50th Anniversary Retrospective: Official Celebration Event

Doctor “Clara sometimes asks me if I dream. ‘Of course I dream’, I tell her, ‘Everybody dreams’. ‘But what do you dream about?,’ she’ll ask. ‘The same thing everybody dreams about,’ I tell her, ‘I dream about where I’m going.’ She always laughs at that: ‘But you’re not going anywhere, you’re just wandering about.’ That’s not true. Not anymore. I have a new destination. My journey is the same as yours, the same as anyone’s. It’s taken me so many years, so many lifetimes, but at last I know where I’m going. Where I’ve always been going. Home. The long way around.”

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The 22nd, 23rd, and 24th of November 2013 were like all the Christmas Eves, Christmas Days and Boxing Days rolled into one for Doctor Who fans fortunate enough to have procured themselves a ticket or three for the “Official 50th Celebration” at the Excel in London’s Docklands. Twenty-four thousand fans (so we were reliably informed by Nick Briggs) made their way to London’s Excel centre for the weekend of the 50th Anniversary where there was more than enough entertainment on offer to satiate the desires of the most hardened fans. After running a smaller Convention at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff in March of 2012, which mainly focussed on the modern era of the show, they took the lessons learnt from that and turned the dial up to Eleven. 24,000 attendees were split across three days, and each day was split into two streams, known not as Red Waterfall and Green Anchor but instead “Ice Warrior” and “Weeping Angel”, this made the logistics a little more manageable as, on the whole, these groups were largely kept apart, with the schedule of events being duplicated throughout the day at times that were appropriate for each stream.

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Logistics on the day aside, no review would be entirely complete with mention of the troubles beforehand. Interested fans were encouraged to pre-register their desire to attend the event, in this way all interested parties were promised a code that would give them an exclusive two-hour window to book tickets before the rest of the population could descend upon the website to purchase their own. The code would turn out not to be unique, so would soon go viral around Doctor Who fan sites if you were to be looking in the right place and, to top it all, the incorrect code was sent out. This lead some eager fans to try every permutation and combination thereof before some lucky chap hit the jackpot and managed to breakthrough. Meanwhile, armed with code or not, others still were having difficulties accessing the ticket site with IP addresses registered outside the UK or certain operating systems that couldn’t access the site they needed at all. Once it became clear that the code was not unique to the individual but instead simply generic, the corrected version was distributed far and wide across social media before any kind of apology or explanation could emanate from the keyboard of anyone even remotely sitting in the vicinity of Customer Support. Quite where the dividing line sat between BBC Worldwide (event organiser) and Crowdsurge (who’d been outsourced the Ticketing contract) was anyone’s guess. The prime tickets of photo opportunities with Matt Smith and extra-special “TARDIS tickets” were gone before most people had accessed the site.

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Further fun and games were to come. Autograph opportunities emerged with a whole host of stars from the show’s history. We were informed on Friday that the sale would take place on the following Monday only to find that the ticketing website was open for business unannounced on Saturday afternoon. The window was quickly shut and a bunch of fans who had found this loophole were quickly reimbursed and told to join the queue again for Monday. A bunfight ensued for the ‘big ticket’ items (autograph opportunities with the four Doctors) while many of the show’s veritable companions were left unwanted with the realisation that £15-a-ticket for 40+ guests was a bank breaker for 99% of rational fans. If that wasn’t enough, Saturday ticket holders were promised the opportunity to watch “The Day of the Doctor” at the event in a special evening screening, but no information was forthcoming about exactly how this might work, even despite the world’s cinemas putting their tickets on sale (and consequently selling out pretty sharpish). Fans who wanted to watch the episode in the comfort of the Excel rather than heading off-site to a local cinema had to hope that there would be enough tickets to accommodate them. Not all of them were successful. There was some additional, contradictory communications about start times of various events; there were other events being rescheduled by plus or minus half an hour or so, and the free-for-all of buying tickets (at a cost of £0) for ‘Classic Lounge’ and ‘Screening Room’ panels that, coupled with the ability of Ice Warrior tickets to buy Weeping Angel tickets and vice versa, all added up to a growing sensation that this 50th Anniversary Celebration was going to be a disorganised mess of Longleatian proportions.

