We live in weird times. For a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the global pandemic that is very much still a thing. But it’s also a weird time, at least in my eyes, because nerd culture has emerged on top as “pop culture.” In case you weren’t around for it, there really was a time you were more likely to be shoved in a locker as a Trekkie or even Marvel fan, or at least relentlessly teased, especially the more knowledge you had about your favorite franchise. There was also a time that conventions weren’t huge, showy see-and-be-seen events, when cosplay was still somewhat uncommon, and when you’d quietly pack up and head for your Clark Kent life once it was all over.
Conventions themselves have changed, emerging from their suburban hotel ballrooms to fill the halls of some of the largest convention centers in the world with fans of all sorts of things from anime and comics to TV, movies and more. We’re a week out from C2E2, the grand poobah of the Chicago convention scene, but we can’t get last week’s Chicago TARDIS out of our head, for very good reason.
Chicago TARDIS, which was founded back in 2000, is a distinct and memorable event each year for several reasons. Not only is it the largest Doctor Who convention in the Midwest, it manages a pretty impressive lineup of new and old Who stars every year–and even more importantly, keeps the original heart and soul of conventions at the forefront.
When I first rolled up on Chicago TARDIS a few years back I didn’t know what to expect, and if I’m being honest, I was a little uncomfortable. There’s nowhere to hide at Chicago TARDIS–no crowd to get lost in, even in the panels. More than that, there’s a very distinct fandom. Everyone’s there because somewhere along the line, they fell in love with a time lord and their travels through space and time, and it became a part of them. People at Chicago TARDIS haven’t just bingewatched it once – they’re passionate experts. With my lack of knowledge about classic Doctor Who, I remember worrying that I wouldn’t fit in, and wouldn’t really get much out of it.
Fortunately, Chicago TARDIS has heart to spare. Passionate fans make the best ambassadors, if they create a safe space to be who you are, and that’s continually one of the things that you’ll find Chicago TARDIS does best. Everyone is welcome, of every age, ability, and place of origin. You might have just seen a few episodes and found it sparked something in you, or you might be able to give episode names and numbers for every major event in the history of the series. You might love to cosplay or just like to sit in the background. You might be a hobbyist who loves to craft or someone who’s spent the last few months building a full-on, working Dalek to show off in the halls. Whatever brings you there though, if you dip your toes in, you’re going to get welcomed as part of the family.
Chicago TARDIS is a true celebration of everything Doctor Who, and features an array of activities from the standard panels and photo opps to brunches and karaoke and merch halls full of fans who have created their own Whovian masterpieces. There’s Camp Time Lord for the kids, a gaming space, and a viewing room for those who want to share some of their favorite episodes with others who appreciate it the way they do. There are tea parties, late night parties in attendees’ rooms, opening and closing ceremonies with their own ritual, and even the masquerade, where costumers compete for top honors.
Since this con is held in Lombard, you’re more likely to stick where you are at the Westin Chicago Lombard, which means even in the odd hours of the three day convention, you’re likely to be with the same fans you saw in the panels that day, which makes for easy opportunity for friendships and adventures, should you open yourself up to it. Unlike a lot of cons that close out for the day when the clock strikes 7 and the merch halls close, Chicago TARDIS never really closes, with the viewing room running shows all night, a healthy party atmosphere and early morning breakfasts with some of the celebrities, who you’re just as likely to bump into as you go about your business.
In other words, it’s small but mighty. And the attendees are loyal, from those in the audience to those on the stage, with many folks having attended as long as Chicago TARDIS has been a thing, and some guests, like Fraser Hines, Colin Baker, and Jason Haigh-Ellery being mainstays every year. It’s a small but mighty community, capable of putting on a great three days of fantastic stuff, if you’ll only actually let your nerd flag fly high and proud and let yourself really participate.
At Chicago TARDIS, it’s not as much about the big names you can tick off your autograph list as it is about the shared experiences, and that seems as true for the celebs who fly all the way over from Britain as well us regular folks on the floor, with some of this year’s first time guests like Clem So and Sadie Miller remarking how much they felt a part of the family and feeling a palpable sense of sadness when doors finally closed.
We’re so glad to see a convention like Chicago TARDIS alive and well, as it’s not been easy for even the larger commercial convention companies to deliver after 2020’s shuttered doors. And though we seem to observe a drop in attendance and a few less vendors, we felt no less spoiled as fans of the show, with plenty of great guests from Colin Baker and Frazer Hines to Terry Molloy, Neve McIntosh and more, all of whom were not only enthusiastic, warm people who spoiled fans with great behind-the-scenes tales and silly stories, but who are also huge fans themselves, feeling as lucky as any of us to be able to have been where they’d been.
The heart of what it is to be a nerd is to love something so dearly it becomes an obsession. True fandom is about how you connect to the thing you love so much, and how it makes you feel. It’s the type of thing that can make you feel vulnerable, as it’s something that’s become a part of you. But when you find a group of people who love it as much as you do, who you can celebrate it with, and with whom you can discuss it into the wee hours of the night? It’s electric, and it’s home, and it’s wonderful. Call it finding your tribe if you will, just don’t knock it til you’ve tried it, and really jumped in with both feet. That’s what Chicago TARDIS will give you that you just can’t get from anywhere, and one more reason we adore it so much.
If you’ve got the timey-wimey, and you’ve enjoyed the cosplay and culture you’ve seen here, stay tuned for our Chicago TARDIS panel catchup which lands tomorrow right here at Third Coast Review.