On Wednesday 16th February 2011 I woke up early and began the longest journey of my life. A pre breakfast train to Kings Cross was followed by my first time on the Heathrow Express, despite my worries passing through the airport was a relatively smooth process, helped by a company of a couple of friends.
After a slightly frustrating wait we finally boarded the plane and I began my first ever flight. I was lucky enough not to have anyone sat next to me so was able to wander around sporadically, partly to reassure a nearby friend(a much more nervous flyer than myself)
Once our plane left the gate my excitement levels rose as we headed towards the runway but only once we’d reached the front of the queue were we told by the pilot there was a minor oil related problem with the plane and we’d have to leave the runway for it to be fixed.
About half an hour later we finally took off, Wow! The view of London from the air was spectacular, though Wembley Stadium was the only landmark I recognised, but there were more cool things to see. Later I spotted mountains(possibly Scottish?) and then when we passed over Iceland I was awestruck for several minutes as we passed over an alien landscape of volcanic rock.
I used the in flight entertainment to catch up on a couple of films I’d missed at the cinema in recent months, Monsters and Megamind and also watched some videos from my ipod. Sleep was largely a stranger to me on this first flight apart from a few short minutes during one of these videos.
After an amazingly long journey of over 11 hours we finally landed in LA, our decent brought us some spectacular views of the city and nearby area. I even spotted the Hollywood sign!
We progressed through LAX’s officialdom slowly but smoothly but our wait for the shuttle bus to the hotel was a rather lengthy 30 minutes.
Not long after checking in we met up with Chris a Canadian friend who recently spent over a year in the UK, he kindly invited us onto online radio show Radio Free Skaro not long after recording was complete I headed off to bed, though sleep wasn’t easy on that first night.
Thursday began with an early breakfast and a wait in the hotel lobby for my tour bus to see the sights of Los Angeles, when I’d booked this tour a few weeks before I was sure that pickup wasn’t till 9am.
So I found a useful seat in the lobby a few mins early and waited, 9am came and went and I got anxious so asked reception where tour busses pick up and they advised I should wait right outside the front door of the building. Another few minutes went by and still no sign of the tour bus, by this time I was getting rather worried, thankfully I had the company’s number to hand and gave them a ring. They told me that pick up had in fact been at 7.30am, tension levels increased or as I said to the lady on the phone “So basically I’m screwed!” She went on to explain that as long as I could get “here” by 10.30am I’d be able to join the tour having only missed one stop. One lengthy and expensive cab journey later having been told where “here” was I arrived opposite Mann’s Chinese Theatre. A friendly nearby tour guide told me my tour company picked up across the road, so I tackled the nearby pedestrian crossing and headed towards the Theatre.
This being tourist central I soon met another tour guide who pointed me in the direction of my tour company’s booth, just round the corner. The lady at the window was friendly if somewhat unapologetic and after a couple of minutes of what felt like a mixture of explaining and negotiating I was asked to wait nearby.
The group duly arrived on cue and I was able to join them. Our guide Bob was very knowledgeable about the city and it’s history revealing that the foot and hand prints outside the theatre came first, several years before the walk of fame and were the idea of the owner/founder of the business Sid Grauman.
We visited/passed a lot of interesting places on the tour. I hope you’ll forgive me not listing them all as memories of that day are already rather fuzzy due to tiredness but one highlight in the morning were the opulent shops of Rodeo Drive, we went passed several designer stores including one where an appointment with the designer alone would cost you $15,000 dollars(with no obligation to buy). Before reboarding the bus we had a look round Tiffany's who were exhibiting several pieces that they’d rent out to Oscar attendees this year.
For lunch we were taken to Farmer’s market, not remotely what I’d expected at all, but in fact home to a smallish mall and a 50s style diner. The driver explained what sort of shops were in the mall and more importantly for us how long it would take to get served in the restaurants. The diner was only a short walk from the bus and as I didn’t fancy shopping I headed straight for it. I had an appropriately American lunch of Hot Dog and “warm” apple pie. Strange concept that while ordering “do you want your pie cold or warm” despite this question throwing me sideways slightly it was the most amazing apple pie I’ve eaten in years! The last part of the tour took us through Beverly Hills and past the Hollywood sign, which we literally had seconds to photograph, one of our final ports of call was an old Mexican house and market.
