Doctor Who Official 50th Celebration (ExCeL London, 22-24 November)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 25 November 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
The lead-up to this event wasn’t always the smoothest experience for many people, particularly when an incorrect pre-sale code went out to fans intent on booking TARDIS tickets and Matt Smith photos. But all that is in the past; how did these three days measure up to fan expectations? And what of fears that the Celebration would be overly corporate, lacking in the intimate, sociable atmosphere of smaller fan-run events?

Doctor Who Celebration: Guinness World Record announced (Credit: Matt Hills)For something originally billed as three iterations of essentially the same thing, it wasn’t only the line-up of guest talks, screening commentaries and features that shifted every day. Each day also had a distinct feel to it: different moments, same venue. Day 1 was largely about organisers finding their feet, and realizing what didn’t work and what needed tweaking, leaving guests almost treated as guinea pigs ahead of the actual anniversary date. Saturday hosted the Graham Norton Show, and had fans commemorating the anniversary instant at 5:16pm. By this time things were running more smoothly. However, on Sunday there was a sense of some merchandise stock running out and last-minute scheduling taking hold (“check at the Event Information/Meeting Point”), but most people were in a post-Special haze and were ecstatic to be there for the Guinness world record announcement at the end of the Eleventh Hour panel.

Friday was, in my opinion, fairly chaotic on an organizational front. Far from being slick, polished and corporate, it was sometimes eccentric and amateurish. Visitors wanting to pick up their pre-booked T-shirts were herded into a long queue whilst other merchandise tills were staffed by blue-shirted Crew left twiddling their thumbs. Only after this arrangement became manifestly ludicrous did somebody think to open up T-shirt collection at multiple till points. Similarly peculiar was the first Friday autograph session I attended. Guests had no photos available to sign (unlike most commercial events I’ve attended over the past few years, which almost always give this option), and those autographing had only black pens with which to sign. Utterly useless on the rather nice Show Planner – printed on black – if this was all you had, and not a great deal of use on the Radio Times anniversary cover I’d brought for Kate O’Mara to sign. Again, there was some rethinking later in the event: still no glossy prints for guests to sign, but some metallic Sharpies were acquired. From the approach on Day 1, though, you’d think that the folk running this had never arranged a signing before.

Queuing was a constant problem for certain things. In a self-defeating and strangely anti-commercial move, organisers somehow managed to contrive a situation whereby the official BBC Shop had continually lengthy queues, lacking the necessary floor space and needing to control crowd numbers. This particular shopping destination should have been much bigger on the inside, and I continually overheard complaints from fans trying to get in. Picking up an Enemy of the World DVD became something of a trial, and I’ve no doubt that much time was lost by the poor people queuing to look at show offers and exclusives (there were lots of 5-inch ‘holographic tenth Doctor’ figures left on the shelves at the end of the last day). By contrast, a rather fine 50th anniversary tote bag over at the Plastichead stand sold out by the end of Day 2, leaving Sunday attendees without any chance of picking one up (stupidly I hadn’t bought one earlier).

Official event merchandise offered a range of things: standard gubbins like a keyring (a smart metallic effort), postcard, bookmark, poster, brochure (thankfully it had a pale cover, so this was very useful to collect guest autographs) and a gorgeous anniversary enamel pin set which staff told me was exclusive to the event and limited to 500 sets. Despite this probably being the best of the bunch, it was a little over-priced at £65, and was discounted to £40 towards the end of the final day in an evident effort to boost sales. Such a nakedly commercial move – like a market trader looking to unload his wares – struck me as a curious one, and all the more so since I’d paid full price on Friday (stupidly, I had bought one earlier).

There were some other brilliant show exclusives (or premieres) on the merchandise front: along with the Plastichead tote, Big Chief Studios were offering 25-a-day of their ‘Day of the Doctor’ Tennant exclusive: I arrived first thing on Friday only to find 001 of 100 had just been paid for, and that there were several other dedicated collectors ahead of me in the queue. Sunday also boasted a few ‘Day of the Doctor’ items that could only go on sale after the anniversary special had screened: Underground Toys were selling ‘The Other Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver’, and Dark Bunny Tees – responsible for a great range of T-shirts across this year – unveiled two new designs on the Sunday, including a particularly impressive ‘Space-Time Telegraph’ one.

