Thursday, Gina, Wiggles and I loaded up the car and set off along rivers swollen past bursting. Once again, Doctor Who had us Texas bound.
We arrived at the DFW Airport Westin around 5 pm and checked in. Gina had already creeped the flights from Heathrow to DFW and predicted Peter Davison would be on the one arriving at 5:05 pm. We took our things up to the eighth floor and came down about an hour later in search of sustenance. On our way out the automatic sliding glass doors I saw a familiar man walk around an SUV in the drop-off zone. A respectable kite-flying breeze whipped his grey hair up around his head.
“That’s Peter Davison,” I said.
I rolled Willie’s stroller out the doors past him and said, “Excuse me.” He’d been discussing something with the co-occupants of the vehicle he’d just exited. The Doctor sighed and walked inside.
“Wow,” Gina said, “he seemed exhausted.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Showing up on Thursday keeps paying off.”
We hopped into the car and Gina navigated me to Afrah, which is a Mediterranean restaurant in Irving, Texas. My god. Can I eat there every day for the rest of my life? Now I know why shawarma was the first thing Iron Man requested in Avengers when he’d cheated death.
After getting our fill and then some, we headed to Target for supplies and went back to the hotel to collapse in exhaustion. Wiggles was as cooperative as he could be. It took him a bit to get used to the new environment, but once he conked out, he reverted to his regular schedule of torturing Mom nearly to death all night long.
Friday morning we rolled out of bed around 10 am and headed over to what might be the greatest Denny’s on Earth. Hear me now and believe me later, those folks take breakfast seriously. The service is always quick and professional, and I could tell the oil was clean from the taste of the fried potatoes.
Now that I mention it, I haven’t had a lot of bad restaurant experiences in Texas, and we aren’t always eating at the places with three or four Google Maps dollar signs. Is the pay just better here? Is there something about Texas culture that lends itself to finer dining whether you’re at the Dallas Fish Market dropping $200 or the Waffle House dropping $20? Some budding sociologist needs to investigate, but it sure ain’t the Arkansas Experience.
We jogged the stroller back across the street and headed down to the conference area of the hotel. I was too full of coffee or anxiety or both. My heart hammered. I was in familiar surroundings and around familiar faces, but holy shit I was wracked with trepidation over something. Gina felt it too.
When the first panel with Peter Davison, Dan Starkey and Mark Strickson began at 3 pm, we were up front and ready for action. Gina realized that her nametag had been slicing her to pieces. The plastic edges were sharp like blades, so I fished my Swiss Army Knife out and gave it to her so she could file the edges off. Later, we realized my nametag had scratched Willie’s foot a bit so we doctored on him, too. These are the random-ass things you have to worry about.
The MC, whose name I don’t recall (does it matter, really?), came out and introduced each actor as they leaped out of a TARDIS onstage. I snapped a couple of decent photos and Wiggles seemed to be weathering things well until the first time things got loud.
Wiggles yelped and we immediately moved about ten rows back. One of the large speakers had been situated right above his head, and that wasn’t his bag at all, baby. The next time the panel joked around, though, he wailed again and I jumped up and took him to the back. Dan Starkey made a joke about scaring children. The audience roared in laughter. I gave a feeble wave on our way out the door and we stood in the lobby for the rest of the panel.
I wasn’t disappointed at all, but I was gripped by a great sense of guilt. I’d dragged my son to this thing that he probably wouldn’t weather well (at least the panels) and I spent at least a few minutes feeling sorry for myself and browbeating Bob Talbot for all his terrible life decisions.
We had a meet-and-greet to attend at 7:30 pm, and I was absolutely horrified that Willie wouldn’t like it. Gina and I were both nervous in general about meeting the actors, and we spent the afternoon discussing every potential horrific outcome. We were made for each other in this regard. By the end of the conversation we might as well have concluded that our meeting with these fellows would somehow result in a domino-effect end of our lives and civilization itself.
Then, we thought better of it and agreed everything would probably be fine. Our meet up, that is. We are certainly living out the last days or the end times, whatever that means to you. Secular or religious, we are totally fucked, y’all.
