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Saturday, 6 April 2013

Gallifrey 2001


There was only one place to be towards the end of February 2001, and that was Gallifrey. No, Virgin Airlines have not started regular flights to the constellation of Kasterborous, I’m talking about the annual Gallifrey Convention in Los Angeles, which, for the last four or five years has welcomed a plane-load of British Doctor Who writers alongside their established line-up of guests from in front of and behind the cameras of numerous telefantasy series old and new.

The convention has such a reputation that stars will just drop in practically unannounced – as Babylon 5’s Mira Furlan and actor Brad Dourif did this year – or will join the throngs in the hallways to chat and sign autographs for fans.

Such a reputation has to be built, and the team behind the Gallifrey event have been working for twelve years to achieve it. This year’s event, The Twelfth Regeneration of Gallifrey One, was organised as usual by Christian McGuire and Diana Dougherty (committee chairs), Shaun Lyon (program director) and Robbie Bourget (treasurer), together with a host of other assistants, helpers and dogsbodies all of whom worked like a well-oiled (and I don’t mean the beer) machine to ensure a smooth running and relaxed event.

There was only one thing which dampened enthusiasm and that was the weather. The event was billed as ‘London in Los Angeles’ and the British contingent did their best and brought some traditional London rain with them. The skies opened on Friday morning, and stayed open over the entire course of the weekend, leading to news reports of LA receiving the most rainfall since records began, flooding, and other water-related problems. However as we were ensconced in the hotel for most of the time, there was only the dash from main-building to dealer hall to worry about.

One of those people found seated at tables around the dealer hall, chatting to attendees and selling signed photographs was actress Marjorie Monaghan, a familiar face from Voyager, Babylon 5, and Space Rangers. I asked her what brought her to Gallifrey. ‘I was invited to come along meet people here, and I love these events. Last fall, I spent three weeks in Europe meeting fans in Germany and Holland. You get to talk to everyone who comes along, and the people know the shows – something like Space Rangers, for example, there were only six episodes made, so some people discover it on video tape, some on satellite re-runs and so on, and there’s not much information out there about them, so people love to ask about it. We’ve got a panel later on this weekend as well.’

Many of the actors and actresses attending the event seem to have appeared on several genre shows. I asked Marjorie why she thought this was. ‘Part of what it is, especially for women, is that in science fiction you have some great strong, competent, feminine roles. When you’re doing archetypal roles, there is a certain style to them, and if you can handle that and still make them come over as real with the dialogue and whatever, then you tend to stand out. Producers and directors notice the actors who are comfortable with creating a believable character, and use them for their own projects … it’s as simple as that really.’

Marjorie has just completed a new film version of The Three Musketeers, and other projects include developing and co-producing a new non-science fiction television series. But science fiction is why we’re here, and looking around one can spot stars like Stephen Austin (Space Rangers, Sliders, The Pretender amongst many others), Tim Choate, Denise Gentile, Beata Pozniak and Maggie Egan (from Babylon 5),), Iona Morris (the voice of Storm in The X-Men cartoon series), Robert Trebor (Salmoneous in Hercules), Richard Hatch and Herb Jefferson Jr (from Battlestar Galactica), Peter Woodward, David Allen Brooks, Marjean Holden, Carrie Dobro and Daniel Dae Kim (from Crusade). It’s a great place to be to chat to people from your favourite shows.

But why do the fans come to LA for this event year after year. Lea Hays from Iowa explains that this is her second time at Gallifrey and that she ‘adores Doctor Who. Generally it’s a really laid back convention and you can generally speak to the guests one on one, which is wonderful. It doesn’t happen often at conventions. It’s also the chance for a vacation and to see some more of the country.’ Lea is one of many people here who is also involved with Internet fandom. ‘I really enjoyed the internet gathering this morning, also just walking around and reading name badges and realising that you’ve spoken to these people on the internet but never met them. I think that’s wonderful.’

Also passing by is Chad Knueppe, ‘ I love Gallifrey. It’s an opportunity for Doctor Who fans to get together. I love the openness of it. You can talk to the actors and writers one on one. I chatted to Paul Cornell this morning, Keith Topping and Mark Strickson. I always like the fan videos they’re showing here. They are really well done and kind of neat. There’s always lots happening.’ Kathy Sullivan, a regular attendee who helps out with the on-the-day organisation, agrees. ‘I’ve done lots. I like helping out and they are such a great bunch of people that it’s very easy. It’s a very laid back convention. They try and arrange the timetables so the guests have a chance to do some business as well as talking to the fans. There are a lot of fan-run panels which I love. Some other conventions would not even consider having panels about fans, run by fans, but here it’s all embraced and welcomed.’

It’s impossible to summarise the sheer variety of panels taking place over the weekend. Shaun Lyon slaved to produce a master jigsaw puzzle of events, trying to ensure that everyone is catered for. In no particular order attendees can enjoy panels on Writing Andromeda, the Big Finish Doctor Who dramas, BBV video presentations (science fiction videos with Doctor Who-like elements), discussions on ‘radical’ Doctor Who opposed to ‘traditional’ Doctor Who, what constitutes canonicity in Doctor Who, fan videos, charity Doctor Who anthologies, collecting Doctor Who, Babylon 5 interviews, Doctor Who video restoration, all mixed in with autograph panels, ongoing video presentations of Doctor Who, Blackadder, videos from Reeltime Pictures, even Queer as Folk, a Channel 4 drama about gay men in Manchester (one of whom is a Doctor Who fan) received a showing.

