There is no point trying to play it cool when you’re stood on the set of the TARDIS. If you’ve got yourself there, then you have to give up on any pretence that you’re just a casual fan of Doctor Who. You’re just a 21 foot scarf and a floppy hat away from whatever label you want to apply to Doctor Who geeks. Well, actually, a bow tie and a fez away these days, and I have instantly shown my age by referring back to a time of jelly babies and toothy grins.
Last Saturday was 23rd November 2013, and you would really have been doing well to miss the fact that it was fifty years to the day since the first episode of Doctor Who was transmitted. We had already booked a trip to Cardiff to go to the Doctor Who exhibition as a birthday treat for Number One Son and his friend when an email popped up offering tours of the TARDIS set as well. Deciding to add this onto the weekend’s itinerary didn’t take long.
When I was young and living in Cardiff, Doctor Who was made in London and most of the filming was done either in the studios at Television Centre. If they were filming on location, they might stray as far as quarry of the week somewhere within driving distance of London. It was expensive to bring the production further away than that.
As far as I’m aware (and others will no doubt correct me), it only came to Wales three times during what we’re supposed to now call “Classic Who”: in the early 70s, for the Jon Pertwee story The Green Death, where a company pumping industrial waste into a mine leads to an infestation of giant, killer maggots; in the early 80s, where North Wales became the wastelands of Gallifrey for the 20th anniversary show The Five Doctors; and in the 90s, when Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor found himself fighting aliens that had decided to invade a 1950s holiday camp in a story called Flight of the Chimerons at the time, and later renamed Delta and the Bannermen.
For the last of these, I managed to find out where filming was taking place on the weekend. I was still in school, so couldn’t go during the week, and I was still too young to drive (just), so my parents drove my friend and me to a farmhouse somewhere outside Cardiff — private property, so we had to wait at the gate until producer John Nathan Turner took pity on us and let us stand somewhere closer to the action. A little too close to the action, as it happens: he stood us behind a bush that turned out to be right in shot and me and my bright red coat got shouted at by the director mid-take.
It was well after I left Cardiff and moved to England that Doctor Who was revived and production moved to Cardiff. Finding out about location filming is now somewhat easier than it used to be. One sighting of a police box in a field and there’ll be photos on Twitter within 10 minutes. There’s a Facebook page devoted to posting the latest news about filming locations, and people have now identified the signposts used by the crew to guide production vehicles to where the filming is. Where filming takes place in a public area like Trafalgar Square or the streets of Cardiff, they bring barriers to keep the crowds back.
Studio filming started off at the curiously named Upper Boat, but last year Doctor Who and Casualty both moved to the BBC’s new studios at Roath Lock in Cardiff Bay. The Torchwood hub is a ten minute walk away. More or less next door to the studio is the new, purpose-built home of the Doctor Who Experience.
So, last Saturday, a group of twenty of us met at the Experience and were each handed a somewhat pointless vistor’s badge on a lanyard (or in my case, just a lanyard with no badge!) and walked across to the studio. It’s a curious place. At one end, behind a ridiculously high wall, you can just make out the tops of a street set – building facades with green stained wood backs. The offices have strangely shaped windows. But you walk straight past this, past the entrance with the obligatory Dalek standing guard, to a turnstile at the far end of the building. One by one, you’re swiped through into the studio compound itself and the taken through another security gate to a walkway between the studios on your left and the offices and other functional rooms on the right – canteen, makeup, costumes, etc. They like to keep this area mysterious, so you’re not allowed to take photos until you get into the the studio itself, but if you watched The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, you’ll have seen this walkway. Wizards v Aliens, Russell T Davies’s current show, was filming in one of the studios. Keen not to be shouted at by another director, I kept quiet as we walked past.
The TARDIS set is a permanent set standing inside Studio 4, a large warehouse-type area with black walls and air conditioning. The thing is huge when seen from the outside, standing nine metres tall. It’s built around a steel frame, but from the outside all you see are large plywood panels – helpfully numbered in case someone ever tries to take it apart and re-assemble it. The rest of the studio was curtained off with a security guard posted just at the edge of the curtain, making sure that we didn’t wander out of the designated area. Against the back wall, you could just make out the top of the scaffold they use for wire work, but the rest of the area was probably more or less empty, waiting for filming to start on Series 8 in January.