In fact, today during some downtime I saw Trump’s Facebook post about how the media had “censored” his 100 Days ad, and how it was time to “FIGHT THE MEDIA – (LONG PAUSE) BIAS.” I commented under his post that “This is the craziest fucking thing I have ever seen in my life.”
This is the goddamned President, y’all. We haven’t just crossed the Rubicon. We aren’t just through the looking glass. We’ve broken the woks and sunk the boats and Steve Buscemi has Space Madness. Someone call Aerosmith and Ben Affleck. We gotta drill this meteor and our future depends on it. (For what it’s worth, I prefer Deep Impact.)
It wasn’t lost on me that my friends were all wailing and gnashing their teeth on Facebook over healthcare and executive orders and I was here attempting to hobnob with celebrities. Every time I attend one of these now I wonder if it’s the last one. I consider how bad things will have to get before we stop celebrating, but then I remember birthdays and Christmas, and how even during The Great War people supposedly paused to observe holidays. Maybe we can eke out some existence in this hellsphere, but I think this might actually be the time we don’t make it back from the depths.
It is with that great idea looming above our heads we launched into another year of schmoozing with British science fiction pantomime heroes.
Gina strapped Wiggles to my chest, and Master Blaster trundled toward Thunderdome once again. It was showtime.
We checked in for the big elbow collision and stood in line in front of the conference room. Wiggles was his super cute self so our fellow attendees took turns saying hello. The con staff let us file into the room and Gina and I claimed a big round table. We’d just eaten so we didn’t take advantage of the buffet, but I quickly walked over to take a gander. Prime rib. Shit. Maybe we shouldn’t have had supper after all.
Peter Davison and Dan Starkey cruised in and headed straight to the food. They must have been hungry because they piled it on and sat down at a mostly unoccupied table to chow down. A guy we’d met at WhoFest 3 last year plopped down next to Starkey and chatted with him as he stuffed his face. Davison concentrated on his food, and I stood there bouncing William while Gina went to retrieve the one beer each our tickets afforded us.
I was gripped with the fear that I had become this dance’s wallflower about fifteen minutes in. Mark Strickson had snuck to the table behind us and was deep in conversation with a young kid in a soccer uniform. This wasn’t going as I had planned. At dinner, Gina and I had discussed A Beautiful Mind, game theory and our strategy for approaching the actors. We’d decided not to converge on Davison because he was the blonde, figuratively and, at least at one point, literally. Now it looked like we might be going home high and dry.
The blessings of the all-father on the people who run WhoFest. The handlers sprang into action and tapped each actor on the shoulder. It was time to chit chat.
In a bit of serendipity I could not have manufactured, I had been standing up bouncing Wiggles next to my empty chair. Our round table was full and the only empty seat was mine. Peter Davison sauntered over and said to me, “Oh I can’t take your chair while you stand.”
“No,” I said, “the kid loves to stand. You take this one.”
You Whovians will recognize the Leela cosplay from the photo before this one. She was on the other side of Davison and did a wonderful job playing the resident interviewer. We sat around the table and listened to them chat for about twenty minutes when she asked him if he’d ever thought of writing a story for Big Finish, the company that produces the audio Doctor Who adventures.
Peter said he didn’t have time to sit down and hammer one out, and he’d begun to say he didn’t know if it would be rubbish or not when I blurted out, “Well, it wouldn’t have been the worst thing by far.”
He looked at me and asked, “Oh you mean Big Finish?”
I said, “Oh no, I really almost said something terrible there. I mean, considering fifty years of Doctor Who, there is no way anything you’d write would be the worst.”
Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor, looked at me and said something about writing and how he’d use a pseudonym, I think, in case it was shit and they had to throw it out. I’m not sure because I was smiling in a cringe so hard my face split in half and I died a thousand deaths.
