Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder – Article review by Jamie H. Cowan. Article photography by James Amey & Jamie H. Cowan.
Prelude of the Museum
You know, when my brain thinks of Doctor Who and museums – there’s an instant sense of connection. The Pandorica Opens, The Time of Angels, City of Death, The Space Museum… Hang on, all of those nearly result in temporal disaster for the Doctor! Thankfully, Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder is a solid success for the Doctor.
Trundling along on a Sunday afternoon (the 15th of January, if one really wishes to keep track!), there was a nice buzz in finding myself walking up the steps into the National Museum of Scotland – and finding myself staring at a Dalek on display. See! It’s like The Space Museum! Thankfully, it did not decide to follow-up with a chase as I made my way up another floor.
And there, on the second floor of the NMS is the exhibition. Firstly, you’re greeted by a little shop (love a little shop!) and a nice new addition for the Worlds of Wonder in its Scottish run.
A Separate Sixtieth Surprise
The outfits of the Fourteenth Doctor and Donna Noble, from the 60th anniversary specials! Fresh from their surprise appearance at MCM London at the end of October… they’ve since come to reside here on display just outside the rest of the exhibit.
Admittedly, it does feel like a bit of an odd placement for them, for reasons I’ll get to in a while. But – oh, what a wonderful treat to have them there at all! Not since the days of the Doctor Who Experience have I had the joy of being up close to a current Doctor’s actual outfit. Speaking of, the WoW exhibition very much has a spiritual connection to the sadly-long-gone Experience. Immersive exhibition designers, Sarner International, were responsible for that previous creation… and are back at play once more here.(Sarner were also responsible for Madame Tussaud’s immersive Doctor Who zone as well!)
Entering the TARDIS
When setting off on a scientific adventure into the universes of Doctor Who, there is only one place for the exhibition to start. Having you rather wonderfully walk past a sea of quotes (from the Doctor & from notable scientific figures like Albert Einstein), and through the TARDIS doors.
Immediately, you’re brought to the very first TARDIS console. A very nice way to lead into a “World of Discovery”, as the nearby signage puts it. Kept in amazing condition since it was used to film An Adventure in Space and Time a decade ago*, it really is a wonderful thing to see in-person as a Whovian. You could probably spend some amount of time, taking in all the little details of the controls. I certainly found it very nice to spot their recreation of the ‘Fast Return switch’ from Inside The Spaceship (known to some as The Edge of Destruction).
[*and reused since in Twice Upon A Time and Fugitive of the Judoon, as the exhibition politely notes – albeit painted white in those. It has since been restored to its AAiSaT green, just as the original would’ve been in studio when making the show.]
A Different World…
The walls of the exhibition room are decorated with the cog-like hexagons of the Thirteenth Doctor’s TARDIS. Essentially, the clear idea is to give you a sense that you are indeed within the TARDIS. A nearby looping projector displays a video introduction to the exhibition from Mark Gatiss, as you explore some details about the beginnings of Doctor Who and how it has tied to scientific inspiration. It’s a real treat for Worlds of Wonder to have him involved – he’s a compelling presenter as always.
Behind-the-scenes details like the development of the various ‘NuWho’ console rooms & the set plans for the An Adventure in Space and Time… Carefully blend with mentions of key production figures like Kit Pedler and Christopher H. Bidmead, who keenly pioneered scripts for the show that delved right into then-current scientific thinking.
It is admittedly a little bit of a shame that Verity Lambert & Sydney Newman are given not too much more than a paragraph each, when it must be said that the two were distinctly important in starting off that scientific educational lean. And no mention to be found of David Whitaker – the first script editor – who helped make the Daleks and their world of Skaro such a distinct scientific mulling… But I suppose, it is hard to give all this a great deal of space as background set-up. At any rate, it’s something to open up any fan’s curiosity.
Familiar Faces Within Worlds of Wonder
Coming past this nice set-up for the rest of the exhibition, you’re greeted by a montage wall of the ‘TV mainline’ Doctor incarnations. Doctors One to Thirteen are given their due – as are John Hurt’s War Doctor & Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor.(who we love seeing in any form!) It’s a nice re-cap for those who know, and a great insight for those less familiar with the wide scope of the Doctor. Again, furthering that idea of going back to the beginning and starting out from there.
Regeneration is certainly a solid concept to unwrap as a starter for the discussions of the science of Doctor Who. But – and I concede it is a holdover from when the exhibition was in Liverpool through the summer of last year – there’s an absence.
Though Ncuti Gatwa has yet to make his debut as the Fifteenth Doctor, the absence of acknowledgement for the Fourteenth here feels a little surprising. Given the timing of the exhibition opening in Edinburgh, after all. I think perhaps there is a bit of a missed trick here – to not put his costume inside the exhibition alongside these previous selves.
Nevertheless, it is as I say a nice recap… and there is one costume treat to be had here. David Bradley’s costume for portraying the First Doctor (in AAiSaT, Twice Upon A Time and the now-gone Time Fracture experience) stands watch over these faces. A nice reminder of the past, that again allows for that discussion of regeneration.