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In the end, nothing could be further from the truth. Well, almost. I was supremely fortunate to have got myself the holy trinity of tickets, getting a Sunday one as soon as I had managed to bypass technology problems by using a colleague’s smartphone in the office (Thank you, Giles!), then getting a Friday ticket once Crowdsurge/BBC Worldwide seemed to sort out a few glitches in the afternoon that the tickets first went up for grabs, and finally by buying a Staurday ticket off a reputable member of the Gallifrey Base community who was brilliantly and commendably selling it at face value, instead of being lured by the heady prices that these were fetching on eBay (Thank you, Richard!). So, a 4:30am alarm call on Friday 22nd was my signal to drag myself out of bed and make my way up to Docklands. I arrived in the Ice Warrior queue at about 7:50am feeling quite pleased with myself until I got chatting to the people next to me, one of whom had flown in the Canada to be there and the other who’d done something similar from New Zealand. It suddenly felt like my two-hour commute hadn’t been trying at all. Anyway, there was already a positive vibe in the place, as all the beteeshirted masses gathered for a day of unadulterated Whovian fun. And fezzes and tweed of course; there was an awfully large number of fezzes and tweed jackets on show.

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Despite being an Ice Warrior ticket holder, I’d made a decision to bypass the first show of the day, Danny Hargreaves’ “SFX Show” and try and find my way to Classic Lounge panel with Matthew Waterhouse and Sarah Sutton. However, being a little unsure of how the day would be panning out I followed the queue and found myself along with who knows how many other folk corralled in to a large aircraft hanger type space, where we were made to wait until about 9:45 before being shepherded in to the auditorium for the show that I wanted to miss. If I had had my wits about me, I would’ve executed a swift about turn after picking up my lanyard and escaped out to the main area, but once I was in the queue with thousands of people behind me who I’d have to squeeze back past, I figured I’d stick with it and see what Danny had to offer after all. I was an Ice Warrior on Sunday as well, and the about turn worked perfectly then, allowing my a sit down with a cuppa before doors opened at 9:30am. The SFX Show was a very, very similar show to the one that he had put on in Cardiff for the March 2012 Con previously, other than the fact that this one had Dallas Campbell as a compere, introducing the action and asking Danny questions. There was time at the end of the panel for a bit of Q&A with the audience and, as became very common throughout all the main panel events, most of the audience who were asked to offer up a Q were kids, which was all well and good, but did result in a tendency for questions to be of the “What’s your favourite stunt?”, “What’s your favourite episode?” variety. To top it off, the snow machine didn’t work either, so by the time it had finished at 11:00am, I felt like my Celebration hadn’t really started at all.

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From there I went off to collect my first autograph of the event at which time I got to see the main Celebration Hall. It was a lovely set up; a real Aladdin’s cave of Doctor Who goodness. There were two stages on each of which a series of interviews and demonstrations were running throughout the three days, all except for Saturday morning when Stage Two was the set of the live broadcast of the Graham Norton Radio 2 show. There was a retail area that seemed to be jam-packed for the whole weekend, and a BBC Official Shop the queues for which were astonishingly long. In addition, an autograph area, a display of props and costumes, a production area, a Millennium FX stage, a Doctor Who Pub Quiz area, a Doctor Who Adventures play area for kids, and another small arena where the Walk Like a Monster, Vortex Challenge and Stunt School were being run in rotation, and finally an Official Show Merchandise shop all provided entertainment and interest. Elsewhere, quite some distance from both the Main Stage and the Celebration Hall (on the third floor in fact) there was a Screening Room, and Classics Lounge and the Photo Opportunity room. Despite the event being marketed as a single day that repeated itself three times, it was clear from all of this that there was way, way too much to be able to do in a single day (especially if the Ice Warrior tickets didn’t escape from the Main Hall till 11am). Not to mention the fact later revealed that the guests on each of the days (other than Doctors 5,  6, 7, and 11 and Jenna) would all be different too. When I attended the previous official Convention, it was clear then, despite being much smaller, that there was too much to do then as well, so the hat-trick of tickets was delightful.