Wiggles fussed a bit, so Gina unhooked him and bounced him back to happiness. Davison paused to greet William and comment on his size. Every time today we told someone he was six months old, they said they guessed he was at least eight or nine. Yes, he is literally Harrison Bergeron. It’s about goddamned time, probably.
After about thirty minutes the handler came by (and, if I recall, he was the same guy I exchanged witty banter with the year before when he handled Ian McNeice all the way to the bar – “I’m second in line,” I’d said in an attempt to be witty – it went OKAY) and told Peter it was time to switch out for Mark Strickson, who you might know as Vislor Turlough, or the guy who discovered Steve Irwin, or “I have no idea who that is.”
Leela took the reins again and gave Mark the full Oprah treatment. I was in awe. They mostly spoke about radio dramas and I didn’t know what my input should be on that front. There was a moment, after discussing high school kids with a teacher who sat immediately to my left, when he started talking about how his parents had a one-room flat and he’d come from “nothing,” and I was afraid he was about to get all bootstrappy on us, but he said, “Luck, just luck and being in the right place at the right time, and don’t ever think that you did something that makes you special. Look, I worked hard, I still work hard, but I am so lucky, so much of this is just chance.”
I was like, yeah bro. I can get down with that.
Mark was forced to leave like Peter, but as he got up he played with Willie and said, “Oh, he reminds me of my Tommy when he was a boy!” Wiggles, I love you buddy, but you are the best bait.
Dan Starkey aka Strax the Sontaran (as well as other various Sontarans) sat down as we crossed well out of our time slot and launched into an animated discussion about stunts and makeup. Leela once again dominated the chat, and I didn’t care. I interjected at one point about how the Sontarans in “The Two Doctors” had been six feet tall, and he agreed it was a bit ridiculous, but I was mostly content to just watch the magic happen in the chair right next to me.
We’d run thirty minutes over schedule and the convention staff were getting pretty antsy. They begged us to take the contents of the buffet with us “or else it’s going in the dumpster,” but we didn’t haul anything away except our commemorative WhoFest glasses and Wiggles, who was, as always, the star of the show.
We headed to our room and I wondered aloud why I’d been shitting myself in terror. Gina had a few ideas but it all boiled down to my neuroticism and our general malaise. We got back up to our room (which is right across the hall from Mark Strickson, apparently – Holy shit this could be interesting) and settled in for some rest before tomorrow, which is the big day. I went ahead and shaved my beard into a tactical mustache. The Brig and the Squig are coming out tomorrow. Gina Jane Smith will be in attendance, and I’m sure the guy driving around the RC K-9 (with the app he wrote himself – I asked) will have a field day. We’ve broken the ice with our actors, so the rest is future history.
I don’t want to get too personal with someone else’s story, but Leela implied she’d had some tough times Doctor Who had gotten her through. I remember sitting in an empty house over two years ago and watching the First Doctor wildly flip switches to the drop and whine of the TARDIS grinding to life. I was still eating groceries my ex had bought and my only company was Ian, Barbara, Susan, and a zany old space wizard. Cherry tomatoes. I had a box of cherry tomatoes to go with my bachelor meal. I was a lost dad with estranged children and that boom, like a timpani, along with the sound I now know was piano strings, was escape. It was life.
I’ve now watched fifty years of Doctor Who and then some. I’ve met most of the modern companions, a load of supporting characters, and Doctors Four, Five, Seven, and Twelve. Matt Smith has booked Dallas for October, and we will get here again by hook or crook. We have to, don’t we?
Tomorrow will be another adventure, and I hope I have something to tell, dear reader. Times seem final, or at least approaching finality, and these distractions, while frivolous, represent something we cannot lose sight of. We can’t let go of fiction. We can’t release our want for wonder. We absolutely cannot give up on the romance of what could be.
I claim to be a cynic, but I am the poet who languishes. I want to be hateful, but I am a sentimental softy. Though the thin curmudgeonly crust of years remains that kid who watched every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and took notes with illustrations. I wish I could find that notebook.
Our stories are all we have. This shit is fleeting, y’all. Fiction is forever.
See you tomorrow, space cadets.