Not long after that we were dropped off near Mann’s and had to kick our heels for a few minutes while waiting for our third bus of the day that would(eventually) drop us off at our respective hotels, a seemingly epic length journey as our group seemed to be staying all over the city.
As I walked passed reception I bumped into a group of friends from back in the London area who’d also flown over for the con. After grabbing a bite to eat and chilling in my room for a while I headed to the first event of the con. Although the main con and it’s programme didn’t start till morning this was “Lobby Con” the first of what would prove to be daily gatherings of attendees in the Lobby to drink or just hang out and make new friends, it was also a chance to meet two of the hosts of the longest running Doctor Who podcast a show that originates from New Jersey entitled “Doctor Who: Podshock” this was also the moment I realised how liberal the hotel’s rules were as some people had shown up to this event armed with boxes from the local liquor store and the event even had it’s own official barman who held court in the centre of the room mixing cocktails from a generous supply of boxes that surrounded him.
I didn’t partake that night or for that matter any night of the con, not for any moralistic reasons but simply as I’m not a big drinker anyway and Cider or “Hard Cider” as the Americans call it didn’t appear to be on offer.
The evening certainly also emphasized the Mecca status of the event as I’d shared my tour with a friend from Australia and was joined for a while by two fellow countrymen of his, one who despite travelling for over 30 hours had more energy that most people in the room!
I stayed up pointlessly late that night but much fun was had by all and it certainly kicked things off with a bang.
The first day of the convention didn’t require much rushing around as there was nothing scheduled till 11am. I was worried about getting lost finding one of the nearby eateries so I put the word out on twitter and face book in an attempt to recruit a “breakfast buddy” Sean from a Dr Who pod cast called “The TARDIS Tavern” volunteered and we set off in what I thought was the direction of Burger King, within minutes we realised we were heading in the wrong direction and Sean who’d attended the con last year proved invaluable in his(albeit year old) local knowledge and guided us to nearby fast food joint Carl Jnr’s. I ordered something called a “Breakfast Burito” I’m still not entirely sure what one is and it was a bit of a journey of discovery to eat. Turns out it was an omelette and bacon wrapped it thin pastry.
We headed back to the hotel as I had to join the queue for registration, there had been a brief window for this the previous night but as I’d not known the layout at that time I’d sadly missed that opportunity and ended up waiting in line as our American friends put it.
The wait wasn’t too long though and I soon headed off to my first panel of the event.
Gallifrey 101 was billed as an introduction to the whole weekend and despite having attended many cons over the years thought it safest to attend this in case our American cousins did things any differently, turns out they don’t! I sat next to a friend from Australia and the heat of the room and my lack of sleep the previous night did lead to a couple of “micro sleeps” but as I say it doesn’t sound like I missed anything important.
The panel finished in good time for me to dive upstairs to the hotel gift shop(a place I was to become rather familiar with over my stay) to buy a cheap packed lunch as the rest of the day was pretty full on with activities.
I made it to the main hall just in time for the first interview panel of the con Mathew Waterhouse who’d played Adric back in the 80s, he was interviewed by his publisher Tim Hirst in an effort to plug his book “Blue Box Boy” a sort of novelised biography of his time on the show, sadly I never managed to buy one of the limited edition convention editions they were selling that weekend for which he’d added a few extra pages. Mathew was very entertaining especially in describing his working relationships with directors and Tom Baker.
This was followed by an interview with actor Ian McNeice who’d played Churchill in “Victory of The Daleks” at the end of this panel I had to grab my gear and make a mad dash down the corridor to support a panel starring a Canadian friend of mine.
