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First Impressions: Panopticon 97

By Edwin Patterson

Last year, Edwin and his brother Darrell attended their first UK Doctor Who convention, Panopticon 97, held September 20-21 1997 at the Leofric Hotel in Coventry.

British conventions can be traumatic to the uninitiated. Imagine being unprepared to chose between getting Colin Baker, Sophie Aldred and John Leeson's autographs; watching Mark Strickson, Sarah Sutton and Peter Davison reminiscing about the good (or crap) old times on stage; Going mad buying every conceivable piece of Doctor Who; getting an original picture drawn by your favourite Marvel artist or watching 30 Years in the TARDIS (yawn)... Can you do all of them? Sadly you can't! This makes British conventions very different to New Zealand ones.

[Colin Baker]
Colin Baker

This should be all rather obvious though. These are large-scale events and have guests I can actually recognise (in most instances anyway - I still wonder who Michael Sheard really is?), though you have to spend a load of money to get there. Registration is around NZ$100 and the events are always in four star hotels so if you want to sleep, it will cost you a lot. Then comes the merchandise. This isn't the kid's stuff we ply at wooden tables during Video days. These guys are pros and charge professional prices. Warriors' Gate for £20 is nothing to laugh at, or even consider buying! Though some things just manage to tempt you, such as that comic you've been looking for three years.

After the initial shocks, the event began quite timidly with a Friday night game show featuring a limited selection of the hardiest guests. Due to the previous years revelry, this years Friday bash was held in a cramped, column infested, view-impairing basement bar. Even though I saw little, the atmosphere was fun even if Nick Courtney and JNT were obviously tired and in need of solitude. Colin Baker, Gary Downie and Wendy Padbury more than made up for this once recognised and were all friendly, mixing well with the crowd (it helps to offer them drinks). Fitting in is not difficult as British fans are not unlike New Zealand ones. You have the costumed ones, small ones, largish (we have to be PC now), oh - and the elite fan, you know the ones who stay up in the gallery for the entire convention sniggering. Nothing different. Most freak out if a stranger actually talks to them though.

Saturday and Sunday were the main event days with a dizzying array of star laden panels running both days. Eerily the feature story (the one interspersed between panels) was The Invisible Enemy - hah, I'm vindicated! Saturday saw Tom burble on again in his captivating manner (the only one who stood waving his arms with action! Pop star stuff!). K9 and his master (John Leeson) made a memorable entrance, as did JNT and Colin Baker, JNT and Micheal Sheard? All rolled through pretty standard stuff that several years of DWM and TSV have covered in some detail. Even the questions - some quite bizarre - proved unspectacular (I question the quality of the lives of people who can recite scenes and dialogue from films even the guests can't remember appearing in). The Saturday Cabaret hosted by a very patient Gary Gillatt saw an interesting (OK, boring) quiz with the opposing Who publishers and co and wait for it... a black Dalek exploding on stage!! This was followed by the premiere of unscreened video material. The excellent Auton (the best thing BBV have produced) was screened with marvellous reaction, followed by The Eight Doctors parody. This was a lighthearted look at what could have been if Doctor Who came back produced by the Benny Hill team. Sorry, I didn't warm to the humour, well I've never liked that form of British humour, but almost everyone else loved it..

[Edwin and Darrell pose with full size cut-outs of the comic strip Eighth Doctor and Izzy.]
Edwin and Darrell pose with full size cut-outs of the comic strip Eighth Doctor and Izzy.

Meeting the guests is not too difficult, especially if you have an accent. A word of advice though: never call a guest by their characters' name (like one sad fan - "Nyssa, when you were... Oh shit..."), trust me, it's hilarious but you'll die of shame! Anyway, seeing so many people from the show you love is so exciting you flip right into gibbering fanboy mode. It is also scary that they may demystify your innocent impressions of their character. I have to say I was excited and overcome by meeting Sylvester McCoy whom I had a lager with, whilst discussed British Politics. He also entertained a drunken local, whom minutes after McCoy left started a very entertaining fight with a smashed bottle - and all this at 7pm. His on screen counterpart isn't all that bad either; I nearly swooned when meeting Sophie at the autograph table (the rewarding but time- consuming meeting place) - she's gorgeous. Some guests are underrated though, especially production staff. Gary Downie, who wasn't a guest there but attends most conventions - some may know why - is a very friendly person and I talked for ages with him. After lining up for an hour on Saturday for John Nathan-Turner's cool, cool autograph (I've always wanted it since seeing him sign it on a 20th anniversary news item! It's the greatest) I cottoned on to why he was so friendly... Let's just say English fandom has its differences. Due to this unfortunate misunderstanding, JNT wasn't quite as friendly as his reputation and came across as an angry fellow demanding information! Spooky. John Leeson on the other hand and his K9 impressions were hilarious and was great at autograph time ('Greetings from K9', reads the autograph - excellent stuff!). All in all, these stars are the friendliest and charming people and were a pleasure to talk to, even Michael Sheard.

