This weekend, PopWrapped attended the three day Doctor Who Festival in London. Here's the report!
There are certain places on Earth we all feel safe. At home, with friends, with the people you trust the most to make you feel as comfortable as possible. Where else can we add to that equation? I'd hasten to argue that BBC's recent Doctor Who Festival can also be thrown into that mix.
Across the three days at London's ExCel centre, tens of thousands of excitable Whovians came storming through the doors to share in the wonder of the 52 year old sci-fi series. It was here where I realised that, much like Comic-Con, or anywhere, really, where people who have a love for something that isn't universally admired by a mainstream audience, or people that feel insecure or anxious about exposing their geek fandom, anyone can come and be as carefree as the Doctor, himself. At the Doctor Who Festival, instead of the ignorance of 'what are you wearing?', the questions to those remarkably talented people are merely, 'WOW! That's fantastic, how did you make this?'.
The Doctor Who Festival was, by a long way, a resounding success. That a sci-fi show can run a six day festival across two continents is a ridiculous achievement, but just walking around and seeing the sheer love for show from all walks of life -- really, the age group dressed up and here to share in the madness of Doctor Who ranged from 1 - 101 -- was enough to justify the BBC going for it and putting on this event.
I arrived on the Sunday, the third day of the Festival. By this point, the demonstrators, the presenters, the security and even the staff had every right to phone it in and relax a tad. Of course, everyone here was professional, and their stapled-on smiles never let up throughout the time we were there -- except for, perhaps, the security, who weren't suffering any fools at any moment. You can tell that everyone involved were Who fans, also -- well, if you weren't a fan of the show, the Festival would have been a particularly torturous way to spend your weekend, and, as such, their enthusiasm for what they were presenting and selling was seemingly just as alive as it would have been on the first day.
The floor, itself, wasn't particularly big, certainly not in comparison to others of this ilk -- it probably could have fitted into San Diego Comic-Con five or six times over -- but, then, this is only one show, even if it is Doctor Who. Something that did make me feel a tad uneasy was the sheer amount of merchandise that was on display for preying Whovians to secure. It's not particularly unlike these events to go overboard with merch stands, though here the stall area was far bigger than any other. You couldn't move for seeing something that was trying to be sold to you, and it made me feel like I wasn't much more than a wallet to the whole operation. Of course, this wasn't really the case, and there was plenty around to see and do, which balanced out the over excessive merchandise. Mind you, I did come across enormous BBQ tongs which I absolutely must have in my life. Ah dammit, but come on! They make the noise and everything!
Opposite the 'Whovian Shopping Mall' was the Drama School, which was packed to rafters with kids and families pretty much all day with the producers and special effects guys talking through how they control the Daleks and other monsters from the series. I caught a talk on those evil pepper shakers from Skarro and was delighted to see the voice of the Daleks himself, Nicholas Briggs, talking to the crowds about how they come to life.
It was fantastic to witness Briggs talk with such enthusiasm about his love for the Daleks, and he showcased just how he uses his voice to create that iconic sound that we all know and love, even letting kids have a go with his equipment whilst someone else was inside the physical Dalek prop working the eye stalk and the lights. As a fan of behind-the-scenes showcases, this was very cool for me, with attendees hanging on every word learning how everything works. The panel ended with a practical performance, where two kids were each given a script, playing the Doctor and his companion up against the Daleks, with the kid on the voice and another inside. It was brilliant, and I can't imagine what must have been going through their heads as a real Dalek approached them. It was moments like this which make you remember what this is all about. Having a lesson on how to be a Dalek from the man who brings them to life is something I'm sure these younglings (and their adults) will not soon forget.
Across the way, there was also a sit down area that held a Fan Challenge Quiz. Frustratingly, I kept missing the beginning so never got to have a chance at it. I would have torn it to pieces and dropped the mic on it. Ergo, that may just have to wait until next time. Still, upon walking past it, it was full every time and was doubling as a Cosplay competition entry area, and a good amount of it was absolutely stunning. I'm not sure there's a group of fans more dedicated to the art of costume-making and -designing than Doctor Who fans (Why, yes, I DO feel like starting a riot in the comments section!), and this festival was the perfect place for those who love to express their fandom in the most wonderful of ways. From senior ladies and gentlemen dressed as Matt Smith to a truly wonderful five year old young man cosplaying William Hartnell (plus an absolutely brilliant young man, who couldn't have been any older than six, cosplaying the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison), every Doctor, every Companion and every monster you can think of was represented by all walks of life. One family I met was all about the trifecta of the three latest Doctors (Dad was Tennant with his two sons as Smith and Capaldi) along with the TARDIS (Mom) and looked terrific. Some brave soul even donned Colin Baker's dreadful attire and walked around like it wasn't even a thing. I salute that man, no matter how much the Doctor would protest such a thing. My absolute favourite, though, went to a guy who was Patrick Troughton and had painted his face and hands grey to appear black and white from the Second Doctor's era. Amazing. As ever with cosplay, the level of dedication was on a level I had never seen and had to be commended.
