Pop-Culturalist Attends WHOlanta
British sci-fi series Doctor Who has taken over the world since its inception in 1963. The show centers on The Doctor, a humanoid alien who travels in a 1950s style police box known as the TARDIS. During his exploits, he is often faced with otherworldly foes and evil humans as he saves the universe countless times. His ability to reorganize his cells and transform his body when he is critically injured (a process known as regeneration) makes him nearly immortal and he spends much of his time traveling with one or more human companions. Doctor Who‘s original TV run (known as the Classic series) lasted from 1963-1989 but the show’s diehard fans kept hope alive by writing copious amounts of fanfic and producing audio serials. The show made a triumphant return to TV in 2005 and became a worldwide phenomenon, sparking a new wave of Doctor Who fan-run conventions.
From May 5th-7th, Whovians gathered in Atlanta, GA at the Marriott Century Center to celebrate all things Doctor Who at Wholanta. The multigenre event launched the same year as the reprisal of Doctor Who (2005) and was then known as a TimeGate. Last year, the convention dropped StarGate from its lineup due to declined interest, pushed the date up to early May, and used the name Wholanta for the first time in 2017. Wholanta had a major focus on Doctor Who with Colin Baker (Sixth Doctor), Nicola Bryant (80s companion Peri Brown), Camille Coduri (companion Rose Tyler’s mom), and Doctor Who writer Jamie Mathieson (“Mummy on the Orient Express” “Flatline”) but the convention also celebrated several other geek interest areas. The programming design was a smaller scale version of DragonCon and featured 6 major tracks: Gallifrey (Doctor Who), British Pub, Otherworlds, Literary/costuming, Main programming featuring guest panels, and a Kids track. Wholanta also had a gaming room and video theatre for attendees who wanted to play a few board games or escape the crowds and watch old favorites like Spaceballs.
Convention Director R. Alan Siler and his team’s decision to move the convention from Memorial weekend was an excellent choice. This year’s Free Comic Book Day and a brand new Doctor Who episode fell on the second day of Wholanta. The latter was a lucky coincidence because the show took a year hiatus and decided to debut season 10 in the Spring instead of its normal Fall slot. Wholanta attendees gathered together to watch “Knock Knock” together in the main panels room and shared a bit of laughter as they followed The Doctor and companion Bill’s latest adventure. To celebrate Free Comic Book Day, Wholanta teamed up with Titan Comics and gave away a four Doctors comic to the first couple of hundred fans who managed to get in line. And, geek paraphernalia website ThinkGeek also got in on the fun with plush giveaways for a few attendees!
With several tracks and main programming panels running simultaneously, it was impossible to catch everything going on at Wholanta. But, the following panels are a great sample of what Wholanta attendees experienced at the 2017 convention:
An Hour with Camille Coduri
Actress Camille Coduri made her debut appearance at Wholanta and her bubbly, comedic personality made her an instant fan favorite. Coduri portrayed Jackie Tyler, the mother of the first modern Who companion Rose Tyler. Jackie Tyler was a recurring character in the first two seasons and made a couple of guest appearances in later seasons. She revealed she wanted to be a nurse as a child, but quickly discovered she was horrified by blood. She was a wayward teen who herself through acting in plays and eventually attended a theatre school. Camille watched Doctor Who as a kid and became a fervent Third Doctor fan. She surprisingly preferred him over Tom Baker’s ever-popular Fourth Doctor. Years later, she heard Doctor Who was coming back and she didn’t think much of it until she got a call that a confidential script would get biked to her. She thought it was interesting to see a mom included in the show because the Classic series never focused on a companion’s family. She got the call back to come in and redo her audition (because it was terrible) and she felt like she failed again until she heard she got the part. Camille knew when she read the scripts that the show would be a success again. She also showered her former co-star Billie Piper and current companion star Pearl Mackie with praise for their acting chops. In an earlier media Q&A, she spoke with me about reprising the role of Jackie in the newly released Ninth Doctor Chronicles:
“I had to watch some Doctor Who just to give me a refresher, even though she [Jackie] will never leave me. She won’t leave anybody alone, will she? The moment you see the script, you know how she is and you know how you would be again. I thought “Oh this is weird” because it seems like yesterday but it has been 12 years. It felt weird but fantastic. Lovely to be her again. Lovely to be Jackie again.” – Camille Coduri