Doctor Who Celebration: Cold War model on displayBut what of things beyond the collector’s view? Well, there was enough to keep 13 incarnations busy, so you had to plot a time-space path through all the offerings and stick to your preferences. Even spending three days there, you couldn’t exhaust all possible options. As well as Classic Lounge talks and Screening Room live commentaries that could be pre-booked, there were also Stage 1 and 2 features, and these included talks by Phil Collinson, Bernard Cribbins and John Leeson as well as a fantastic Big Finish performance involving members of the audience and a magical demo from special sound maestro Dick Mills. Millennium FX also hosted some highly entertaining demos, whilst the Real SFX stand and a fabulous range of costumes also gave visitors a chance to chat with people who’ve worked on the show. Another personal highlight for me was the section manned by Mat Irvine and Mike Tucker: this featured Mike’s model submarine work from Cold War and an utterly superb set-up of the gateway, Privateer and model TARDIS from one of my all-time favourites, Warriors’ Gate, which I couldn’t recall seeing in this arrangement at an event before, and which Mat said they’d set up as something new for the Celebration. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

With so much happening in this one hall, it was perhaps unsurprising that people didn’t always think to head upstairs to the Screening Room or the Classic Lounge talks. These were often sparsely attended, but I was privileged enough to witness Philip Hinchcliffe and David Collings chatting over episode one of Robots of Death, the energetic Graeme Harper discussing part one of Caves of Androzani, and Andrews Cartmel and Morgan talking over episode three of Remembrance of the Daleks. The legend that is Terrance Dicks also held an audience spellbound whilst discussing The Three Doctors (and I was especially pleased to see the anniversary special acknowledging his input: Terrance talked about his “wheezing, groaning” description of the TARDIS). And Anthony Read’s forthright analysis of The Invasion of Time marked a fascinating end to Sunday’s proceedings, though I suspect many people were already heading home by that point.

The Classic Lounge also delivered some great chats. I only made it to a few of these. Lalla Ward, Bonnie Langford and Mark Strickson were all great: and Lalla, in particular, adopted an idiosyncratic approach to answering questions: she was the only guest I heard across the event informing a fan that their question was unanswerable and so she simply couldn’t respond to it. She also drew gasps from the crowd (and this was a well-attended session) by admitting that she hadn’t seen The Day of the Doctor, and probably never would. Another session with Deborah Watling and Frazer Hines was also hugely entertaining, with Frazer's impersonation of Patrick Troughton earning an impromptu round of applause.

By the last day, the Screening Room and Classic Lounge were being promoted in the main stage Regenerations event, and there seemed to be more signage pointing out their existence. But I was moved to ponder why they had been so poorly attended in many cases. The pre-booking system implied that events were full (or nearly full, with only a few tickets left on the day), but since this was pretty much never true, what went awry between online booking and the event itself? Perhaps people were stuck in queues and couldn’t get to sessions; perhaps some had double-booked and then chosen what to go to (since the online system allowed this); perhaps many visitors with children decided to pursue more kid-friendly events. Whatever the explanation, I was left with the odd sensation that I was in a tiny minority in terms of being interested in Harper, Hinchcliffe and Dicks’ live commentaries: an unexpected outcome for a 50th Celebration. These events also circumvented the commercialization of photos and autographs happening elsewhere, with a good selection of guests being more than happy to pose for pictures and sign autograph books, brochures or Day Planners. Terrance Dicks, Graeme Harper and Andrew Cartmel were all absolute stars, while Fiona Cumming was also lovely after her Castrovalva episode 4 screening, and very happy to chat to fans.

Doctor Who Celebration: Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman and Steven Moffat on stage (Credit: Matt Hills)Time to focus on the main events. These also varied from day to day, despite occasional repetitions (which actors largely kept fresh-sounding) and a sense that Crew were picking children with very similar questions. Sunday was the real revelation, as this Eleventh Hour panel featured Nick Hurran – director of The Day of the Doctor – and was finally free to discuss the Special, along with showing a number of clips and repeatedly projecting that shot of Capaldi’s eyes onto the big screen. (Is there a fanzine or a blog called Capaldi’s Eyebrows yet? There ought to be: they had become a meme by Sunday). This session also became unexpectedly melancholic, as Steven Moffat revealed this would quite likely be his final panel with Matt, and Matt asked the crowd to “keep the fezzes going after I’m gone”. The Curator’s appearance was also discussed, though part of me wished that Tom Baker and Steven Moffat had been on the same panel on November 23rd, so that fans could ask about the fact that this legendary star had gone up against showrunner control by issuing spoilers about his own involvement. But a question as off-message as this would never have been selected; instead we were mostly treated to stock inquiries (favourite monster/episode).

