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When Fandoms Collide

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It’s a very special gal’s birthday today, so I’m finally posting about the glamorous weekend I spent with Jane Espenson back in February. Oh, the times we had, Miss Jane and I!

The event was ostensibly a Doctor Who convention, but I was there because of the attendance of Jane, my favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer, who also happened to be the show runner for Caprica, which I adored (mostly), and a writer on the new Starz™ Torchwood production, Miracle Day.

My kid, McDiva, has a few fandoms. One of the biggies is Doctor Who, which she is able to squee about with a bunch of real-life and on-line friends as well as her mom and dad. For Christmas she received an “Eleven” sonic screwdriver and a promise of a fabulous weekend in Los Angeles for the 22nd Annual Gallifrey One Doctor Who convention. Thus commenced a flurry of preparations and much anticipation.

As a family, we came to Doctor Who through Torchwood. I had been impressed with writer/actor Noel (Mickey) Clarke at Comic-Con in 2007, before the first season aired here, and intrigued by the promise of James Marsters in the second season. TW left a few breadcrumbs back to the DW source material, which we diligently followed. One summer, we zipped through the local library’s DVDs for the Ninth Doctor, which I liked quite a lot. McDiva and her friends continued on, and devoured all of Ten in record time. At WonderCon in April of 2010, we all watched the first episode of Season 5 (Eleven) with a couple hundred of our closest friends, and the whole family became instantly smitten. I’m not sure if it’s this version of The Doctor (the Moffat one) or Amelia Pond that are most captivating. More River Song doesn’t hurt, either. I love this Doctor’s trickster, seat-of-the-pants, not-really-one-of-us aspect. I like that the women get to be sexual and capable, and — especially in River’s case — know a bit more than the Doctor about some things. I love that Rory was allowed to be the kind of hero we got in BtVS: a stalwart, brave, beta-male.

That said, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still my fandom, and in addition to featured guest Jane Espenson, the event was to be the site of the book launch for Whedonistas!, A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them, at which attendees could get the book a month ahead of the March 15 release date. Since many of my online friends and acquaintances were involved, this was another draw for me.

Last year, McDiva attended with a friend and her mom. This year, the friend attended with us. Moms take turns! Yet another mom/daughter combo are long-time attendees — the mom was a “Crafting Who” panelist this year — and we arranged to have adjoining rooms at the hotel so the kids and adults could separate into their own rooms. Genius! The Con started on a Friday, February 18, and we loaded up the minivan Thursday and drove to Beverly LAX Marriott for a glamorous weekend surrounded by Amy Pond look-alikes. Not that I was threatened…

Friday was light on Buffy programming, so — aside from signing up for some limited attendance events later in the weekend — I mostly gawked at the wonderful costumes, and attended a few interviews and podcast tapings with the writers of the Whoverse, who were all charming, funny, and British. They are all male and apparently all seeing the same hairdresser. Seriously, the carefully arranged spiky hairdo was a dead giveaway as to who was a Guest — except for the extremely close-cropped ‘dos of the Guests with male pattern baldness. Producer Tracie Simpson was also a guest — although neither spiky nor balding— and I caught much of her Friday presentation. Apparently, getting the double decker bus for Planet of the Dead to Dubai (where it was promptly crushed by the workers unloading it from the cargo ship) was among the most challenging things she ever had to deal with in 5 years of producing the New Who. Very entertaining.

Traditionally, the Opening Ceremonies for Gallifrey One happen at the end of the first day, so that kicked off the evening’s activities. There was a delightful video sent by Peter Davidson (the Fifth Doctor) which heralded his arrival through the on-stage, blacklit TARDIS. It’s a fun, small, Con (2,000 attendees or thereabouts) and they don’t try to be ultra sophisticated, which is refreshing. After the opening ceremonies, there were a couple of parties and dances and whatnot. At the Pirate Invasion and Rum Party (no actual rum available) a beautiful woman dressed as Captain Jack Harkness taught McDiva and her friends how to play Texas Hold ‘Em. A must for every young girl…

