Thursday, December 20, 2012

Reflections on Starfury's Midnight Doctor Who convention

I've just about recovered now from the fabulous weekend Anna and I spent in Birmingham at the Starfury Midnight Doctor Who convention. The first 24 hours involved prize pooches and daleks with handbags, as I wrote the other day.

My convention going experience ranges from the hyper-official (the Official Doctor Who convention in March and Star Trek: Generations at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995) and the cosy and intimate - an event called Cult TV which took over a holiday camp in Norfolk in the 90s. That, actually, was where I found myself on several occasions chatting to the lovely Lis Sladen when we were both outside having a cigarette. Midnight was much bigger and more formal than Cult TV but not as regimented as the official events.

I really need to thank Blogtor Who because if he hadn't posted a few months back that David Tennant and Billie Piper were going, I doubt we'd have even considered attending. David Tennant is Anna's Doctor in the same way as Tom Baker is mine, though. The one you grow up watching is always special. There was no way we could turn down the chance to see one of his rare appearances, or miss Billie's first.

So, let me give you a little flavour of the weekend. I will do some additional posts with more notes on the main guests' talks later.

If I knew when I'd booked what I know now, I would have made sure that we stayed the Sunday night as well. I had assumed that David \and Billie's talk would be over by late afternoon but it wasn't scheduled to even start until 5 - and everything had run late the whole weekend. They managed to get it back on track, but I was worried for our flight at 8:30. We also missed a party on the Sunday night, so if there is a next time, we'll be staying right through.

The Guests

Apart from David and Billie, the headline guests were Torchwood duo Gareth David Lloyd, whose character Ianto was killed by a vengeful alien sneeze in 2009, and Eve Myles, who plays Gwen Cooper, the only character with any common sense in that show. Gwen, actually, is one of my favourite female sci-fi characters. She's feisty, brave, passionate, stubborn, funny and generally the sort of girl you'd want to go out for a few beers with. Anjili Mohindra, who played Rani in The Sarah Jane Adventures was appearing at her first UK convention. Script Editor Gary Russell, Sontaran actor Dan Starkey, Slitheen actress Annette Badlands, Dalek operator Barnaby Edwards,  and writers Phil Ford, Tony Lee and Jim Swallow completed the line-up.

All the guests worked really hard. Poor Billie Piper was full of the cold, but it was hard to see where she had a break all day. She and David Tennant spent the first 3 hours having photos taken with virtually the entire convention, then 4 hours signing autographs for the same people and then had to go out and sparkle during their talk. The others' workload included at least one panel, plus photos plus about 6 hours of signing. The Saturday autograph session was supposed to finish at around 6:30 but it was 7:20 before we got out.

I will be eternally grateful to Eve Myles for being lovely to Anna. She said some really complimentary stuff to her, the sort of stuff I tell her all the time, but I'm only her mother so I don't really count. Anna really likes Eve, and when you're 13, when someone you really admire takes the time, unbidden, to pay you an enthusiastic compliment, that means a lot. I visibly saw my girl grow about 4 inches on the spot. It was the end of a very long day for Eve, and I really appreciated her effort. Her autograph queue was about a mile long because she was chatting to everybody and she partied happily long after I went to bed.

Anjili Mohindra was also fantastic - very friendly and she was handing out Skittles to people.The sweets, not actual skittles, you understand. I was really sad that I didn't get to see her solo panel on the Sunday because I was queueing for photographs as we had to leave immediately after Tennant and Piper. I think it would have been better to have had her solo talk on the Saturday. She had a panel that day with Gary Russell and Phil Ford but, to be honest, it turned into what Jennie would call a sausagefest. Any young woman who has ever been to a meeting on anything will tell you about middle aged blokes talking to each other and pretending she isn't there, talking over her, ignoring her and then regurgitating what she's said a while later, passing it off as their own idea and that sort of thing. And the thing is, I bet you Gary and Phil didn't even realise they were doing most of that. Had I been moderating that session I would have made sure Anjili was brought in a bit more and given her own space. Credit to her for butting in and trying to take it back herself on occasion, but she shouldn't have had to and it was intensely irritating to watch.

And while we're on the subject of writers and females, I was less than impressed when somebody asked Tony Lee about whether he'd like a female doctor. He said that, yes, he'd welcome it and she wouldn't have to be a "young dolly bird", she could be like an elder statesman figure. Because, clearly, those are the only two types of women there are. I despair.

Eve and Gareth probably shouldn't be let out in public. Both of their panels were hilarious, irreverent and highly entertaining. We certainly got our money's worth out of them.

David and Billie were great, too. I liked particularly her honesty about being slightly overwhelmed by the fandom thing. Rose Tyler was a job to her, it didn't come with the baggage we fans give to the Doctor Who world and she didn't try to pretend any different. She did it in a lovely way, not disrespectful at all. She finds it very strange that "every conversation" she ever has "is dominated by" the two years she spent playing Rose. Tennant's obvious attributes are enhanced by the fact that he was the sort of colleague you would love to have around when there's idiocy going on. I could not believe the things that they were asked by a couple of people. Bearing in mind that this is the first time Billie had ever faced the fans in this way, to have someone ask if she and David would like to sleep with each other is beyond the pale. I really felt for her, but David diffused that one with humour, asking if the questions had been set up by John Barrowman. He also brushed off another stupid question which went something like "If Rose had been a call girl (Billie played the lead role in Secret Diary of a Call Girl), would the Doctor have tried to rescue her from her wicked ways." Tennant said that the Doctor wouldn't make moral judgements about people's personal lives.