There was also a woman who was rocking what I can only describe as a 'Sexy Matt Smith' Halloween costume. She looked lovely, but it got awkward after a while -- plus, my partner might be reading this, so, uh, I won't go into that.
The cosplay competition wasn't the only place costumes were on display, though, with a small museum slap bang in the middle of the festival floor dedicated to the latest costumes and props used by the series. On display -- among many -- were costumes worn by recent guest Maisie Williams from 'The Girl Who Died' and 'The Woman Who Lived' (up close, they were pretty special), the Doctor's orange jumpsuit from 'Kill the Moon' and even more recent props such as the Osgood Box(es) from the previous week's terrific 'The Zygon Inversion'. It's a nice showcase of what to expect at Cardiff's Doctor Who Experience once this season comes to an end, but, for fans of looking at cool things and going up really close but not being able to touch it, it was quite the haven of goodies.
The ultimate draw, though, was the panels. And they did not disappoint.
Throughout the day I enjoyed four panels, ranging from Visual FX with the legend that is Mark Gatiss and Visual Effects producer, Kate Walsh, talking us through the process of making the monsters for the show. The panel took place the day after the 'Sleep No More' episode, ergo the focus was on the delightfully creepy Sandmen. One comment absolutely worth taking away was that, to create the monster, an empty scale model was created and the visual effects team literally just threw clay at it to create the effect. Some job, eh? Gatiss was thoroughly enjoying the talk, seeing the Mire (from 'The Girl Who Lived') take centre stage and also showcasing Mr. Sweet, the horrible/horrendously cute tiny monster clutched to Diana Rigg in Matt Smith's 'The Crimson Horror'. Turns out it moves with a single tube inside it and a tiny balloon! (Possibly ruining the effect somewhat now for future viewings, but it was very cool to see one in the flesh, being moved like a puppet by Mark Gatiss.)
The panel was followed by a writers panel, which included Toby Whithouse, Jamie Matheson and Doctor Who head Steven Moffat, there to discuss the writing process of the show with the huge audience. This was a brilliantly insightful panel, purely because we're literally just the audience to three writers talking about how they get to write their favourite show as their job. Effectively, they're us, getting to live the dream as the form of income and the nerd energy was palpable. I took away from the panel the simple fact that the job they do is very collaborative -- naturally with Moffat getting final say on every script that comes his way before it heads into production -- and that Jamie Matheson never gave up until his stories were on the screen. All the way from the reboot in 2005 to when Moffat took over in 2010, he was knocking on the door, with the head only accepting a script once it had pictures to explain his monster. 'My art degree', Matheson said, 'finally came in handy for something'. There's a lesson there, folks.
Finally, I couldn't come all the way to the Festival and not sit in both cast panels, which included Steven Moffat, Ingrid Oliver (the wonderful Osgood), Michelle Gomez (the delightfully evil Missy), Jenna Coleman (Clara, saying her goodbyes to the British fans) and The Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi.
This was the reason I imagine many made the trip down -- to finally see the cast in the flesh together at a panel. Here in the UK, there aren't many of these throughout the year, unlike other places of the world where 'Cons' seem to happen on an almost weekly basis, so it was great that the whole principal cast were on hand to answer questions from the baying audience -- who could not contain themselves upon their arrival on stage (through the TARDIS, obviously).
There was a warning beforehand, though, regarding questions, and it was made pretty clear to everyone in the room that the panel may have been sick to death of certain questions and politely asked them never to be asked because they won't answer them. Namely 'will the Doctor ever be a woman?' was a strict 'do not ask'; after doing my research on panels, it seems Moffat is asked this question more than any other. With a Doctor currently in the job, though, it does seem a bit off to start asking who will replace him before he has even said a word about leaving. Once that was done, though, the cast arrived, and the questions came a-flowing from the audience, young and old.