There was a slightly odd assortment of chairs set in a circle where we sat and waited as we were divided into groups of eight and took turns to walk up the wooden steps to the police box entrance to the TARDIS. The doorway into the TARDIS set is a police box, and the edges of the doorway and the all of the floor are painted green with little crosses for green screen and motion tracking, so that they can film someone walking (The Snowmen) or even riding a motorcycle (The Day of the Doctor) from the outside world right into the TARDIS.
We took photos of the children outside the doors of the TARDIS and Becky asked if I wanted mine taken too. And that’s the point where I just had to admit that there was no point being cool about it: yes, I did want a photo in front of the TARDIS doors.
We walked through into the inside of the set itself. Most sets of its kind have a wall missing where the cameras and crew would be, but this one is complete. If you don’t stare too hard at the two exits with their wooden ramps leading back down to floor level, you’re fully immersed inside the TARDIS. Look up and you can see that the roof of the structure is material, letting light in and reducing some of the echo you might otherwise get. The material can also be pulled back for camera access.
Blue tape cordoning off half the console area and the watchful DWE staff member are the reminders that this is a live TV set – please do not touch, and for goodness sake, don’t break anything. And unlike the sets of the past, it looks and feels solid and stands up well to closer viewing. later in the afternoon, we saw the console used from The Five Doctors onwards in the Exhibition. In the old days, the TARDIS set was assembled as required for each filming block and then broken down and stored – and you could tell. It was obvious that the panels could be lifted out, and you wouldn’t want to lean too heavily on the console. Here, the floor was firm underfoot and the walls, should I have been allowed to lean against them, looked like they’d hold. That’s what the extra money buys. The last few seasons of Classic Who reportedly cost around £100,000 per episode. Ecclestone’s first season apparently cost closer to £1,000,000 per episode and the spend has probably increased since the move to HD.
There was some chat about what we were seeing, how long it had been here, how many watts of power it used up in full flight mode, how many miles of wiring went into it, but we were also given ample time to take photos and just gawp around. The very sensible warning as we were about to enter was to watch out for the step down just inside the doors — apparently, people tend to be too busy looking up and around to watch where their feet are.
But there were another three groups to be ushered through after us, so we slowly worked our way down the steps, looked at the underside of the console (where the Doctor finds his new outfit in The Bells of Saint John) and then out of one of the exits.
Outside, another staff member from DWE was keeping the other groups entertained as they waited their turn. Full credit to all the DWE staff we interacted with that day – they all knew their stuff. I’m not saying that the Experience is staffed by a collection of anoraks by any means, but they certainly weren’t going to get Bakers Tom and Colin mixed up and they knew their New Who very well. We were quizzed while we waited, and I won’t blow their cabaret act by revealing the question, but it was nicely pitched and I’ll admit that I struggled.
Fairly soon, it was time to retrace our steps, back through the turnstile and head back to the Doctor Who Exhibition itself.
So, was it the highlight of the weekend? For me, yes it was. It was an extremely Who-centric day, with the studio visit being followed by the Doctor Who Exhibition and a cinema trip to see Day of the Doctor, but this was something unique. I’m intrigued by TV and film production. I would have happily taken a tour of the Casualty set if it was offered. And this was also my first time inside a TV studio, not having joined my fellow Who fans on their trip to HTV Wales. But obviously, the fact that it was the Doctor Who set made it something special.
When we were checking out of the hotel the following day, the receptionist asked what we’d been up to in Cardiff.
“Are the kids Doctor Who fans then,” he asked.
“Well, sort of, yes.”
“…but you’re a bigger fan than they are, are you?”
Well that’s hardly a fair question, is it? I’ve had a lot more opportunity to be a fan than they have. I’ve watched every episode that’s been shown since 1977 more or less as it went out (okay, I watched Survival episode 4 a day late on VHS, and by the time New Who arrived, I had children and bath time clashed with Who time. But that’s what Series Record is for…) At 16, I was going to Doctor Who groups and conventions. Okay, full disclosure – I ran the local Doctor Who group and I helped organise a convention. I may have put my autograph book away, but it’s there somewhere. And I might not be able to recite the titles of all the Doctor Who stories in order any more, but there was certainly a time when I could.
Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll go order myself that 21 foot scarf.