INSTALLATION: The Dr. Who Experience

If I was taken aback when a cinematic image of a crack in the universe suddenly became a genuine crack in the screen through which I could enter Starship UK, there’s an inside chance that your more hardened Doctor Who fan will have lost control of one or two bodily functions as the BBC’s latest and greatest attraction opened to the public last month.

Conceived and constructed by leading creative design and AV specialist, Sarner, The Doctor Who Experience is a groundbreaking new installation at London’s Olympia Two exhibition hall. In the first part of the experience, Doctor Who fans are led on a journey through the darkest corners of the Time Lord’s world in an immersive walk-through adventure that takes in some of the programme’s best-loved elements, including the Tardis and Dalek space ship. Captivating set design is second only to astonishing levels of production made possible by the very latest AV technology and special effects.

The man behind the project, Sarner’s creative director Michael Bennett, explains: “There are so many magical moments in the show element of the attraction that have never been seen, or experienced, at any of the Doctor Who exhibitions in the past – from actually walking through the doors of the infamous blue police box, experiencing a Tardis take off complete with special effects, witnessing a Dalek battle in space, walking through the dank, dark forest of the Weeping Angels and seeing the best loved monsters of Doctor Who past and present in 3D.”

“This has been one of the most exciting projects I’ve been privileged to work on and it’s so rewarding to see my drawings and ideas come to life to entertain others and capture the imaginations of Doctor Who fans, young and old.”

The show design by the Sarner creative team, led by Bennett, was devised with input from Steven Moffat, the TV show’s head writer and executive producer. Following a dramatic 3D sequence finale, visitors enter a free-flow exhibition, which features iconic memorabilia from the TV show including original costumes of the Doctor and his companions, the Tom Baker Tardis police box and two authentic Tardis sets, one from the era of David Tennant and another used by Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy in their tenures in the role of the Doctor. There are also, naturally enough, several generations of the Daleks and Cybermen, as well as Silurians, an Ice Warrior and a Zygon.

Commenting on the technology, Ross Magri, Sarner’s managing director says: “Time travel may be as simple as stepping into the Tardis for the Doctor but, sadly, it’s still beyond Sarner’s engineering capability – for now. However, that didn’t stop us from using some of the very latest technology to bring the Doctor Who series to life and allow visitors, for just half an hour, to travel through space and time as the Doctor’s companions.

“The biggest challenge for us is applying the technical requirements required yet still delivering on the creative vision and hiding the technology from the visitor so we create a flawless show and a truly immersive experience.”

The sound of drums

Ross Magri, (above left) Sarner MD talks audio…

“The key factor with this project was the choice of loudspeaker. Our shows tend to be heavily speech-based so, for us, speech intelligibility is very important. In this case, you’ve got Matt Smith as Dr Who, who is guiding visitors through the show and it’s critical that he can be clearly heard. We’ve experimented with many different loudspeaker models in the past and Community always came out as one of the few brands on the market that are very good for speech reproduction, without having to equalise them to get a fair response.

“One of the biggest advantages of using these speakers is that, since they require very little equalisation for this type of application, we do all the necessary processing in the studio and this is enough to negate the need for digital signal processors in the actual installation, which helps us avoid introducing unnecessary electronics to the signal chain.

“In terms of location of the speakers, we looked at each zone and thought carefully about what we could achieve from a creative point of view. Each zone has its own configuration; for example, in the Tardis we wanted to immerse people in a total surround system, so we have eight channels of audio, each of which is timed so that they are triggered in a circular fashion around the audience. On the other hand, in the Starship UK we have a more conventional left/right setup with a centre speaker.

“The spaces that we were dealing with were not standard, square rooms like auditoriums, and that posed its own challenges because we did not have a controlled environment where people would sit equidistant from the speakers. To overcome this problem, a number of the rooms had more than the traditional five or seven speaker locations, because we wanted to have more levels and a larger number of sources.

“As far as the triggering of audio is concerned, it’s a simple setup. We have AVStumpfl SC Master units, which are show controllers and multi-channel audio players that use a timeline-based programme. You simply drop audio clips onto the timeline and the SC Master will play them accordingly.”

Need to know: When two worlds collide:

  • The system is capable of playing a total of 116 audio channels
  • The combined amplifier power totals over 16,000 Watts
  • 22 kilometres of cable (equivalent to the length of 2,000 London buses) were required
  • Each piece of the set had to fit into Olympia’s two-by-five-metre lift…
  •  … Except the floor of the Tardis, which weighs seven tons and had to be installed by a crane
  •  The whole install from arriving on site to completion took just three months
  •  The Doctor Who Experience will be the longest tenant in Olympia’s history

What the doctor ordered…

  • 52 Community IO8 loudspeakers
  • 31 Peavey CS1400 amplifiers
  • 21 AV Stumpfl SC Net modules
  • 7 AV Stumpfl SC Master units
  • 4 Community Veris sub bass units
  • 1 AV Stumpfl ten-inch touch panel