On the other hand some guests can disappoint a fanboy. Nick Courtney (who failed to appear at his morning autograph session) is somewhat of an old-school boy and is really not that exciting to talk to. Colin Baker (whom I'm told is very nice) took an instant dislike to me. This was probably the rather too confrontational, "My God, it's a Doctor" thing. I bumped into him four times during the convention and he remembered me (and my brother) - "those crazy twins from New Zealand" I think he said. I put it down to my accent! I have to point out here that he has changed a lot. Before this I swore he could reprise his role easily. With that moustache and distinct lack of hair I begin to doubt this, in fact I didn't recognise him at first!

After a meal and a short nap, Sunday rolled in. The day started with a very happy and eco-friendly Anneke Wills reminiscing about her time on Who, and plugging her art exhibition for all it was worth. Wendy Padbury chatted with her on stage to some effect, but I was non-plussed about this. The tone grew more upbeat with the best sideshow of the convention. This proved to be Peter Davison and Mark Strickson (with JNT and Sarah Sutton of course) defending the "CRAP" comments (crap this, crap that, Time-Flight crap!!!), video inserts and all. Sadly Peter Davison falls into the "disappointing to meet in person category", regardless of his performance. Peter is shy, unassuming and rather blunt when it comes to autographs. He hardly attends conventions and hates being mobbed. Fortunately there were cardboard cut outs filling in for McGann and Izzy. They were very photogenic too! Sadly (sob), as I had to leave early on Sunday I missed Sophie and Sly on stage! A treat many in Britain have taken for granted but is worth the price of admission.

[Sophie Aldred]
Sophie Aldred

This was somewhat made up for when it was announced (just before I left) that three comic artists were at the DWM table and for a small fee (lager money) would render any picture imaginable. My mind ticking over, I raced to meet my favourite Doctor Who comic artist Lee Sullivan, even forcing my way past the single person at the table (the editor). I've always wanted to meet Lee after his pencils revitalised the DWM strip adventures after years of neglect. Pity I freaked him out by being so pleased to meet him! Sorry Lee. Much thanks must go out to him for drawing a fantastic picture of Abslom Daak decapitating Robocop for me (SHHHHKKK!!!) - cool stuff!! The DWM lads are the funniest people too - they seemed to be fanboys at heart - quite willing to spill the beans on almost any subject but strangely not the beloved comic strip. Scott Gray is very protective of this promising story arc.

However every event has its weak points. With Panopticon examining the small details starts to reveal speckles of disorganisation. There was a lack of signage on doors, dealers' tables, even toilets. The posting of only one programme for the 400 or so attendants caused quite a commotion, as was the difficulty in finding a Steward at important times. When no one needed one, they were always around, but when 30 people are milling about, some a little tipsy, it's nice to know what the hell was happening at 7pm. These are the little details that perhaps one person should have been in charge of. Furthermore it was a pity more technical staff, writers and producers didn't participate in this special event. I would still love to meet Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts - not only for the Bazza and Dazza show but also to meet the man who single handedly brought literacy to a generation of children. Terrance is a GOD!! You see, Doctor Who is more than what we see on the tube - it's a team effort. Surely a collection of the production team and stars from an era would have been very, very interesting! (Much as they have done in the past with The Daemons crew). Shame. On the whole these can be easily overlooked for the bigger much more exciting picture.

All in all Panoptican embodied all that a fanboy (sadly such as me) could ever want. Stars everywhere wandering the crowds, signings after signings after signings complementing a whole load of panels with the "star" guests. Also merchandise beyond belief - magazines, annuals, Dapol figures (a very spunky TARDIS is in the range with a flashing light!), very expensive Target books (completed my target collection with the Junior Giant Robot), records, T-shirts and a gaggle of fanzines, even a Doctor Who club which can get you anything if you are willing to pay. You can even see and touch props - well, before they're taken away because people are abusing them. Hey, I only shook hands with the Sontaran and beat up a Dalek - Mat Irvine exploded one on stage! A thoroughly enjoyable event, and something I doubt I ever experience this side of the world.

[Abslom Daak and Robocop]
Doctor Who Magazine comic strip artist Lee Sullivan's sketch of Abslom Daak and Robocop

This item appeared in TSV 53 (March 1998).