The Wonderful Women of Doctor Who
Camille Coduri and Nicola Bryant teamed up for a panel to compare/contrast their experiences as women in Doctor Who. Like Camille, Nicola also watched Doctor Who as a child and said she dreamed of becoming a companion one day. She realized her dream when she portrayed Peri, but admitted that women/companion actors didn’t have much input in the creative process. Companions’ lives and stories were never a focal point because The Doctor was the clear star of the show. Nicola believed it had to be this way in the Classic era because the show was revolutionary and it was the best way to help viewers understand all of the novel ideas presented in the series (ex. regeneration.) She loved Peri’s spunk in the first two scripts she read, but she also faced frustration with then showrunner John Nathan Turner, who told her to send a picture of herself in a bikini to make sure she wasn’t hiding “anything weird.” Nicola also wondered what Peri’s parents thought about her disappearance and was glad that the aftermath of a companion disappearing with The Doctor was told via Rose Tyler.
Camille noted how this changed in her era with the show focusing more on the companions’ lives outside of the TARDIS. She also appreciated how Jackie and Rose’s clothing was practical and comfortable while Nicola was aware of her character’s wardrobe being designed for the male gaze. The ladies had a difference of opinion on hanky panky in the TARDIS with Nicola vehemently denying a relationship between Peri and the young (and handsome) Fifth Doctor. She said he reminded her of her deceased father, so it would have been weird to have a romantic slant to their relationship. Camille was all for a Doctor/companion relationship and shipped Rose with the Tenth Doctor. Both women were in favor of a woman Doctor, but said the BBC isn’t ready to make the leap in fear of backlash. The pair had great chemistry as they chatted about Peri’s difficulties in an essentially abusive relationship with the Sixth Doctor and her exit from the show. They also loved Jackie’s revolutionary moment when she smacked The Doctor and believed Doctor Who is still a show that brings families together.
The Inside Scoop from Doctor Who Writer Jamie Mathieson
Jamie Mathieson made his way to Wholanta to talk about the episodes he has written for the show in seasons 8-10. Mathieson was a former standup comedian who didn’t start to take writing serious until age 30. His writing journey led to him penning season 8 favorites “Flatline” and “Mummy on the Orient Express.” Jamie was terribly sick during the weekend, but he brought his trash can and ginger ale to a commentary panel about “Mummy on the Orient Express.” During the panel, attendees watched the episode while Mathieson dropped facts about the development of the script, last-minute changes, and showrunner Steven Moffat’s brilliant suggestions for the storyline. He was on the set to witness the opening scene and said they had to shoot the first death multiple times. Mathieson also said the concept of this trip being a last hurrah for Twelve/Clara was a later addition and the adventure was supposed to depict the pair on a holiday.
Supporting character Maisie was named after his niece and designed to separate Clara from the Doctor so the episode would be companion-lite. Peter Capaldi came up with the “jelly baby” reference and Mathieson gladly honored his request to add it to the script. The people on the train who turned out to be holograms were added as a money saving device to avoid paying extras. And, when popular character Perkins (Frank Skinner) declined an offer to travel in the TARDIS, Mathieson said the actor wanted to film a take where he accepted The Doctor’s offer purely for Skinner’s personal enjoyment as a fan, so they allowed him to live his dream.
Mathieson also talked about his process as a writer and how he likes to make things difficult for his characters so it makes the viewer proud of them when they triumph. He deferred to Steven Moffat to fill in the gaps with the Twelve/Clara dynamic because Moffat knew where he wanted the relationship to go in that season. Moffat also came up with the concept of the 66 second timer in the corner, which forced Mathieson to rewrite parts of the script so the character’s final speeches would fit into the time restraint. In a media interview, Mathieson revealed a bit about his latest effort “Oxygen” and said that the story would be “horrible” in the best way with a grim ending—a promise he kept with the revelation of The Doctor being blind at the end of the episode.
