So I was lucky enough to grab myself a ticket to the Official Doctor Who Celebration at the ExCel Centre, and even more so that it was on the actual Day of the Doctor itself – 23rd November. 50 years ago to the day at 5.16pm, the first ever episode of Doctor Who was broadcast on the BBC. Sadly, no bugger watched it because JFK had just been shot.
Luckily, quite a few more people watched Who the following week. If they hadn’t, this weekend’s celebrations might never have happened at all. Having spent the big day surrounded by Doctor Who fans, young and old, familiar and unfamiliar, I really wouldn’t have wanted to commemorate the occasion any other way.
It almost didn’t happen though…..
The night before the Celebration I packed a bag and prepared all the bumf that I’d need to ensure my day was as easy as possible. Having picked out an outfit and readied all my toiletries I jumped into bed early and set an alarm for 3:30am. And 3:40am. And 3:45am. And 4:00am. And 4:15am. Now, either none of these went off at all, or I simply didn’t hear them. The first time I woke up that morning was at 4:30am when the taxi driver I’d booked to take me to Manchester Piccadilly called my phone to tell me he was outside.
I suddenly woke up, a lot.
Panicked, I explained to the driver that I’d overslept and that I still needed to shower before I left. He very kindly offered to come back in 20 minutes, which he duly did after I spent that time running around the flat (and shower) screaming obscenities to myself a la Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. My train was due to depart the station at 5:25am. Amazingly I got dressed in time, having made myself look beautiful, and leapt into the cab, poster tubes under my arms.
I spent the majority of the 15 minute taxi ride excitedly telling the driver where I was going at such an ungodly hour. “I’m going to London!” I said. “I’m going to the big Doctor Who Celebration at the Excel Centre!” I said. He didn’t know (or care) what Doctor Who was. He just concentrated on getting me to the station on time, which to his credit he damned well did.
We pulled up at Piccadilly just after 5:00am – which is miraculous, given the circumstances – and I handed the driver a tenner plus a well-earned 50% tip for his troubles. I grabbed my bags and headed into the station, found my train and got on. Soon, we departed, and I got myself comfortable ahead of the journey. This was the moment I was expecting to look through my bags and found I’d forgotten something important, but amazingly everything I needed was still there. I relaxed, and shoved a pair of earphones in.
Although I was meeting Jenny, Laura and Andrew at the Excel Centre, I’d arranged to meet Richard, a mutual friend of theirs, on the train. I’m not so great at making conversation on trains though. I get terribly self-conscious of my voice in quiet public places, so we agreed that we would meet up on the platform at Euston. This we duly did. After introducing ourselves we made our way out of the station and, after a thoroughly enjoyable cigarette we went to find a cab. Typically the Northern Line on the tube was down that weekend, and we had no other way of getting to Bank to join the DLR to the Excel. Eventually we flagged down a a cab and headed straight for London Docklands.
It was on arrival that my excitement started to materialise. Huge banners greeted us, as did a phenomenally massive queue once we’d entered the ‘waiting hall’ just near the main convention rooms. Richard and I picked up our lanyards and joined the back of the queue, where we were surrounded almost instantly by hundreds of Daleks, Weeping Angels and Doctors, the majority waving sonic screwdrivers in the air, excitedly waiting to be ushered forward. We got chatting to a lad in the queue, and our conversation (about whether the BBC could have devoted each month of the year to the corresponding Doctor) appeared to be a popular opinion all round.
We were led past a table with day planners and maps, and through an enormous 1960s television set into what transpired to be a beautifully realised version of the Totters Lane junkyard – home of the First Doctor in the first ever episode, of course – resplendent with classic TARDIS and a few of the old BBC studio signs. It was a lovely touch, and showed me that this wasn’t just going to be a drag-them-in-and-take-their-money kind of convention. Well, not all of it, anyway.
I’d already made a day planner for myself, as I had a lot to do and I had no idea how easy it was going to be to get through it all. First on the list was both a photo on the Eleventh Doctor’s TARDIS, and an autograph opportunity with Sophie Aldred. Richard headed off to join the autograph queue and I made my way to the far end of the hall to get my TARDIS picture. Thankfully the queue wasn’t too long, maybe around 10 minutes or so, and soon I stepped through the doors of the TARDIS and got my first real-life glimpse of the console. Sadly I didn’t get too long to stare longingly at it before I had to pose for my picture, but in what little time I had I was able to take in all the little details. As a special bonus, the organisers had even constructed the glass floor underneath. Again, just a little touch – which probably wasn’t necessary – but it was that attention to detail which impressed me. I left the area and picked up my photo straight away, and while I’m never keen on how I look in pictures, the console itself looks good. It’s just a lovely souvenir of the day.
