Doctor Who’s Coronavirus watch-along inspires fans to share Cardiff memories

With the Coronavirus lockdown in full swing, Doctor Who fans reminisce about how the show impelled them to visit and fall in love with the Welsh capital.

Dr Who fans surround 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi during a filming session in Cardiff in 2014. Image credits: Luca Nonato, Flickr.

When Michelle Birkby first visited Cardiff, it was pouring down with rain.

This did not, however, dampen her enthusiasm for visiting the city she came to know through the television screens when watching the BBC’s Doctor Who and its spin off Torchwood.

“The first place I visited was Cardiff Castle and I fell in love. It was so strange and baroque and enchanting and different, very other worldly, ” she recounts. 

“Now I see the castle pop up in everything – the library is the TARDIS library and it was in the Sarah Jane Adventures too. I see the smoking room. I saw it in Stolen Earth – and it took me right back.

The Tardis in a shop window on St Mary’s Street. Cardiff has reaped the rewards of being used by the BBC as a filming location for the long-running show.

“Not to the castle, oddly enough, but to when I got lost looking for Castell Coch and ending up wandering the woods and finding the source of the Taff. Reminding me of escaping to somewhere very different from London and happy to get lost in it.”

Michelle was sharing her nostalgia about Cardiff, after Doctor Who fans organised a simultaneous watch-along, a month after the first one.

These watch-alongs, put simply, imply fans of the sci-fi view certain episodes in tandem, engaging on Twitter with fellow aficionados, famous actors, writers and directors.

In short, they are about watching the show together and creating a special community in spite of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The episodes that Michelle was talking about, like many of the ones from the early years, were special for certain fans for an additional reason.

The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End mean a lot to many fans because of their reliance on South Wales for filming locations, allowing those who miss Cardiff and the periphery to look back on their past visits, experiences and memories of the city.

Originally shown in June 2008, Russell T Davies’s double episode aired when the show’s South Wales connections were at its highest, when Cardiff tourism chiefs claimed that a large part of the 40% increase in visitors to the city during the same year were down to the show’s popularity.

Filming locations for these two episodes include Cardiff University, South Wales Traffic Management Centre, Plantagenet Street and Nant-Fawr Road. Local localities, such as Penarth, Barry Island and Pontypridd were also used.

Blaine Coughlin, like Michelle, had never been to the city before Doctor Who started filming there. But since his first trip, he has returned several times, including for his first weekend break with his future husband.

Blaine Coughlin and his husband outside the Millenium Centre, which plays a prominent role in the first season of modern Doctor Who.

“The fact that my favourite ever programme is based there first inspired me to visit and we have explored more and more of the city and beyond each time.

“We always find the place hugely welcoming and friendly.”

The Doctor Who Experience, which used to be located in Cardiff Bay, bought fans from across the UK – and beyond – to visit artefacts and costumes from the BBC show.

For Charlotte, an A-Level student in England, seeing Cardiff in those episodes reminded her of the two special trips she had taken to the Welsh capital.

“Firstly, I was taken there as a surprise for my 12th birthday and I loved it not only because the [Torchwood] tower is so iconic, but also because the place itself is gorgeous.

Ianto Jones’s shrine is located near the Millennium Centre and Torchwood Tower in Cardiff Bay.

“More recently, I went to Cardiff for an open day, but I made my family stay overnight so we could spend the day afterwards going to visit the tower and Ianto’s shrine.”

In these dark and uncertain times where everyone seems to be yearning for happy memories, it is the city of Cardiff which has pulled at the heartstrings of many up and down the country. 

And for Michelle Birkby, seeing the Torchwood Base in The Stolen Earth conjured up a specific memory of her sitting on Cardiff Bay, looking out to sea.

“It was my last day and I had an hour before my train, and I sat there and started daydreaming. It was an incredibly peaceful time; just pure happiness and every time I see Torchwood in Cardiff I think of that day.”