While the turkey leftovers were still fresh and the Black Friday madness had begun, so too had Chicago TARDIS. Now in its nineteenth year, Chicago Tardis is a holiday tradition for many fans of the classic British sci-fi series Doctor Who. But it’s not just a local tradition–it’s also one of the largest Whovian meetup in the nation, coming in just behind Gallifrey One’s annual fete in Los Angeles.
Last year was the first year we covered the con, and it was clear on arrival the the Westin Yorktown Center that this was more a throwback to the cons of yore. Chicago TARDIS comes complete with ribbons for your badges, lots of private hotel after parties, and, at least to my observation, one of the most knowledgeable fanbases out there, able to reference the latest episode with Jodie Whittaker and how it fit in to canon with Classic Who going back to 1963’s original debut. And if you thought that’d make it toxic or too “inside” for Doctor Who fans who may only be familiar with the new series or had only just starting watching it, you’d have miscalculated. Chicago TARDIS is inclusive of everyone, with a more robust set of children’s activities than most larger cons (and the addition of children’s programming coming on to the main stage and being involved with headliner guests) and plenty of activities and fun for people of all ages, creeds, colors and orientations. Con staff even provided personal pronoun stickers attendees could add to their badges this year to help start conversations a little more smoothly.
This year’s programming included a little more “new Who” than last years, though a last minute cancellation by Jenna Coleman, who played Clara Oswald, was certainly a felt absence. The lineup was still amazing though, with the presence of Pearl Mackie, Tony Curran, Graeme Harper, Frazier Hines, Wendy Padbury, Ingrid Oliver, Ian McNeice, Sarah Louise Madison and more giving fans plenty to be excited about.
We were able to attend on Saturday and Sunday (pre-blizzard) and caught quite a few interesting bits of programming. Our first look at the panel programming was sitting in with Graeme Harper, a Doctor Who director of note who’s the only person to have directed both classic and new era episodes of Doctor Who. He provided a unique perspective on what budget limitations meant for the show back in the 60s, and the uphill struggle that the crew sometimes had as a result, also noting the influence of franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek in pushing the series to become something more than it already was.
One of the panels we enjoyed most was called Extras Extraordinaire and featured Jon Davey, Sarah Louise Madison and Ross Mullan, whose work when combined covers some of the most classic villains and aliens of both new and old Who–Cybermen, Daleks, Weeping Angels, The Silence, and The Teller, to name a few. It was a great chance to get to hear about the audition process for “extra” roles, and what it’s like to act underneath pounds of costuming and all manner of makeup and prosthetics. Jon Davey and Sarah Louise Madison were perfect comedic foils for each other during this panel, with Davey teasing out Madison’s persistent fear of Weeping Angels despite having played one, and the apparent key to warding them off, which she says is a good cake. Davey told a fantastic story about his time as an Ice Warrior and having gotten stuck having to tackle tough stairs without a good way to do it, resulting in an extremely awkward gait that made it to the final cut.
We also didn’t miss opportunities to visit Camp Time Lord, the kids area, which seemed to always be abuzz with a new artistic endeavor to embark upon, the Artist’s Alley which featured a ton of amazing creative locals selling all manner of wares for the Doctor Who and general sci-fi fans. We also checked out the merchandise room, which truly impresses with the breadth of its materials. You can buy just about every known video of Doctor Who, as well as the audiobooks and of course any sort of action figure, sonic screwdriver or Dalek shaped memento you can fathom carrying around all day. If you find yourself exhausted after all the exploring, another feature of Chicago TARDIS we’ve come to really enjoy is the Video Screening room. It serves more than one purpose and does it well, offering a chance to see some favorite episodes with other fans, as well as being a quiet, calm place to breathe easy.
There were some fantastic companions to catch as well, with companions to Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor Frazier Hines, who fans came to know as the incredibly popular Jamie, as well as Wendy Padbury, who played another favorite, Zoe Heriot. It wasn’t lost on fans what an honor it was to have them at the event, as they seemed to be hanging on every word the two had to say about what it was like working with Troughton and tell tales of the early days of Doctor Who. As many fans know, some of Doctor Who’s vast library of video was lost, making memories of the filming and any tales of that era themselves particularly precious. Hines and Padbury were delightful, happy to reminisce and equally happy to answer fan question, no matter how particular.
The final event we caught Friday, shortly before the masquerade kicked off, was an interview with Ingrid Oliver, a comedienne and actress whose character Osgood first appeared in the The Day of the Doctor fiftieth anniversary special and quickly became beloved by many, with the scarf she “borrowed” from U.N.I.T. and her everpresent need for an inhaler. Oliver, much like her character, is full of an exuberance and inexplicably magnetic charm, and frequently had the audience laughing, even as she discussed some of the more emotional scenes surrounding her character’s arc, which upset many fans and a former writer on the show quite a lot, but seems to have been at least partially resolved. She also talked a lot about her family, and how the role changed her to a cool older sister in her brother’s eyes.
