Gallifrey One is many things - the biggest and longest running Doctor Who convention in the world, a place where you'll find a wide selection of cast and crew telling their stories and more fans than you can reasonably cram into one of the largest hotels in Los Angeles.
With something like 4,000 attendees it easily dwarfs anything in the UK, perhaps with the exception of the official BBC run events around the time of the Fifthtieth anniversary. This is a fan run convention, though given this was the thirty-first year of the annual event, it does feel like a well oiled machine.
Jean, Karen, Keith and myself jumped to sign up the moment that Christopher Eccleston was announced as a guest. We'd never seen him at a convention, in fact he'd done a lot to distance himself from Doctor Who in general since he left in 2005. In recent years that has been softening but still, this could have been a rare opportunity to hear him talk about his time on the programme and meet him in general.
We had been to Gallifrey One before, this was our third visit, after first going in 2011 and then again in 2013. Besides the guests (with some exceptions), little had really changed in the seven years since our second visit. It was still vast. At any one time there were at least six official things going on and countless other activities spontaneously or otherwise happening somewhere else around the Los Angeles International Airport Marriott hotel.
Program (sic) A kicked things off at 10am on Friday the 14th of February 2020 with popular podcasters (unlike us!) Radio Free Skaro doing a two hour stint of interviewing various guests. I really should have taken photos as I cannot recall most of the people they spoke to but it certainly included Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor! They did a great job and it was a fantastic (no pun intended, given the headline guest of Eccleston) start to the convention. Straight after that, at midday, I dived off to Program D. That was a much smaller room than the massive main stage and was playing host to the panel Blake's 7: The Way Back. This was a general discussion of the programme by fans, some Big Finish writers and the legendary BBC director Michael E. Bryant. Gallifrey, though being primarily a Doctor Who convention, does have the occasional panel for other series. I particularly remember a wonderful Babylon 5 panel from probably 2013. I stayed in Program D for The Future of Flight. Rather than being about science fiction this was about the upcoming reality of flight, talking mostly about the single host's current venture of electrically powered little air taxis. Fascinating stuff. It could be a fun future!
With a couple of exceptions later in the weekend, that was pretty much the last time I saw anything outside of Program A. That's the problem with Gally (as people call it), if anything there is just too much to do. You need a time machine to come back and attend it at least three or four times in parallel. Also lunch breaks don't exist in the schedule, it's up to you to decide what you want to miss if you need food or drink. Funnily enough I felt I was missing enough already and never took a lunch break for any of the three days of the event. Having said that, I do feel I missed out there too, as I gather a good time was had just hanging out with people during lunch. It is by far my biggest regret of the weekend that I didn't spend much time with anyone during those three days, not even the friends I travelled to the US with! There were a lot of people I know or suspect were there somewhere that I either only saw across a crowded room or didn't spot at all. There may be an even more fun version of Gally where I went to little or no panels. Likewise there are a lot of organised evening activities and then the famous but officially unofficial Lobbycon. I didn't get to any of those at all. In previous years the jetlag had prevented us doing anything much in the evening but this time I was fine by the Friday, so I really have no excuses. We did tend to go out to dinner with a few friends, which was always good but there was certainly time to return to the Marriott for more but we never did.
