Fezzes, bow-ties, tweedy jackets and, inevitably, a selection of long multi-coloured scarves were on display at the imposing and beautiful Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay across the weekend of 24th and 25th March. Three thousand Doctor Who fans from all over the world descended upon the show’s 21st century home for the first official BBC Doctor Who Convention (well, the first since the legendary and near-chaotic Longleat ‘Celebration’ from 1983). The Time Lord’s fans got a chance to mingle with the monsters and get up close and very nearly quite personal with the stars and behind-the-scenes faces of Britain’s most enduring and popular drama series. (That’s Doctor Who, by the way, not Waterloo Road.)
Unseasonably beautiful Cardiff weather greeted fans who’d travelled from America, New Zealand, France and even Russia as well as all corners of the UK to enjoy two days of panel discussions, visual effects and prosthetic displays, costume and prop presentations and, inevitably, the chance (at a cost) to get a photo and autograph of the main cast, as well as autographs of some recent guest performers. Ood, Judoon and Silurians prowled the Millennium Centre as fans gathered at informal demonstrations from the show’s prosthetic make-up team, including actor/performer Ruari Mears and, later, Millennium FX head honcho and monster-maker Neil Gorton. Costumes and masks were displayed, anecdotes dispensed and, at one point, guest star Raquel Cassidy was transformed into her Ganger alter ego live on stage. This, Starburst suspects, was nothing compared to the actress’s ignominy at having to explain who she was and who she’d played in Doctor Who to a fan who’d patiently queued up for her autograph earlier in the day! Later on, earnest-looking boffins Steve Roberts and Peter Crocker explained how the Restoration Team painstakingly restore old damaged Doctor Who footage for DVD releases and, in the liveliest demonstration section, enthusiastic FX supreme Danny Hargreaves (see almost any edition of Doctor Who Confidential) explained his art and craft with the help of a few well-timed bangs-and-flashes, some guns, a yellow Dalek and a clattering Cyberman (they don’t really make that mechanical clumping sound, you know). Hargreaves told his audiences that he had “the best job in the world” (Pah!! Does he write for Starburst? I think not!) and his delight at blowing things up and shooting things was nothing if not infectious.
The highlights of the Convention, though, were undoubtedly the panel discussions held in the Millennium Centre’s stunning Donald Gordon Theatre, venue for the 2006 Children in Need celebration of the show’s Murray Gold-composed musical scores. The current cast - Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill - were joined on stage by executive producer Steven Moffat (“The Moff”) for a lively and good-natured chat moderated by BBC Wales newsreader (and occasional Doctor Who star) Jason Mohammed. Audience questions were of the usual “what’s your favourite monster?” variety but the assembled cast dealt with their public inquisitors with good grace and humour and it’s clear that Matt Smith has now absolutely embraced his role and his place in the show’s legacy. A second panel featured Who writer/script editor Gary Russell, joined on stage by scriptwriter Tom Macrae and producer Marcus Wilson, for a look at how the episode ‘The Girl Who Waited’ from season six was created and brought to the screen with the help of an on-stage appearance by one of the episode’s ‘handbots’. Later in the afternoon there was the ‘Doctor Who Uncut’ session in which Dalek operator Barnaby Edwards deftly moderated a session featuring Moffat, new producer Caroline Skinner, casting director Andy Pryor and production designer Michael Pickwood (who’s done so much to give the show back its sense of visual scale over the last year or so) amongst others. This was a good-humoured session with Moffat adroitly avoiding Giving Anything Away (although news of a filming trip to New York for Amy and Rory’s finale episode was disclosed) and, most thrillingly, an early trailer for the forthcoming seventh season was aired twice to the near-orgasmic delight of the crowd, most of whom were shakily filming it on their mobile phones so they could rush home and chuck it onto YouTube. I expect. You’ve seen the clip officially by now, of course. Considering the show had only been filming for about a month at the time of the Convention it’s not only remarkable how much has been filmed in just four or five weeks, but also how quickly the team have been able to put together such a slick and exciting, fully-formed trailer.
Throw in a comprehensive display of props and outfits from the show - including a well-restored Ice Warrior costume from 1967 (the oldest old costume still surviving at the BBC) and a Tom Baker-era TARDIS prop - autograph sessions with season six guest stars Mark Sheppard, Simon Fisher-Becker, Raquel Cassidy and old favourites like Nick (“voice of the Daleks”) Briggs, and a busy merchandise area courtesy of ‘Forbidden Planet’, and the Convention offered something for just about everyone and anyone interested in the current incarnation of the show.
Value for money? Well, at a shade under a hundred notes for one-day entry this was never going to a family outing affair, and indeed it was notable just how few children were present. But it was a packed and varied itinerary, capped off with a coach trip to the BBC Upper Boat studios just outside Cardiff where the TARDIS set is still in situ for filming. There was literally never a dull moment.
It’s always heartening to see how adored Doctor Who still is and fears that the show might have lost its appeal to the ladies with the passing of David Tennant can be dismissed judging by the number of females in attendance. One was dressed as Peter Davison’s Doctor, incidentally, but with a pair of shorts which looked rather more fetching on her than they would have done on Davison. The emphasis was very much on the current show and there was a marked and refreshing lack of slightly intense ‘old series’ fans, who watch the new show with a grumpy disapproval and really wish Geoffrey Bayldon had got the gig as the eleventh Doctor and not this current whippersnapper.
Doctor Who’s been making itself ever more accessible to its public since the 2005 resurrection with Proms, the live stage show and the Doctor Who experience (due to move into its huge new Cardiff Bay home in June). The Convention is probably the BBC’s greatest PR success for Doctor Who yet and can surely only be a rehearsal for similar, even larger-scale events for the show’s fiftieth anniversary in 2013. The Doctor Who Convention was a terrific and joyous celebration of the show’s enduring success and my credit card’s throbbing in anticipation of the announcement of the next one. See you there?