Five Hundred Eyes

Longleat 87

Absolutely nothing about Season 24, that's what the advert said. Well, this isn't really about next season, but, in advance for where I might touch upon the new series, sorry. You see, I've just been to Longleat and have returned filled with a great sense of optimism for the future of the programme. Call it intuitive, irrational, whatever, but I just feel really good about the coming series. Maybe, just maybe, Doctor Who has a future after all.

The 1987 Doctor Who exhibition (which, sadly, no longer has to be identified as the Longleat exhibition) is really very good, showing an imagination of design and creativity that has been lacking recently, particularly at the southernmost of the two exhibitions. Longleat had always been the poor relation, but now, with the full resources of the BBC in Britain behind it, it has blossomed into something that almost makes you proud to be a fan.

There has been a lot of hype recently about the improvement at Longleat, and whilst the exhibition couldn't hope to live up to that, it was indeed excellent, recapturing some of that old "Doctor Who magic" for at least one disillusioned fan. I was captivated by the interactive displays, spellbound by the imaginative lighting and entranced by the saturation soundtrack. Almost enough to take me back to my not-so-distant childhood and remember the time I first visited Blackpool, a time when fans didn't have an intimate knowledge of the programme's production (I didn't even know the name of the producer then, and I wouldn't have cared anyway), a time when Doctor Who was a weekly event that just happened. A lost innocence that can perhaps never be fully regained.

This magical atmosphere was helped along by the presence all the time of those for whom the show is really for - children. They rushed past at a rate of knots, dashing from one exhibit to another, pressing every button in sight. "Daddy, Daddy, look at this!" There were, of course, a few who were too frightened to go much further than SiI and co., a powerful reminder of the effect Doctor Who can have on tiny minds, but those who did pluck up enough courage to go on (or were forced on by parents determined to get their money's worth!) the rewards were manifold. Daleks, robots, Cybermen, Vervoids and mutants, a wonderful Tardis console set (so much better than that seen on tv), and of course K9, still reciting the old tape loop despite the fact that no-one could hear!

I was surprised how readily the children recognised the exhibits, even without prompting from parents, especially things like K9 which haven't been on tv for years. it just goes to show how the myth of Doctor Who perpetuates itself from generation to generation. The Daleks have only been on twice since 1979, and one of those appearances was very much in a supporting role, but to the children they were as familiar as to my generation and the one before, and it was pure joy to hear two youngsters (eight years at the most) leaving the premises arms raised to head In the time honoured fashion, uttering the phrase that used to echo round a thousand playgrounds "I - AM - A - DALEK!"

The exhibition was not without its faults, of course. Many children were disappointed by the lack of "interactive" exhibits after the encouraging start of "Land the Tardis" (a truly brilliant effect) and the lighting-up spaceship, and I really feel that a few more pounds spent on dimmer switches, pressure-pads or button-operated tape-loops would have been a small price to pay to enhance the exhibition further. Another major complaint was In the lighting. On the whole it was superb, but all too often was on for only a few seconds before plunging the exhibits Into darkness. I suspect it was all timed to coincide with "an average person's" progress round the corridors, but families all move through at different speeds and so spent much of the time peering into blackness.

When the lights were on, though, they were magnificent, especially the eerie purple of the Eden jungle which made the rather elderly Mandreil look every bit as impressive as anything in the exhibition. The multi-coloured lights helped the Cybermen gain a bit of stature whilst being dwarfed by the robots L1, L3 and K1, and the brilliant white of the Daleks' corridor made the metal mutants stand out as the hlghpoint of the display. Pride of place In the lighting department, though, must go to the truly menacing Sea Devil Warrior, a masterpiece of illumination, bathed in a weird silver-blue light that gave a real sense of being underwater. One could only weep in memory of the tv version, realising how Warriors of the Deep could have been

As always, the Tardis control room couldn't fail to impress, undoubtedy the centrepiece of the exhibition. Good to see that Richard Hurndail has been usurped by the rightful occupier of the First Doctor's roundel, although the pictures of Troughton and Pertwee (both from The Five Doctors) could have been better. What really caught my eye, though, was the newly positioned portrait of the Seventh Doctor, staring intensely at the camera in a manner reminiscent of Tom Baker's first title sequence. For the first time I could visualise Sylvester McCoy as a Doctor, an equal to the first five. If his portrayal In anyway matches the style of this photo (and remember, I'm writing this in August) then I reckon the show could run and run.

the postcard (the one I bought wasn't signed ... this image is from an online auction!)

Even more encouraging was the new postcard. Oh, a trivial item, I know, but somehow it seemed to reinforce my hopes for the new season. Previous postcards have shown the Doctor (or rather the actor) grinning or perhaps smiling in a friendly manner towards the camera. On his postcard, Sylvester McCoy is staring almost coldly, not a hint of a smile on his lips - does this point the way to the future, is the reverse side of the postcard speaking the truth when it proclaims "Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor"? I can but hope - it would be so refreshing to have an actor take the role of the Doctor seriously again. Back to Longleat, and the postcard was purchased at the "Doctor Who Superstore". Oh yes, I thought sceptically as I saw the sign advertising this, memories of two Inadequate shelves of key-rings and pencils in the ticket booth floating before my eyes. But for once this is no hype - the range at the new Longleat shop (relocated in a separate stable block some distance from the exhibition) is as good as, if not better than, that which used to grace the Blackpool cellar. Most British merchandise, and even some American, was there, including even the odd deleted record and out-of-print book. Maybe the BBC have finally woken up to the money-making possibilities of Doctor Who (and maybe this is why they are rumoured to be anxious to let it continue until its lucrative 25th anniversary).

All in all, I would class the 1987 exhibition as exceptional, In view of the meagre 50p entrance fee (never mind the amount I spent actually getting there!). Of course, it could be better, it could take over the whole of Longleat house and grounds, but for Its very limited space it does what it does superbly. For the fan there is much to see, but the Importance of the exhibition goes far beyond satisfying a few hundred bescarfed nutters. More significantly, on the days that I went (yes, days!) it was pulling in the crowds by the hundred - the first time in my memory that the exhibition has never been empty at any point during the day. Longleat has proved to me conclusively that Doctor Who can still exercise an influence on children, that today's generation aren't all Transformers and A-Team addicts. If only JNT and co. are prepared to exploit that, I can see no reason why Doctor Who shouldn't soon resume its rightful place at the top of the list of children's favourite programmes.