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‘WhoFest DFW’ celebrates 50 years of ‘Doctor Who’

Posted 7:10pm on Monday, Nov. 25, 2013

Even before you walked into the Crowne Plaza Hotel, it was easy to tell you were in the right place for the inaugural WhoFest DFW, a three-day celebration of all things Doctor Who and of the British sci-fi hit’s 50th anniversary. Several cars had “My other car is a TARDIS” bumper stickers, and one sported a TARDI5 license plate.

For the uninitiated, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is a time machine that the Doctor, a Time Lord, uses to travel through time and space, often with a female companion. It looks like a blue British phone box, but it’s bigger on the inside. It was well-represented at WhoFest – by a TARDIS replica, by T-shirts, by costumes, and in at least one case, by a set of salt-and-pepper shakers.

But you didn’t need to explain it to anyone at WhoFest, which began Friday and ends Sunday. Tougher to explain is the long history of the show, which began in 1963, lasted till 1989, underwent a failed reboot attempt in the ’90s, and then a successful one that began in 2005 and continues today. Earlier incarnations of the show aired in the United States on PBS stations including DFW’s KERA/Channel 13 (which still airs it), but it really took off Stateside when BBC America began airing the 2005-present version.

“I tried to watch the first [version], but it wasn’t my thing,” said Jade Darr, who grew up in Cambridge, England and now lives in Grapevine. “But my mother was brought up on the classics, and she told me as I grew about the stories of the Daleks and how she used to hide behind the sofa.” Darr was still living in England when the reboot started, and she got hooked.

Darr was dressed as Liz 10, a character from a couple of 2010 episodes featuring the current Doctor, played by Matt Smith (who is the 11th actor to play the character, who regenerates into a new form every several years). Darr’s 22-month-old girl, Evie, was dressed as the Starship UK, also from the Smith era.

The Daleks that Darr referred to are one of the Doctor’s many nemeses, mutations in robot-like shells whose lack of compassion is evidenced by their favorite word: “Exterminate!,” said in an electronic-sounding voice. A couple of Daleks sat outside one of the ballrooms at the Crowne Plaza looking very much like stationary props, surprising fest-goers with their sudden movements; another, standing about 6 feet tall, roamed the halls with lights flashing, plunger arm pointing and voice crying out the favorite Dalek word – and a few others.

“It took me about six to nine months to make this guy,” said Jerry Chevalier of Rowlett, who constructed the tall Dalek. “You can do the voices through a voice modulator, or do recorded voices through the show. This one does recorded voices through the show.”

Chevalier, who says he’s been a fan since the 2005 reboot, has also built versions of the Lost in Space robot and several Star Wars droids, one of which was featured on the March 2013 cover of Wired magazine. And his Dalek has appeared on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (according to one of the fest organizers, there were rights issues with the music – which explains this “lost” cold open. A little.)

If you’re familiar with Doctor Who, some of these explanations might sound pretty superficial. If you’re not – or even if you’ve only been watching the show a couple of years – the Who universe can be pretty overwhelming. Several festgoers were dressed as various incarnations of the Doctor, with Smith’s bow-tied Eleventh Doctor and Tom Baker’s oversize-scarf-wearing Fourth Doctor appearing to inspire the most Doctor costumes. Many sported fezzes, another tribute to Smith (each Doctor has his own fashion sense, with contributions from the actors). Some of the show’s monsters, like the creepy and deadly Weeping Angels, inspired costumes as well.

Even some of the festgoers had a hard time explaining the appeal of Doctor Who, adding that it can take a few episodes to get involved with the show because of the multiple story threads in a season and because of the way the show varies in tone.

“It’s very broad,” said Jennie Hay of Allen, who was dressed as a Dalek in a costume she designed – complete with flashing lights atop her head. “It has different information about it, different characters. You have to learn. It’s hard to explain. You need to have [newbies] sit down and watch an episode. Then they get the gist: ‘Oh, it makes more sense!’ You can’t just watch five minutes and walk away.”

Hay was one of many multigenerational sets of Doctor Who fans at the fest. Her father, Michael Hay, says he’s been a fan since the ’80s, when he began with the Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee.

“I was just flippin’ channels, and I came across it on Channel 13, the same channel that carried Monty Python, which I also watched,” said Michael Hay, who persuaded Jennie to watch the reboot. “I started watching it, and it was a fun show. It was kind of goofy. I remember some of the props – they’d be running through the spaceship and the walls would be kinda shakin’. It was kinda hokey, but it was great.”

Shirley Wilkinson, who came in from Arkansas for the fest, probably did the best job of explaining why the show has become so popular.

“It covers the gamut of emotions,” said Wilkinson, who began watching the show when she was a child and is now getting her own children to watch it. “It’s campy, it’s fun, it’s heartwarming, it’s sad sometimes, it’s scary, it really covers everything.”

Wilkinson’s friend and colleague Amanda Nix, who came up from Austin, added: “It’s never overly scary. It’s scary enough to make you tense – ‘Oh, no, what’s going to happen’ – but it’s never like nightmare scary. So any age can watch it. And you’ve got adventure, you’ve got drama, you’ve got comedy – it’s like all the genres in one.”

The fest included several panels about different aspects of the show, episode-viewing sessions (including a big one Saturday afternoon for “The Day of the Doctor,” the show’s 50th-anniversary episode), costume contests and even a Who Cares! Blood Drive with a Carter BloodCare van in the parking lot.

Fort Worth’s Mike Erickson, who handled promotions and marketing for the event, called the convention “a bang-up success” – which might seem like something any promotions and marketing person would say, except the evidence that it was true was all around him.

“We were a little nervous,” said Erickson, who was accompanied by his 9-week old girl Eleanor (sporting a stylish TARDIS wool cap) and his wife, Jennifer. “It’s far more successful than we expected it to be. It started out as party in someone’s living room, and we thought, ‘Oh. there’s too many people for this living room; let’s have it in a hotel. Let’s have about 250 people. And it bloomed, and in early summer, we had to cap it at a thousand.”

And plans are already in works for WhoFest 2 in April 2015; for information and memberships, check out www.whofestdfw.org.

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872 Twitter: @rphilpot

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