Doctor Who Celebration: Tom Baker on stage (Credit: Matt Hills)Another variation was the involvement of Tom Baker in Saturday’s Regenerations panel, where he tended to dominate. Peter Davison, sat next to Tom, wore a studiously amused and indulgent expression throughout, with the very slight implication of ‘I knew this would happen’. Perhaps Tom should have been given his own session, but it was truly magical to see him on stage celebrating his time as the Doctor: for those of my generation (I was ten in 1981), this proved to be the day of Tom Baker.

Amongst the cornucopia of Who things, there were also photo opportunities. I was lucky enough to have photos taken with Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman, and these were quickfire but good-natured events. I found both lead actors to be warm and personable, despite the “move along now” setting. Collecting photos on Day 1 involved more standing in a queue, but this had been revised twenty-four hours later, and it was then quick and easy to pop back and get one's picture.

I’d imagine that there are many lessons to be learnt from this event. One of my favourite admissions of organizational error was the fact that by Day 2 a Box Office sign had gone up informing visitors that – contradicting every ticketing email and print-out sent to every attendee as far as I know – "Collection of autographs is not at this desk... Collection of TARDIS photographs is not at this desk... Collection of cast photographs is not at this desk”. Staff admitted that email instructions had caused them many headaches. So, did Crowdsurge modify their processes halfway through planning? Did they even know how the ExCeL would operate? Crowdsurge did, on the other hand, have a habit of sending out emails and new confirmations correcting their multiple errors about event times. Rather like the oddly planned autograph sessions involving one colour of pen (on the Henry Ford principle), you’d almost imagine that the folks organizing this had simply never done it before. Fandom probably cherishes one thing perhaps above all else: attention to detail. And on this basis, organisers sometimes resembled anti-fans, for whom attention to detail was remarkably low on the apparent list of priorities.

And yet, and yet... this all came together as an event from which I’ll cherish many wonderful memories. The entrance to the hall was beautifully done – utilizing I.M Foreman gates, and a replica of the original TARDIS in its junkyard setting, as well as emulating aspects of Lime Grove studios. You really felt like you were emotionally time-travelling as you stepped through the gates, and an expanse of Doctor Who areas and arenas beckoned.

Was it an excessively corporate event? In some ways, perhaps: closing merch discounts certainly struck an off note, and TARDIS VIP tickets promised “exclusive” items in a goodie bag which turned out to contain the exact same Celebration merchandise available to everyone else present. Arguably, TARDIS tickets were really only worth the extra money in order to sit in the first few rows of the auditorium, though the TARDIS lounge did offer a break from all the standing, plus as much tea or coffee as could be humanly imbibed. Meanwhile, standard tickets tended to mean that unless you were very lucky you could only see the guests on-stage on the big screen – inevitable given the size of the audience. But in other ways this was far from corporate: the accessibility of guests outside the contractual circle of current stars was lovely, and attendees were also wonderful: fans happily snapped pictures for their fellow devotees, and I saw almost continual acts of small kindness, as well as those in costume being appreciated by others (there was a magnificent tin-foil Cyberman ahead of me in Friday’s entry queue). The atmosphere was generally supportive, communal and joyous, other than slight bits of queuing grumpiness erupting round the BBC Shop (a sensible response to circumstances, truth be told). Some stars were happy to pose for photos – Bernard Cribbins was a true superstar in this respect – and to sign things that you weren’t immediately buying, e.g. David Warner’s attendance at the Big Finish stand was another great bonus.

In the end, this more than lived up to its title. But Day 1 simply should have been run better – it seems unforgivable to be working out reasonable processes as you go along, whilst also (as I understand it) largely relying on unpaid voluntary Crew labour. And the Celebration should never have been billed as three ‘repeats’ of the same content, as the substance of each day was more than sufficiently varied to merit three days of celebrating, pre and post the 50th. “Three of them!”…but this wasn’t a nightmare, more a dream come true, albeit with occasional darker moments. Happy birthday, Doctor: you did it in style, and those who’ve carried the flame across the past fifty years – and so were perhaps less bound by current brand management – made it especially worthwhile for me, whether that meant chatting to Mat Irvine or getting a photo with Terrance Dicks. Lanyards proclaimed “I was there”, and in years to come this will probably take on the mythic status that Longleat 1983 has already attained for generations of fans.