Getting back to that Friday afternoon, there was a pretty amazing series of panels in Program A. Big Finish always put on a fun panel, this time with the revelation that Tom Baker is reprising the role of The Curator for a Paul McGann boxset. That was quite a surprise! Then we had another tried and true panel featuring most of the Fifth Doctor's era regular cast, namely Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson. They are always great fun, especially the way that Davison and Fielding wind each other up, with the others trying to keep things on track! After that we had a panel featuring a current companion - Tosin Cole, AKA Ryan Sinclair. Naturally he couldn't give away spoilers (and I'm very glad he didn't). As of this point we'd seen up to Series 12 episode 7 (with The Haunting of Villa Diodati set to broadcast a couple of days later). It was an incredible coup and highly unusual to get a current cast member. Though he was careful not to drop any hints about whether he'd left the series or not (I did think there was one moment when he seemed to be talking in the past tense but you could read it either way) he nonetheless was great fun. One of the funnier stories involved Bradley Walsh's party piece of pretending to fall down stairs in front of guest stars, naturally to their horror. Apparently Brad has become quite an adept stuntman, as least for this one stunt! Tosin was great value and I look forward to seeing him in a panel when he can really talk freely. Finishing up the day was the companion before Ryan, who certainly could talk freely. That person being Pearl Mackie, AKA AsBill Potts. She's a force of nature and every bit as fun and full of beans as you'd probably expect given her character. For me she was the definite highlight of that first day, so it was appropriate that it should end on her. The main hall, Program A, was full to capacity (if not technically a bit beyond) by this point. I was surprised that Mackie seemed to get an even bigger audience than Cole. Then, as mentioned, it was to dinner. On this evening, as with the next, it was to the unparalleled restaurant of exquisite delights known as Denny's! To be fair, this was something of a tradition on our last two visits, though mainly for breakfast. This time we weren't staying at the Marriott or the next door Hilton, so breakfast was catered for by ourselves at the Airbnb.
Things quickly rolled around to day two at Gally 2020. Saturday the 15th of February. Karen wasn't feeling too well (perhaps a bit of dodgy seafood at Denny's?) so Jean, Keith and myself ventured to the Marriott without her (she did join us a little later in the day). The 10am start saw Keith and myself go to Program F for the Podcasters Meet-Up. Bit of a weird one with about three podcasters (who I must admit I didn't know) up on the stage trying to hold a two way conversation with the rest of the room, all sat in our rows of chairs and who were also mainly podcasters. It did eventually settle down when they left the stage and their elevated 'top table', we all got out of our chairs and mingled (which was what I was expecting from the off). Quite a few of the podcasters weren't doing podcasts about Doctor Who or even science fiction, to my surprise. I had fully expected to know a good few people but in the end the only two I did know were Chris and Steven from Radio Free Skaro. I was hoping for lots of mutual recognition, like at the first Whooverville, but besides those two I think we were all strangers to one another. I have to say that was a little disappointing and perhaps says more about me these days and my lack of podcast listening (hey, I spend half my life prepping or editing a podcast, I need to do other things!) The room was less than ideal, mostly just rows of chairs and little room to move about, totally wrong for mingling. Still, next was something I was looking forward to - getting a photo with Christopher Eccleston. Really it was getting a photo with him and The Head of Pertwee but I'd hoped to get the four of us in it, too. Sadly Karen was still missing at this point and Jean couldn't be dragged away from a genuinely fascinating sounding panel with Mark Strickson in Program B, so it was just Keith, myself and the HoP. It was barely organised chaos. The rest of the convention ran like clockwork. Panels didn't overrun (though did occasionally start a little late due to people not arriving on time) and everything was generally orderly. Then there was trying to wrangle hundreds of people wanting photos. Looking at the downloads page for the photos that were eventually taken, Eccleston had 709 photographs that morning. For comparison Pearl Mackie had 201 taken that day and Tosin Cole 102. Eccleston's photoshoot was nothing less than massive, even by Gally standards. We were split up into groups but it was very unclear at what time our group would be called (it was a lot later than advertised!) so there was a lot of hanging around, whilst trying not to get in everyone's way. Eventually we did get called (via someone attempting to shout over the extensive background noise), then progressed up the queue. As we got to the very front of the queue we were preempted by a sudden surge of VIP ticket holders for a few more minutes and finally had our photo taken. As ever with such things we had only a few seconds with Eccleston but he was in great humour, though a little baffled by the HoP!
We then caught the tail end of Guest Starring on Doctor Who, featuring guest actors such as those who played Babbage (Spyfall), Willa (The Witchfinders), Queen Skithra (Tesla's Night of Terror, not to mention Rani from The Sarah Jane Adventures), Friday (Empress of Mars). Good fun, once again but as ever this panels are very 'of the moment' and it's hard to recall the details (especially nearly a month later - I really should hurry up with these blog entries!) Interestingly Gally does allow people to audio record (though not video record) the panels, if only for personal use. I had my recorder on me, as you never know when you might want to capture a random conversation with someone for the podcast, but never thought to record the panels. Maybe next time!
