As expected, I had a fantastic time at Gallifrey One’s Network 23 Doctor Who convention in Los Angeles. There are already many great write-ups online (check the list at the bottom of the post), all well worth reading. This review differs in that I’m trying to balance my fan and academic perspectives on the event.
The obvious point of comparison is with academic conferences. I’ve been going to both fan and academic events for almost the same amount of time (over two decades), and in many respects, fan conventions have a remarkably similar vibe, but with the critical difference of less anxiety and judgement. As with academic conferences, the main engine of cons is social: striking up conversations with strangers, or just picking up where you left off with old friends. While there are differences–not everyone can be on a panel or have an awesome costume or hang out in the green room–cons are a far less hierarchical space than any academic conference. Almost nobody’s actual real-world career hinges on their demeanor or appearance at a con; given most of the con goers, including many of the celebrity guests, hang out in the lobby talking and drinking till the wee hours, this is a very good thing indeed. Because of this lack of rank, discussions at Gally were always as relaxed, open, random, profane and long as they could be (once past that nerdy awkwardness that all of us shared, and that Radio Free Skaro podcaster Warren Frey pointed out is now, bizarrely, a trendy affected hipster trait). Indeed, many of the best conversations I had at Gally did not even involve Doctor Who, or television.
As at MLA, NCA, SCMS or every other academic gathering, there were also many discussion panels at Gally. However, rather than a series of anxiously scripted presentations, panels were instead joyfully rambling gatherings that nonetheless produced much more engagement than the usual scholarly session. A panel of SF writers discussing managing their creative lives was particularly energetic and direct, offering up seasoned, pragmatic, and occasionally contentious advice on work-for-hire, creative control, and finding an agent. Interaction between panelists and audience throughout the weekend was always informal, with a minimum of restraint, especially given the rapid 55-minute sessions. Understandably, some sessions, in the large main room, functioned more formally, with media-savvy fans interviewing guest actors, directors, and writers. But even then, discussions were lively and intriguing, as was especially the case in the revealing “Doctor Who in the 60s” panel which featured long-time fan/producer/writer/editor Gary Russell interviewing original 1963 actor William Russell and director Waris Hussein, and 1965 companion Maureen O’Brien. While certainly not all panels were as coherent or engaging as they could have been, that’s always the case at SCMS and every other academic gathering I’ve ever attended as well. In that regard, thankfully Gally doesn’t go rigidly non-stop from 8 till 6 in two-hour chunks, but rather has a more open and sociable schedule that encourages sleeping in and staying up late. Nothing “officially” started till 10am at the earliest each day, and in addition to the perpetual “lobbycon” (the unofficial party that ran nonstop in the Marriott lobby from Wednesday through Monday nights), there were many late-night events and panels, a few starting as late as 1am, each night of the con.
Moreover, the vibe at Gally was also very distinct from that at Comic-Con, and most other cons, for that matter. While the sheer scope of Comic-Con insures its own particular appeal to geekdom (myself included; this year will be my fourth), it’s also a much more impersonal experience. One cowers at the foot of the temple of pop culture amidst tens of thousands of teeming pilgrims at Comic-Con. In contrast, Gally, while growing rapidly (with a record 3183 coming this year, a 45% growth from the previous record set in 2011), still feels homey and informal, rather than public and anonymous. It’s a huge party, vs. a massive festival. In comparing the events, a few of us reasoned that the physical exhaustion of just one day of Comic-Con is about equal to that of three days of Gally, with the net enjoyment of the latter much greater than the former. Moreover, given that all involved at Gally love love love Doctor Who, there were no turf battles over space or influence of particularly distinct demographics or fandoms (as has unfortunately been the case at Comic-Con, especially in the recent years of its massive growth).
That said, as undeniably enjoyable and community-building an event as Gally is, there are certainly a few issues with the way time and space are manipulated there (see what I did there?). Despite an overwhelmingly positive and welcoming atmosphere, and a near gender balance (on the whole; see below) and diversity of sexualities, the con is still not as racially diverse as I thought it would be. Then again, neither are academic conferences, unfortunately. Diversity of fandoms is also an intriguing tension, as Emily Kausalik examines in her account of the weekend. Gally provided panels on many avenues of interest–from interviews with the series’ actors to discussion of its works in other media forms to explorations of its production history to critiques of its representations of sexuality to discussions of fancraft–but this resulted in some Balkanization along interest and (to an extent) gender lines. I missed a few more typically female-oriented fannish panels (on topics like shipping and cosplay) that I had planned on attending in favor of hanging out with several of my old, and admittedly mostly male, fan friends. Again, a situation not unlike SCMS, sadly. I owe fellow acafan and feminist Doctor Who blogger Courtney Stoker a particular apology for missing her late-night cosplay/crossplay panel in that regard, but look forward to her write-up (until then, here’s a great interview she gave to io9, along with some excellent photos).
Speaking of cosplay, this was an area which frankly blew me away at Gally. I’ve been going to cons off and on for over 25 years, and have probably seen thousands of costumed fans. But the creativity and craftspersonship I saw at Gally was at another level of awesome. There were the expected sea of scarves, bow ties, fezzes, and skinny bespoke suits that you’d expect from the most popular Doctors. But there were also many companions, obscure villains, and even more obscure one-off characters, all in amazing detail. Most impressively, however, were the overwhelmingly female cosplayers who “versioned” particular characters or themes. I lost count of how many incredible crossplay and femme Doctors, Captain Jacks, Daleks, and even TARDISes I saw; the pictures here indicate just a fraction what went on all weekend. The typical Comic-Con costumes seem like castoffs from the Halloween rental store by comparison.
The great level of dedication and love shown to Doctor Who by the most devoted fans–most clearly in cosplay and other fanart, but also in more archival endeavors, such BroaDWcast‘s mission to catalog every run of the classic series in every country–is probably what most discomforts academics. However, it’s also fandom’s greatest similarity with academia. Who other than the academic or fan devotee would trawl through dusty archives looking for discarded bits of knowledge, or frequently re-read or re-watch a text with an eye for new analyses and interpretations, or critique and reconfigure the very acts of devotion? While I still don’t agree that everything is/could be fandom, or that “acafan” is a useful long-term designation, I left Gally more encouraged than ever that these worlds are not only compatible but could powerfully work together. I’m working on a few projects that hopefully do just that.
In the meantime, of course, I’ve already registered for The 24 Hours of Gallifrey One in 2013, celebrating 50 years of Doctor Who. Hopefully I’ll see you there as well!
More Gally coverage…
Twitter hashtag: #gally (unofficially; the con itself prefers #gallifreyone, but most of the attendees favor #gally)
Forum: Gallifrey Base (the largest, and one of the longest-running, Doctor Who online communities)
Emily Kausalik, “Gally Rewind: A Tale of Two Cons” (with an excellent back-and-forth between Emily and Courtney Stoker in the comments)