Sunday, an impending blizzard threatened outside, but inside Chicago TARDIS attendees were safe, dry and about to kick off their days with a true treat. As the day was just getting started at the Westin, the main programming hall homed a screening of one of the new Doctor Who series’ most lauded episodes, “Vincent and the Doctor”, and featuring live commentary by Tony Curran, whose portrayal of Van Gogh truly touched many people, myself included. This is the type of bonus content that’s only available at panels, and it was amazing to hear what the process was like behind the scenes, from concerns about whether the episode, which focuses on mental illness in creative people, was too heavy for Doctor Who. Curran talked about the pressure to live up to the role as well as his experiences working with Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in a rare episode where the focus was less on the Doctor and his companion, and mentioned how wonderful Smith was at just sitting back and letting things unfold, allowing the scene to happen naturally. Commentary continued to bring great behind the scenes secrets, tender and funny moments until the final credits, where the audience rose for a standing ovation, again reinforcing the truly special nature of these performances.
Once we’d dried our tears, we stuck around in the main hall for a one-on-one interview with Curran, who was specially picked for the part, in part, he says, because he looked like Van Gogh, but still a rare occurrence, even for a seasoned actor like himself. “Two parts offered to me in 25 years in the industry ain’t bad” he quipped in a soft brogue, before diving into more about becoming Vincent. It was clear that from the getgo, Curran knew that the material was important, even though it seemed he was still surprised just how much his performance affected his audiences. During his Q&A session, several brave fans who struggle daily with mental illness walked to the mic to share how much it meant to them to see themselves in his portrayal, and his response was pitch-perfect. “Thank you,” Curran said to the fans in the audience who knew the struggles of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other illnesses, “for continuing to fight.” As one fan teared up in trying to explain what it felt like to be so clearly represented as Vincent, Curran also teared up, and, turning back to the audience, was quick to tell people that it’s okay to cry and okay to feel things deeply, and again express his honor in getting to be a part of something so important to other people.”
On the heels of this panel we were ready for some pure joy, and that was easily seen in the Camp Time Lord children’s parade, with its bow tie and fezzed out little ones, led by a lone guitarist happily strumming out the Doctor Who theme as the train of Daleks, Angels and gas masked children snaked their way past the panel rooms, front desk and artist room before turning it all around and making their triumphant return. Camp Time Lord excels with all manner of artistic endeavors from making Daleks on sticks to helping out with cosplay and creating banners to hang elsewhere at the con.
Unfortunately, due to the impending storm, our second day at Chicago TARDIS would be cut short by a bit, with the last panel we got to attend being the interview with one of Capaldi’s most storied companions, Pearl Mackie. This was no regular interview though, instead being the return of a popular format from last year’s con, where children are invited up to ask questions with the headliners themselves. It’s a wonderful way to connect with the fanbase’s youngest members and often finds actors answering all manner of interesting questions on the fly. Mackie was as fantastic at this as Tom Baker had been last year, and gamely fielding questions on her favorite outfit from the show (the one with the purple jacket) to favorite drinks (fizzy water, since it was a kids’ panel) and favorite books (The Color Purple, which she advised her tiny interrogators to check out a few years down the road.)
Some interesting questions from the panel included whether or not Mackie had found herself truly afraid at any point, which it turns out she did, during her first episode, “The Pilot” when she and the Doctor faced a particularly creepy watery monster, and how she’d gone home to the rental flat in Cardiff that night afraid of every little noise. She also took on some of those childlike larger than life questions when asked “How did Doctor Who start” with a pretty cohesive, if efficient, summary of a man who had a phone box that could travel through time and in alternate dimensions and decided to go befriend people from other places, despite having to admit she’d never seen the first episode.
What we saw at this year’s Chicago TARDIS was just a taste, but the truth is for any fan of Doctor Who, even with the tough scheduling afforded by the con being on a holiday weekend every year, Chicago TARDIS is worth making room in your Thanksgiving weekend schedule for. Whether you follow the main programming track for interviews with some of your favorite actors and actresses from the series and a chance to get their autographs later, hang out with the kids in Camp Time Lord, acquire Gallifreyan goodies in the artist and merch halls, catch live podcasts from Big Finish or simply take in some Who you’ve not seen in a while in the video room, you will be somewhere truly safe to express yourself as a fan and a person, and that’s well worth the price of admission. For photos of the amazing cosplay we saw at Chicago TARDIS, click here, and to find out more about next year’s event or keep up to date with the news, check out their website and follow them on social media.