There we two live commentaries that afternoon in the big room, Kerblam! and Demons of the Punjab. Neither were all that great, unfortunately. These featured cast and crew and were potentially fascinating. In practice it was hard to hear them a lot of the time and, as they were sat in the audience front row rather than on stage (so they could view the big screen) we couldn't see them, either. A big shame as a good commentary can be equal measure enlightening and entertaining.
Still desperately hanging on to my prime seat in Program A (hungry and dehydrated as I may have been!) next it was the curiously titled This or That panel. This turned out to be a fun game where three New Who companions (Michelle Ryan, Pearl Mackie and Tosin Cole) were all given a series of choices (such as travel to the past or the future) and they each had to choose, preferably with a fun explanation. The three of them worked very well together on stage and definitely got into the spirit of it.
Free from the mutually (though hilariously) bad influence of Janet Fielding, Peter Davison's panel was next. Any other year he would probably have been the headline guest (he certainly was back in 2013) but this time we also had the very much lesser spotted Eccleston. At no point did they share a stage, which is a shame. In fact at no point did Eccleston share a stage with anyone but his interviewers, now that I think about it.
This lead into the aforementioned Demons of the Punjab commentary and then to the last but far from least panel of the day - Christopher Eccleston. Radio Free Skaro's Steven Schapansky acted as the sole interviewer for this one, a role that he excels at and they were both in fine form indeed. I had the feeling (perhaps unfairly) that Eccleston might default to guarded and distant but this was anything but. He was in great humour and seemingly open to talk and even joke about pretty much anything. Inevitably there was talk about the problems on set and the reasons why he left Doctor Who but these came up naturally in conversation and offered by Eccleston rather than prompted, let alone forced, out of him. It was nothing we didn't either outright know or had already concluded. That very first recording block was a nightmare, nobody knew how to make a programme like that anymore and they dropped more and more behind schedule. Eccleston never said the name of that block's director (it was Keith Boak) but he made it very clear that he was less than impressed by him and they clashed massively. It was in that first block where the stress everyone was under destroyed the relationship Eccleston had with not just Boak (I get the feeling that was pretty much from day one) but, more crucially, with the production team, Russell, Julie and Phil (who he did specifically name). There was no going back. Nonetheless Eccleston continues to praise Russell T. Davies' writing and is all too happy to say that Russell (and their existing working relationship) was the reason he was interested in doing Doctor Who in the first place. Eccleston decided quite early, certainly by the middle of the filming, that he had no interest in doing a second series and, the way he tells it, there was never any discussion about it - the production team were equally happy for him to not return. Though later blocks became much more calm and professional that rift was never healed, even to this day. He still seems particularly bitter about the way many of the crew were treated during those fraught times. Nonetheless the fact that he is starting to appear at conventions now is an indication that he is at least somewhat able to separate those negative aspects from the experience and legacy as a whole. He seemed genuinely moved that people even wanted to hear him talk about Doctor Who or invite him to a convention. I think, for a time, he really did think the fans all hated him. There's no doubt that he will have gone away from that panel with a very different view indeed. For me, as it seems with most people who were there, this panel was the highlight of the convention.
What a way to end the day! Well, besides us returning to the nearby Denny's for dinner again. If I recall correctly, back at our dining companion's hotel (the next door Hilton), we then recorded our podcast review of the previous weekend's Doctor Who episode - Can you Hear Me? Again, a big thank you to Kathryn, Bernie and American Karen for joining us for that recording and the one on the Sunday evening. Again, we missed all of the evening activities at the convention hotel, which I do continue to regret but with a day as great and exhausting as that it's hard to get too upset about one's own choices!
The final day of the convention , Sunday the 16th of February 2020, started off with another Christopher Eccleston panel, at 10am in Program A. Given that main hall could hold only a little less than half of the attendees at once, it was asked if people who had seen Eccleston the afternoon before could refrain from attending the not-quite-repeat panel in the morning, unless there were seats left. Being 10am on a Sunday morning, after a night of heavy partying for many, it turned out there were a few seats left. The room was opened up half an hour early for those who hadn't managed to get into the Saturday Eccleston panel (though there was no official mechanism for this, it was very trust based). A couple of minutes before it was due to start I looked in and saw a good number of seats still free at the very back of the room, so availed myself of the opportunity. This time they had two interviewers. For me that didn't work quite so well as it somewhat reduced the conversational flow that the one-on-one of the previous day had and I feel that Eccleston wasn't quite so at ease during the entire thing (no doubt the 10am timing didn't help!) Nevertheless it was still a great panel, if necessarily somewhat of a rehash, though the change of interviewers certainly helped distance it from the previous panel and gave it a fresh angle.
