Thursday 7 March 2019

Chasing Colin Baker: Pensacon 2019 review

Nick Smith, our North America correspondent, goes to Pensacon in search of two Doctors.

Guest post by Nick Smith

Pensacon 2019, Pensacola, Florida. My eyes have been as big as saucers for 45 minutes, mesmerized by a Q&A with Peter Davison and Colin Baker, the fifth and sixth Doctors respectively from Doctor Who. They make a great team – Baker is simultaneously humble and gregarious while Davison is more reserved and paternal. The actors and the audience have a blast.

“We’ll stay after this for autographs,” Baker wraps, “in case anyone got a photo with us earlier and didn’t get the chance to have it signed…”

Wait a minute, I think to myself, I got a photo with them earlier and didn’t get the chance to have it signed. The Doctor’s talking about me! But no, I couldn’t even dream… I mean, these guys helped buoy me up as a teenager. They were a bright constant in my greying grown-up world as I faced what Winston Churchill called the ‘black dog’ of unhappiness. Later, as an actor and filmmaker, I learned from their hard work and candour.

My accommodating girlfriend Dana whispers at me to hurry and I leave the Saenger Theatre as fast as the shuffling, exiting audience will allow. A few blocks away in my car there’s a photo of me with the two Doctors, the TARDIS behind us. All I have to do is grab the pic, take it back to the theatre and get it signed by my childhood heroes.

It’s the climax of an eventful weekend at this six-year-old convention, a labour of love for the local organizers. I’ve explored the vendor floor in a crowded stadium and encountered an Ewok (Kiran Shah) and a prop making veteran - the humble Bill Hargreaves, posing by a speeder bike, describing himself as a nosy kid working on the original Star Wars trilogy.

I’ve attended panels devoted to Doctor Who series 11; another on Star Wars novels, with Timothy Zahn (Heir to the Empire) and Claudia Gray (Bloodline). I expect to be jealous of fan-turned-Star Wars author Gray but she and Zahn are so damned nice and approachable that I warm to them in seconds and they give solid info about the pressures of writing for Lucasfilm (Bloodline was written in 40 days).

I’m really in Pensacola because the short movie I produced, X’s and O’s, has been selected for the film festival portion of Pensacon. The film is a Twilight Zone-type yarn about disappearances in a creepy Florida forest, perfect for a convention that celebrates otherworldy storytelling. And there are some very talented guests; it’s exciting to think that one of their representatives might see X’s and O’s.

William Shatner knows a thing or two about storytelling or as he calls it, rambling. He commands the stage in his own Q&A, the audience Laughing Out Loud at his cracks about his country album, the birth pangs of the Star Trek movies (what was the name of that second one again, he asks?) and the time he invited Rush Limbaugh to watch Monday Night Football with Henry Rollins. Shatner’s famous ego is quashed by the man himself and he has fun in the process.

Another big draw is Jonathan Frakes, equally self-effacing, equally playful. He’s willing to compare directing Star Trek: Discovery with The Orville (he likes them both!) and rattles off anecdotes about The Next Generation, poking fun at Patrick Stewart or as Frakes likes to call him, Sir Great Baldie. Mainly he pokes fun at himself and that’s one of the big draws of the convention – to see the genuine versions of our heroes and find out that they put their trousers on one leg at a time just like us. This has a twofold purpose: first, we can relate to them on a new level. Second, we know that their success is attainable.

Not every guest exudes charm and positivity. I expect Gil Gerard to be a little cocky and full of himself like his character, Buck Rogers – another boyhood hero of mine. In my mind’s eye, I expect Gerard to be the same as that space buccaneer in the shows I watched with my family as if frozen in space since the ‘70s… but that’s not realistic.

Unlike the two Doctors, Gerard still has a bit of an ego, coming across like an old Uncle Buck curmudgeon, hogging the microphone on a panel with Erin Gray (Colonel Deering) and Felix Silla (Twiki). Still, it’s great to see them together, especially when Buck banters with his diminutive friend. Gerard cares deeply about the show and doesn’t pull any punches about fighting for its integrity and its survival (season 3, anyone?).

Who needs realism? We boogie with robots, singing Evil Deadites and steampunks. Attending a Battlestar Galactica panel with most of the rebooted show’s big hitters - Tricia Helfer (aka Number Six), Tahmoh Penikett (Helo), Leah Cairns (Racetrack), James Callis (Baltar), Mary McDonnell (President Roslin), Michael Trucco (Longshot), Michael Hogan (Colonel Tigh) – we sing to Edward James Olmos (Adama), who is off somewhere celebrating his birthday. Callis films us with his phone, McDonnell uses hers to FaceTime Olmos, Penikett films them filming us… for that moment we feel like we’re part of one big sci-fi family.

Another star-studded panel is devoted to Indiana Jones, where we see Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Julian Glover (Walter Donovan), Paul Freeman (RenĂ© Belloq), Wolf Kahler (Dietrich) and John Rhys-Davies (Sallah). They talk about the hardships of filming abroad and Harrison Ford’s focus. I close my eyes for a moment, hear Allen’s smoky voice and Rhys-Davies’ booming one and I’m transported back to a magical movie night in 1981, watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time. It’s another magical teary-eyed moment for me.

A less magical moment: I’ve run to my car to grab the photo of the two Doctors and myself. Now I have to get back to the theatre. I’m running out of steam – I’m not in shape, bigger on the outside – so I slow down. I don’t want to turn up to the signing a heaving breathless mess. In my panic, I take a wrong turn and have to walk an extra block. Dana texts me - the autographs cost $50 to sign. I text ‘ew’ and slow down some more but then speed up again. Five hours working at my day job for a quick visit with my fave physicians. Worth it!

Getting the photo is a more sedate experience. Before the photo op I sit with a bunch of convention-goers old and young, one dressed as Tom Baker, another as Matt Smith, the latter taking constant selfies. They discuss the merits of scarf-knitting, which tickles me greatly. I’m with fellow fans!

All weekend the atmosphere is light and fun. On the first day, the long lines to pick up passes are an indication of Pensacon’s growth. Dana gets a picture with Lew Temple, who played Axel in The Walking Dead, and she tells Catherine Tate, “we love you!” Sadly Tara Reid cancels at the last minute citing “Oscar business.” We see bounty hunter actors Cathy Munroe (Zuckuss), Alan Harris (Bossk) and Bill Hargreaves, builder of IG-88 from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, learning that Harris did the body cast for Han Solo in carbonite while Harrison Ford did the face. The passion of some of the fans is intoxicating; at the Jonathan Frakes Q&A, one girl is in tears as she asks a question. At other events, the people around us are nervous and excited, intelligent and kind.

I run up to the front doors of the Saenger Theatre like Dustin Hoffman at the climax of The Graduate, except instead of chasing a cute girl I’m chasing Colin Baker. The security guys are locking the front doors. “I’m here for the signing…” I pant, “my girlfriend’s inside…” “They’ve gone,” says a guard. “You should try round the side.” I go to the stage door but one of the Doctors is leaving, not by blue box but in a white SUV with tinted windows. Dana meets me on the steps and says sorry.

No worries. I determine to put the $50 towards producing my next X’s and O’s-type project. I’ll keep making movies. Maybe one day I’ll get to work with Peter and Colin and I’ll be able to thank them properly for the little bit of cardio, for giving me a run for my money, for helping in a small but important way to make my life worth living.

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