So, after collecting my image and storing it away safely in my geeky little see-through folder, I wandered over to the autograph queue. I was very pleased to see that despite the Celebration tickets selling out within a few days, the overcrowding I’d worried about simply wasn’t there. The teams on the ground were organised and efficient, and made sure any queues were carefully placed so as to not cause too much disruption for other attendees walking by. It didn’t take long before I’d made my way to the front of the queue, where I was invited to join the smaller queue of fans waiting to meet Sophie. She was happily chatting to the fans about anything and everything, and there was no fear of just being hurried through.
Eventually I reached the front and said hi to Sophie. I should point out at this stage that Sophie Aldred was the first girl I ever fell in love with. She was Ace, and I was 7, and I was going to marry her. Although that never happened (still time, Sophie….!) I have met her once previously, at London Film and Comic Con, and all I remember about that was turning bright red, stumbling over my words and looking like a bit of a pillock. Sophie is so friendly, approachable and warm that she would put anyone at ease. We chatted about my earlier ‘fun’ racing to the station that morning and it transpired that she knew Manchester well, having attended university there. In fact, she lived not too far away from where I live now. I handed her a lovely print of the TARDIS I’d had made some time ago and after she’d signed it I said my goodbyes. Before I left the area however I decided that I now really wanted to meet Carole Ann Ford and William Russell. Thankfully there were still tickets left to meet them so I handed over the cash and joined Carole Ann’s queue.
Carole Ann was very pleasant indeed, greeting me with a big smile as I walked to her station. It was a relatively brief encounter, as there was only five minutes to go until their autograph sessions were over, but she signed my TARDIS image, including the date, which I thought was a lovely touch, and after a few words I went over to William Russell who was sat next to her. Again, this was a brief meeting but William was very welcoming and again signed and dated my TARDIS image.
I carefully rolled up the image, taking care that the ink was dry on all the signatures. As I did so, the tannoy blared out an announcement that I (and all the other attendees in the Weeping Angel group) were to make their way over to stage one, where the Regenerations panel was about to start. I decided to give that a miss. Although the panel featured Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, and therefore was a whole world of awesome, I’d noticed that the main hall was relatively quiet at this stage, and I wanted to take in the sights for a while.
The first stop on my magical mystery tour was the props and costumes area. I hadn’t known what to expect from this, as I’ve already been to the Doctor Who Experience at least three times, so surely I’d seen everything, hadn’t I? No, not really. Aside from the various costumes I had indeed seen before there were a number of fantastic exhibits I was seeing for the first time. The organisers had done a great job of procuring a mixture of Doctor Who, Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood displays, some of which came from private collections. I was impressed with Mr Smith, the computer from SJA, which also made an appearance in Doctor Who in series four, and next to that was Sarah Jane’s famous car, with her outfit displayed next to it. Quite poignant, following the death of Elisabeth Sladen.
The collection included the costumes from the cast of Torchwood, the speeder bike thingamajig (from the cheesy scene in Rings of Akhaten), Jon Pertwee’s old Bessie car, and of course all the Doctor’s costumes dating back to William Hartnell’s days. You could get a little closer to the exhibits than you could at the Experience, so I spent quite a while checking out the little details in each of the outfits. Matt Smith’s series five shirt is incredibly detailed close up. Also made me realise that buying one (as I tried to do) and wearing it would make me look a bit of a twat at work.
I didn’t spend too long hanging around any of the other stands at this point. I hadn’t met up with the others yet and I wanted to explore the rest of the show with them. At this point they were in the Regenerations talk, and I was intending to head into the hall once the next talk started. The tannoy soon rang out again telling us to head over to stage one for the major talk of the day, The Eleventh Hour. I wasn’t meeting Matt Smith on the day (I’ve already met him) so I pootled over to the hall to see what was what. I sat on the back row. It wasn’t full, but there were a good 3000 or so people comfortably seated, while the impressive big screen flung special Doctor Who trailers at them for their delectation.
Jo Whiley was introduced onto the stage, followed soon after by producer Marcus Wilson, writer and showrunner Steven Moffat, Jenna Coleman and Matt Smith, for some reason wearing a Victor Meldrew-esque raincoat, unbuttoned except from the top button. I’m no fashionista, and this isn’t an article for Vogue, but – really? If I’m blathering on about fashion though I may as well give Jenna Coleman’s outfit a mention. She was sporting a fetching blue dress, which bore more than a passing resemblance to the TARDIS itself. Anyway, enough about clothes.