On Saturday, there were a few interesting panels before the Whedonistas event, but the prospect of a lunch date with my Malibu-dwelling Best Friend from College was even more thrilling. She picked me up and we had a delicious, grown-up Ladies Who Lunch experience far away from the convention floor. Then I dragged her back to the convention so that she could gawk at the costumes, most especially McDiva’s creation, which was quite spectacular. BFFC was quite taken with the various Daleks (who were exterminating left and right), an Amy Pond with Weeping Angel hand, and a mini-skirted Ten with high-heeled Converse shoes. She hasn’t seen the show, but it’s all very entertaining anyway. While wandering around, we ran into my sister-in-law, who I didn’t even know was planning to attend. She had brought a work friend who, although a Who fan, seemed a bit overwhelmed by the fannish goings-on. SIL was happy to see McDiva’s costume, but couldn’t get her friend to stick around for the “Crafting Who” panel, which was too bad, as my SIL is an awesome crafter. She’s a terrific artist in general, but unlike her brothers is drawn to create art that is not easily reproducible, i.e. one-of-a-kind custom items which — although very sophisticated — she characterizes as crafts rather than art.

The Whedonistas launch panel was chockfull of fabulous gals, some of whom I met at Writercon 2009, along with a couple of pros from the Whedonverse, Nancy Holder and Jane Espenson. McDiva took a break from being the object of the paparazzi to (her costume really was fabu) to hang with me for this. We sat clutching copies of the book, fresh off the presses, and followed along as the panelists discussed their contributions. First up was the cover artist, Katy Shuttleworth, who revealed the hidden messages in her artwork: brown coat, Jayne hat, grrr…argh shirt, Buffy cross & stake, and (my favorite) Drusilla nails.

Also on hand were Kalima, rm, and scarlettgirl, who either edited or contributed pieces for the collection. I sort of accosted Kalima in the restroom ahead of time, having seen her around and thinking, “She looks awfully familiar…” Yup, she did a fabulous pinch-hit for brittanyxo by leading the “Inner Lives” workshop at Writercon 2009, when NK’s flight got canceled. Great gal. But I digress. The panelists introduced themselves and said what they’d done for the book, then went around again and said what had initially drawn them into the Whedonverse. For Jane Espenson, the answer was Ted, which means she too must be a sucker for the overalls of sadness. Right?

Then they asked for questions from the audience, the most memorable of which was, “How can I get my friends interested in the Whedonverse?” This of course depends on your friends’ individual interests, but I’ve had great luck with showing grown men A New Man, penned by Jane, so there’s that. rm mentioned that for guys it’s sometimes helpful to start with Angel, because guys might think they won’t be able to related to a teenaged girl, even though they are wrong about that. Heh. Other people suggested Firefly, which I don’t actually think is anymore accessible than anything else, but Jane says Dr. Horrible is the place to start, because it doesn’t even require an hour of commitment.

One panelist mentioned getting her DVDs of BtVS back from a friend who said it was pretty good, but “kinda derivative”. Much laughter as Jane recalled a college professor telling her about reading a student paper that argued that “Shakespeare would be a lot better if he didn’t use so many clichés.” Jane also went through her spiel about how the various scriptwriters always get credit for lines that Joss actually came up with in the writing room. Her example this time was “I love syphilis more than you” (Spike to Harmony) from Harsh Light of Day, which she is often complimented on, but she says is pure Joss.

There was also heated discussion about the Joss-less reboot movie. Jane said she just can’t see how it’ll be Buffy without Joss — to much agreement — and other panelists saying that by creating an iconic character, it became part of the zeitgeist and now must fly free (or something like that). I’m taking a wait-and-see approach, but I’m fairly convinced they’re going to try to Twilight-ize it and that would be…is there a stronger word than “catastrophic”? Perhaps I take this fandom thing too seriously.