Now, being a completely professional journalist, I wasn't able to remember every question that was asked, nor did I write them down. However, certain ones stuck in the memory more than others, such as the young kids in the audience dressed as their favourite Doctors (and many, many Osgoods) taking the mic and asking Capaldi how the TARDIS works, the inevitable 'are you coming back and when?' directed at Michelle Gomez, who went on to tell her audition story for the show: 'I was offered another part and had to turn it down. So I then just sat by the phone for three weeks waiting for something else to come up'. The rest is pretty much history, as they say. Ingrid Oliver's audition story was also rather memorable in that she described how she lied to the casting directors about having to need the now-infamous Osgood glasses in order to make her appear more 'sciencey'. She was asked to take them off in the audition, to which she said, 'well, okay, but I won't be able to see' and did the audition without them. She then got the job and was asked to bring the glasses along. Lying gets you places in TV, it seems.
The second panel -- and the final cast panel of the UK festival -- ended on a lovely note, with Capaldi kicking off a beautiful speech for the departing Jenna Coleman, accompanied by an enormous bouquet of flowers and a huge round of applause and cheering from the hardcore Whovian army who will absolutely miss Clara Oswald. You could see Coleman was genuinely moved, and it was a very nice moment to be able say I was there. I'm in the 'I'll miss Clara' camp, purely because Jenna Coleman's performance of her is so damn lovely to watch every Saturday night. It was great to be witness to 1500 people seemingly agreeing with me about this.
I don't think I've ever been to a Festival as gleefully alive at this one. Were there down points? Not many -- only the aforementioned merchandise overload, which didn't tarnish the overall experience by any means; it just felt a little out of place. It's not until you see it all laid out in front of you that you realise just how much there is. I'm glad I'm not a parent with a kid who loves Doctor Who. Instead, I'm a grown up eyeing-up everything I could see and wondering how good they would look on my walls and shelves at home. I'm tremendously appreciative my partner was with me to stop me doing these things and make me take a step back from the stands. Elsewhere, the organisation of everything was remarkably smooth. Lines moved at a brisk pace, I didn't dare go for the photo opportunities with the cast -- partly because the prices were extraordinary but also because the queues were diabolical (it begs the question just how much the cast were making today just in photo ops. I get it, it makes sense but wow...).
As I left the Doctor Who Festival, after having a truly memorable day and wondering if the cold burger I ate was going to come back to haunt me at any point as I made my way back through the London Underground, it finally hit me what Doctor Who is. As I mentioned at the job, it's a whole different world to any other TV show. No other TV show could do this, I dare say no other TV show would even try. I can't think of any other show that has this kind of fandom that stretches from the youngest of children to the eldest of seniors. How a fez and bow tie can turn a human being into a confident, self assured hero surrounded by tens of thousands of people exactly like them. How the Sonic Sunglasses turns every kid who has glasses into The Doctor. How the show can create fear out of almost anything they see and what that means to the youngest viewer of this show. How teenagers who may feel alone, isolated or insecure about who they are and where they fit in this world can be the happiest, proudest loudest person for three days and shout from rooftops just how truly wonderful they are because they're surrounded by people who really bloody listen to them and can relate.
Doctor Who is a generational apocalypse of acceptance among anyone who dares enter the TARDIS and go on this blissfully crazy ride. The show that grabs your hand, tells you to RUN, takes you to places you couldn't even imagine and gets you home in time for tea. To keep that childlike dream alive -- that spark of wonder and imagination was in every single person I walked past throughout the Festival. The kids walking around with their Sonic Screwdrivers aiming it at everyone and everything that walked by because, at the Doctor Who Festival, nobody is going to tell you not to.
Never, ever let someone tell you that you can't express just how much you love something. In the safe haven of the Doctor Who Festival, you are accepted, respected and welcomed with enormous hugs from the rest of us Whovians. In the outside world, for whatever ridiculous reason, it's not all that similar. Screw that -- if being at this Festival taught me anything, it's that world is full of wonderful, terribly exciting, creative young people who are one step away from living their dreams and working on Doctor Who. Their irrepressible adoration makes them people worth knowing. They want to be your friend -- to talk about your favourite episode or what might happen next and if you prefer bow ties or sand shoes.
This is what Doctor Who is, not just to those who attended the Festival but to millions more across the world. It's a show about a daft old man who stole a box and ran away, and look what's it created. We had a truly wonderful time, and, if you're reading this in Sydney, Australia, you've got a hell of weekend ahead of you. There will be so many stories about how best friends met at the Doctor Who Festival.
Just make it a good one, eh?
Doctor Who Series 9: Part 1 is available to buy on DVD at bbcstore.com now.