I didn’t make notes during the talk, and I was too busy listening to it to actually pay attention, so I can’t remember much of what was discussed. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube though, such as this one:-
I do recall that we didn’t learn too much that we didn’t already know. They couldn’t talk about the Day of the Doctor obviously, given that it wasn’t on until later that evening, so the conversation was kept to general chat about Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor, and that his departure is quite sad for his colleagues. The Q+A session didn’t exactly blow us away either, with such incisive questions as “what was your favourite episode?”, “why did you want to play the Doctor?” (he didn’t actually seek it out – he was invited to audition) and “what’s your favourite colour I like the colour red it is nice do you like red too please say you like red I love you”.
Following the talk I made my way back over into the main hall. I joined the queue for Daphne Ashbrook and waited my turn. As seems to be the case whenever I meet anyone for an autograph, I get stuck behind the guy who wants to spend the next three hours talking to Daphne about ‘stuff’, while I wait. And wait. And wait a little more. It turns out he’d met Daphne before, at a convention in America somewhere, and wanted her to guess which one. Instead of telling her the correct answer after she failed to remember the first time, he let her carry on guessing. Good work. Eventually she worked it out and the guy left, happy enough. So then it was my turn. It transpired that Daphne had only arrived in the country at 11pm the night before, and as such was a little bit ‘frazzled’ (her word). She proved this by forgetting her name halfway through signing it. She got there in the end though, bless her.
I remember feeling a little sorry for Yee Jee Tso, Daphne’s co-star from the 1996 movie (he played Chang Lee) who was sitting in the next booth. He had nobody waiting for him in his queue, and I think I only saw him sign for one or two attendees. Still, he looked like he was having a good enough time, and he clearly got on well with Daphne, so I didn’t concern myself too much. Plus he was probably being paid a fair amount just to be there. Not bad work if you can get it.
After leaving the autograph area I found myself joining the queue again, as it was almost time for my final ‘guest encounter’ of the day, Jenna Coleman. I’ve met Jenna before, and I’m not normally one for collecting loads of autographs from the same people, but I wanted her to sign the TARDIS piece along with the others. That way, the piece would be a truly 50th anniversary memory – having being signed by the first two companions, my favourite companion (Sophie Aldred….), the companion from the 1996 movie, and the current companion. A nice range.
So I queued for Jenna, surrounded by excited fans. The organisers wanted to make sure that as many attendees as possible would be able to meet with Jenna so there was very little time for any real conversation. I managed to say hello, and ask how she was before handing her the piece and showing her where I’d like her to sign it. This she duly did and as I turned to leave she added that she thought it was a really nice picture. I knew this, of course, but it was lovely to hear it from her……
The finished piece looks like this. I won’t be adding any more names on it, as I like having something started and finished on the 50th anniversary.
The hall was starting to get a little busier now. The earlier talks had finished and the attendees who had left the halls to get lunch were all starting to make their way back in, slightly fatter. I decided, in my infinite wisdom, to head for the market stalls (possibly the busiest area in the hall) where it was possible to buy absolutely anything you could ever think of with a Doctor Who logo on it. Seriously, if money was no object, I wouldn’t have been able to get it all in the cab home. As it turns out I didn’t go as crazy as I’d anticipated. I bought an Ace action figure, before I happened upon the Big Finish stand. Big Finish, for the uninitiated, are a cracking little production company given licence from the BBC to make audio dramas based upon the classic series. These dramas are extra special as they use the actors from the classic series to perform their respective roles.
I was (and remain) a huge fan of Paul McGann’s Doctor. I loved the way he played the part in the movie and I feel it was a tragedy that we were never given a full series with him. This is where Big Finish come in. They’ve made a full series of adventures starring Paul McGann, giving us the next best thing to an actual series. I heard one of these some time ago, but after being delighted by the amazing Night of the Doctor last week I wanted to know more about the 8th Doctor’s story. So, I spoke to the guys at the stand who cleverly sold me four stories on CD (including a Peter Davison story I didn’t even want) and I went away happy.
Finally I met up with the others. Jenny and Laura were at one of the market stalls filling their bags with badges, and Andrew was close behind. Pretty much immediately Andrew was due to join the autograph queue as there were three Doctors he wanted to meet – Peter Davison, Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy – who were all signing at the same time. By this point I noticed my phone was dangerously low on juice (it’s an iPhone, of course it was) so I disappeared again to go and recharge. The lovely folk near the classic screening rooms upstairs happily allowed me to use the plug sockets, so I sat up there for half an hour with a cookie (£2.20!) and waited for the others to get in touch after they’d done their business with the Doctors. The time came soon enough when Jenny and Richard came upstairs to join me. Jenny needed a bit of a recharge, and was coming to pick up her photo with Matt Smith taken earlier in the day.