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As I said, after leaving the SFX Show, my first stop was meeting Jenna Coleman for an autograph, and there was a strict ‘no photo’ policy in operation. Later in the weekend, I got a Photo Opportunity with her as well, at which there was a strict ‘no autograph’ policy, so it kind of made sense. Despite the fact that both events risked being a touch impersonal, Jenna was happy to answer a quick question and seemed to be enjoying herself (although she is a very good actress, so you couldn’t be be 100% sure). The autograph process was quite neat as well. There was a sort-of holding pen where up to eight of the guest stars were sat behind desks at one end, each with a mini-queue of fans in front of them. As a punter, you had to queue up to enter the pen, a process which could take up to 45 minutes on occasion, but once inside you could simply pop from one mini-queue to another if you had purchased a relevant ticket. A member of the brilliant event staff would be manning the front of the mini-queue, ensuring only the ticketed got the autographs that they had paid for, and they were equally happy to take a photo too if the guest was up to it. Over the weekend, I think that only Jenna and Carole Ann Ford were saying “no” to photos. All in all this worked well, although the downside, given that it was £15 a pop for an auto, was that many people’s mini-queues were stubbornly empty as the ‘A-listers’ got the attention. As a result, autographs were available to buy on the day for visitors who had not pre-booked for guests whose tickets had not sold out. Oddly, these were available to sell at the Official Show Merchandise stand on Friday, on the corner of the Autograph pen on the the Saturday, and at the Information Desk on the Sunday. I was tempted more than once to buy additional autos after spying heroes of my childhood sat there with no-one talking to them.

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Then it was time to go and attend the Main Panels. These were “Regenerations” followed by “Eleventh Hour”; the former concentrating on so-called Classic Series Doctors with Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy being interviewed by Nick Briggs, and the latter, after 20 minutes of staying in your seats, was the current Doctor Who team of Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman, Steven Moffat and Marcus Wilson being interviewed by Matthew Sweet on Friday and Sunday, with Jo Wiley standing in on Saturday. Over the course of the three days, each of these panels ran six times (once for each stream, each day) so there was a possibility that there would be some repetition. However, the Regenerations panel featured an extra-special guest on the Saturday in the form of Tom Baker. Unfortunately, this was before his cameo appearance on Saturday night’s episode so there was no whisper (at least none that I heard) about the fact he was to be in it. Also, the Eleventh Hour panel on Sunday feature Nick Hurran (director of the 50th Anniversary Special) in place of Marcus Wilson. I have to admit that the six panels that I attended were thoroughly engaging, even though a couple of tales were repeated. The stand-out panel for me was the Eleventh Hour on Sunday. The whole place was in that post-“Day of the Doctor” euphoria, there were no more secrets to be kept back, people could talk about Tom’s cameo, Peter Capaldi’s brief appearance, Peter Davison’s “5-ish Doctors Reboot” but most of all, when conversation turned to the fact that this could very well be the last time Matt Smith and Steven Moffat would be on a panel together there was genuine emotion on show. Both of the men gave heartfelt little speeches about the other, and their obvious friendship and love of the show, was palpable. Matt even asked Jenna to take a picture of him and Steven in front of the adoring fans a keepsake.

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The hidden gems of the weekend from my perspective were the “Classic Lounge” and “Screening Room”: the Lounges were interview panels with a host much like the ones on the Main Stage but mainly with companions instead of Doctors, and the Screenings were the chance for behind-the-scenes folk to give what was effectively a live DVD commentary on particular episodes. The smaller room size, made them feel a bit more intimate and, unless the guests had to be whisked off elsewhere in a hurry, they were approachable afterwards. Everyone seemed so happy to be there and it was at one of these events, the “Screening Room” for ‘Caves of Androzani, episode 4’ at 5:16pm on the Saturday evening, the moment that Doctor Who turned Fifty, that Graham Harper (legend) and Dick Mills (also, legend) led the audience in a rendition of Happy Birthday, which was pretty special and not anywhere near as cheesy as it might sound. The best “Classic Lounge” that I attended was the one with Toby Hadoke on Master of Ceremonies duty with Louise Jameson, Sophie Aldred and Katy Manning which was a joy from first to last, especially as Toby has a freakishly encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject.

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So let’s talk about the queuing. Typically, the thought of standing in a line is a good enough reason for fear and dread in the best of circumstances, but at this event something strange and magical happened. There was a real vibe about the place. A delight at being there in general, but a growing anticipation about the Anniversary Special for the first couple of days and a slightly euphoric disbelief on the Sunday about the success of it all, especially after the viewing figures and the Guinness World Record presentation early in the day, were discovered. So in these queues friendships were forged, mutual photographs were taken, cosplayers were admired and much banter ensued. Also, with the exception of the Main Show panels, the queues were snaking around the event itself, so there was often some part of the event to enjoy from a distance or overhear. And of course, the dawn of the smartphone age means that one is never alone with Twitter in your pocket. The general sense of prevailing goodwill continued into the evenings after the Celebration had closed its doors. I was involved in a meetup of like-minded folk from the Gallifrey Base community on Friday at a local watering hole and perhaps my only regret was not getting a team photo to commemorate the occasion. Even more fun and games were to be had on the Saturday night. Some lucky two-and-a-half thousand had tickets for a 2D showing of the special on site, but others, like me, had tickets to the SkySuperScreen at the O2 dome and got to watch a twenty metre screen of glorious 3D along with hundreds of other fans and even a Lady Cassandra cosplayer who got a round of applause herself.

