Review: The Heart of the TARDIS–Chicago TARDIS 2019’s 20th an Excellent Mix of Community, Celebrity and Creativity
We do well to look back at the beginnings of the things we love. Everything starts somewhere, and as nerds and fans, going back to the beginning can give us new perspective on what things are about, and how where we’ve been shapes where we are now. As I heard someone say at a show recently–“we” won. The nerds have it these days, and things like conventions are huge, glossy events that bring all the glamour and glitz of Hollywood into your local convention hall. But that wasn’t always so–just ask the Trekkies…and the Doctor Who fans. Conventions were smaller, in suburban hotels, and certainly not on the 7 o’ clock news. They had some of the same features–costumes, panels, merch–but not the mainstream gleam and glitter of popularity. They were homegrown, not corporate, put on as passion projects by fans for other fans. Not just regular fans, either–“hardcore fans” who knew and loved the material in ways almost no one but the creators of the shows and comics the conventions were built around could truly understand.
Neither time in the history of conventions was inherently better–surely, attendees at old-school conventions would have preferred the inclusivity and mainstream acceptance of their fervent love of a franchise that we enjoy today…but maybe, congoers these days are missing some of the hallmarks of what made older conventions great. Not so with Chicago TARDIS, which is held out in Lombard every Thanksgiving weekend and enjoyed its 20th anniversary this year. It manages to capture the halcyon days of old when community and passion made a con and combine them with the big name guests and incredibly inclusivity that we see at bigger events that started more recently–and it’s why we love it. Chicago TARDIS is all heart–and you can’t go more than a few steps inside the Westin Chicago Lombard during the con without seeing that. It’s in the carefully crafted Daleks, meticulously detailed, functional and ready to roll into the hotel lobby and exterminate. It’s in the homemade crochet Daleks, the fudge, the Time Lord candles and the traditions. As we saw this year especially, the more you venture into its inner circles, the more you get out of it, and it’s why for us, year 20 was Chicago TARDIS’ best year ever.
Chicago TARDIS manages a feat only the TARDIS could–being bigger on the inside. On the surface, it’s small. Held in a suburb, not as heavily attended as things like C2E2 and Wizard World which can literally cause weekend long traffic jams, and with more niche programming than you’d see at a more general comic con. It’s small because it can be–but expansive when you look closer. Sure, this is a weekend all about the epic British TV series Doctor Who, and those who attend the convention (some of whom come from much much further than you’d expect to what is the second largest Doctor Who convention in the US) seem to have an eerily encyclopedic knowledge of the show as well as its audio book and literary dalliances, but there’s room for you too if you’ve only seen new Who, beginning with Eccleston as the 9th Doctor. There’s room for you, too, if you want to come to Chicago TARDIS in your Starfleet finest, or with the R2D2 you’ve handcrafted. And not only are you welcome, but there might just be something for you there too, from costume awards and badge ribbons to panels about other things attendees might enjoy. You might learn about SFX makeup, costuming or stage combat. You might play a brand new tabletop game. If you want to know more about Doctor Who, all you need do is ask and someone will show you to the viewing room, where 24/7 during the convention, you’ll see great episodes featuring all the Doctors in all the different eras.
Not only is Chicago TARDIS expansive in the way it includes everyone–it also boasts incredibly impressive programming. This year’s TARDIS even included Tosin Cole, a current companion of Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker–a first for any convention (of any size) in the US. Both old and new Doctor Who have a big presence, with every year featuring some true legends of television and film.
This year we again saw the fantastic, effervescent humor and kindness that no one but Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy brings to the stage, along with the likes of Matt Smith era companion Arthur Darvill, a panel of extras from more recent series’, and some truly iconic companions. Namely, Katy Manning, the diminutive and much loved companion Jo, to Pertwee’s Third Doctor. She was an absolute delight, warming up any room with her positivity, wild leanings and funny stories. At one of the panels featuring all the companions in attendance, she spoke of a time during filming on location in Dungeness when her feet actually froze to the ground, and they needed to pour boiling water on the area to release her. Louise Jameson, who played companion Leela, who was most often in less costume than anyone else on the show, had plenty to share about the hardships and mishaps that come from working on location, but also remembered her time fondly–especially when talking about her relationship with another guest, John Leeson, who voiced the adorable metallic canine, K-9. Together they also lampooned Cole and Darvill’s hardships a little, with it being “cold on location” not quite being as good a tale as frozen feet and leather onesies. As it turns out, it was Leeson who made things bearable and warm on set for Jameson, she went on to say after a brief discussion about the difficulties of filming on location, in costume and even with green screen, as described by Cole and Darvill, as initially, she and the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, did not get along–and in fact, wouldn’t get along til much later, when they reunited for some of Big Finish’s audio productions.