It was a fun panel, followed by an autograph session during which we got locked in the room because of a TV crew filming just outside. This did not bother me, because I was locked in a room with Jane Espenson! All my girlish dreams come true! Though perhaps not hers…

Aside from the Whendonistas, there were several other people doling out autographs, including Jose Molina (a Firefly writing alum), Larry Niven (whose essay, Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex, I used in my undergrad thesis on Lois Lane — yes I’ve always been like this), Paul Kasey (the Blowfish from Torchwood, along with practically every other elaborately costumed character on TW or DW, such as Cybermen and plastic mannequins), and a solid ton of other talented and creative people that I hadn’t heard of before, but whose work I will probably be checking out soon.

When I got to Jane, I gushed all over her about Caprica, and how much I loved it, especially the final 3 episodes. She said, “Yeah, we finally knew what we were doing by then.” I told her that we had viewing parties with our neighbors, like during the Twin Peaks days. She said, “Just for that, let me give you one of these.” I now have my very own autographed DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to the 12 colonies, Beyond Caprica! With the corners cut off! Serious! Since we were locked in, I got a bit of extra time, and told her that she was my favorite Buffy writer, by the numbers, at which she scoffed and brought up the “Joss really did the heavy lifting” argument again. “Look,” I said. “I don’t want to denigrate Joss or anything, but you really do have your own voice.” This made her squirm a little. So cute!

I asked if she would like one of my (very) homemade “Church of Joss (Reformed)” badge ribbons, and she promptly handed over her badge so I could apply the thing. Actually, I think I gave one to every one of the Whedonistas. Hee!

The badge ribbons are Gallifrey One tradition. Attendees get pithy and amusing sayings or images made up into ribbons that can be stuck to each other with self-adhesive. Then they give them out or trade with their friends, like Pogs. When we were putting the finishing touches on McDiva’s costume, I used the rest of the iron-on printout to make my own ribbons. So very DIY. Extreme limited edition! I think I had 15 of them. It’s a bit of a point of pride to get a ribbon that is in great demand, or to get a huge collection of them. Last year, one of the guests made a kilt out of his. The trail of ribbons can get so long, that they have to be draped in doubles and triples. My kids had long, long strings of them, and pronounced my collection “pathetic”. I was keeping mine to things that I felt fit my interests (i.e. feminism and women in genre), so while I skipped the “I wear fezzes now. Fezzes are cool.” ribbon, I was thrilled to get a “Hello Sweetie” one. However, I couldn’t resist McDiva’s friend’s assortment: an image of the crack in the universe, and “Look! It’s a shipper!”

After hobnobbing in the autograph line for an hour, it was time to get ready for the Masquerade. McDiva and friends were presenting/competing in the Novice category. There was a pre-show “workmanship” examination, followed by the actual Masquerade presentation in a room of perhaps 1,200 people. Bright lights, big city. My roommate thought they would go on early, as they generally go in age order, but it was not to be. They were 29th in a field of 33 contestants, and while they are not expert presenters, everybody seemed rather smitten. The name of their group was “Cutesy Who” which made people groan, but when they came out, and were so darned, well, cute, the groans turned to awwwwwwws. Extremely short, low res vid can be seen here.

There was then a lengthy half-time show during which Ian McNeice (Churchill from Victory of the Daleks) and a few friends entertained us with entendre about UNITs while the judges deliberated. Then the awards were announced and the girls won the Best Workmanship prize in their category, and a “Cuddliest Presentation” ribbon. There were lots of really great costumes, of course, though the “Best in Show” was a standout. Someone built a life-sized Tiki Dalek, complete with grass skirt and coconut bumps, which danced around while they played “Limbo Rock” over the sound system. Our people are weird and wonderful, is all I can say.

We then ran over to the Once More With Feeling sing-along, but the screen was too small and too low, so I left. Who knew it would turn into a Whedonverse scandal within minutes of my departure? For rm's take on the "Shut up, Dawn!" phenomenon, especially as it played out at Gally, go here and here. I won’t go into the details, since there have been hundreds of comments elsewhere, except to say that my kids are friends with the young woman (who is in her 20s, not a child as some people assumed) and they report that she was not upset by the incident. I don’t think that makes what happened right, but I was relieved to hear it anyway. Here’s what I think, deep down: It is not the point of the Buffyverse to silence young women. Do we really need to simple it up any more than that?

