Weekly Who is taking a break this week so we can present to you this fantastic recap of last weekend's Gallifrey One convention. Enjoy!
Friday evening, and the opening ceremonies of the twenty-second Gallifrey One Doctor Who convention are well underway. The lights dim, the music goes up, and on screen we see the Savoy Theatre, home of the West End production of Legally Blonde. And then there’s Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor himself, in his dressing room at the Savoy, addressing the camera with a confident smile and a deliberate touch of déjà vu; last year, Davison couldn’t make it to Gallifrey One after taking the Legally Blonde role, and he sent a witty, amusingly self-deprecating video by way of apology.
Of course, we all know he’s here—we saw him, Janet Fielding (Tegan Jovanka), and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) earlier in the day at a panel on audio drama acting. But only a true crank would fail to enjoy the funny little drama that unfolds: Davison suddenly discovers that he’s meant to be in LA in a matter of hours and dashes madly off to Heathrow, brushing off an autograph request from Freema Agyeman along the way; he misses his flight (“Bugger!”) and dejectedly takes a cab back to central London—a cab already occupied by an indignant David Tennant.
But. Where should he find himself but the Olympia, the home of the newly-opened Doctor Who Experience! And what’s a Doctor to do but to hijack the TARDIS and set the coordinates for Los Angeles, California?
The auditorium fills with the vworp-vworp-vworp of the TARDIS that we all know and love; the lights come up, and Peter Davison emerges from the TARDIS parked on the stage.
The audience surges to its feet and roars.
Gallifrey One began in 1989 as a convention exploratory committee with the Time Meddlers of Los Angeles, and the first convention was held in 1990. The size of the convention has waxed and waned with the fortunes of the show, but since the re-launch of Doctor Who in 2005, it’s been nothing but up. Last year, total attendance hit a new record of 1,595, and the record was handily beat this year with over 2,000 attendees. The con now takes over the entire LAX Marriott basement.
As big as the convention has grown—big enough to attract the attention of avowed Doctor Who fan and Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, who sent Chris Hardwick to the convention on Saturday in his best Tenth Doctor costume and with a camera crew in tow—it still has a “hey kids, let’s put on a show!” feeling. There’s not always someone who knows how to run the AV equipment in the panel rooms, and some rooms that should be mic’d, aren’t. But unlike, say, certain largely-for-profit conventions, the fact that Gallifrey One is a fan-run, for-the-love-of-it convention is what makes it great.
The guest Q&A sessions are the main attraction, and the headliners—Peter Davison in particular—really pack the room. During Peter Davison’s solo panel, it’s clear from the #gally hashtag on Twitter that not everyone is pleased with Davison and unexpected guest Janet Fielding taking a side-trip into the history of the Ashes cricket tournament, but on the other hand, there’s Davison telling stories about the unexpected lessons in 1930s veterinary medicine gleaned from his time on All Creatures Great and Small. He’s an exceptionally winning guest all around, possessed of a dry, snarky sense of humor and a solid awareness of what it is to be a jobbing actor—he’s a Michael Caine of British TV: hardworking, in everything and never less than good, and who one must remember to not take for granted.
When asked how he feels about his children entering the acting profession, as his daughter (and David Tennant’s fiancee) Georgia Moffett has done, he says that while he’d never discourage them and he supports any choice they might make, he knows too well how hard the business is to tell them it’s a good idea. But, he notes, it’s what they see their father doing, and to them, it’s normal; and of course Georgia and David’s impending child will have the same situation times two. A pause; then he exclaims, to the crowd’s delight, “I just realized I’m starting a dynasty here!”
The companions get their moments on the spotlight too. Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding have both retired from screen acting (Sutton to raise her daughter, Fielding to become an actors’ agent and to work in Women in Film and Television), although recently both have reprised their roles in Big Finish’s audio adventures. Both are extremely candid about their not-always-rosy experiences as young women in the Who cast in the 1980s, and express considerable admiration for more actor-friendly (and woman-friendly) series of today. The Men of Classic Who panel elicits as many cringes as laughs as John Levene (Sergeant Benton) cracks some truly appalling jokes while he, Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon), Matthew Waterhouse (Adric), and John Leeson (K-9) wait for the audience to work up the nerve to ask a question. (An unfortunately typical Levene “joke”: “What’s the difference between a Jewish mother-in-law and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.”)
Fortunately John Leeson, ever a model of articulate grace, is there to smooth things over and charm the crowd, particularly with his enthusiasm over the K-9 purse carried by a young woman, and Frazer Hines does a really very touching impression of the late Patrick Troughton.
The production and writing teams also get their turn on stage. Producer Tracie Simpson is on hand to talk about the secrets of making Doctor Who magic on the BBC’s often parsimonious budget (a frequent target of sardonic commentary throughout the weekend).
On Sunday morning, the turnout for writers Jane Espenson, Doris Egan, and Gareth Roberts is surprisingly small; it turns out that they’ve been scheduled opposite the last autograph session signup time, when any number of conventioneers realize that this is their last chance. It’s a shame; they miss a fascinating discussion in which Espenson and Egan compare in detail the British TV writing process to the American process—the British process, for one thing, doesn’t have the plan-out-every-last-detail writers’ room. Espenson also tells stories about the common language that separates U.S. and U.K. writers, as demonstrated by a misunderstanding over the word “vest”—what the British call a “vest” is what Americans call a “wifebeater,” which caused considerable astonishment in the transatlantic writers’ room for Torchwood: Miracle Day. The writers are all outspoken in their admiration and respect for Russell T. Davies; Roberts, having worked for both Davies and his successor Steven Moffatt, is full of praise for both his bosses: “The great thing about Russell and Steven is that they’re both so talented that they’re always right.”