Radio Free Skaro in 3D was a chance to see three expert Canadian podcasters at work with their first live show recording a series of interviews that would so online less than 24 hours later. The guests were four writers a director of the show, our hosts never seemed remotely out of their depth, helped in part by the fact that a couple of them work in the industry themselves. This being a live show it started with a visual element, a rather fun and tongue in cheek title sequence that acted as a good warm up for the assembled crowd.
After this I headed back to my room for a late lunch and made my worst mistake of the whole weekend. As part of this meal I’d bought a large can of an American energy drink which I downed with obscene haste and headed back downstairs to check out the dealers room knowing it was a while yet till the opening ceremonies. My energy levels all day had been a bit all over the place and I’d hoped the caffeine boost would see me through to an appropriate slow down for bed time. How wrong could I be? As I looked round the dealers room my head began to race, not with thoughts but with a swirly woozy feeling that was rather worrying. Near the dealers room was TARDIS Plaza a rather grand name for a small room that was home to “TARDIS” Tara Wheeler and her husband David “The DH” Tara and her friends built a Police Box a few years back and she and David lug it by road to various events. I had a chat with Tara a fascinating and friendly lady who rapidly gave me the best advise I had while in the states. “Go back to your room and lie down” she explained that US energy drinks were a lot stronger that anything on our side of the Atlantic. So I took her advise as I was feeling rather odd by this point.
Sleep was not remotely forthcoming but I resolved to cut myself off from distractions and wind down before I did anything else. Over an hour later and sadly having missed the Opening ceremony, I headed back to the lobby to kill time and catch up with friends. Word was rapidly spreading of what I’d missed, that Peter Davison’s appearance that night had been proceeded by a short very tongue in cheek film he’d written, directed and starred in and was a follow up to a similar project he made last year when he had to miss the event due to his role in “Legally Blonde” in the West End.
I headed back to the main hall for a couple of events one of which I knew I’d have to cut short as I’d agreed to be interviewed by one of the Dr Who podcasters who hadn’t made it to the event.
Fraser Hines: The Time Travelling Scot was a one man show by the actor about his time on the show back the 60s. The format was that of a sort of live DVD extra with Fraser introducing clips and presenting rather funny anecdotes dressed in his trademark kilt.
This was followed by the dark horse event of the weekend “Mysterious Theatre 337: Castrovalva” which was basically a Dr Who version of an old American cable tv show Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in which a group of four panelists with their backs to us conducted an extremely funny live commentary of Peter Davison’s first story, had I realised how wonderfully funny this panel was going to be I’d have rescheduled the interview but sadly having caught less than an hour of the hilarity I was making another mad dash to my room.
My interview with The Omega Podcast went well though by the time it was over sadly so was the hilarity in the main hall. I headed back there all the same to see if any of my friends were at the dance party now in progress. I couldn’t see anyone I knew so spent my time hanging out with friends in the corridors or upstairs at “Lobby Con 2” I don’t know if it’s possible for an event to be too sociable but I was certainly up later than I should have been again even though the company were very entertaining.
I awoke after my first decent night’s sleep on American soil safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to rush around as things weren’t going to kick off at the con till 10am.
Now and again these events manage to secure exclusives, the one at this con was a special preview screening of a new documentary on an upcoming Dr Who DVD called “Come in Number Five” presented by David Tennant. I walked briskly to the nearby Burger King and ate out knowing I wanted to get a seat for the screening. I thought I was slightly late but when I arrived in the room they were still setting up the DVD player after a few minutes and much faffing around they tested the player with a Manga DVD, which for some reason they played for at least five minutes. Turning this disc off was met(rather oddly I thought) with applause from many assembled. OK now we’re getting somewhere, play the damn disc, I thought. They put it in the player only to greet us with a disc does not play in this region message on the screen, it was starting to get farcical by this point and someone was seen rapidly scampering out the room DVD player in hand to swap it for one that would work properly, not long after this they did return and kind of play the disc(sound only at first) but by this time I had to make a move to provide moral support to a friend appearing on a panel in another room.
