Gallifrey One: the 2013 experience

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Regular readers of this blog (all three or four of you) may have noticed a distinct absence of posts on the usual topics recently. There’s a reason for this, as there is this time every year – I’ve been off in sunny Los Angeles with 3600 other people celebrating my favourite TV show at the world’s biggest and longest-running Doctor Who convention – Gallifrey One.

The history bit

Gallifrey One has now been running annually for 24 years. Back in 1990, it had a whopping attendance of 660 people. The first time I went, in 2005, there were 737. Then the show came back on the air, and it got a little bit popular – hence the fact that this year, in the much bigger Los Angeles Airport Marriott, there were about 3600 there, including con staff and guests.

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Shaun Lyon – a man of infinite patience.

Co-ordinating this madness, as he has done since the beginning, is the ever-gracious Shaun Lyon, a man who must have the patience of a saint to put up with the growing sense of entitlement from some of the show’s less… socially skilled fans.

Working with Shaun is the legendary Robbie Bourget, a woman whose organisational skills are no lesser, but who leaves the fronting primarily to Shaun – much to his joy. And with both of them are a loyal team of volunteers who take on the thankless task of stewarding for 3000 unruly costumed lunatics. Unpaid. Given my years of experience in customer service and the impression it left me of the general public, I believe these people deserve some kind of medal.

Are they ‘costumed lunatics’?

Well, that’s maybe a bit unfair. Most of the cosplayers (for so they are now known) are wonderful people, and some of them are very good friends. Besides – it’s a sci-fi convention, you expect to see costumes. And you’ll see some of the best here. At any given time of day, roughly half the people there are costumed in some way.

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Most of the costumes are Doctors, of course, with a preponderance of Tom Baker – the most familiar Doctor in the US, as his shows were broadcast ad nauseam by PBS in the 80s and 90s. However, the show’s newfound popularity means a veritable plethora of David Tennants and Matt Smiths too, probably outnumbering the Toms. Here’s Tristan Eisenberg doing Matt and Tom, while still resembling Richard Ayoade from The IT Crowd:

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Sylvester McCoy has his fans too (handily, as he happened to be there). Dominic Francis does a terrific Sylvester, but my favourites are Miranda and Sam as a female Seventh Doctor and a male Ace:

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If you want to be really obscure though, TV writer, creator of The Middleman and all-round ball of unstoppable energy Javier Grillo-Marxuach came as the Rowan Atkinson Doctor from The Curse of Fatal Death. Does this photo make him canon?

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What about the monsters?

Oh yes, there are monsters. Gallifrey One is one of the only places where you can find things like this lurking round hotel corridors:

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And, inevitably, there are Daleks. One of them even found its way onto a hotel balcony overlooking the swimming pool:

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So who are the kings of cosplay? Every year, on the Saturday evening, a masquerade is held to find out. Those who enter parade their costumes on the main stage in variously successful comedy skits, one of the most popular events of the weekend.

For many years, the winners were my good friends Mette Hedin and Bryan Little; these days they tend not to enter, graciously giving other people a chance to win. Nevertheless, their costumes are usually the highly-anticipated highlight of the weekend. Here’s a few from this year, also including their friend Radar as Bill S Preston, and a disco-lighted Stone of Blood:

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But there are panels featuring people from the show, right?

Indeed there are. That’s technically the main point of the con, and Shaun has always excelled in getting a marvellous selection of guests, with at least one Doctor every year. This year, it was the effervescent Sylvester McCoy, who took total ownership of the con’s main room by wandering off the stage into the audience with a microphone to take questions, leaving his hapless interviewers Nick Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery to trail behind in bemusement.

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Legendary costume designer June Hudson was there too, with one of the most fascinating panels of the weekend as she talked us through her history, techniques and philosophy of designing costumes for the show in the 70s and 80s:

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Biggest draw of the weekend was probably Freema Agyeman, making her first American convention appearance and causing the autograph line to stretch way, way out of the door:

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And so many others – 1970s producer Philip Hinchcliffe, Rose Tyler’s dad Shaun Dingwall, legendary character actor and Winston Churchill impersonator Ian McNeice, Mark Strickson, Fraser Hines with his collection of classic anecdotes (some of which could be heard several times this very weekend). We even got a non-convention appearance from the star of Community’s affectionate Who parody Inspector Spacetime, Travis Richey:

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Some keep themselves to themselves when off the clock, but others (especially Fraser) can be found mingling with the fans (especially when there’s alcohol nearby). Warning – do not go up and bow to them gasping “I’m not worthy!” They are mostly fairly normal (even Fraser), and will happily have a normal chat.

I got to chat to Inspector Spacetime over a beer about his new costume, and after the con was over, had the pleasure of Philip Hinchcliffe sitting down with me and my other half Barry for a quiet chat in the lobby. Even on Wednesday, three days after the con was technically over, Sylvester McCoy was still there, and was nice enough to join me and a group of friends for lunch at LA airport’s rather freaky Encounter restaurant:

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The Seventh Doctor encounters his deadliest enemy – the Shrimp Cocktail.

