The Doctor will see you now

Doctor Who launches its first-ever festival this month. Access travels through space and time to get the behind-the-scenes scoop

This Access reporter watched Doctor Who for the first time six years ago. A friend, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and engineer, was surprised. “Isn’t that show for geeks?” he asked.

How little he knew. When Doctor Who premiered in 1963, the half-hour low-budget programme was immediately embraced by hordes of children who commandeered their families’ television sets from 5.15pm every Saturday and sent the ratings over 12m. But the franchise suffered a steep and public decline through the ‘70s and ‘80s before being cancelled in 1990.

Since its return in 2005, however, Doctor Who has made a roaring return to the mainstream – more than proving that bemused friend wrong.

The programme turned 50 in 2013, and to celebrate, more than 20,000 fans – or ‘Whovians’ – made the pilgrimage to a three-day event at Excel London. For BBC Worldwide, the Doctor Who Celebration was proof that there was a hole in the market for a dedicated Who-vent.

That event, the Doctor Who Festival, is now a bona fide reality, and opens its doors at Excel from 13-15 November.

“The Celebration was so warmly and enthusiastically received by fans that we knew we would have to do another similar event when the time was right,” Paula Al-Lach, head of events, Doctor Who, tells Access.

Immediately after the Celebration, however, the Beeb had more pressing concerns – namely, introducing its new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, who was announced during the 50th anniversary celebrations, and debuted in early 2014. The idea for a standalone event stayed with them, though.

This has to be down to the frankly insane popularity of the programme. It’s no coincidence that ‘nu-Who’, the nickname for the rebooted series that debuted a decade ago, has seen a surge in fandom at the same time as the ascent of social media like Tumblr, YouTube and Twitter. Whereas fans throughout the original series’ run had to form county clubs and horde weekly and monthly fanzines – as the self-professed Who super-fan Capaldi did aged 12 – the advent of social media has brought the fandom closer together, and simultaneously made ‘nu-Who’ itself more attainable.

A UK Whovian will upload a photo of her cosplay outfit (Amy Pond, Rose Tyler, Clara Oswold, Sarah Jane Smith – if these names don’t immediately bring tears to your eyes, you’re not one of us) and within seconds it has hundred of likes from fellow fans in Australia, the USA, Mexico, Japan, Poland and beyond.

Each episode is broadcast simultaneously in 94 countries across the world. Capaldi’s first episode as the Doctor debuted in the States to more than two million viewers on BBC America; in Australia, the seventh series opener attracted a record audience of 75,000.

The 50th anniversary special episode generated a staggering 442,692 tweets, averaging 2,745 tweets per minute and smashing the previously held record of 260,709 tweets in a single episode during ITV’s Broadchurch. These are not the numbers of a fringe group.

The reason why Doctor Who is no longer just for geeks, and why it holds the primetime slot in the UK of Saturday 8.25pm on BBC One, is because its fans have embraced the community of social media, and hold a firm grip over anything Who-related.

Which brings us back to the Festival.

BBC Worldwide is so confident in its star series’ popularity, that it is holding the event one week at Excel London and the next in Sydney, Australia. Actors including Capaldi, Michelle Gomez, Mark Gatiss and Ingrid Oliver, as well as executive producer Steven Moffat, have all been confirmed.

The excitement for the Festival on social media is palpable, and certainly aided by the ongoing series nine, which debuted to 4.5m viewers in the UK on 19 September.

Sets from the current series will be recreated at the event – part of the reason why people are buzzing, says Tim Etchells, managing director at SME London, the show’s organisers in conjunction with BBC Worldwide.

A quick perusal through the #DoctorWhoFestival tag on Tumblr paints a vivid picture of just how high fans’ anticipation is for the event.

Canchangethefacts: “Okay so basically I have tickets to meet Peter Capaldi and am genuinely worried I’m going to vomit on his shoes.”   

Slrome114: “Hey kids, guess what’s happening in November?I’m going back to London, and going to meet Peter Capaldi AND Michelle Gomez at the Doctor Who Festival!!!! Permission to squee?”

Tragic-vampire: “Every time I think about it I hyperventilate. It doesn’t help that my friends think it’s hilarious and cute and are determined to give me a hug. If I die in later November, it’s because my heart gave out during the Festival.”

Narvaez-junior: “I GET TO GO TO THE DOCTOR WHO FESTIVAL AND I GET THE TARDIS EXPERIENCE OMG IM GOING TO CRY”

“There’s no other way to engage with everything connected with the programme, and actually touch the sets and hear from actors and writers,” Etchells tells Access. “It’s really that engagement of just having a day’s escapism.”

With a little over a month to go at time of writing, Etchells says the event “will certainly sell out”. On the day it was announced, 10,000 tickets, including photo opportunities with Capaldi, were immediately snapped up, and the Saturday is already sold out.

“The most interesting thing is people come in internationally for the event,” Etchells says. “They travel from all over the world; it’s not a London-centric event. Cosplay plays a big part: 70 per cent dress up and some go to a huge amount of trouble.”

SME London and BBC Worldwide have worked hard to make sure that trouble is worthwhile. Etchells is generous in his praise of the BBC’s production team, which has been involved in all aspects of organising the Festival – the same team that works around the clock on the actual programme is assigned to make the event a success.

“That team – the same team behind the production of Doctor Who in Cardiff – is full of the most excited people about the programme that I know,” Etchells says. “Their enthusiasm will come across; the production value of the Festival is incredibly high.”

Every day of the three-day event, fans will be able to see guests from the current cast and hear from series writers, as well as take part in other activities, including demonstrations by special effects companies Real SFX and Millennium FX (who work on the programme) and exclusive looks at sets from series eight and nine. Veteran DW actors Nick Briggs and Barnaby Edwards will be in residence at the Drama School, teaching fans how to be a Doctor Who monster; second AD James DeHaviland will also be on hand to take visitors through the filming process in the Production Village.

“The Festival really is about getting inside the adventure with the people who make it,” Al-Lach says. “For the team who work on the Festival, the event is all about showcasing the on and off screen talent, and joining the fans in a day where we can all come together and share our passion for Doctor Who.”

There’s no longer any doubt that Doctor Who is fully in the mainstream now. Next time someone questions our geekiness, we can raise our sonic screwdrivers in solidarity – and point out the 22,000-plus people marching to the Doctor Who Festival.

The Doctor Who Festival hits Excel London 13-15 November before heading down under to Sydney 21-22 November.