Sunday, 20 August 2017

Cricket Whites And Multi-Coloured Coats

Back in the 80s the Doctor Who convention came to town.

Of course: back then being a science-fiction fan meant something different.  You were, by and large, white, male, pale from reading too many comics and single.  You were also useless at sport, full of acne and obsessed with detail.  Where Patrick Troughton ate his peanut-butter sandwich on day 28 of shooting season 4 was of critical detail.

And equally, of course, pretty much all of the above was just bunk.  Apart from the sandwich: these things matter, you know.

The show had just been cancelled, no longer able to cope against the more expensive and more slick shows coming out of the USA like Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X Files had ended the days where a props man at the BBC could spray-paint a sleeping bag silver and stick two antenna on it and get away with it.

And there was, despite all my denials above, a certain demographic at the conventions: ranging from bluff old men with pipes who could remember watching William Hartnell from behind the sofa to teenagers who could barely remember the "classic" 70s show.

The events were largely affordable: tickets were reasonably priced, autograph sessions were free.  E-bay would see the end of that: the price of a signing shooting up as "celebrities" saw what they were worth and wanted a slice of the pie.

And just occasionally, maybe one out of every five hundred people at the convention, you'd get someone turning up in their home-made Jon Pertwee costume, or wearing the cricket whites of Peter Davidson or, if you were really going to go for it, the garish frock coat of Colin Baker (a costume that even the actor himself said was "the sort of costume that you want to be inside of staring out from").  There were slightly more of these fans at the Star Trek conventions: with Next Generation and then Deep Space Nine in full flow all of a sudden they were everywhere and you could see the corridors of the Albert Hall being filled with people in Star Trek Uniforms: still predominantly male, but a small amount of women now seeping into the crowd - perhaps drawn in by the handsome stars.  At one memorable convention Michael Dorn (famous for playing Klingon officer Worf) asked a German Star Trek fan (who, frankly, looked like he had glued a Cornish pasty to his forehead) "Why do you dress like that?  I used to get paid to do it!"

At some point I slowly trickled away from the world of conventions: they certainly stopped coming to my home town after 3-4 years and as the prices went up and it moved out of the reach of the amateur collector I lost a little bit of interest.  My sci-fi/fantasy going experience became the norm.  All of a sudden it was quite fashionable and ok to be watching Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and those who were fascinated by sci-fi were no longer considered social lepers who lived with their parents and were afraid of direct sunlight (unless they were Twilight fans I guess...)

I was reminded of all of the above today when I went to a nearby arts centre to watch a film (Last Portrait in case you are interested: a slow moving character piece about an artist who finds himself increasingly struggling against his own legend) only to find the corridors of the place festooned with people in costume.

The answer to why was, of course, that there was some comicon event in place in one of the other halls...but in the intervening years something had changed.

First of all: the convention goers were almost uniformly in...uniform.

Secondly: the turn out was probably somewhere around 75-90% women

But most interestingly of all, and despite the costumes, none of the people there were recognisably...a thing.

Back in the 80s I had occasionally joked of going to a Star Trek convention dressed as Kerr Avon -a joke that only a true nerd would get - the point being that those who did go dressed in costume were always Picard or Riker, or a Klingon - or maybe a Borg.  It would always be a Tom Baker scarf draping to the floor...

...But although there were definitely a few Jon Snows and Tirion Lannisters around the main difference was that most of the people there were dressed in costumes as their own creation: people or races inspired by, but not actually of, the universe they were fans of.  There's been a lot of talk of steam-punk in recent years (a thing where you have sci-fi, but with a retro feel - so as if steam engines powered space ships etc) and this seems to have led to people feeling free to express themselves in whatever form they want to: not tied to a specific genre.

I'm not sure what to make of this to be honest: I think on the whole I think it is a good move as programmes, and books, like these should be the start and not the end of imagination...and I like the fact that it's become so mainstream...but...

...I do wonder if the market isn't being saturated now...we're on the fifth re-boot of Batman, the third of Spider-man...every major studio seems to be creating it's own "universe" and if you want to see the new Avengers film then you have to have seen the last three Captain America ones...channels like Netflix are producing their own shows and as for Game Of Thrones can hardly feel a breeze without someone saying "winter's coming" in a heavy northern accent

My fear I guess is that the films are running into the same problems that the comic books did: the "where do you go now" problem where in order to give bigger and better thrills you have to tell bigger and bigger stories

Those in the know will know, of course, that the dying world of comics was at least partially saved back in the 90s by the works of Alan Moore and his like that have gone on to influence the films - but every trend and fashion comes and goes just as swiftly so I hope that the companies have something else in their back pockets for when the fans grow up and put their costumes away.

I couldn't go to a convention now, of course, I'd stand out a mile and wouldn't have a clue what anyone there was supposed to be: maybe that's the way it should be.  After all: not all of us can be Kerr Avon at a Star Trek convention now, can we?

Kerr Avon: a cold-hearted, logical and increasingly paranoid rebel and outlaw fighting against the evil and corrupt Federation...


Stephen Hayes said...

I've never been to a sci-fi convention, but I know a few people who attend religiously.

The Bug said...

I have friends who do these conventions - and one of them is really clever making her costume. And another friend is a university professor whose specialty is pop culture - and she's obsessed with Bruce Banner (well, really Mark Ruffalo). I hardly ever get their references on Facebook. Just not my thing, although in a different world I would probably have fit right in with these folks.