If you’ve ventured into the Otherworldly section of my site, it’s just possible you’ll have noticed that I’m a huge Doctor Who fan.
The faces of loved ones, the happiness of birthday parties or the intensity of first friendships should quite reasonably be expected to stand out among my earliest memories of life. But how could they possibly compete with the discovery of six fake Mona Lisas in the cellar of (cyclopean time-splintered alien disguised as suave, cravatted Parisian) Count Scarlioni’s chateau in the 1979 adventure City of Death? Well, exactly.
The Doctor’s always been a big part of my life and his TARDIS has always been a big part of the reason. The genius of Doctor Who is in giving so much scope to the imagination: a mysterious alien who can travel to any place at any point in history, in a ship that’s unfathomably bigger on the inside.
Hitting the fast return switch back to my earliest memories again, it was Logopolis and Castrovalva (Tom Baker’s swansong and Peter Davison’s inaugural story respectively) which turned me into a Doctor Who fan, with their exploration of the labyrinthine depths of the TARDIS to reveal an ivy-clad and ominous Cloister Room, a Zero Room cut off from the influences and physical laws of the rest of the universe and, erm, well, a cricket changing room.
All fuel for my imagination as a child.
Back in 1982, if someone who knew the future had told that child that he would grow up to visit an actual TARDIS…
But that’s exactly what happened in December 2015.
It’s utterly inconceivable to the part of my brain that’s still five years old, but nowadays, when there’s a break in filming, the wise and kind folk at BBC Roath Lock and the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff offer a handful of TARDIS Set Tours. And I managed to bag tickets (by relentlessly stalking @DW_Experience on Twitter, waiting for the announcement of the tickets going on sale. But you don’t need to know such mundane details).
The current TARDIS console room is my favourite since the show’s return in 2005 because it resembles earlier TARDIS interiors the most. Designed by production designer and genius Michael Pickwoad for Matt Smith’s Doctor, and then perfected for Peter Capaldi’s, it is a thing of beauty.
And to be lucky enough to visit an actual TARDIS set is the stuff of dreams. It’s like walking into the Holy of Holies inside your imagination. An infinity of space and time at your disposal.
You’ve got ten minutes and then you’re out.
So, here’s my guide to planning your TARDIS Set Tour if, like me, you have a (worryingly) compulsive need to record your visit with photographs.
Preparation is (almost - see the next section) everything.
Plan what shots you want to take - watch episodes again to pick out which props, features and perspectives you want to capture. You enter the TARDIS set through the police box doors. I KNOW. You actually get to push them open (if, like me, you all but insist on being picked to do so) - that’s where you start the tour, so plan your first shots accordingly. Then you head left and down some steps to a mezzanine and then down again to see the underside of the console - and then you’re out!
Plan for low light, high ISO photography and think about your aperture setting if you don’t want everything to be spot focus. I managed to get ƒ/7.1 eventually, once I understood that flash photography was permitted. My eager, early ambient light shots languished at around ƒ/4.5.
Be ready to think on your feet. I had to.
I’d imagined you would be able to walk all around the console and go up to the gallery. I’d planned all sorts of shots - including a photo of me pulling the dematerialisation lever.
But it’s a working set. Quite reasonably, they can’t have Joe Public stomping all over it and breaking things.
You get to see plenty. But you’re constrained in your freedom of movement around the set: you can walk around about one third of the console, down to one of the mezzanines and then a small amount of the lowest level of the console room.
So, stay alert to find and capture the best shots you can get. And you’ll be there with four or five other people, so if you don’t want them in a planned shot, make the most of your time to capture other shots while you patiently wait for them to (get a) move on.
And that leads on seamlessly to the third and final tactic.
Linger. Loiter. Be the last on the console level when the rest of the party has moved on. Then the last on the mezzanine. Then the last on the lowest level.
That way, you make the very most of your time in there and can get the shots you want, almost as if you have the set to yourself.
Because you keep seeing things. There’s the Rembrandt! There’s the guitar! Wow, a better view of the roundels! You get the picture.
And you’ll get the pictures if you stall.
And try the patience of the wonderful BBC Roath Lock staff who lead the tours. They were amazing. And they indulge the obsessive ardour of us Doctor Who nerds. To a point. Don’t take the mick. But get as close to taking the mick as you can!
Because all too soon, that’s it, you’re cast out of Paradise, back in the real world. Elated, buzzing, emotional, dazed.
And you want to go back in. And you realise the shots you wished you’d got.
There’s only one thing for it.
Go again, like I did in February 2016. Obsessive, much?
Here’s my full set of TARDIS Set Tour photos on Flickr.
And here are the rest of my Doctor Who photographs on Flickr. There are rather a few!
Follow @DW_Experience on Twitter to keep a look–out for announcements of future set tours. Good luck!