My next panel was called “A Beginners Guide to Podcasting” A podcast is a an online radio show that you can download and listen to either on a computer or an MP3 player. There are now over 50 Doctor Who podcasters, they range from established shows on which the hosts review the episodes and interview the cast and crew of the show right through to more recently launched efforts with comedy sketches and songs and even a show dedicated to reviewing a different Doctor Who book every month. This panel though concentrated on a group of fans who’d only launched their shows in the past year or so, they ranged from the fairly serious Little Finish Podcast who review the Doctor Who audio plays through to The Happiness Patrol an international grouping who were among the few fans to track down, eye witness and report on the show’s filming in the Utah dessert late last year. Also on the panel were representatives from a couple British shows The oodcast who mix reviews with comedy and song and The Pharos Project a show so laddy it apparently only has one female listener! The panel went very well and not only highlighted the variety of formats but also people’s different takes on how seriously they take podcasting.
I then took and extended lunch break and didn’t return to the convention floor till mid afternoon for the Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding panel which was very good fun with Janet in particular pointing out how much attitudes had changed since their time on the show.
This was followed by a panel consisting of Neil Gorton and Rob Mayor of Millenium Effects who create all the monster/alien make ups for the show, their “victim” for their hour on stage demonstration was Sarah Jane Adventures script editor Gary Russell who they proceeded to turn into a Silurian in front of our eyes, sadly they ran out of time and I never did get to see the finished result.
It was at this point loyalty set in and instead of seeing Peter Davison in the main hall I hightailed it along the corridor to a panel called “Fans behaving badly” which I’d had a few requests to record for people back home. The panel consisted of writers and one podcaster and was about the way authors and producers are treated by their readers and viewers in online discussion forums and also more darkly the way some people had been threatened in the real world. The inspiration for this discussion was an incident at last year’s Gallifrey One where one attendee had a stand up blazing row with a writer from the Torchwood team about the death of beloved character Ianto Jones.
I took another break for tea but then headed back downstairs to join the insanely long queue for The Masquerade of Mandragora, a sort of cabaret show of skits and sketches put together by the many cosplayers at the event. The sketches were of variable quality and interest and ranged form the bizarre sight of a giant dancing Fez on stage to a lengthy comedy sketch starring many of the Doctor’s enemies. The Interval entertainment while the judges totted up their stores was a bit of a Gallifrey tradition a Dr Who themed game of Just a Minute which is normally chaired by Author Paul Cornell, this year Paul was a guest at another con back in the UK so Dr Who comic book writer Tony Lee stepped in the fill the void. As we’d long since passed the watershed and certain members the the panel may have familiarised themselves with the bar the humour was considerably bluer than you’d ever hear on Radio 4 but all the better for it!
After the results of the competition were announced I headed back upstairs and hung out way too long at another night’s lobby con.
After breakfast on the Sunday I kicked my heels around the hotel for a bit then returned to my room to report on the convention in the first few minutes of that week’s Cultdom Collective Podcast, which I’m on nearly every week anyway. They generously let me hog about 15-20 minutes of the news part of their show then I rapidly made a move back to the convention floor.
First panel of the convention’s final day for me was an on stage interview with writers Jane Espenson and Doris Egan famous for working on shows such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Smallville but now had been hard at work on the next series of Torchwood which is being co-produced with American cable channel Starz.
After a leisurely lunch I headed back to the main hall for Doctor Who Podshock’s live show, Podshock is the longest running Dr Who podcast presented by Louis Trapani and Ken Deep in New Jersey and James Naughton in Yorkshire, UK. Last year James finally made it across to join them on stage but this year financial constraints and the fact that he was busy getting married while we were enjoying the convention prevented his appearance. Louis and Ken ably held the fort in his absence with Ken taking the lead in the on stage interviews while Lou dropped in the odd aside and question here and there. They’d manged to borrow many of the convention’s start names for this event, Producer Tracie Simpson, Actor Ian McNeice, Monster performer Paul Kasey, Actress Cush Jumbo(from Torchwood: Children of Earth) all donned the stage but their trump card was the first ever convention interview with Waris Hussain who directed “An Unearthly Child” the very first Doctor Who story all the way back in 1963. All the guests were interesting and entertaining especially Waris who went down a storm with his insights on early Doctor Who.
