When it c0mes to fandoms, I’m usually pretty single-minded. Stargate. Mention it and I’m there. But recently I’ve picked back up on an old love, one that I had no idea had such a strong US fanbase. I mean when you can have a successful convention entirely centered on Doctor Who with big guests in like Peter Davison and Mark Sheppard, it really goes to show how well the British show is loved right here in Chicago.
The ChicagoTARDIS convention is what you could call a small convention. It’s a bit bigger than CyphanCon was this year, but I think that if CyphanCon could match what ChicagoTARDIS can do, it will be in terrific shape. The convention was held at the Westin in Lombard, and took up a very large ballroom, a decent sized dealer’s room, and at least three other small rooms for small panels and one reserved for screening various episodes of the show, both classic and revamped. Two more rooms on the opposite side of the hotel were used for autographs, photo ops, and a waiting room for the lengthy line.
The programming was similar to what you might expect from the track programming at Dragon*Con. There were guest panels, and then there were fan panels. The guest panels were really wonderful. The whole hour was largely given to Q&A, which seemed to suit everyone just fine. Of the two panels held Saturday I got to see only one. Peter Davison (the Fifth Doctor), Janet Fielding (Tegan), and Matthew Waterhouse (Adric) gathered on the stage for an hour of questions, reminiscing, and poking fun at each other. A lot of really wonderful behind the scenes stories came out. Don’t worry, video is on its way because I just can’t do it justice!
After my experience attending a fan run panel at Dragon*Con this year I didn’t have high expectations. Now all I can say is that when it comes to knowing their show, these Doctor Who fans put the Stargate fans at Dragon*Con to shame. The fan panels were insightful, smart, engaging, and really fun because the panelists really know what’s going on. Granted the Doctor Who franchise itself isn’t the ginormous mess that the Stargate franchise has become, and that is where fans had dropped the ball, but still I was truly impressed. I think that if this convention had no guests at all I could have been happy to listen to fan panels all day long!
One fan run panel was really a must see because Janet Fielding joined in to discuss one of the topics near and dear to her heart: is Doctor Who Feminist? Having nearly minored in Women’s Studies in college I was interested in the topic from the start, but having Janet on the panel was an added treat. As one of the female companions on the show, Janet really had a unique perspective on this hot topic, and she wasn’t about to back down! Within that first hour I quickly learned that Janet’s favorite phase seems to be, “Are you on drugs?” There are so many factors that go into judging the feminism of the series that it’s impossible to say what the outcome of the panel was. Half the battle was figuring out if it should be judged based on the actress’s career after Doctor Who, or strictly by the type of women they portrayed on the show and how they were treated as women. Really you could have spent an hour on both perspectives!
The enthusiasm of the fans throughout was downright infectious. There were so many costumes running round it was like a little corner of Dragon*Con! Obviously the Doctor in any one of his many regenerations was popular, but I also saw several more obscure costumes. There was an Idress or two, a few classic series U.N.I.T. officers, Romana, and even the crazy captain from The Pirate Planet! Even one of the dogs that I saw got in the spirit by wearing a silver colored box reminiscent of K-9. To top if off, there was a mini remote control Dalek complete with lines (Do not move! You will obey!), and a very detailed remote control K-9 who totally made me squeal! It all had me wishing that I had managed to make a TARDIS dress!
While overall I was impressed with ChicagoTARDIS, there would a couple things that definitely need work. First, the lighting in the ballroom was absolutely lousy. There were stage lights on either side of the room about half way back, directed at the stage, but they were so diffused and dimmed that you couldn’t tell if the light was actually getting to the stage at all. The ballroom lights were also kept on low. At one point someone turned up the lights and the difference was both startling and fantastic. You could actually see the guests! But then some numskull went and turned them back down again. Someone must have complained before Mark Sheppard’s panel because they finally turn the lights back up and left them up!
Second, the autograph queue was just unbelievably slow. This was not entirely the staff’s fault though. It was clear early on that Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, and Matthew Waterhouse were giving each fan a few coveted moments of their time. This was much appreciated, and despite the almost two hour long wait for those of us at the end of the queue, I heard very few complaints. The set up still left much to be desired though, and the staff did what they could to make it work. After nearly an hour and a half of waiting with tons of people still in the “Virtual Queue Room” waiting to get into the line to get into the room before getting into another line to get to the guests, the staff asked that anyone who could return Sunday would do so and they would be put at the front of the line. Surprisingly this didn’t cut down on the crowd at all. At about the same time, the guests, who were clearly getting tired, picked up the pace, and last of us really lost out on the quality time that they seemed to be giving everyone earlier.
I have two recommendations for how ChicagoTARDIS could improve this for next year. First, I noticed that a lot of time was lost because the guests voluntarily personalized everything that was brought to them. This is awesome because it makes for a really unique keepsake, but it’s tiring for the guests when they have to make sure they are spelling names correctly. By the time it was my turn I could tell that the guests were getting very tired and frazzled, but I’m so grateful that they still wanted to personalize my items. At other conventions, the strategy of using a sticky note on the item with the desired name spelled out has proven to be very effective and it allows a chance for chatting other than, “How do you spell that?”
Secondly, they have to find a way to avoid making people wait for an hour or more while important events are going on. Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, and Matthew Waterhouse all went straight from their panel to a joint autograph session. Meanwhile, Mark Sheppard was taking the stage in the ballroom. I expected to miss a portion of his Q&A, but I didn’t imagine missing all of it. Lucky for me my dad is also a classic Doctor Who fan and I convinced him to tag along with me and have a daddy/daughter day. Autographs were not a priority for him so he manned the camera while I waited and waited and waited. It really was disappointing. The timing of the autograph session just didn’t seem well planned, and waiting in the “Virtual Queue Room” was dead boring. They ought to try having a small panel room, or even just the Doctor Who Screening room double as a queue room instead of cloistering us in a small quiet room with two Daleks and a TARDIS for company. As often as groups of ticket holders were actually called from the room to line up, it would not have been an unreasonable disruption. Also they should avoid having their only other guest take the stage while their other guests are all signing. Either way fans have to lose out – either miss the Q&A or don’t get the autographs. For those who were coming back the next day it might not have been an issue, but from what I saw, the majority of people attended for just one day, making this their one shot at seeing all the guest and getting their autographs.
All in all the convention was a lot of fun. I was really impressed by the size, the enthusiasm and creativity of the fans, the fan run panels, and the guests were a real treat. Depending on what guests they have next year I will definitely consider going again, maybe for more than one day.
I give this convention a four wagon rating!