Top of the bill each day were the convention’s star guests. This year, heading over from England were Doctor Who companions Mark Strickson (Turlough), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) and Bonnie Langford (Mel). Today, Strickson is a successful 'dangerous wildlife' documentary producer based in Bristol and spoke about his latest projects, which include dramas on ‘deadly spitting cobras’ and ‘deadly crocodile attacks’. Sarah Sutton is married and enjoying life with her family, however for most of the convention she was laid low with a nasty flu infection emerging to gamely take part in panels and the cabaret, while Bonnie Langford is one of the UK’s top entertainers, having appeared in numerous musicals and shows and currently touring with her own one-woman show.

‘This my first visit to Gallifrey,’ enthuses Bonnie, ‘and it’s been great fun. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I have no idea what I was expecting. I did a couple of conventions before, but that was a long time ago and they were complete madness and I think I expected this to be the same, but it’s been great. The Americans are really so friendly. I thought that people might come up and talk to me all the time in the corridors but they haven’t, which is really nice as sometimes you need a bit of private time. People have been really respectful but also tremendously friendly.’

‘This is also my first Gallifrey,’ explains Mark. ‘It’s very relaxed which is good. I’ve been working very hard back home and it’s been really nice to come out here and have a quiet time, and it has been relaxing.’ This is despite the fact that Mark is being videoed for a special Reeltime Pictures documentary at the convention. ‘I’m assuming we’re getting some good material,’ smiles Mark. ‘Yesterday morning we went round LA and filmed Venice Beach in the rain, then we tried to film the ‘Hollywood’ sign but it was covered by cloud … really bizarre.’

‘People will actually think you did all this in England,’ chips in Bonnie, ‘on some sort of fake set.’

Mark laughs, ‘Venice Beach was deserted. We’ll have to convince people somehow.’

Despite the weather, Bonnie is pleased to be there, ‘I love coming to LA, and America in general. It’s great to meet different people.’ Mark agrees, ‘I’d love to come back as well,’ he suggests with a smile, ‘maybe when the weather’s better.’

Also at Gallifrey is top SF author Larry Niven. Larry lives locally and comes to conventions when he can. ‘It isn’t because I’m a rabid Doctor Who fan,’ he explains somewhat apologetically. ‘I’ve seen a little of the show and I’ve liked what I’ve seen. I’m here because some of the people who like Doctor Who might be interested in meeting Larry Niven!’ Larry’s latest novel is called Saturn’s Race, written in collaboration with Stephen Barnes, and described by the author as ‘an ambitious piece … near future.’

‘Daydreaming comes first,’ explains Larry when asked about his writing. ‘I was daydreaming in Math class and I’d be daydreaming today if I wasn’t writing. I found a way to get paid for daydreaming.’

Larry hesitates when asked how Gallifrey compares with other conventions, ‘This one is a little different. It’s specialised. The Doctor Who emphasis is quite strong. I’m more an admirer of Babylon 5 on television, very well done. It’s the storytelling, very good storytelling. It so often gets forgotten by the moviemakers.’

As Larry continues signing autographs for some of those Doctor Who fans interested in Larry Niven (and there are quite a few of them), events roll onwards. One of the most impressive aspects of the convention is the sheer number of guests. At one point Shaun Lyon estimated that there was a guest for every seven attendees, and with over 800 people registered over the weekend, that’s no mean feat. Being made to feel very welcome from the UK were the aforementioned British Doctor Who writers. Attendees were able to chat to just about everyone who has been involved in Doctor Who publishing and writing over the last ten years or so. Among those present were Justin Richards, current editor of the BBC’s Doctor Who novels, writers Paul Cornell, Keith Topping, Stephen Cole, Craig Hinton, Simon Bucher-Jones, Peter Anghelides, Chris Howarth, David J Howe, Steve Lyons, Jon de Burgh Miller, David Owen, Lance Parkin, Dave Stone and Nick Walters. Steve Roberts from the BBC’s video restoration team was there along with Sue Cowley (script writer for the audio releases), Gary Gillatt (ex-editor of Doctor Who Magazine), Clayton Hickman (assistant editor of Doctor Who Magazine), Jason Haigh-Ellery, Alistair Lock, India Fisher and Lisa Bowerman (from the Big Finish range of licensed audios – India plays the eighth Doctor’s new companion in the current adventures), Keith Barnfather (from Reeltime Pictures), Bill Baggs, Nigel Fairs, Paul Griggs and Jo Castleton (from the BBV range of audios and videos). A veritable who’s who of current Doctor Who and its spin offs. This is really what sets Gallifrey apart, and something which does not happen at UK conventions: the friendly and open welcome given to those fans and professionals who have kept Doctor Who alive since the BBC stopped regular production in 1989.

But I haven’t mentioned the fabulous cabaret featuring Dave Stone’s cicadas, Simon Bucher-Jones’ monalogues, Mark Strickson’s pickled eggs, the brits’ 'Go West' and Bonnie Langford topping the bill and bringing the house down, or the numerous exclusive presentations and announcements by Big Finish, BBC Worldwide Americas, BBV, Telos Publishing, Who-3D, the late night dancing, surreal midnight card games (The Great Dalmuti, anyone?), High Tea or Dave Stone’s five aside Jackanory

Shaun Lyon, the convention’s program director, public relations person and self-described cheerleader, is fairly straightforward in his assessment. ‘It’s wild,’ he says, ‘whereas many other conventions seem to decline in numbers year after year, we actually go UP in our numbers. This one’s been the largest Gallifrey ever, which after twelve years of doing it, and twelve years without the Doctor Who series on the air, this seems to break the odds. But it’s been a great weekend … I’ve heard nothing but positives from all corners, so I hope we’ve done our job well. Now I just want to take a week off before I have to start planning for the next one.’

You’ll have to make a date for next year’s four-day Gallifrey event, The Thirteenth Floor of Gallifrey One, with special guests Nicola Bryant, Frazer Hines and Carole Ann Ford. Visit www.gallifreyone.com for all the details.

David J Howe