The next day was the spotlight interview with Jane Espenson and Doris Egan, who is another current Torchwood writer. They have worked together before, on Tru Calling, I believe. It was a rollicking good talk, with amusing tales of how it is to work with Russell T. (Rusty) Davies. In short, it is very, very good. They said that every email they get from him is titled, “Hooray!” and starts out with the words, “You are MARVELOUS!” Jane says that she always thought that if she praised her writers a lot that they would get complacent, but working with RTD has completely changed her mind. She said that previously, when she got notes to fix some part of a script, she would always dread going back to look at the horrible, awful place where she had FAILED UTTERLY, but now, with notes like “make this EVEN BETTER” she goes back with a song in her heart to look at her brilliant piece that can be even more brilliant if she gives it one more polish. She mentioned that she has only gotten notes like that from three showrunners: Joss, Ronald Moore (Battlestar Galactica), and RTD.

Speaking of notes, both of these writers were quick to sing the praises of STARZ, who sent back the following instructions when they saw the first TW script: Don’t be afraid to make it complicated. Apparently, this is unheard of, and cause for breaking out the champagne. Usually the corporate notes are more along the lines of “can you do this without any conflict?” Which, you know, you really can’t. Ever.

Jane also had amusing “divided by a common language” stories to tell about the writers’ room for Torchwood. Apparently, it once took 10 minutes to straighten out the exact meaning of the word “vest”. In the United States of America, dear Brits, a vest is a waistcoat, the thing that covers the chest in a 3-piece suit. The thing you call a vest, we commonly call a “wifebeater” or less sensationally, a tank top, sleeveless undershirt, or perhaps muscle shirt. I know they weren’t called “wifebeaters” in my youth, but that is now the norm. I think it might have something to do with Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire, but I’m not sure. At any rate, you can see how the jaws would drop and the brows would furrow as the writers from both sides of the pond tried to make themselves understood on this important point. Heh. There was also a bit of a ruckus about getting the dialog right for a character the American writers understood to be “Scots”, but was in reality a Liverpudlian, a.k.a “Scouse”. Honest mistake.

Jane also reported her extreme embarrassment at getting a script back with tons of things circled in red. Apparently, the first time out, she had littered the Welsh characters’ dialog with American words like “apartment” and “elevator” and perhaps even “bus”. She claims she knew better, and by the third script was getting compliments on her grasp of the idiom. Go, Janie!

During the audience Q&A, a fairly aggressive guy stood up to ask if all the drama and tragedy from the end of Children of Earth was going to be dealt with directly in the new Torchwood series, Miracle Day. His position was that, “It’s not entertaining to watch someone feel sorry for themselves, like ‘Bitchy the Vampire Slayer’.” Huh. So…I guess that’s how some people see S6 of BtVS. Interesting. I keep reading things, usually in British SciFi magazines, that say the show ‘lost its way’ in the later seasons, and I have never been able to figure out what the heck that means. Now I’m guessing that it means the show was too interior, therefore not ‘entertaining’. Perhaps not enough shit gets blown up? Oh well, perception is everything, I’m told. For the record, Jane and Doris say that there is a few years gap between the events of CoE and MD, so Jack will presumably have dealt with most of his crippling grief in a seemly fashion, off camera. Whew! What a relief for Fairly Aggressive Guy.

McDiva, exhausted from the extended revelry surrounding her triumph from the night before, joined me afterward for the interview with Gareth Roberts, who wrote one of my favorite eps from DW S5, The Lodger. He’s also written a bunch of other Doctor Who related things, such as computer games and Sarah Jane Adventures episodes, but my Who knowledge is not vast enough to grasp it all. McDiva used the time to stretch out on the seats with her feet in my lap, listening with her eyes closed and laughing at the appropriate moments. She may yet get the appeal of NPR. Roberts is a funny guy, and it was a lovely way to decompress before The Main Event. Yes, the entire weekend was just the lead up to one last sweet hour with my hero, Jane Espenson.