The Technology of the Doctor
Next, as you head further into this TARDIS of an exhibition… is a section dubbed the ‘TARDIS Tech Room’. And this is where Worlds of Wonder really gets into high-gear. Details about the Chameleon Circuit are printed on the wall, alongside explanation of the real-life technology equivalent: stealth camouflage.
Then, to hammer the point a little more clearly, there is a more kid-friendly interactive ‘hide and seek’ item on the wall. Something that showcases biological examples of camouflage in the world. And it does it seamlessly and effectively.
And that’s where Worlds of Wonder excels. Concept introduction, observed real-life similarities, and interactive demonstration to fully convey that.
A cabinet of sonic devices from the show makes set-up for the challenges of real-life sonic technology. You get to enjoy the fantastic and rare opportunity of seeing those props up close… Whilst also coming away with a new-found appreciation of the real-life science Doctor Who treads into. (Even if it is a little sad to hear as a fan that – no, sonic umbrellas are not yet a reality. Drat.)
This follows up nicely with many more props from the show. Specifically, robots. The Skovox Blitzer, one of the K-9s*, Handles, a VOC Robot. All amazing sights to come and visit. These all get tied into thoughts on artificial intelligence, automated drones & other related concepts.
Kamelion – though absent as a prop – gets a special detailed mention of its production history… A clear and poignant example of Doctor Who‘s bold forays into scientific fact. (What other show in the 1980s had a fully programmable robot in its cast?) Again, it’s really snappy. And a real highlight of the exhibition… Going through this section with a friend or two – Whovian or not – is a nice thing. There’s a lot to take in and to discuss.*
[*cheekily, the description for him alludes to the Australian K-9 spin-off TV show but doesn’t directly mention it.] [**admittedly, I’m not sure James particularly liked my idea that I would like Kamelion to help do my editorial work…]
The ‘Cosmic Curiosities’ section deepens the scientific coverage. Teleportation and pocket universes are covered in a fascinating combination of props. Time travel gets a special explainer video, courtesy of one of the exhibition’s special experts. I must admit that I do struggle with science a little, but Professor Clifford Johnson really boiled down the possibilities and challenges of real-life time travel very well. Even if I do still need to go away and figure out exactly what a closed timelike loop is.
Lore-wise, the complexities of Omega are far more than the description allows, particularly since The Timeless Children(or Remembrance of the Daleks, depending on your persuasion)… But the inclusion of the Arc of Infinity costume is nonetheless a very nice piece to see up close. And it segues nicely into a bit of discussion on the scientific theories of black holes – courtesy of Prof. Johnson again. A lovely ten-minute chunk of explanation.
There was also a Moog ring-modulator for a fun little interactive ‘sound like a Dalek’ segment… but alas, on the day of visiting – it was out of order.(Then again, I suppose it did spare a room of people from what would’ve been a very committed Dalek voice.) Despite that, there is a funny little joke Warning note attached to that one.
Costumes, Models & Masks Galore At Worlds of Wonder
I mean, I could go on for ages here… but an array of spacesuits from ‘NuWho’ are beautifully presented & linked to a segment on the challenges of survival in space. This is flanked by an equally impressive section on the Visual & Practical Effects of Doctor Who. A video screen allows you to watch one of multiple interviews on the subject with people involved in the show, including Mat Irvine.
There are some thoroughly genius inclusions. GADGET and The Nosferatu being two particularly fond ones to me. And the model of Thin Ice Twelfth Doctor in his diving suit… equal parts hilarious & impressively detailed.
I mean, what greater delight is there to be had than seeing the actual TARDIS? I’ll spare you Logopolis-themed jokes about recursion here; given, you know, the whole ‘exhibition is inside the TARDIS thing because… I cannot express how fun this was!
It’s hard to tell exactly which of the TARDIS box props this is, but – it is so nice to be able to see it up close… to appreciate the detail of the prop, to feel that giddy joy of standing staring at it… And yeah, getting a photo with it was a given.
Nearby, there’s also a Cabinet of Curiosities – but I won’t spoil the curious surprising contents of that!
A personal highlight was a display regarding the nature of environmental impact & considerations, largely presented through an interactive touch-display. Allowing you to go through sections of Doctor Who history… and seeing how various stories throughout its 60 year history had tackled such topics. The Green Death, The Sun Makers and Praxeus are just a few of the many stories it covers. And not just that side of things. Other topics like epidemics get their coverage spots in that, too.
The Monster Vault
The big highlight for many will be ‘The Monster Vault’. A great display of creature creations from across the shows’ history. More wonderful scientific and production information than you could shake a stick at! Oh, and there’s a half-front Dalek you can step inside & control a little bit.(Okay, the exhibition was not spared my Dalek voice in the end – as I did it anyway whilst pretending to exterminate a passerby.) That’s sure to be a real treat for the young fans in particular!