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Also a word for the merchandise area(s). There were is essence, three areas dedicated to buying stuff. Firstly there was the Official Show Merchandise store, VIP ticket holders got themselves a goody bag with some bits of merchandise in it as part of their ticket. Non-VIP members seemed to be able to buy the self-same stuff and the bag as well from this store. The design and style of this stuff was not overly brilliant, but that didn’t stop me buying a couple of cheap bits and bobs for keepsakes. Secondly, there was the Official BBC Shop, this was where the limited edition “Enemy of the World” DVD showed up, along with exclusive Dark Bunny teeshirts for those who wanted one, but the queues to this shop were insanely long all day, every day. So much so that they had a bouncer on the entrance controlling numbers. Thirdly, finally, and best of all there was the rest of the retailers. To be honest this could’ve been three times the size to accommodate all the people but some excellent stands where peddling the wares. Notable amongst them…. Dark Bunny Tees (aka Alex) with whom I had a beer or two on Friday, who launched exclusive teeshirts in his 2013 Anniversary Series as well as two special tees on Sunday based on the Anniversary special itself. Who knows what kind of Non-Disclosure Agreement he had to sign to get those agreed to? Rubbertoe Replicas were there with the lovely Nick Robato who was the guy behind creating some of the on-screen artifacts for BBC Wales in Cardiff, who then set up his own company to sell replicas using the original processes and other beautiful trinkets inspired by the show. The Doctor Who Figurine Collection from Eaglemoss were also on-hand to show off some the forthcoming prototypes for what subscribers to this tome can expect. Some of the were, let me tell you (in the voice of Craig Revel Horwood) “Gor.Ge.Ous”. Also, there were Big Chief, purveyors of Art Prints and 1:6 scale action figures. I confess, they got most of my spending money. Many others were available, I could go on but for the sake of expediency, I won’t.

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So, here’s my personal selection of events that I attended. Friday: SFX Show, autograph with Jenna, Screening Room (An Unearthly Child with Waris Hussein and Dick Mills), Stage Two Interview with Bernard Cribbins, Regenerations Show, Eleventh Hour show, autograph with Bernard Cribbins, Screening Room (School Reunion with Phil Collinson, Louise Page and James Hawes). Saturday: Autographs with Carole Ann Ford and William Russell, Regenerations Show, Eleventh Hour show, Classic Lounge with Katy Manning, Louise Jameson and Sophie Aldred, Stage Two Eighth Doctor Panel with Geoffrey Sax, Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Ji Tso, Stage Two interview with Janet Fielding and Nicola Bryant, Screening Room (Caves of Androxani, episode 4 with Graham Harper). Sunday: Photo opportunity on 2010 TARDIS set, Photo opportunity with Jenna, Autographs with Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, Regenerations Panel, Eleventh Hour panel, Stage Two interview with Jacqueline King and Adjoa Andoh, Stage One interview with Matt Irvine and Mike Tucker. Interspersed with all this was plenty of other stuff and over the course of the three days I managed to get autographs from the following lovely people…. Dr Matthew Sweet, Matt Irvine, Mike Tucker, Edward Russell, Ailsa Berk, James Hawes, Terrence Dicks, Dallas Campbell, Danny Hargreaves, Sophie Aldred, Matthew Waterhouse, Louise Martin, Annette Badland, Jenna Coleman, Nick Briggs, Nicholas Pegg, Barnaby Edwards, Waris Hussein, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, William Russell, David Warner, Velile Tshabalala, Katy Manning, Louise Jameson, Bonnie Langford, Nicola Bryant, Lalla Ward, Phil Collinson, Dick Mills, Graeme Harper, Lindsay Bocanorsi, Catrin Stewart, Carole Ann Ford, Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, Bernard Cribbins, Karen Gledhill, Lisa Bowerman, & Lisa Greenwood. (I was actually trying to get 50 autographs in recognition of the 50 years but managed 40 in the end, not that I can complain at that of course).

So, there you have it. Rumours are going around that another Cardiff event is being planned for 2014. If true, and even if the ticketing process is still troublesome, I will endeavour to be first in the queue. What an AMAZING weekend. Happy birthday Doctor Who.

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  1. Great Write Up! Great photos… it was an amazing weekend.

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