One of my favorite pop-culture writers is television critic Robert Lloyd, who has a wry wit and high standards but also holds onto an enthusiasm for his subject matter that makes his work refreshing in this era of relentless snark. Lloyd was the moderator last week for the “Doctor Who” panel at Comic-Con International and I asked him to reflect on the strange job, which can (I know from experience), at its best, make you feel like a ringmaster at a celebrity circus or, on those bad days, just another clown in the spotlight. Here’s Lloyd’s report:
I went down to Comic-Con last weekend to moderate a panel on “Doctor Who,” the BBC (here BBC America) series about a 900-year-old traveler in time and space and the various humans who come along for the ride. For a brief time I was, in a real-world, non-canonical way, that human.
This was something of a historical event, being the first Comic-Con appearance of popular “Tenth Doctor” David Tennant, or any Doctor at all since the series, which began in 1963, was brought back to life after a 15-year hiatus in 2005. Or possibly by any Doctor ever. (The main character periodically regenerates into a new actor — though since this is Hero Complex, you probably knew that already.) Re-creator Russell T Davies was there, too — also for the first time — along with executive producer Julie Gardner and director Euros Lyn.
They are of course part of a much larger team, but they constitute a Beatle-y core group — the Actor, the Writer, the Producer, the Director — to which I was attached like, well, not like a Yoko. Nor a Maharishi. (A Derek Taylor, possibly, to go for the geeky obscure comparison, or an Ed Sullivan, to be more obvious … but this is getting off track…) All were about to leave the show — there were at the moment four more hours of the Tennant “Who” left to come, spread out into the New Year — which added a certain poignancy to the moment. It was a hello, and a goodbye.
There is, supposedly, a distance the traditional news media keeps from the people we write about, a baseline us-and-them formality that aids (though it certainly does not ensure) dispassion in reporting and reviewing. And yet though I was there to represent The Times, sort of, for all intents and purposes I was working for BBC America. For free, I should add, although in the name of absolute transparency: I did let them buy me a drink and I ate a cookie backstage. Still, given that I was already on record as a fan of the show, it felt the honest thing to do. (It is done all the time; I just have a tendency to over-think these things.)
In any case, “Doctor Who,” especially in the context of Comic-Con and the legions of fans who rose early in order to guarantee a place in the room — capacity 4,000 — does not require my validation, or even my valediction. If anything, I was the one made cooler by the association.
I got down to San Diego Saturday afternoon and went to meet my new temporary companions in a comparatively quiet corner of the Marriott Hotel, next to the convention center. You want people whose work you like to reflect that work, and they were just as nice as I’d want them to be. A running order for the next morning’s panel was worked out, and then I followed them over to the convention center, where episodes of “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood” were to be screened.
Devin Johnson, a BBC America publicist, who had previously seemed just a quiet, friendly young fellow suddenly appeared on the stage, winding up the crowd like the King of Pep.
I say ‘Doctor!” he cried. “You say –“
“I say ‘Torch,’ you say –“
And so on. And then he unexpectedly brought out Davies, who brought out “Torchwood” star John Barrowman and Tennant, who wound up kissing Barrowman, who did an elaborate, extended comic swoon, recovered, screamed and kissed Davies, as pandemonium reigned. At which point I thought, “Hmmm, I need to think a little more about tomorrow.”
Asking questions in public is quite different from interviewing someone for print, where space and time are yours to command, within limits. In print, no one can see you stammer or sweat or fumble with your notes. You can go back and fix things — not rewrite, but clean up the edges and sharpen the focus — which is a controversial act in the literature of time travel, but par for the course in print journalism. You aim to mine the subtleties of a person’s art.
A panel, on the other hand, is a public event; it is a show. Although there are practical reasons for people to be there (the promoters promote, the journalists note), at a place like Comic-Con, in which little rivulets of individual obsession run together into cataracts of pop-cultural momentum, the questions and answers are secondary to the event itself, in which a great wave of human love washes over the objects of its affection.
That night in the hotel I sketched a brief introductory love letter to the show and its makers — perhaps not brief by Comic-Con standards — and tried to work out which questions would work best for the summing-up-while-looking-forward the occasion demanded. The fans, I figured, would take care of the sorts of questions that fans would ask, more specific, more obscure, more eccentric questions. (They did, and very well.)
The next morning, I met the Who crew again in the lobby — they’d already been on local TV by that time — and followed along in a little parade out the back of the hotel and into the back of the convention center, into the green room and out of the green room, and into the curtained “backstage” of the hall itself, where there was no longer any time to be nervous about it.
The lights went down in the hall and I — a person no one had come to see, I could not help thinking — walked out onto the stage and addressed the multitude, “Good morning, class. Welcome to ‘Doctor Who’ 101.” That was all it took to make 4,000 people scream. And so the love began. I said my piece, admitting finally — I’ve said it in print, so why not in public — that it is a show that can make me cry, and got a collective “Aaaaw” back from the crowd, as when something cute happens in a situation comedy.
Most of the hour went by for me in a blur, strung between the clips I needed to cue and the man from the Guinness Book of World Records I had to introduce, and the need to keep things moving and to spread the questions around. (Video confirms that I got a few laughs along the way.) Whenever someone wasn’t speaking, cries of “We love you” filled the gap. (“I love you too, each one of you, but in a slightly different, individual way.”)
As to what was said, the main points were Tweeted and blogged and duly reported even before I’d got back to the hotel, and you can read them in a dozen other places. My clearest memories are of digital cameras and cellphones held aloft in the people’s new salute; the roars of approval that greeted the clips — especially the appearance of Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble in a trailer for the Tennant finale — and Tennant’s final victory lap along the front of the stage. It was ridiculous fun to be even in nominal control of these moments — to pronounce the name “David Tennant” and unleash a standing ovation. It was like some amazing voice-activated toy.
And then it was over. Partings are built into the “Doctor Who” universe; every so often, a Doctor departs; his companions depart more frequently, and when they do, when they toddle off into exile, it’s always more than a bit sad. And so it was for me, on Earth as on television.
— Robert Lloyd
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