The game had reached the second tiebreaker. Two girls clutched hands. A guy wearing a thick, striped scarf started pacing. It was the sort of dramatic tension you expect to see on the sidelines of a sporting event.
But these players weren't shooting baskets or kicking balls towards goals. They were about to solve a mathematical equation where the order of operations does not apply, but your knowledge of Doctor Who minutia does.
Next week, Doctor Who, the landmark British science fiction franchise, will celebrate its 50th anniversary with "The Day of the Doctor." Hoopla surrounding the event has been building for months, with fan-centric Doctor Who events popping up here and there.
On Saturday, Geeks Who Drink, the popular nationwide pub trivia game, got in on the action with a special themed event. At bars across the country, Whovians gathered for Don't Blink: A Doctor Who Quiz. A small army of Los Angeles area fans turned up at Glendale bar Complex for an intense trivia battle that spanned decades of Time Lords, companions and daleks.
It was an intense competition. In the end, a team called Beard and the Bosoms won. Amidst the cheers and congratulations and requests for photos, the group was awarded a cash prize, which, according to the Geeks Who Drink blog post, totaled $190. More than that, they won bragging rights. When it comes to Doctor Who trivia, they are the local champions.
At a typical Geeks Who Drink event, the questions cover a large variety of subject matter and the difficulty of the questions will vary according to your skill set. The competition can be stiff, but there's enough diversity in the quizzes that everyone there has a shot at getting something right.
Every now and then, though, Geeks Who Drink presents a theme quiz, where all of the questions pertain to one pop culture entity. A few months ago, they had a Game of Thrones night -- also held at Complex -- that I entered with a group of friends. Even with a fairly deep understanding of both of the TV show and George R.R. Martin's books, it was difficult. The theme nights dig deep into the subject matter and, for that reason, they can be brutal. You can go into the quiz thinking you're the biggest fan on the planet and that there's no way you can lose. You're probably wrong.
"This is Geeks Who Drink concentrated," says Neil McNeil, who hosts quizzes at the Park Bar and Grill in Burbank, but was working as scorekeeper for this Doctor Who event, "because everyone was focused on one specific topic and it was one topic that they were completely, 100 percent, all in for."
Theme quizzes are as much about the environment as they are about the challenge. At Complex, they served Shepherd's Pie and chocolate cupcakes made to resemble daleks. There was a list of U.K. beers to drink, but the specialty of the night was a concoction called the Sonic Screwdriver, named for the Doctor's frequent gadget of choice. There were decorative touches across the club, a rug at the edge of the stage that recalled the Van Gogh tearjerker episode and a TARDIS covering placed over the club's photo booth. Even the music was a good fit. Shortly before the match began, "Doctorin' the TARDIS," a kooky '80s U.K. pop hit from The Timelords, pumped through the speakers.
There were more people than there were seats in the venue, but it wasn't the biggest crowd that an theme quiz has garnered. That honor goes to last summer's Game of Thrones night, and it points to a difference between the two shows. "I think the reason for that is that Game of Thrones bleeds out from geek culture into non-geek culture," says Miles Taber, who hosts Geeks Who Drink competitions at Complex.
Doctor Who's popularity has increased dramatically in the U.S. since the show's 2005 resurrection. These days, L.A.'s long-running Doctor Who convention sells out of tickets. Still, it's a cult thing and that changes the dynamic of the quiz.
"When we do things like Doctor Who, people who are here are really intense in their fandom," says Taber. "They have that geek mindset about that. With Game of Thrones, you have people who are dedicated to watching the show, but have never considered cosplay."
"Or picking up the books," adds McNeil.
Doctor Who fans are different, they explain. The people here know more than the recent incarnations of the Doctor. They know the Doctors who are now considered classic. They know the stories that didn't appear on television. Whether or not they're wearing a Doctor Who t-shirt or a replica of the fourth Doctor's striped scarf, they know the show. The players weren't the only ones who are hardcore. McNeil's arm boasts Whovian ink. Another scorekeeper, Victoria Irwin, is the "resident Whovian" for the website Fanboy Nation. She's heading out to London this week to celebrate the show's 50th anniversary.
Prior to the event, I spoke with Shane Fordyce, a Whovian and Geeks Who Drink host in San Antonio, Texas, who wrote two rounds for the quiz. He gave some insight in what goes into developing the questions. "We didn't focus so much on classic [Doctor Who] because we know that a lot of our main fan base for this quiz will be from the modern era," says Fordyce. "We made it tough on that side for those people with occasional glimpses into the classic that won't discourage them."
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Trivia is tricky, even when you know the material. You have to pull apart the words until you get to the essence of the question. There are times when the questions are so convoluted that the crowd laughs. Other times, they groan in unison. Intonation is important too. The way the quiz master pronounces words like "communicate" means a lot, especially in the world of Doctor Who. That is as much of a clue as a seemingly superfluous clause.
These isn't a typical trivia match. Each of the eight rounds consists of eight questions grouped together by a theme. Some are augmented by audio or visual elements. None are straightforward questions. One round was subtitled "accessorizing to save the universe." That focused on the fashion statements of the Doctor and his companions. Another featured fake personal ads. Players had to guess the character or species associated with the ad. As wacky as the quiz got, the players held their own. McNeil estimated that participants were typically getting seven or eight questions right per round.
Rankings fluctuated. Teams with names like the David Winnits (a play on David Tennant, who portrayed the tenth Doctor) and Doctor Who's on First moved up and down the list throughout the night. In the end, it came down to Ood Vibrations (a reference to a group of aliens in Doctor Who) and Beard and the Bosoms. When the latter won, it was the end of an extremely close battle between the brightest Whovians in the bar.