All New Doctor Who, All New Thoughts
Season 10 of Doctor Who was only four episodes in at the time of Wholanta 2017, but it was still a major topic of discussion. The “New Season So Far” examined the first three episodes of the season and took a close look at Twelve’s burgeoning relationship with Bill Potts. The panel all agreed that the season was off to a fun, entertaining start. They also liked how Bill and Twelve had a student/teacher relationship similar to Ace/Seven in the Classic series. The episodes all flowed together similar to the Classic serials with the new one picking up right after the previous ending. “The Pilot” got mixed reviews from the panelists, who praised Pearl Mackie’s debut performance but questioned the direction and cohesiveness of the storyline. ESW Podcast‘s Jennifer Hartshorn liked how Bill was just a regular companion as opposed to her predecessors in the modern series who all end up with some sort of superhuman abilities or a “most important person” in the world status. She also appreciated Bill’s ability to come up with ingenious questions that other companions wouldn’t think to ask. “Thin Ice” was used as an example of Bill challenging the Doctor in an unorthodox way when she asked him if he ever killed anyone. Kathryn Sullivan appreciated “Smile” for having a colony filled with an East Asian population and thought Bill did a great job of accepting things. Mike Faber said “Smile” was a great overall concept and Peter Capaldi had found a great rhythm as The Doctor. The panelists credited the TARDIS team’s tight relationship to them spending a lot of time together before embarking on a journey in the TARDIS. Of course, the panelists and audience mused about who could be in the mysterious vault that has Nardole in a tizzy. Was it a version of the Master from the modern series? The Valeyard or the Rani from Classic Who? Or could it be River Song? The speculation took up a chunk of time and got the room excited.
After “Knock, Knock” aired, a reaction panel took place immediately afterward to discuss the latest adventure. Jennifer also headed this panel along with Martin Hennessee, and they weren’t afraid to tackle the good, bad, and outright confusing elements of this story. David Suchet received much praise as the Landlord at Bill’s disastrous new home. There was a lot of suspension of belief in the story and several questions about how Bill’s friends were freed at the end but the other victims remained dead. Jennifer thought the decision eliminated some of the consequence of the episode and said they could have done more with the wood fairy element they touched on with Eliza. She also thought “Knock Knock” followed the pattern of previous episodes in season 10 with no pure villain but rather a misguided antagonist. The audience loved the mix of classic horror, suspense, and the emotional exchange between the Landlord and his mother. The panelists mused about the number 70 and its importance in the series. The wood lice in “Knock Knock” had been around for 70 years—the same amount of time which The Doctor had been a teacher and the timespan for the vault. The forgettable supporting characters were also a down point, but everyone loved the Doctor’s attempt to appeal to Bill’s friends and her response to his presence. It showed how Bill was a companion in the vein of other Moffat characters, who wanted to balance TARDIS travel with a normal life. Bill also referred to him as her grandfather, stirring up fan theories about if Bill was somehow related to Susan. Overall, the episode was a fun time for everyone despite its pitfalls.
