I’ve written in the past about my desire to be a useless ancillary Doctor Who sidekick, and how Who-themed escape rooms helped me achieve that – but what would it be like to be a true passenger in the Tardis?
That’s the question (sort of) answered by new ‘virtual reality experience’ Doctor Who: The Runaway, an animated, immersive take on the Time Lord’s adventures starring Jodie Whittaker and including all sorts of details from the main series.
I say passenger. You’re more like a mute, hobbled arm on a stick in The Runaway, which despite interactive elements largely plays out with you silently prodding things in non-essential ways, but hey – I just imagined I was a friendly Dalek with a broken voice modulator, and there’s definitely a lot to appeal about this Doctor Who-themed adventure.
“I think we managed to cross between something that fans will enjoy, and something that might actually make you want to watch Doctor Who if you hadn’t seen it before,” Zillah Watson, the head of the BBC’s VR Hub, tells me shortly after I’ve helped the Doctor save an alien, fly the Tardis and hold back the force of a deadly black hole during the adventure’s short 13-minute runtime.
“Who knows – in 20 years time, all Doctor Who may take place in a virtual environment like this.”
For now, though, connections to the TV show are more limited. Doctor Who executive producer Matt Strevens worked closely with the BBC VR team to come up with the story, (apparently, the team was slightly hamstrung by the secrecy surrounding Jodie Whittaker’s first season while working on it in 2018), while Who composer Segun Akinola again lends his talents to the music you’re hearing during the experience.
The biggest connection, though, comes with the presence of Whittaker herself, who voices the Doctor throughout the adventure and lends the whole thing an air of credibility. Arguably, this effect is slightly undermined by the fact that it’s a cartoonish, animated Doctor rather than the real deal, but there are eminently sensible practical reasons behind this choice.
“As soon as you do photorealism in VR your brain will very quickly spot any flaws,” Watson tells me.
“An animation style like this is more forgiving, and therefore ultimately more rewarding. Also, you avoid any sort of uncanny valley problems that you get in VR with a more realistic, potentially slightly freaky-looking Jodie.”
But in the end, is it worth a download? If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, I’d say it’s worth trying out – if nothing else, it’s neat to have a proper look round the Tardis and use a VR sonic screwdriver – even if the it’s quite limited compared to other VR experiences.
Jodie’s Doctor is fun as ever, the story’s sound, and what interactive elements there are, work well – I particularly enjoyed guiding the Tardis through a field of debris, with what can only be described as “middling-to-poor” accuracy – but you can’t help but leave the experience wishing the story had been a little longer or more involved.
In the end, The Runaway feels more like a glimpse of what could be rather than a complete experience in its own right, dipping a toe into the world of an interactive Doctor Who story but keeping things fairly simple.
We can only hope that, like the Doctor herself, this is just the first of many incarnations when it comes to Doctor Who VR.
To find out if your local library is showing The Runaway as part of the BBC’s VR tour, check here: bbc.co.uk/vrtour
Doctor Who: The Runaway is available now on the Oculus Store, Vive Port and on the BBC VR App, and can be viewed on a range of VR headsets.