Given my poor seating position I wasn't so desperate to save my spot as I had been the afternoon before. That gave me a little freedom to break out of Program A and try something a little different, Program D. The Legendary Soundtracks of Science Fiction and Fantasy. As was common with these 'lower ranking' rooms, the panel mostly comprised of fans but there was a professional composer with them, who had worked on The Sarah Jane Adventures amongst other things. I've always liked soundtracks, music on its own has so far failed to mean much to me but if I already have a connection to it for some other reason then I can enjoy it. It was an interesting panel, with the occasional bit of example music played in, and was very interactive with the audience. It was a welcome break from the massive scale of Program A. The break was brief, as it turned out, with me then returning to the biggest of rooms for the 12:15pm panel of Daleks Masterplan 2 in Color (sic). A very dedicated (not to mention talented) group of fans had, over many years, gotten together and colourised the second episode of The Daleks' Masterplan. This was played on the big screen. Not relevant here but it does remind me that I must comment on the video quality of that main screen - namely it was terrible whenever playing live footage (i.e. relaying the events on the stage) but perfectly acceptable with pre-recorded material. Presumably this was more down to the camera? It didn't ruin anything but it felt like I was stuck in a 1980s convention a lot of the time! But back to Daleks' Masterplan in colour - it was a massively impressive feat. When I think of colourised efforts from the past (such as early attempts some twenty years ago or more with Laurel and Hardy) they looked artificial, like some kind of weird cartoony live-action monstrosity. This was in another league. It looked natural, even slightly vintage, as you might imagine a colour programme from that era (before the BBC had colour video). It seems to be doing the rounds at a few conventions and is worth catching if you can.
By now it was into the final afternoon of the convention. I was firmly camped, in a pretty good spot, in Program A and we were given two slightly shorter interviews, back to back, with Michelle Ryan (for 45 minutes) and then Anjli Mohindra (for 30 minutes). For Michelle Ryan in particular, it had been over a decade since she appeared in Doctor Who but she looked completely unchanged, somehow! Good panels both. Occasionally you get a panel with someone that doesn't seem to want to be there or for whatever reason isn't able to respond to questions beyond a simple yes or no answer. Part of that may be down to closed questions that don't encourage the interviewee to open up but the best guests will volunteer more anyway. As I think back on this Gally not a single interview went that way. That's very much a testament to everyone involved, there was nobody that didn't seem at ease, even when sitting in front of nearly two thousand people on the main stage. That was as true with these two fun and well natured interviews as it was for the entire weekend. I may not be able to recall many details but I do remember being entertained and informed at the time and that's why I go!
With the afternoon slipping away in a very agreeable fashion it was then back to another live commentary, this time on The Witchfinders. Sadly Tosin Cole had already left the building, presumably on his journey home (if not there already) as he was only a Friday and Saturday guest. We still had a few people who were involved in the creation of this story, though the problems with this particular live commentary setup hadn't been solved since the previous day, unfortunately.
The final proper panel of the weekend, at least in Program A, was entitled The Enduring Magic of Classic Doctor Who. This was an excuse, not that one was needed, to bring back Davison and gang plus a few other Classic Who cast and crew. It was a little more restrained, due to those extra guests broadening it out, and there was a very fine attempt made to include everyone in the discussions. That's often a difficult task when you've got a large number of guests from different eras and each having very different jobs.