The Worlds Beyond the Doctor Who
Doctor Who was a big deal at Wholanta, but the convention offered so much more for fans. Red Dwarf, Broadchurch, Victoria, Logan (movie), Star Wars, and Star Trek were among many other panels offered by the con to touch on different fandoms. Big Finish audios were also a topic of discussion as MarkWho 42 talked about both Doctor Who related audios as well as Big Finish’s other offerings. Tribute panels celebrating the tenth anniversary of The Sarah Jane Adventures and the life of John Hurt tugged at the heartstrings of attendees. The Sarah Jane Adventures panelists Martin and Bill weren’t afraid to admit their crushes on Sarah Jane as a companion when they fell in love with Doctor Who. The conversation of the companion’s importance came up and Martin made an interesting suggestion, saying the companion is the de facto most important person on Earth because they are currently tied to The Doctor. The panelists believed The Sarah Jane Adventures was a hard hitting, emotional TV series that treated the kids in the series and the target audience as intelligent beings. Martin said it showed how The Doctor imprints on his companions and explored how Sarah Jane became a mini Doctor in her own right with a roster of companions. Bill said he enjoyed it more than Torchwood because the writing was solid. Of course, Elizabeth Sladen’s dynamic acting was praised as well as the show’s penchant for taking risks with storylines. Martin believed the show was able to accomplish this because it wasn’t expected to be a BBC juggernaut like Doctor Who. A couple of panelists admitted the last season was hard to watch due to Sladen’s untimely death in 2011, but the show gave them more memories to cherish her incredible talent as the quintessential companion.
The John Hurt panel looked at the iconic actor’s career outside of being the War Doctor. Tony Bowers said every John Hurt movie showed the actor giving his all and his willingness to take major risks in movies like The Naked Civil Servant, where he played a flamboyant, homosexual man in the 1930s. Lee Martindale celebrated his incredible range and Mark Maddox cited The Elephant Man as an example of how he was able to translate powerful facial expressions, even though he had to wear heavy prosthetics. Of course, his role as the War Doctor was also mentioned as the audience appreciated his quiet strength and boldness in the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special and subsequent Big Finish audios.
Live-Action Disney packed a lot of conversation in one hour about how well animated Disney stories translated to movies. Kaitlin brought up Beauty and the Beast and said she enjoyed it with her daughter despite a few minor changes to how the characters were presented. In the live-action film, the Prince met the Enchantress as an adult and the castle employees were forgotten members of the town, which she thought was a cruel move. The Enchantress inspired a few theories from the panelists about who she is, including Darbi’s theory that she was Maleficent, a character that the panelists and audience adored as a villain. The conversation then diverted to live-action Maleficent with Angelina Jolie. Katlin thought the live action version turned her into a scorned woman. Darbi agreed and said she thought Maleficent was an excellent, nihilistic female villain in the animated series. The panelists thought Maleficent would have worked well if it was just a brand new movie with a new villainess. Disney’s Descendants was discussed as an overall interesting concept and the live-action Jungle Book was noted as a movie for a different target audience. However, the Jungle Book‘s live adaptation stayed true to its source material. In the end, the panelist thought live action movies work best when they are a reinterpretation and not a replacement of the animated origin.
Panels aside, Wholanta offered a dealers room filled with great merch for guests as well as various entertainment events. Moxie Magnus had fans in stitches late Friday night with her improvisation act featuring her as “Doctor Ho” with her trusty companion as they traveled to find the keys of time. Audience participation and their wild ideas made the event not suitable for children, but a great time for adults with a twisted sense of humor. Moxie returned with several other music acts on Saturday night for the charity masquerade and charity cabernet, which was followed by a “Mummy on the Orient Express” themed dance party. And, a convention isn’t a convention without incredible cosplay!
The convention’s vibrant, organized environment can be attributed to its superb and professional staff. Wholanta’s staff went the extra mile to provide a con which felt like home, down to providing three hearty meals a day as well as snacks for their con family in a presidential suite. The interactions between staff and guests were friendly and fostered an environment where all attendees could feel safe and comfortable. Press patrons were treated with respect and PR guru Brandon made sure our needs were all attended to in a timely fashion, which made our jobs much easier!
Wholanta just wrapped up this year, so plans for 2018 are still under wraps. If you are a Whovian and would love to take a trip to Atlanta in the Spring, then follow Wholanta on Twitter and keep an eye on their Facebook page for the latest information.
About the Pop-Culturalist Contributor, Tai
Tai Gooden is a freelance writer who has written for several online publications including The Guardian, VICE, Gizmodo, BlackGirlNerds, Paper Magazine, Paste Magazine, The Learned Fangirl, The Frisky, and Upworthy. When she’s not writing, she can be found waiting on the TARDIS.