What to expect from Gallifrey One – a brief guide.

1. Enormous quantities of alcohol.

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Each night (but especially on the last night, Sunday), an unofficial gathering of the more alcoholically minded takes place outside hotel bar Champions in the hotel lobby. This has become known as Lobbycon. Much alcohol will be consumed there, while discussing such lofty topics as whether Steven Moffat is a better writer than Russell T Davies, or whether next year’s returning monster really ought to be the Nimon.

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Terror of the DVD Content Producer: When Steve Roberts Attacks

Also, there are room parties, at which people bring their own (vastly cheaper) booze. One of the best is the Friday night bash in room 110, run by the splendid Shawn Sulma, Andrew Trembley and Kevin Roche. This year, Kevin brought a small robot which dispensed cocktails of prodigious strength at the press of a keypad. I may have had too many of them.

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2. A certain amount of debauchery.

Contrary to popular opinion, not only do Doctor Who fans have sex drives, they sometimes even get to exercise them. Stick hundreds of them in a hotel with many rooms, lots of alcohol, and a hot tub, and occasionally adult-themed things happen. These are, of course, totally unofficial.

Also contrary to popular opinion, many Doctor Who fans actually are rather attractive, which helps grease the wheels (so to speak). Me being me, it was the men who took my eye, and I took some pictures (with their permission) to prove that nerds can be sexy too. And no, nothing happened with me and any of them – I’m a good boy.

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3. Enormously long autograph queues.

I don’t really do autographs. But a lot of my friends do. And so do a lot of other people, especially now the con’s getting so big. If you want that precious signature or photo with the show’s stars, have patience – it could be a long wait.

4. Gary Russell.

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Former actor turned Who scribe turned all-purpose Who superstar Gary is there every year, usually functioning as interviewer on the panels. As an interviewer, Gary is brilliant – sharp, bitchy, clever, and with a perfect rapport with the guests, many of whom he’s known for years. He has the great interviewers’ gift of making the whole thing seem effortless – knowing when to be quiet and give the guests their head, when to prompt them, and how to put them at their ease. Any panel with Gary hosting it is usually worth seeing for him as much as the guest he’s interviewing.

5. Meeting lots of new friends.

Gallifrey One is, more than any other convention I’ve been to, a friendly event built as much on social interaction as showmanship. Every year, I come away with a crop of new Facebook friends, many of whom I then see the next year, when I meet more. It can end up being quite difficult spending more than a couple of minutes with some of them every year when you know so many people – to those I barely saw this year, I can only apologise and say that next year, I’ll try harder! And don’t worry if you (drunkenly, perhaps) don’t remember their names when you see them next year – that’s what name badges are for.

6. Ribbons.

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A recent phenomenon (over the last few years), the ribbon-collecting craze has reached epic proportions. These are small ribbons with a sticky edge that you attach to the bottom of your name badge, and then to each other, until you have a Tom Baker scarf-style length of them. They usually have funny, or cryptic, or downright dirty quotes and allusions to the show, the con itself, or people you might actually know. Above are the ones I collected over the last two years; a puny amount compared to this lady, who made a skirt out of them:

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The etiquette of ribbon trading is technically that you’re meant to have your own made to trade with those of others. Here’s a useful guide to having them made. In practice, I’m never organised enough to do this, but people tend to be generous enough with them for that not to be a problem. But I try not to be pushy about asking when I’ve none of my own to give out. Next year, perhaps (though I say that every year).

So that was Gallifrey One 2013 – bigger than ever, but still just as much fun and just as sociable. Thanks as always are due to Shaun and Robbie, and their army of patient volunteers, along with the guests and all my friends who I only see once a year, too numerous to namecheck here. I’ll be back reviewing the shows I usually review soon – though given the number of episodes I’ve missed, it may be posts featuring several episodes in one go. For now, check out this fantastic video of Gallifrey highlights from the BBC’s own Ed Stradling, which provided one or two of the screencaps used here, and sums up the fun with the aid of the Traveling Wilburys:

Fun fun fun till the hotel take the Daleks away.

8 thoughts on “Gallifrey One: the 2013 experience”

  1. What a lovely recap. It’s managed to evoke all the happiness of my favorite weekend of the year, though it’s also managed to leave me awash in bittersweet nostalgia. 🙂

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  2. Almost as nice a summation as it was being there. This was my first Gallifrey One, and everyone there was very nice. I have to remember to bring a camera with a flash next time, as my photos are really dimly lit. All my costume work, and none preserved for posterity. Sigh. Thanks for helping me with my memories! Especially love Sylvester and the Shrimp Coctail…Hilarious!

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  3. Great writeup… I do have to mention that there hasn’t always been a Doctor… but a couple of times there have been two (5+6, 7+8, 7+the Valeyard this year).

    Somehow I missed Javier as the original 9th doctor… which is sad, as I’d considered that costume a bit too late to go along with my CFD ribbons. 🙂

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    1. Thanks Robert! Didn’t realise there’d been any years without a Doctor attending (as it were), but I suppose I’ve only been going for 9 of its 24 years 🙂

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