Resembling a giant metallic saltshaker, a dalek, the most infamous villain on the hit science-fiction television show Doctor Who, rolled slowly across the red carpet floor on the Marriott Los Angeles Ballroom on Saturday. As the contraption made its way through the crowd, it shouted in an unmistakable, synthesized voice:“Exterminate! Exterminate!”
It continued to shout until it backed into a registration table, causing the table to jerk and the officials sitting behind it to become trapped.
If this were the TV show, the dalek would have then aimed one of its arms (which resembles a kitchen whisk) at the three people trapped behind the table and vaporized them. Instead, the dalek did something out of character: It apologized.
“Sorry! Sorry!” said the dalek in the same robotic voice, as it backed away from the table. “I didn’t realize I had gotten so close!”
As the dalek continued to stutter apologies, fans watching the scene at the 24 Hours of Gallifrey One Convention immediately stopped what they were doing and moved to help the officials get the table back into place. (As one member of the crowd noted, “Only here will you hear a dalek apologize.”)
The moment provided a glimpse of insight into what Gallifrey One, the annual Doctor Who convention held in Los Angeles from Friday to Sunday, is all about. The convention, now in its 24th year, offers panels, interviews, Q&As, a dealer and art show and a masquerade ball for those who dress up for the event. More than that though, the convention fosters a camaraderie among attendees, who gather to Gallifrey One to share in their love of Doctor Who.
Establishing that friendly environment can easily be traced back to the philosophy of the founders of the convention. Led by Shaun Lyon and Robbie Bourget, the founders are friends who met through a local Doctor Who fan club back when the British science-fiction show enjoyed a small, cult-like following in the United States, said Guest Relations Director Bill Watson, who has been involved with Gallifrey One since its first year.
“We sort of adopted each other as the strays of the science fiction world,” Watson said.
The show has gotten a considerably larger audience since its reboot in 2005 and the convention has now become a destination for fans. Watson still makes a point to walk the floor and ask people how they are doing.
“We try to go around to people and ask if they’re having a good time because, when I used to attend other conventions, you didn’t know who the people running the convention were and it didn’t seem like they cared,” Watson said. “We care.”
This was apparent to attendees Gemma Ramsbottom, 26, and Kate Taylor, 24 who have been frequenting conventions for some time. The friends, who flew out from Kansas to attend Gallifrey, said the openness of the convention surprised them.
“I like the atmosphere a lot more than anime convention[s]; there are a lot more friendly people here,” said Taylor, who dressed as a Cyberman (another classic Who villain). “There’s a lot of elitism in some communities and I haven’t encountered that here.”
Ramsbottom, who was wearing a Lolita-ized Rory Williams costume (a companion to the current Doctor) that she designed herself, nodded.
“Everyone just seems to be nicer,” she said.
Doctor Who, which holds the title of the longest running science-fiction show ever, was first created by the BBC in 1963. The longevity of the show is thanks to its premise, which hinges on the fact that the main character, a time-traveling alien called the Doctor, does not die but rather regenerates, allowing the show to replace the Doctor with different actors over time.
As the show’s popularity has grown, Gallifrey One has actively fought to maintain its close-knit environment. For many years, attendance at the convention ranged from 300 to 750 guests, reflecting the small-but-dedicated American viewership of the show. After the series rebooted in 2005 and the show found a new home and advertising budget after switching from the SciFi Channel to BBC America, the show’s viewership in the United States jumped and attendance at Gallifrey has surged. Faced with a guest list of more than 3,000 people, the team made the decision to cap the convention’s attendance for the first time this year, to preserve the welcoming environment that guests have come to expect.
Though it meant that not everyone could come, the decision seemed to be the right one as the 3,600 attendees fit snugly into the Marriott’s large convention room. They were there to hear the main panel discussions during the weekend, which included speakers such as Freema Agyeman, who played companion Martha Jones in the new series’ third season in 2007, and Sylvester McCoy, who played the seventh doctor in 1987-89.
“Eventually, it gets so large you don’t want to ruin it,” Watson said. “Look what happened to San Diego Comic-Con: The first time I went in ’76 it was all one hotel — now it’s like 120,000 people and you stand in line all day. We didn’t want that. We didn’t want it to just be about standing in line and waiting to see things. This way it’s still small enough that the fans and actors can interact.”
For those unfamiliar with the Doctor Who universe, it might seem strange that so many adults make such a big deal out of attending a convention centered on a children’s show. But people like Brad Trechak, who flew from New York to attend the convention in honor of his 42nd birthday, say that the show includes elements that anyone can draw inspiration from.
“It’s one of the few shows on television which could literally go on forever. [The Doctor] can go anywhere in time and space, he can be anyone, he can do anything, so that, in itself contributes to its longevity. Pretty much anybody can relate to him because he can be everyone and he can do anything,” Trechak said. “I started watching in the ’80s and I thought it was such a marvelous concept: It’s a man who travels alone in time and space and just tries to do good. To me, it’s a universal concept that can describe anyone who’s ever felt lonely.”
This year, the series is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Many long-time fans at the convention reflected on the path that the show has traveled since its first episode aired in the ’60s.
In honor of the occasion, Cassandra Deviny, 55, from Concord, Calif., wore a shirt to the convention that read: “You never forget your first doctor.” Deviny instantly cited Jon Pertwee when asked, referring to the actor who played the third reincarnation of the Doctor from 1970-74. Deviny attended the conference with her guide dog Wiggles, who was dressed as K-9, the Doctor’s robotic animal companion. She said she has been a fan of Doctor Who for more than 30 years.
“The BBC has grown quite a bit, where with the old monsters we used to joke it was the ‘duct tape monster of the week’ and the show was always shot in one or two of the quarries in England; we knew what was going to happen or we were waiting for one of the costumes to fall apart,” Deviny said. “Now the BBC has put a lot of money in it and there’s great special effects. It’s a lot of fun.”
Despite the improved production value and expansion of the fan base, what hasn’t changed about the Doctor Who franchise is its themes of family and friendship. Baba Bueller, 40, used to watch the show with his dad; he now watches it with his daughter Lauren Hirsch, 13. The father-daughter pair flew in from Austin, Texas, to attend the convention wearing matching scarves, a trademark of the fourth Doctor. Bueller agreed that the heart of the show is what makes it resonate with so many and why he believes Gallifrey One is such a successful convention.
“The people who come to these things are really friendly, really nice,” Bueller said. “People forget about everything and have fun enjoying something when they come here. It’s totally make-believe and I think we need more of that.”
Gallifrey One will be back in 2014 to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Presale tickets will be available online at http://www.gallifreyone.com.