Back when Doctor Who was first heading to TV screens in 1963, there was a behind-the-scenes intention for it to provide improving, semi-educational content about science and history for young viewers. Not for nothing did the Doctor’s first companions include a science teacher and a history teacher. Arguably, though, the series ran off in the direction of thrilling (and not necessarily scientific) adventure yarns at the earliest opportunity.
Now, nearly 60 years later, Liverpool World Museum is presenting Worlds of Wonder, a new exhibition which seeks to explore Doctor Who and the science behind it. So, is it fundamentally on a hiding to nothing? Happily, no – the result is stimulating, canny and thoughtful. It turns out there is indeed quite a lot to say about the relationship between the show and real-life theories and research, and this manages to say it in an agreeably well-judged, engaging way.
There have been Doctor Who exhibitions before, of course, from a belter situated on Blackpool’s Golden Mile during the 1970s and 80s to a grand ‘Experience’ in the centre of Cardiff more recently. With a steadily expanding history of the show to explore, it makes sense to find a particular angle and in that respect science provides a nice, clear focus.
That’s not to say that the exhibition as a whole is worthy or dry. Quite the opposite, and that’s probably its biggest achievement. There’s a very smart balance here between the fun and the substance. It definitely doesn’t stint on authentic props and costumes. Who fans who just want to see such things close up shouldn’t be disappointed, but they’re grouped together to allow for certain common themes to emerge – time travel, space exploration, robotics and AI, even regeneration and, um, sequential hermaphroditism. Along the way there are video screens with experts offering insights into the issues in question for those who are interested, with Mark Gatiss appearing as the main virtual tour guide. Generally, then, Worlds of Wonder pulls off the key exhibition trick of working on different levels, making for either a quick, pleasant trot round or a longer, more immersive visit, as the visitor sees fit.
There are interactive elements, too – a Dalek you can climb inside, a Dalek voice-changer and a table-top simulator of planet terraforming – which feel natural and organic rather than desperately bolted on. All told it’s an ingenious use of the space with plenty of variety and a genuine sense of content for all ages. Any niggles are fairly minor. The video clips could definitely do with being labelled somehow so we know which expert we’re hearing from. There’s also the fact that not only was one of the Doctor’s first companions a science teacher, but also the most recent, John Bishop’s Dan, was a would-be Liverpudlian museum guide, and there’s surely some fun that could have been had with that – a mention, at the very least, or else it feels like a missed opportunity..
Nevertheless, Worlds of Wonder is an strong endeavour, delivering the requisite Silurians, Silents and Cybermen while simultaneously sneaking in thought-provoking material about the scientific inspiration behind it. It turns out that there’s a surprising amount of real science behind Doctor Who, one way or another, and if the show doesn’t let facts and figures stand in the way of having fun, the exhibition replicates that approach admirably.
Photos by Robin Clewley