Once we found the desk with the many photos on, it was clear that a great many of them had come out pretty badly. I’ve found with Showmasters events (the signing events I attend) that all the photographs are well lit, well set up and essentially uniform. These ones though, a little bit crap, truth be told. It seemed to be a little bit of a lottery as to whether you got one without too much flash/too little flash/a yellow hue etc, although it has to be said, Jenny and Laura’s photo with Matt is fantastic. I won’t put it on here as it’s not mine, obviously, but the pose is brilliant. Think a classic ‘Doctor in the middle, brandishing the sonic screwdriver, with the companions reaching out towards the camera on either side’ kinda thing.
We buggered off back downstairs, passing Sophie Aldred on the way, at which point Jenny decided to exclaim “Hey, there’s your girlfriend” right behind me. She was right, of course, but Sophie and I are clearly on a break. Temporarily.
Downstairs we came across Laura and Andrew. After a bit of a chat interspersed with excited fangirling over their picture with Matt, we headed into the queue ahead of the SFX theatre show. We worked our way through a packet of caramel chocolate Digestives and then found our seats in the auditorium. We found a decent seat in the middle of the hall, and waited for the host to arrive. Dallas Campbell (formerly of Bang Goes The Theory) was introduced onto the stage. He then in turn introduced us to Danny Hargreaves.
Danny Hargreaves is the lead special effects guy on Doctor Who, and has been for almost ten years. He’s responsible for all the physical, non-CGI effects. The show started with a highlights package of the SFX team’s finer moments shown on the big screen above the stage. After about ten minutes of this I was starting to wonder whether they were intending to show EVERY EXPLOSION EVER in Doctor Who….! Following this, we were shown an exploding Dalek, and attacked by a Cyberman, before a young lad dressed as Eleven was invited onto the stage and handed a prop gun bigger than him in order to save the day – which he then duly did.
The SFX team then sprayed the front row with the same ‘snow’ they use on the show, before turning on a massive fan and blasting air at them for a while. After this the floor was opened for questions to Danny. Sadly the questions again weren’t exactly mind-blowing. We were treated to such brilliance as “what’s your favourite effect?” followed by “what was the best effect you did?” followed by “what effect do you think you enjoyed the most?”. For those interested, it was the effect in Closing Time when the Doctor jumps through the glass in the patio doors. We also learned that Danny once set fire to David Tennant’s hair, and that the fireball in the Christmas Carol episode when Matt Smith comes down the chimney wasn’t exactly……planned.
One relatively entertaining show later we left and headed back again into the main hall. I had met all the people I’d wanted to meet, and bought all the things I’d wanted to buy, so we could spend the next hour or two just exploring. We went back over to the costume display and did a bit of posing with the gear – Jenny and Laura posed on the space-moped-thing from Rings of Akhaten – and I spent the whole time trying to decide whether I wanted to splash out on the full size Tom Baker scarf from one of the stalls. This one particular stall was selling that with an 8×10 signed by Tom Baker, all for £50. Sounds a lot, but the scarf alone is £50 in most shops, so I was really, really tempted.
As it happens, by the time we got back there they’d sold out of either scarves or 8x10s (or both) so that was my decision made. I will eventually get myself a Tom Baker scarf. I’m not sure whether I’d ever wear it if I wasn’t at a convention, although it’s a cracking Who fan locating device. You can spot them a mile away.
We arrived at the tail-end of the day, feeling the burn on the soles of our feet and ready to watch the BIG ONE. We got ourselves a cab back to the hotel, stopping for provisions (Hula Hoops, Pepsi Max, chicken butty) on the way. On arrival at the hotel, we checked into our respective rooms nice and easy. The others all headed up to Laura and Jenny’s room to prepare for the episode, and I headed back to my room to store my new ‘stuff’, shower and change.
Given the length of this post already I have no intention of including a review of the Day of the Doctor in here as well. That would be ridiculous. I can’t imagine for a second that anyone would have made it THIS far, in all honesty. What I will say is that regardless of the episode itself (which I loved very much for many, many reasons) I couldn’t have chosen a better bunch of geeks to share the viewing experience with.
Right, that was 4000 words. That’s more than enough. Thanks very much for reading this far, you did well.