At 5pm on Saturday 9th September 2017 the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff closed it’s doors for good. Time has finally run out for the popular attraction. We look back on the Experience’s five year stint in Cardiff Bay.
Exhibitions of Doctor Who costumes and props date back to the 1970’s. Prior to that, artefacts from the show appeared at events such as the Boys and Girls Exhibitions of 1964/5 and 1967/8. Since the first Doctor Who Exhibition at the Science Museum over the winter of 1972 into 1973 further attractions were showcased in Middlesbrough, at Madame Tussaud’s and the Museum of the Moving Image. Even during the 1990’s the North Wales town of Llangollen hosted an exhibition. Amusingly that was also called the Doctor Who Experience. The two major exhibitions will always remain those at Longleat and Blackpool. For 30 years a Doctor Who Exhibition was held at Longleat House and Safari Park, making it the longest running exhibition. The seaside town of Blackpool also hosted not one but two exhibitions.
The triumphant return of Doctor Who to television screens triggered a series of Up Close exhibitions. Cardiff, the new home of the show’s production, hosted an exhibition in the Red Dragon Centre in Cardiff Bay from December 2005. Other attractions also popped up in Brighton, Manchester, Coventry, Leicester, Glasgow and Newcastle. Earls Court in London also hosted a precursor to what would become the Doctor Who Experience. These exhibitions were wrapped up in 2010 in preparation for a new attraction. In 2011 the Doctor Who Experience opened at Olympia in London. The centrepiece of the attraction was a special interactive adventure. This featured Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith and was written by Steven Moffat. For the first time fans could become immersed in an adventure and even fly the TARDIS.
After a year in Olympia the attraction was relocated to a new building constructed in Cardiff Bay. The new building proved problematic early on as the structure accentuated the heat of the summer months and was difficult to heat during the winter. However it was strategically positioned a short distance from the Roath Lock studios where the show is produced. This allowed the attraction to provide location walking tours and TARDIS studio tours. The chance to step aboard Matt Smith’s, and later Peter Capaldi’s, TARDIS console sets was an opportunity not to be missed. This was of course subject to the filming schedule but rarely are the general public able to visit an actual working studio. Close proximity to the studios and production office enabled the attraction to showcase the very latest artefacts direct from the show.
Over five years the Doctor Who Experience has brought fans to within touching distance of some of the very latest creations. From Snowmen, Skaldak the Ice Warrior and the Oswin Dalek through to ‘The Day of the Doctor’ displays, right up to costumes worn by Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, all made their exhibition debuts in Cardiff. Items from the classic era of the show were also showcased. Some classic monsters were also restored for display in the exhibition. These exhibits attracted fans from all over the world to visit Cardiff. Oddly, although located a short walk from the Torchwood Tower, the Experience didn’t acknowledge the popular spinoff show for over four years. Closing the Experience will also be a blow to the tourist industry in Cardiff. Equally sad is the fact that staff members will shortly be made unemployed.
The Peter Capaldi Era
In 2014 the Experience received a major revamp. The dated Matt Smith led adventure, centred on the Pandorica, had moved from Olympia to Cardiff. Four years on, a change was long overdue. Peter Capaldi took centre stage in the new adventure but the same problems resurfaced. The second room for instance featured a set-piece which had been seen in 2013’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’. After several years that reference again felt dated. Similarly, the harsh and stern Twelfth Doctor of Peter Capaldi’s debut season disappeared the following year. Although well-intentioned, the walkthrough adventure became dated as well, accentuated not least by Peter Capaldi’s haircut!
Unfortunately the Experience had to endure 2016 when there was no televised series of the show. A whole year between Christmas Specials and the show slipping from the public’s attention could not have helped with attendance figures. The Champions League Final and a new series will surely have also boosted visitor numbers this year. With the excitement surrounding Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the Thirteenth Doctor, the timing of the closure is particularly disappointing. However it does offer a representation of an era coming to an end. Change is in the air and the Doctor Who Experience would’ve been no exception. But has it been a succesful enterprise?
Success or Failure?
One of the major positives of the Doctor Who Experience has been the restoration of classic monsters. Thanks to the Restoration Project and the work of Mike Tucker’s team at The Model Unit, a Yeti, the Morbius monster, Mandrell, Omega, Tetrap, Zygon and two versions of Davros have all been given a new lease of life. These joined Varga the Ice Warrior, Linx the Sontaran and the K1 Robot, all of which were prepared for the Experience’s opening in Olympia. These monsters had appeared at previous Doctor Who exhibitions. Now thanks to the restorations these artefacts have never looked better. Unfortunately, the attraction also highlighted the desperately poor condition that other monsters such as a Silurian, Tractator and Vervoid have been reduced too. Astonishingly they remained on display in the exhibition, highlighting the fact that they were to remain in that state for the foreseeable future.
The closure of the Doctor Who Experience also highlights the way that the show has slipped away from the attention of the general public. Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars brand triggered a landslide of merchandise. Star Wars is everywhere. Doctor Who has however fallen a long way behind in the merchandising stakes since the peak popularity between 2006 and 2008. Perhaps this has contributed to only one product launch at the Experience; the Doctor Who range of Mr. Men books. Other products such as the popular Big Finish audios had the potential for similar events. Sadly only Sixth Doctor Colin Baker made an advertised appearance for a Q&A and Signing. Other actors to play The Doctor have visited the attraction but none have been for organised public events. Monster Days drew in the fans, particularly over Halloween, but did they fully capatilise on their potential?
Cementing their place in Doctor Who history in 2012 Matt Smith and Steven Moffat visited the Experience on a day that the building was actually closed to the public. Although the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff frequently featured live monsters, other events were few and far between. In October 2016 their website proclaimed an event celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Cybermen:
Later in the autumn the Doctor Who Experience will be celebrating 50 years of the Doctor’s most challenging adversary, the Cybermen with a special 50th event – more details coming soon!
This never materialised. When the Cybermen did invade it wasn’t until July 2017 to mark the return of the Mondasian Cybermen. The shop at the Experience in Cardiff was the ONLY official Doctor Who shop in the UK. Despite this it failed to become the go-to destination for merchandise. For example, in 2012 the shop stocked an exclusive Rory Williams action figure (in grey shirt with black gilet). Unfortunately the item was also available online at BBC Shop, with free delivery, reducing the need for people to visit the attraction to purchase the figure. With few events, dwindling merchandise and a general public blasé to the show, the last few years must have been tough for the Experience. In this context perhaps the end should not have come as a surprise.
No information has been provided regarding any new attractions, throwing the future of assets held within the Experience into doubt. Items from the Blackpool exhibition were sold off prior to the Experience opening in London Olympia. Might we expect a similar fire sale? Rumours continue to circulate about another location in Cardiff, Wales, London or possibly even Manchester. Right now the silence is deafening.