The Parties

I love a good dance to really cheesy music - and I got it. The evening discos went on until 2 am and were really good. The very same dalek who was pictured with the handbag was apparently doing the Macarena on Saturday night. The music was great and I learned loads of convention dances that I didn't know before. I have done the Slosh to the Doctor Who theme tune. My life is complete.

For the future, though, I think it would be good to have a sort of fringe, like you do at party conference. At Cult TV, way back in the mists of time, we used to have this thing called After Dark where a group would gather and talk about geeky stuff to a reasonably set topic. I think there's scope for that sort of thing at a Starfury event. I'm sure fans to lead these things could easily be found. Some of the guests came along, too. Kevin Davies was a regular, for example.

The organisation

Dealing with the number of people they had to deal with on Saturday was one thing - and that was no insignificant task.On Sunday, when everybody wanted to meet David and Billie, it was something else. The convention staff were all brilliant, especially the people on the photo sales desk who had to distribute all the photos to people, no mean feat, especially when they were arriving in dribs and drabs.

The one point which I felt let them down was the closure of the queue to get electronic copies of the photos at 3:30 on Sunday with no possibility of getting any more. Now, there was a good reason for that - I really wanted the photo staff to get to see Billie and David's talk and that was the only way that was going to happen. However, I think there should have been another way of acquiring the photos electronically, even after the event. 

The autograph queues were a little strange - at previous conventions I've been at, there's been a single queue and you just go from guest to guest. For this one, you had to queue for one, then the next. There presumably was a reason for that, but I'm not sure I can see how it helped. By the way, I clearly hadn't thought through what we were going to get signed. You could take one personal item and one paid item to David and Billie. We didn't have any personal items - and then it suddenly dawned on me that I could get him to sign this:

Credit for that idea has to go to Sarah Green, who several years ago got Ross Brawn, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello to sign hers.

I have to make special mention of the very scary hall steward, who ruled the hall with a rod of iron, making sure people weren't recording any of the proceedings. I was using my phone and iPad, but, as requested, it was always on flight mode and I was using it to take notes. He told me off at one point but when I showed him the little plane in the corner he was happy. And when he was outside the hall, he wasn't scary at all. You generally need someone like that at big events, who will take no nonsense in their domain.

Sadly, nonsense there was because footage has apparently appeared of some of the talks on the internet.It will never be anything like as good as being there, but people will see it who didn't pay to go and that is unacceptable to the organisers. There's been a bit of a stooshie online about it, with the organisers sounding like they regret allowing any phone use in the hall at all. I think that there has to be a balance here.In this day and age, you can't expect people not to take their phones - and in some instances they are people's cameras and the only way they could get footage of the event. If  someone is determined to record something and put it up on the internet, having phones on flight mode isn't going to stop that. It only means you can't put it up from the hall. I don't know how many people we're talking about here, but hte vast majority of  people behaved like adults and deserve to be treated like adults. Surely the simplest thing would be to have, like in the cinema, a "if we see your red light, or catch you recording anything, you will be ejected from the convention, barred from future events and made to delete the material. Then the majority of rule abiding attendees can be left in peace to use their phones as they need. And is there really any problem with tweeting through an event? One person was tweeting in the Midnight hashtag during David and Billie's speech. They're easily identifiable and they were allowed to do it. So, there is already an inconsistency there.


It was held in the Hilton Metropole Hotel near Birmingham airport which is right next to the NEC and a really good venue for a 1000 people plus event. It would be even better if they moderated their exorbitant bar prices a little. £8.10 for a large glass of wine really is taking the mickey, although it kept me sober all weekend. In the lounge, I discovered on Sunday that if you ordered a coffee from the bar, it cost significantly less than if you ordered it from Costa Coffee. Eating turned out to be less expensive than I'd feared. They did a buffet for £10 a head which was pretty reasonable value, but it could have done with being on for an hour longer given that it had finished by the time we got out of the autograph sessions on Saturday night. However, judicious choices from the menu in the bar, with the 20% discount for attendees, worked out cheaper. The room was ok, but it was either too hot or too cold - there didn't seem to be a way of getting the temperature to stabilise. And the pillows were too soft and the mattress too hard for my liking.

The staff were generally pretty friendly and helpful, although the concierge people were really snippy on the Sunday. Yes, they had 500 bags to deal with, but if they're a regular conference centre, they should expect that.

It was also really good that they came and picked us up from Birmingham International station in their courtesy bus. Getting back wasn't so reliable, though. The bus we were booked on left early and I just jumped in a taxi rather than risk losing my flight.

We absolutely loved the weekend. It's slightly concerning that Anna is now viewing the fact that they are running conventions next year around both her birthday and Christmas. She made a friend her age who is into all the things she's into, all the same animes and programmes, and it was quite good for her to realise that there are, actually, at least 1000 people in the world who are quite like her. I think we'll wait and see if there is going to be another official one around the 50th anniversary and then decide what to do, but we'd certainly go back to another Starfury event. I'll even volunteer to proofread their schedule for them. Seriously, it has to merit a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the most errors to space ratio ever...

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