Last weekend, Gallifrey One, Los Angeles' Doctor Who convention, sold out its 24th annual show. That's 3,200 convention memberships scored before the day of the event. Back in 2006, when the convention first moved to its current home, the Los Angeles Airport Marriott, attendance was under 800 Whovians.
The convention's success, according to co-founder and program director Shaun Lyon, mirrors the growing popularity of Doctor Who in the United States. “I don't think it's ever been as popular as it is now here,” says Lyon of the series, which broadcasts on BBC America. “It really was kind of a niche thing for a long time.”
For the uninitiated, Doctor Who, the British science-fiction program, can be broken up into two categories. There's what Lyon and many other fans refer to as the “classic” show. Those are the episodes that originally aired between the 1960s and 1980s, featuring the first seven incarnations of the Doctor. Then there is the current incarnation of the program, which launched in 2005 and features Doctors 9 through 11, respectively. It continues today with Matt Smith starring as the eleventh Doctor. In between those two eras, there was the 1996 TV movie with Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor.
This is just the core of the franchise. There's also a lot of related media, like books and audio dramas, plus spin-off television programs like The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood.
Since Doctor Who's 21st century rebirth, the fandom surrounding this franchise has blossomed in the States. Go to events like San Diego Comic-Con, or even the local anime convention, and you're bound to see Doctors, companions, Daleks, Weeping Angels and other references to the show. From cosplayers to fan artists, the Doctor Who fandom is one of the most visible communities within the convention world.
That there is a dedicated Doctor Who convention, and that it's really popular, shouldn't come as a surprise. But what is interesting is that Gallifrey One has been around for almost a quarter of a century.
Twenty-four years ago, a group of L.A.-based Doctor Who fans came together to organize an event celebrating the show. Lyon was part of that team and he's one of the small handful of Gallifrey One originators who remain with the event. They pulled off their first convention in 1990, the year after Doctor Who left British television. “It was successful in terms of it was fun for everybody, but we lost a lot of money,” Lyon recalls.
Still, they persisted. “We took a loan out, made sure we paid it off over the next 12 years and kept right on going,” he says. “Initially it was to make sure that we paid off our bills. After that, we were having too much fun and we kept going.”
Up next: this year's special guests
Part of what makes Gallifrey One a standout convention is its consistent focus on bringing in top notch guests. This year's event included guests Sylvester McCoy, the seventh Doctor (he also recently played Radagast the Brown in The Hobbit), and Freema Agyeman, who played Martha Jones, companion of the tenth Doctor (David Tennant).
Plenty of Doctors have graced the Gallifrey One stage over the years, some more than once. A number of companions have also turned up here, as well as numerous other people who helped flesh out the Doctor Who universe. Even Steven Moffatt, executive producer of the current show, has stopped by Gallifrey One a few times.
Gallifrey One was there for Doctor Who fans during the franchise's quietest period. Lyon notes that fans often refer to this as “The Wilderness Years.” While Doctor Who books and audio recordings were being released during the con's formative years, there were no new episodes on the air. As time passed with no new Doctor in sight, attendance at the convention dwindled. Lyon notes that interest in the convention increased after the 1996 movie, but soon declined again until British writer/producer Russell T. Davies resuscitated the show.
The convention has, in some ways, evolved with its crowd. This year, costumed fans roamed the hotel. There were plenty of people wearing the extra long scarf associated with Tom Baker's portrayal of the Doctor, lots of girls in TARDIS-inspired dresses and even a little boy dressed as the current Doctor.
Cosplay at Gallifrey One is a relatively new phenomenon, says Lyon. “We held a masquerade for the first 14 years of the convention and we basically let it die because there was no interest in it,” he notes. “It came back a couple years later and there was some more interest, but nothing like the past three or four years. The past three or four years, [cosplay has] become one of the main parts of the event.”
With all the new blood at the convention, I couldn't help but wonder if the community is split between fans of the old Doctor Who episodes and the newer series. “You would think so,” says Lyon, before pointing out that this definitely is not the case. He adds that the convention has seen equal interest in guests from the both the vintage and modern versions of the show. “I think that a lot of people are falling in love with the new show, really getting into it, and then start going back through the DVDs and discovering some of the classics,” he surmises.
This is good for both Doctor Who's legacy and its future. Lyon points out that Doctor Who's renewed life is essentially a result of the fanaticism surrounding the franchise. “Doctor Who really survived on its fandom until it was brought back,” he says, adding that the show returned to television thanks to producers and writers who were longtime fans themselves. And what's good for Doctor Who is also good for the fan convention.
“The first 15 years or so, it was a fandom that was all the same people. It was getting older,” says Lyon. “Now it's a lot of young people. It's a lot of teenagers and a lot of twenty-somethings who have fallen in love with the new show. That's why we're picking up tons of new people. It's given us a new lease on life, I guess.”