There’s always a warmth and familiarity to mainstage panels, but that can be seen even more clearly if one ventures into the other rooms, or better yet, stays the weekend. There were only a handful of people in one of Frazier Hines’ panels, and it allowed for great, direct interaction between Who fans and one of the all time most beloved companions, Jamie McCrimmon. Attending this panel, you’d learn how Hines got his start as a child actor, came to Who and thrived. It’s akin to a room full of fans of Game of Thrones being in a group of five with Lena Headey or Peter Dinklage. Find out that, for example, Arthur Darvill loves the American wonder that is the breakfast burrito or that McCoy sticks to his Scottish roots and loves a good whiskey, and you just might get the chance to buy them a drink or burrito, or at least share an elevator with them, even without tickets to the guest brunch that’s a Sunday tradition or the mixers each evening.
Putting aside celebrity, you’ll also find quite a bit of opportunity to learn and get to know people. This year there was even more creative programming than ever, with lessons in stage combat, demonstrations of SFX makeup, an introduction to British sweets that’d delight anyone who’s never gotten their hands on a jelly baby, and an “iron costuming” workshop in which two teams of Whovians were given scraps and various baubles and told to create a classic Who monster. The results were silly but also on point, and the two teams got to show off their Project Runway style challenge results at the official Masquerade.
While you’re at Chicago TARDIS, you can also game to your heart’s content, with lots of Who related gaming available day and night in the Gaming Citadel, including brand new games still in development. There’s something for absolutely everyone, which is fantastic, as Who fans span multiple generations, and often include whole families. Kids can design Daleks or otherwise enjoy music, art and games in Camp Time Lord, and even participate in a costume parade on Sunday, and if you just wanted to catch your breath and get some classics under your belt, the viewing room was always open. In addition, just like with last year’s TARDIS, we got the amazing opportunity to attend a screening of The Angels Take Manhattan, a very important Matt Smith era episode of Doctor Who, which featured Arthur Darvill. It’s like the special features of a DVD or Blu-Ray, but live, and interactive, and getting the chance to see one of the actors from this episode talk about what it was like to film it and to hear his take on the story was truly a treat.
What perhaps turned out to be the biggest treat though was staying each evening. Though official programming ends around dinnertime in most cases, that’s never the end. From grand opening ceremonies, to contests and parties, after dark is just as fun–maybe even more so, if you let yourself explore. Our first night, we attended the Masters’ Tea Party, a villainous affair where we got the chance to have tea with some other Who fans as well as the complete lineup of Masters, who were gracious if wicked hosts, who prepared a number of fun activities, most involving at least mildly inconveniencing the Doctor. Whether you’d come in costume and were an encyclopedic fan, or like us, were just dipping your toes in, if you sat down at any table, you’d find your very own Master of ceremonies more than willing to help you feel more at home, and guests were similarly friendly and welcoming.
The Masquerade felt the same, from beautiful tributes to important members of Chicago TARDIS’ longstanding community (many who attend Chicago TARDIS have done so for years, and the staff has the same longevity in most cases) to awards not only for those competing at the higher levels, adults and children alike, but for those in out of universe costumes, including a Star Trek officer and a Ghostbuster, to awards given to those seen on all 3 days of the con roaming the floor in fantastic costumes. Again, everyone was included, at all skill levels, and everyone impressed, from host to the littlest winner, a Cyber Shade who, along with a little “Me” was certainly taking the method acting approach.
Were you to want even more, regardless of who you were, signs each night pointed the way to various room parties, and guests lingered in the lobby area, trading stories, talking about their cosplay, hanging out with the various pups and kitties in attendance, being invaded by Daleks or even heading to the viewing room for some late night movie fun. The more you participate, and the longer you’re there, the more you get to know the people around you, from the Van Gogh photographer to the Dalek inhabiting engineer, all who have tales to tell and will do so with a smile. This is fandom at its best–when community doesn’t mean gatekeeping or exclusion, but welcoming and inclusion, and this is why we know we’ll be back in Lombard next year for another fabulous timey-wimey.
If you’re interested in getting ahead of the game for next year’s con, Chicago TARDIS 2020 tickets are already available. Meanwhile, don’t miss out on the amazing Doctor Who cosplay we saw at this year’s Chicago TARDIS on the floor and at the Masquerade in our gallery post.