Next event in the main hall was a panel about Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, four free PC/Mac games that can be downloaded from the show’s official website. Gary Russell interviewed writers Phil Ford and James Moran and Actress Sarah Douglas the games are free in the UK and were released in the USA for a small fee but only about 50% of the assembled crowd(after a show of hands) seem to have played them. The crowd asked some interesting and informed questions and seemed happy to hear there will be a second batch of adventure games later this year.
I then made a dive down the corridor to catch a live DVD style commentary on Doctor Who: The Lodger, the show’s producer Tracie Simpson was being interviewed by Clayton Hickman but sadly the show’s writer Gareth Roberts couldn’t make it as he’d retreated to his hotel room, hopefully he’d not been over indulging at the previous “Lobby Con” Gareth and Clayton are flatmates and sometime co-writers so his spirit and ideas were still present for the commentary.
I then had a break in my room before heading back down to catch the closing ceremony, frustratingly from a seat near the back of the packed hall. All the weekend’s guests came back on stage one last time and a few annoucements were made by the organisers including the record attendance of 2000 people.
Some people had packed their bags and were flying home that night but I was staying one last night and had been invited to dinner by my friends from the Staggering Stories whose mascot “The Head of Pertwee” had managed to make in onto CBS’s “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” who were filming at the con that afternoon. That meal was probably my healthiest in days even though in reality Denny’s Diner is probably no further up the culinary scale that our own Little Chef.
Thanks to the hotel’s free computers in the lobby I was able to check into my flight home before I’d even checked out of the hotel. But even though the con itself was over there was still plenty of friendly fans to hang out with and even some hi jinx a foot. “Tardis” Tara Wheeler not only owns her own Police Box but is as far as I know the world’s leading expert on the Doctor Who scarf. She’d managed to collor Peter Davison on his way to breakfast and invited him to unravel a fair amount of one of her scarfs. This event not only demonstrated Davison’s generosity but also highlighted the relaxed feeling of equality that summed up the whole event.
When mid afternoon arrived me and my friends said goodbye to friends old and new and grabbed the shuttle bus to the airport. Turns out we weren’t the only ones departing at that time the “Shuttle of the stars” had Tracie Simpson(producer), Fraser Hines(Actor), David J Howe(Writer), Paul Kasey(monster performer) and Tony Lee(comic book writer) on board, all of the above joined us on our flight home. The journey home wasn’t exactly hitch free, so much for my plans to catch another film or two on the in flight entertainment as we were informed it was out of order. Tony Lee kept my part of the plane entertained for a while with a Cyberman impression he’d somehow created out of the bag of airline freebies on his seat. Thankfully I’d prepared for lack of entertainment on the plane and was able to watch some videos of my ipods and listen to a couple of podcasts before amazingly but very uncomfortably catching a few hours sleep. I woke up only 90 minutes before we were due to land but the seat belt sign had been turned on as we’d hit quite heavy turbulence. I’d experienced a little of this bumpiness on the previous flight so can’t say it scared me. Our landing however was rather dramatic as we touched down out of rain clouds barely 500 feet above the runway.
I soon met up with my friends on the flight before we went our separate ways and headed home. I really enjoyed America and it was wonderful to finally meet up with some friendly fans on the other side of “The Pond” LA itself though I did find a very strange place obsessed with the here and now especially architecture though this does give the city a certainly “wow factor” I think it alienated me and my love of history and character in places. The people and the event however more than made up for any minor short shortcomings with the location.
I’m planning to return to LA and Gallifrey One in 2013 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who. I’ll miss seeing those new friends next year but don’t think I’ll miss a city which perplexed this non driving cyclist with it’s worship of the motorcar.