Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder
Location: National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh
Duration: runs until 1st May 2023
Having grown up in an era where childhood summer holidays on the Lancashire coastline always included a visit to the famous Doctor Who Exhibition on Blackpool’s Golden Mile, I was delighted to learn that the National Museum of Scotland would be hosting a Doctor Who exhibition right on my doorstep in the heart of Edinburgh. It opened just before Christmas, and I took myself along for a visit just before going back to work after the New Year break, as a little treat to myself. No jelly babies were harmed in the making of this report…
You can buy tickets at the desk on the day, but you can also book in advance, with a time slot (this is also slightly cheaper, and given how popular the museum is with locals and tourists – of which Edinburgh has a great many! – I’d advise booking so you know you are sorted). I had booked a mid-afternoon slot, midweek, which was still actually pretty busy (although to be fair the schools hadn’t gone back after the festive break at this point), and all I had to do was show my e-ticket on my phone, wrap my long scarf around my neck securely, and stroll in through a familiar set of beckoning blue doors.
One of the first sights to greet you on entering is the original 1960s style TARDIS console, although from the look of it, I suspect this is the one which was recreated for use in some of the more recent episodes of the show. It’s still a lovely, retro piece though – all sliding levers, knobs and big, analogue dials, no monitor screen with BBC Model B graphics here! And yes, I do like later iterations of the console, but I really do have a soft spot for this older design. Ah, the good, old Type 40… The sight of this also brought back memories of those summer childhoods getting to explore the long-running Blackpool exhibition, which had the console room at the heart of it – you can imagine to an eight year old how magical that was, the sound effects playing, the lights, the Time Rotor moving; it was very easy to lose your young self in it and imagine for a wonderful moment that it was all real.
Mark Gatiss, another life-long fan of the show, not to mention one who has appeared and contributed to it over the years, introduces the exhibition on a screen near the console, and there are many screens throughout the various rooms of the exhibition. Many are like that one, pre-recorded “talking heads”, such as scientists discussing physics and the possibility or otherwise of time travel and other elements of the series. There’s a strong educational theme woven into this, looking at the science fiction and trying to relate real-world science to some of it, which seems most appropriate, given that Who, like Star Trek, while fantastical science fiction, has encouraged more than a few young fans to grow up and take on the mantle of real-world scientific research and development.
Other screens, including some designed like coffee tables to stand around, are also educational, but far more interactive, allowing the visitors to examine lifeforms from our own world’s ecosphere, then relate them to imaginary species seen in the show over the years, showing that, although those aliens and others are works of imagination, that imagination is often inspired by real, terrestrial lifeforms, or to see how they would approach attempting to terraform Mars, among other activities to try. While most of this I only looked briefly at as it was clearly aimed at the younger visitors, I strongly approved of them – apart from hands-on activities for youngsters, it’s also no bad thing to be using SF to implant an interest in real science in their young minds. On a related note, if you’ve never been before, the hall between the original Victorian part of the NMS and the modern extension is filled with hands-on items from technology and history that actively encourages young minds to explore, making it a terrific place for family outings (and that part is free!).
Of course it is the items from the show that I imagine many of us will be most interested in, and these range from the large – such as the console or a life-size TARDIS (perfect for taking selfies in front of!) – to the small, such as an array of different Sonic Screwdrivers, arranged chronologically by incarnation, or Captain Jack’s Vortex Manipulator wrist device, from models (including one re-created from original designs from the famously unfinished “Shada” story in the Tom Baker era) to costumes, to full-sized Daleks. One space is the Monster Room because, as Gatiss notes in his introductory video at the very beginning of the exhibition, what is Doctor Who without the monsters? And he’s right, we love them, even when they scared us into hiding behind the sofa and watching with one eye closed, we loved them.
The Monster Room boasted some wonderful creations from the show, including a full-sized Dalek and the Dalek’s twisted creator, Davros (one nearby video, I noticed showed a clip from that first story appearance of Davros, Genesis of the Daleks, with Tom Baker’s Doctor holding up two ignition wires for an explosive and asking if he had the right to wipe out a whole species, even one so evil, a moral dilemma that impressed itself into my young brain back on the original screening in the mid 70s, where it still remains). We also had Silurians and Sea Devils, Cybermats, Weeping Angels, Ice Warriors, Sontarans, Cybermen, and a nice array of Cyber Heads from the different designs of those iconic villains from across the six decades of the show’s existence.
There were even some other Time Lords in the mix, although of the more villainous stripe, including Omega, the engineer who basically allowed Time Lord culture to exist, and good, old “chop suey” himself, The Brain of Morbius. Also included was a “half Dalek” – those of you of a certain vintage (including myself and our redoubtable editor, John Freeman), will doubtless recall that often tucked away in old amusement arcades in the 1960s and 70s were half-Daleks, essentially a replica but with much of the back of the casing missing, to allow you to get in and sit inside, working the exterminator and sucker arms while screeching “EXTERMINATE!”, which when you are a young child is simply fabulous. Well yes, they had a version of one of those too (oh, the nostalgia!). No, I didn’t have a go, as there were too many younger visitors eager to try being a Dalek, and I got to do that when I was their age so I wasn’t going to hold them up from their shot at it now.
I must also tip my hat to whoever penned the text accompanying many of the exhibits, which, while doing what they are meant to do, be informative about the item before you, also had a delightful playfulness to them, which I appreciated. The text on the Weeping Angel, for example, explains what they are, how they work, and then concludes with “I hope you didn’t blink while reading this description”. A nearby Cybermat simply has “please do not feed the Cybermat” attached to it, which made me giggle.
I would have liked to see more items from the original era of the series, but I can also understand that many of those items are lost, or too rare and fragile for a travelling exhibition now, and items from the resurrected show are simply more accessible (and also probably more familiar to many visiting, who aren’t even old enough to have gone through their first regeneration yet, unlike us oldies!). The exhibition has its own gift shop stuffed with merchandise from the series, and also some pertaining particularly to the exhibition itself, separate from the regular museum shop. Photography is allowed, as long as you take care not to have any flash activated, understandably, as it can damage delicate exhibits (one a related note, I apologise for some pics not being super-sharp here, but shooting inside an exhibition space with no flash means some pics just don’t come out!).
The Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder exhibition runs until the 1st of May, 2023, at the National Museum of Scotland; details and booking information are all on the website here. If making your first visit to the museum, in addition to some of their other excellent exhibits (including a floor by floor tour through Scottish history that takes you from Pictish standing stones to full-sized steam engines), may I also suggest taking the elevator to the Roof Terrace Garden. This is free and offers quite remarkable views across the heart of Edinburgh, to nearby historic Greyfriars kirkyard to the Castle and the roofscape of the Old Town and the mighty Firth of Forth, the volcanic peaks of Arthur’s Seat and the Pentland Hills – it’s one of the finest vantage points to take in the city.
This piece was originally penned for Down The Tubes.