For die-hard fans, the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay has become their Mecca, the place to go to for an interactive adventure and to check out the latest props (see our review here). But the real icing on the cake is surely a visit to the actual current TARDIS set itself.
The Doctor Who Experience has been offering the TARDIS Set Tour as an upgrade to the regular Experience ticket price on four different occasions since the summer of 2013. Timed to coincide with the show’s Summer or Christmas break, the tours take place during the set’s downtime, meaning that would-be time travellers can explore the interiors of the Doctor’s Type 40 Time Travel Capsule without crashing the current production.
Starting in the lobby of the Doctor Who Experience, 18-20 visitors are given a special lanyard (for keeping this time, previously it was a generic BBC security pass that had to be returned) before being walked the five minutes across the road to BBC’s Roath Lock Studios, through reception and into Studio 4. This journey has been immortalised in The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, though thankfully you don’t need to dodge the security cards that Messrs Davison, Baker and McCoy had to. Studio 4 is the home of the standing set of the TARDIS, which externally resembles a series of braced plain wooden panels, power cables and clamps.
The group is then divided into two – one half go over to look at the ‘floral’ TARDIS (we’ll go into detail shortly) and the other go straight to the TARDIS, split again into two smaller groups. While waiting for the TARDIS there’s photo opps with static Daleks, but once you’re called up to climb the wooden stairs to the TARDIS front doors there’s no turning back. The exterior doors certainly look familiar, albeit framed by green screens in readiness for CGI jiggery-pokery. This is a great opportunity for another photo op before entering the set proper and… wow!
What’s so thrilling about walking up to the main console is that there’s nothing to remind you that this isn’t real. The TARDIS is a full 360 degree set, with no obvious lighting (it’s diffused by gauze up top). It’s like you’re really on the ship – so authentic is this HD-friendly construction. The ambient TARDIS hum is played throughout to help complete the experience, though the rest of the set is on low power to conserve energy. And yes, it genuinely DOES look bigger on the inside, so expansive is its design.
For those who have previously been on the set, this time there’s no barrier to stop you getting right up against one side of the console, though you understandably still can’t go right round it or go upstairs. The set itself now boasts illuminated roundels and the eagle-eyed will spot the Doctor’s blackboards, Gallifreyan bookcases and guitar.
There’s no restriction to what you can film – video or photo – just don’t touch – after all, we don’t want our favourite set getting broken. Our guide was also on hand if you didn’t want to take a selfie and preferred a more posed photo. Then it’s a case of dropping down to to the lower level to inspect the underside of the console before leaving the set via the lower back exit. You spend around ten minutes in total on the set.
In previous set tours this was the end of the experience, but for those visiting in December 2015 there was the added bonus of taking a close look at (and photos of) the cage that held ‘that Raven’, Clara’s final costume and the Rigsy graffiti-daubed TARDIS – a work of art in itself. Finally, exhibition manager Brad Kelly dismantled a screen-used Dalek, showing how an operator wiggles the eye stalk, gun and plunger while perched on a plank seat.
For more information on TARDIS set tours visit the Doctor Who Exhibition website for availability. And if you’re too late to grab a slot this time round, subscribe to their email newsletter to be tipped off when they’re next scheduled.
Yes, of course I wanted longer on there; I also wanted to pull all the levers, see the rotors spinning and for all the lights to be on – but that wasn’t going to happen. Let’s instead be thankful for this privilege – how many other shows allow their fans inside their studio onto the principal standing set?
Verdict: For Doctor Who fans, the TARDIS set tour is the real deal. It doesn’t shatter your illusions, it actually gives the ultimate experience. I cannot express the sheer joy showing on the face of a fan in full 10th Doctor cosplay costume (his mobile phone had the ringtone of a TARDIS dematerialising – what else?) If you get the chance, to step aboard, don’t miss it. 9/10