“Be really scared, and don’t be careful… no, wait!”
With those less-than-encouraging words from Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord ringing in my ears, I was about to embark on a lifelong dream at the new Doctor Who-themed escape room in Bristol – because I don’t know about you, but I’ve always fancied the life of an ancillary Doctor Who guest character.
I’m not talking about being a regular companion, a recurring villain or even a starry Big Name bit of stunt casting like Alan Cumming or Chris Noth in the most recent series. No, I’ve always admired the lot of those extra characters who sort of mill about in the story, usually called Zeb or something and played by vaguely-recognisable British character actors.
You know the ones. They usually crop up in “outer space base” storylines, incredulously expositing in the early scenes (“Wait, you’ve never heard of Dridium? Which sector did you say you came from again?”), help the Doctor solve some puzzles and/or defeat monsters and then die towards the beginning of Act Three. One-episode wonders, I call them.
And now, thankfully, the BBC and Escape Hunt have come together to make my dreams come true with Worlds Collide, an officially-sanctioned Doctor Who escape room where fans can solve clues against the clock to unlock doors, avoid the clutches of the Cybermen and generally save the world.
Like my favourite guest characters, in this game players have to assist the Doctor in her latest adventure, undoing the actions of a hubristic inventor while the Tardis is kept at bay for… reasons (Whittaker appears in voice cameos that are short but satisfying and funny).
The details of said puzzles are, by request, a secret, but be assured that they’re full of nods for diehard Doctor Who fans (one Tom Baker-themed feature is a real crowdpleaser, while another that touches on Patrick Troughton’s tenure may be a deeper cut) without alienating newcomers dragged along by friends, family or significant others.
The difficulty level is harder to judge, however. In a team of five it’s fair to say we struggled a bit, managing to squeak through the final puzzles just a few minutes before we ran out of time (you have an hour total) and spending a good 20 minutes stuck on four different puzzles altogether, not even realising a fifth was lying on the floor unsolved until gently directed towards it by our Gamesmaster, who I suspect was slightly more hands-on with his clues than he normally had to be.
Still, in my head our struggles were all a bit of method acting for my role as a useless, one-episode guest character who was doomed to die for not following the Doctor’s explicit directions. And by that metric, I excelled.
Sure, everything in the rooms was supposedly a subtle clue that would lead us to the next step – but wasn’t it just as prudent to simpy point the sonic screwdriver supplied to me at every single surface in case something opened (it didn’t, though in true Doctor Who style a fake sci-fi reason was given to us to explain that), or just shake various items around the room to see if stuff fell out?
Frankly, I would have been lucky to make it past the cold open in a real Doctor Who episode – but eventually I did somehow manage to help save us all from encroaching Cybermen, slot together some crucial puzzles and solve a few riddles with a little help from my teammates. And in a way, isn’t that what Doctor Who is all about?
“The whole personality of Doctor Who is based around teamwork in jeopardy,” Mat Wray, director for live entertainment at BBC Studios tells me after I’ve successfully fulfilled my role as Who cannon fodder.
“That chimes with escape rooms as well. We worked very closely with the TV production guys to come up with things that would be suitable for the story, which we built from the ground up.”
This close working relationship also allowed them to record some dialogue from Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, as noted above, with the Thirteenth Doctor’s wisecracks (including some gags familiar to viewers of the most recent series) set down by Whittaker during production for the most recent series in Cardiff.
“We found the idea of having an intro from Jodie in the game really exciting – obviously it broadens the appeal,” explains Escape Hunt creative director Brad Wynne, who played a big part in the design and concept for the project.
“We wanted you to have a real sense that you’d met the Doctor.
“You can’t physically meet the Doctor in the room,” he clarifies, “but then if the Doctor was there to help you there’d be very little point in you undertaking the mission yourself.”
Inside the first official Doctor Who live escape game from BBC Studios and Escape Hunt
This is true – I can’t imagine the Doctor having nearly as much trouble with some of the props as we did – and overall, you don’t feel her absence. For me, Worlds Collide was brilliant fun, and while not all of it was incredibly Doctor Who-focussed (you could pretty much remove all the Doctor Who references and most of the puzzles would still work as standard escape room fare) I still enjoyed my little sojourn into Doctor Who’s extended cast.
Now, it’s your turn. Do you have what it takes to be one of the lame one-off characters who almost ruins everything for the Doctor? This could be your chance…
Doctor Who: The Live Escape Game, Worlds Collide is currently playable at Escape Hunt Bristol, with new venues in Leeds, Manchester, Oxford Reading and Birmingham adding the format in the next couple of months until the 3rd March, when it will be available at all venues.