One of the best sessions, for my money at least, is offered by Neill Gorton and Rob Mayor of Millennium FX, part of the makeup effects team on Doctor Who, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and Torchwood. They’ve brought their gear and over the course of an hour, they turn writer Gary Russell into a Silurian—from the neck up, anyway. They run out of time before they’re completely finished, but even at this point the work is so good, so instantly recognizable, that when Gary turns his head and reveals the beautiful makeup work along his profile and cheekbones, the audience lets out a collective gasp. Magic.
Outside of the Q&As there’s also panels featuring both professionals and fans, and not simply limited to Doctor Who subjects—sample topics include Doctor Who and the Facebook of Doom; Crafting Who; Tennant, Beloved; Deconstructing Matt (Smith); Writing in Someone Else’s Universe; Fans Behaving Badly; The State of SF in Film & Television; Too Many Vamps?; and The Future of Comics. There’s the traditional nonstop video room, but even better are the live commentary sessions with the actors and writers—like DVD commentary tracks, but sparking with the unpredictability of being live, and sometimes with actors or crew who may not have recorded a track for the DVD issue. Gareth Roberts is too ill to do the track for the delightful, sitcom-esque “The Lodger,” but his longtime friend Clayton Hickman fills in admirably alongside Tracie Simpson.
In the dealer’s room, there’s no shortage of toys and memorabilia, new series next to classic. Tables are heavy with the Target paperbacks that we oldsters lived on in the days before DVDs and Netflix, and the Virgin New Adventures novels that sustained the fandom in the dark days of the 1990s. The vast universe of the Big Finish Audio adventures is represented as well. This year, Frazer Hines and Matthew Waterhouse are there to promote their memoirs (Hines Sight and Blue Box Boy, respectively). And the scene isn’t limited to Who here either—Farscape actress Virginia Hey is there, as is Elfquest creator Wendy Pini.
And then there’s the costumes. Gallifrey One probably boasts the highest ratio of costumes per capita outside the anime cosplay cons, and many are beautifully crafted and lovingly detailed. Amy Pond and the Eleventh Doctor are popular, of course—I even spy at least one Amy whose pirate costume is drawn from Series 6 set photographs that began drifting around the internet in January. With Peter Davison as the guest of honor, it’s no surprise that there’s huge number of Fifth Doctors of all ages, sizes, and genders, and there’s several Tegans; Nyssa is a rarer sight, her velvet fairytale princess costume being a more difficult prospect.
The femme Doctor movement is still going strong, and there’s more than a few Dalek girls and TARDIS girls as well. A few boys have tried to flip the trend; I spot at least one man in Sarah Jane Smith’s candystripe overalls from “The Hand of Fear”. All of this and more—including a truly brilliant Quark—are on display at the Masquerade, and you can see much of it just in the hallways. Including an Ironside Dalek from “Victory of the Daleks”, carrying a tea-tray and offering jelly babies to all and sundry.
The most charming costumes, though, are always the children. I defy you to find anything more adorable than the sight of a toddler in a miniature tweed jacket and bow tie, using his sonic screwdriver as a teething toy.
There’s something quaint about going to a convention in the day of the DVD extra. Any fan of sufficient vintage who’s seen the documentaries and watched their Classic Who DVDs with the comment text on is probably plenty aware that, say, K-9 couldn’t move over so much as a matchstick without stalling. Once upon a time, the convention circuit really was the only place where you could hear Matthew Waterhouse talk candidly about how difficult it was for him to join the cast of Doctor Who toward the end of the Tom Baker era. It’s all on the DVD commentary tracks now, not to mention in the memoirs. So why do we go?
You can’t discount the power of nerd tribalism. From Thursday evening into Monday morning, the Marriott lobby is home to “LobbyCon,” the 24-hour convention tailgate party where guests and conventioneers mix and mingle, get a little natural light (that basement gets grim after you’ve been down there for five hours straight), use the free wi-fi, and swap badge ribbons. There’s a “Ribbon of Rassilon,” a “Boy Toy of Rassilon”—by Sunday, some guests are trailing ribbon-streamers a yard long. Old friends reunite, new bonds are formed.
And even in the DVD age, there is still the magic of actually being able to shake John Leeson’s hand and hearing him, with your own ears, chirp a greeting back to you in the K-9 voice.
The evening that I sat down to write this piece, I learned that Nicholas Courtney, the actor who gave life to Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, had died. By all accounts, Courtney was a gentleman, widely liked and beloved on the convention circuit. The Brig was one of my favorite Who characters when I was a child; I wish I’d seen him in person at least once, and I envy those, particularly the veterans of Gallifrey One, who did. (Read Tom Baker’s tribute to him here.)
One of the souvenirs I brought home is a photograph of myself with Peter Davison. It’s a standard con photo against a generic blue background; Davison looks politely smiley and I look ridiculous. I’m wearing a costume (the Rani, if you must know; a rather camp 1980s villain played by Hammer Films star Kate O’Mara), and I have the biggest, stupidest, happiest grin you’ve ever seen on my face. Because I’m standing there next to Peter Davison. Who the previous night got a standing ovation from 2,000 screaming fans when he emerged in triumph from the TARDIS. You can’t get that on a DVD.
Karin Kross has been a fan of Doctor Who ever since she saw “The Curse of Peladon” on PBS in 198cough. Her Doctor is Jon Pertwee, but Peter Davison comes in a hairsbreadth-close second.