Davros and a The Dead Planet/The Daleks Dalek*… iterations of Cybermen heads… Comparisons of the show’s monsters to characteristic of real-world animals. It’s a biology lesson, a costume dept. showcase & a production history beginner’s course – all in one! Utterly wonderful!
[*I would like to note that the exhibition agrees with me that the story should be called The Dead Planet…]
Keeping It Fresh
It’s also rather up-to-date as a display of monsters, with Series 12 getting representation with a Dreg and Series 13’s main episodes (Flux) sneaking a Sontaran Warrior & Karvanista’s armour in. Even the Series 13 Specials get a look-in with a Sea Devil from Legend of the Sea Devils. Can I just say – their swords are really detailed and nice to see in-person? Wonderful job, costume department!
The only slight oddity is a mirror billed as Daughter of Mine. Maybe it works better for the kids, or it’s just not my humour… but it felt like a rare item out-of-place. No sort of scientific tie and not much to be said about it. There’s a interactive Cybermat that feels a little more homely to me, though!
A real sense of detail and care comes into play with a lot of this. The exhibits are careful not to overstate what’s present in real-life thus far, and one about The Teller is by-the-book responsible enough to note that telepathy does not yet have any scientific basis.
The Lab Of Thoughts
The exhibition wraps up with ‘Welcome To The Lab’ – a section that gets a bit more involved on pondering the scientific questions raised by the exhibits. Discussions on automation (Kerblam Men), cloning (the Drahvins), DNA, and AI. (the Vardy and Tigmi)
Even the monstrous patchwork form of the saved Morbius opens up for a factoid about the potential feasibility of head transplants, would you believe it? Fascinating stuff.(And oh, what a character… About time someone brought Morbius back, I’d say!) There’s a 15-minutes presentation led by Kevin Fong OBE that, among other topics, intriguingly plays a counterpoint to the Cyberman: noting positive bio-tech implementations in the real world. Particularly those surrounding heart & kidney issues.
As you’d expect, this also tackles the biological topic of sequential hermaphroditic beings. Or beings that change sex, to put it more simply. Real-world marine life get fascinating discussions about this (as does the number of hearts they have!), and the Kastrians even get a mention. Regeneration and changing sex in a species? Yup, even Eldrad was there back in the 1970s!
It then all wraps up with one final sweet compilation of the exhibit contributors’ memories of Doctor Who and how it inspired them in their scientific dreams & pursuits. (Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock’s recollections of working on one of the Doctor Who Confidential episodes for Series 5 may make me feel slightly old – but equally it’s a heartwarming story.) Mark Gatiss’ guidance leads us out of this final section, pretty well contented.
Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder – Pros
- A really interesting blend of production history and scientific fact.
- Wonderfully compelling interviews, experts and presenters that make the long-form video content work brilliantly.
- THE TARDIS! THE ACTUAL TARDIS!
- The robust coverage of Doctor Who history – that more than proves that the show has always been at the frontier of scientific thinking & environmentally and ecologically thematic stories.
- The contributor memories – okay, it’s an emotional end-cap in my eyes.
- Silliest of things, but there’s a nice little ‘Easter-egg’ reference to George Litefoot… I mean, I’m probably the first person to have looked hard enough to find this close to the floor on this wall, but it’s cheeky fun!
Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder – Cons
- Lambert, Newman & Whitaker – it’s just a bit sad to me that these three don’t get a little bit more coverage in there. Lambert pushed the development of stories like The Dead Planet. Whitaker helped develop them and tried to keep them within the confines of expected scientific fact. And a lot of that educational remit came out of Newman’s thoughts about science fiction as a power for education.
- The Machine That Goes Ding – it’s the only prop that feels overly out-of-place. As a joke in The Day of the Doctor that jumps away from scientific explanation or clear sense of operation… It just doesn’t really fit in the ‘Tech Room’ section. The description text for it, as a result, understandably struggles to link it to any scientific concepts.
- The talking Lady Cassandra – interesting as it is to hear Zoe Wanamaker back in the role… it felt a touch less engaging to me. I get the intent. For opening up something about human beauty surgeries and an obsession with that. It just doesn’t work for me, I’m afraid.
- Needs a cleaner link-up for those 60th outfits. (And I hear from Liverpool goers that Thirteen’s outfit was there… I know she’s not the current one – but I mean, keeping it in there would’ve worked well for illustrating regeneration & the differing tastes and personalities of Doctor incarnations… if put next to the First Doctor’s outfit. Just a thought.)
Concluding Thoughts on Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder
A few slight quibbles aside, Worlds of Wonder is a truly memorable and different experience. Come on along, Whovians of Scotland – because this is an adventure you don’t want to miss. Into scientific fiction and fact. Into production and discussion. Where you’ll find the serious topics of the future… and the glorious silliness of trying to sound like a Dalek! Oh, and did I mention all those glorious artifacts from the show’s history?
Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder is currently exhibiting at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh; from now until the 1st of May. Tickets are available to purchase online at www.nms.ac.uk. (It’s cheaper to purchase online in advance, rather than on-the-door!)