of a TARDIS and the growl of a monster much as their parents did with them all those years ago. I keep wanting to make a comparison with the film Field of Dreams about how even though fathers and sons can never communicate there is always baseball to fall back on as a topic. For some people the English equivalent is football; for a pocket of us it was Doctor Who.
Stories still permiate of how the baseball diamond manufactured for that film has now become a place of pilgrimage for people who want to remember the glory days -- for parents to show their kids what it used to be like before sponsorship and high wages took hold -- in effect, the film itself has drifted into reality. They've built it and people come. Extraordinarily for years similar places have existed for fans of the Timelord's adventures. The Doctor Who exhibitions which have opened and closed over the years, collecting together props and merchandise from the series have been a place for people to go and experience their favourite programme. For fans they're even an integral part of their childhood. Even as Tom Baker's moment was prepared for, my parents took me around the place in Blackpool -- through the mock TARDIS doors into a blackness populated by Zygons, Sea Devils and Daleks. I only have vague images of my time there -- giant displays filled with monsters that could come alive. I must have been during the closing moments of its life because it closed its doors in October 1985.
But other exhibitions sprang up. I never visited Longleat -- I dreamed of the giant maze though. For fans the name conjours a moment when the show's popularity peaked and during Easter weekend of 1983 and it was their equivalent of Woodstock as sixty thousand people turned up at the stately homes to meet the living Doctors and companions and see the props - again a similar collective experience to a baseball game and no doubt talked about with the same misty eyes as someone might about the New York Yankees winning the Superbowl. A permanent exhibition stayed there for many years, fighting through even when a fire threatened to destroy all the props and sets held there (it did some damage - the original K9 model - the electrics for which were the cause of the blaze -- was reduced to cinders). It closed in October 2003.
The other exhibition was at Llangollen. It feels right that these things seemed to spring up in random parts of the world, much like the police box. This was attached to the Dapol factory who had the license to make Doctor Who figures and models. I visited here not all that long ago, at the turn of the millennium - one of those lapsed fans. Something about submerging myself in a past pastime and the excitement of the man in the shop telling a new series was being written (which I assume now to be the Big Finish cd plays) led me back to fandom and the sleepless nights I've had trying to rationalize UNIT dating (don't ask - the offside rule has nothing on this soccer fans). It too closed in 2003.
Ironically, all of these places where fans could relive their childhood went at a time when celebrations were happening elsewhere. As well as the Fortieth Anniversary, as The Doctor himself promised on more than one occasion he was coming back. Just when interest was at its highest in years, other than their living rooms to watch old episodes, people had nowhere to go. So its odd in fact that things should travel full circle and something new has opened in Blackpool. The Doctor Who Experience on the Golden Mile brings together the meat of Longleat and Llangollen into a new show which recreates some of the spirit of the past but with brand new displays.
It would be very hard for any fan, childhood or otherwise, not to catch their breath as they step through the new TARDIS themed doorway into the massive first room with a console directly in the middle (especially with the theme tune playing in the background). It's extra-ordinarily detailed - rather than a recreation of a prop its something new - all dials and computer readouts, things flashing across the panels, the time rotor bobbing up and down in the centre. I tried to imagine how a child might consider it - would the lights confuse them or would they want to know what everything does?
The exhibition doesn't particularly tell the story of the making of the series. Although there is a sixties-styled living room in the doorway with a family watching the opening moments of the very first episode (with one of the children - yes - hiding behind the sofa) there isn't a sense of progression. The items themselves don't appear in chronological order. There's a perfectly valid reason for this - sixties props are very hard to come by. As far as I can tell anything which didn't end up in a skip is in private hands. This is a collection of what the BBC had left when the vultures had gone. Not enough to describe the passage of time for the series but what is here is deeply impressive and will still makes you want to run from display cabinet to display cabinet to see what is here.
The layout instead takes the form of a kind of linear maze (a similar format to Llangollen actually) as the costumes and props generally appear in situ, recreations of moments from the show or possible scenes. The approach is similar to the diarramas you might catch at a Natural History Museum and it feels quite apt, alien worlds appearing before your eyes. Some appear in darkness, a surprise lurking at the flick of a switch, light illuminating the sudden appearance of the Magus or The Candyman. All of The Doctor's costumes are here too (except for McGann). Its just simple amazing seeing everything in the flesh (or fibre glass) and imagining the days of films, the long days but also the fun being had. My favourite is probably still K9. It still embodies what the tv series was all about at that time -- it was -- y'know for kids.
A lot of love is obviously on display here and in some ways it seems wrong to find fault, especially since these are early days and it's no doubt going to develop in time for the new series. So instead I'll offer suggestions. There needs to be a coherent policy on signage. Many of the displays appear without any explanation as to what's there (which is a good guessing game for fans I suppose) and others have an A4 sheet of paper with the mid-nineties merchandising logo and a short description of the story being considered. What would be nice is something which gives pertinant story information initially then goes into some depth as to how the piece was constructed. Enough work has been done by series archivist Andrew Pixley for this to be available - perhaps he could be contacted to put something together.
Also, the lighting. The exhibition is awash with disco flashing effects and some displays are incredibly dark. This is obviously an attempt to hide the shortcomings of many of the props (either in terms of construction or age) but in isolated cases it does render them incredibly difficult to see. I remember the Llangollen show having static lighting and it proved to be incredibly effective. I suppose both issues are a reflection of the target audience falling between the casual viewers who want to see A Dalek or A Cyberman and those of us who know the behind the scenes stories and want to see the products themselves.
But these are just niggles. Its just great that in the dawn of the new era we again have somewhere we can go and like that baseball diamond a place we can take our own children to show them a major part of our own childhood, both the series and the exhibitions we excitedly visited with Dad. Yes, there is always the possibility that their media savvy little eyes will look at a Silurian and decide that it's 'a bit crap' and not scary at all. But in the end, actually is it really about them? Give it a year, a decent new series and they'll be as starstruck as you were at their age.
[A more extensive history and visitor information about this new exhibition can be found at The Doctor Who Exhibitions website.]