The next event, at 4pm, was uncontested, as was the closing ceremony at 5pm. The other rooms were now going unused, all eyes were on Program A. What could this mystery Special Video Presentation be? I had a pretty good idea, having bemoaned the fact that there wasn't an evening screening of the new Doctor Who episode due that day. I happened to be saying this to Chris from RFS who immediately pointed out this Special Video Presentation in a very nudge, nudge, wink, wink sort of way! Sure enough the veteran Gally visitor, who also happened to be very close to the organisers (perhaps even one of them, I'm not 100% sure), was onto something. Given the 8 hour time difference, the UK started screening The Haunting of Villa Diodati at about 11am our time and no doubt copies were already circulating by about midday. I can only assume that some official arrangement had been made with BBC America to screen the episode early for the convention as I don't think they get it until 7-8pm. Or maybe not, hence the coy entry in the programme! Whatever the case, my prime location had paid off! Time to watch Doctor Who with the biggest group ever, at least for me. I won't lie, that was a mixed bag. Great though it is to be in a crowd of nearly 2,000 people, all so enthusiastic - laughing and gasping at al the right moments. That did mean that I missed quite a lot of dialogue, particularly when people randomly whooped, often for reasons that were totally lost on me and probably everyone else. What is it with Americans and whooping?! They certainly are an exuberant people at times. Despite those impediments I really did enjoy watching it with them, even if when it came to reviewing the episode, in a hotel room later that evening, I found myself unable to fathom some of the finer points of the plot! Some of that may have been dehydration, too. I have found my cognitive abilities, such as they are, definitely take a major dive when I'm dehydrated (and I must remember that before trying another escape room but that's another story!)
After that very satisfying special video, it was to the closing ceremony. This usually comprises of those guests that are still in the building lining up and saying a few words of thanks to the fans. There are a lot, even with the likes of Eccleston and Tosin Cole having already gone, they still barely all fitted on the large stage. Many of them I hadn't seen all weekend, highlighting once again just how much is happening at once at Gally - you cannot hope to even see all the guests, let alone experience it all. There was another special video, this time from a small group of people who couldn't be there this year but wanted to send their well wishes. Clearly recorded on somebody's mobile phone, the portrait video started off with a bearded Steven Moffat before Chris Chibnall grabbed the phone from him. Then, also oddly something of a highlight for the weekend, Jodie Whittaker came into view. It was only a short message but I think it meant a lot to all of us, especially as we'd just seen her in a brand new episode only minutes before. Even though she was seen via a slightly rubbish video phone she still managed to exude that natural radiance she has. A great end to a great convention.
Breaking a different sort of convention about eight of us gathered at the Marriott's sport restaurant/bar for dinner. I think I had nothing but a steak and a glass of apple juice (and I do mean just a steak - nothing with it, a steak on a plate, and no starter or desert) and it was over $40! I think for the others this was effectively the end of the holiday but for me, I still had six more days but more on San Francisco in another blog entry. I needed to conserve my funds!
Having at least somewhat satisfied our hunger, at least for food, it was time to get to a hotel room! For we had a brand new episode of Doctor Who to talk about, into an audio recorder. I think all eight of us from dinner were there, crowded around the little 360° Zoom H6, which was put on a little bedside table that was shifted down between the two single beds. A row of three people sat on each bed, the groups facing each other, with two people on chairs in between the beds, making a very rough circle of us. Earlier that day Jean had wandered off with the recorder to solicit opinions of the convention from attendees (and a couple of guests). Now it was our turn, though we didn't talk too much about the convention itself (that would come, at least to a small extent, in the podcast after we returned home). With our roundtable discussions on The Haunting of Villa Diodati behind us, it was time to bid farewell to those not staying with us and return to our Airbnb, for we all had a long day of travelling ahead on the Monday. No doubt the post-convention Lobbycon partying continued long into the early hours, it always does. For us it was an Uber, some packing and bed.
The blur of the '31 Flavours of Gallifrey One', or any Gally, cannot really be explained, only lived. There's always that nagging regret of all those great things that you missed but (for the most part) you wouldn't trade what you did experience for it. Good people and great memories, both of which are a little fuzzy by the end! Will I go again? Probably. I wouldn't want to go without my friends and I'd definitely want to make a full holiday of it but I can see myself being drawn there again. That goes doubly if they manage to get the likes of Gillan or Whittaker along as guests. Hopefully they won't be announced for 2021 as I think we all need at least a year to financially recover. How about 2022..?