I owe it all to another Gallifrey One tradition, the intimate Kaffeeklatsch with selected guests. I managed to secure a place as one of just a dozen people locked in a small conference room with Jane and Doris, having coffee and conversation.  It was nerd nirvana, or as Tom Lenk would say, nerdgasm. Jane arrived with a gigantic chocolate chip cookie to share with us, and told us that they could be more frank if we all promised not to tweet about it. Why, no ma’am, of course we wouldn’t do that! (Well I wouldn’t because I don’t have a Twitter account, if not for any more noble reason.)

So, hopefully I’m not giving anything away by blogging in a general way. If so, I’m sorry Jane, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal. Also, I may have mixed up some things that were said at the public interview with the things said at the Kaffeeklatsch. Not a journalist, here, just a fangirl. Any spoilers for the new Torchwood are now public knowledge, and part of the publicity campaign, but if you’re trying to stay away from even knowing the basic premise, skip ahead.

She announced that the new Torchwood, Miracle Day, starts the day everybody on earth stops dying. There was a general intake of breath, and then people started to throw out ideas: Would this make Jack less lonely, since everybody is now in his same boat? Would he be horrified that everybody is going to suffer the way he does? What is the basis of his suffering? Nobody dies? What about sick people? Injured people? What about animals? Et cetera.

After a minute or two, Jane said, “You’ve just recreated what happens in the writer’s room. In fact, I think you’ve recreated a couple of the exact conversations we had in our writer’s room.” Squee! She went on to talk about the differences in writer’s rooms here and in Britain, as she gathered from working with RTD and Julie Gardner. Here, there is a week or two of discussion/prep work done in the room before a specific writer is sent off to do the initial draft. Then the showrunner (and whoever) makes suggestions, tightens things, does a smidge of rework, sends it back for a second (and possibly third) draft, and then does a final polish. In Britain, it’s more usual for a day or two of discussion to happen before the writer goes off to write an initial draft, and then the showrunner takes a look and sees what’s working and what’s not, and there is a whole bunch of rewrites before it comes time to shoot. (Neil Gaiman recently wrote about the “what we can afford” stage of rewriting for television, as well.)

After an initial period during which RTD wondered why it was taking so darned long in the writers’ room, she said that one day he lit up and said, “Oh! We’re doing the rewrite work here right now! Brilliant!” Or something to that effect. The moral was that it takes as long as it takes, and you can do the thinky stuff either at the beginning or at the end, but it’s still going to happen.

She had very definite opinions about the length of a U.S. season of a show (22 episodes) versus the British or premium cable length (10-12 episodes). “Of course the shorter season makes for a higher quality show! There’s no padding, no filler. The arcs are tighter and…but then you don’t get to do episodes like Superstar, so there’s a trade-off.” We all agreed that a world without Superstar in it would be less grand.

She talked about how Caprica was a learning experience, because it started off with such an explosion, which sends everything hurtling away from all the other things, and it took the whole run to get them to come back together. She lamented not being able to do more with Sam Adama’s marriage, but the actor who played his husband moved across the continent, and it wasn’t cost effective to use him, so they dropped the planned subplot. Dern.

She and Doris had lots of fun “war stories” to tell about less enjoyable shows they’ve worked on, names redacted. Jane also said that she prefers to watch reality shows, or Glee, as watching genre now is too much like homework. She said she was almost late for her first talk of the day, because she was in bed laughing at a woman on Hoarders whose bed was buried in a pile of books — until she realized that she was lying in a bed that was buried in books, herself. Instant karma.

She briefly touched on the sad tale of Golden Boys, which was to be a charity performance of an episode of Golden Girls — directed by Jane, starring Sasha Roiz, Enver Gjokaj, and Tom Lenk — which fell through at the last moment, after months of rehearsals. (I had tickets, too! *sob*) Someone asked about Riley, which I understood to be an opening to talk about her "Riley" comic book, but she instead talked about how he was designed to be a rebound guy, providing a bridge relationship for Buffy, which would have been a thankless role for anybody. I may be wrong, but I got the impression she was avoiding talking about the comics altogether.

It was a totally worthwhile hour of chat. After that, the kids and I attended a screening of The Lodger with live commentary by  producer Tracie Simpson, and the scriptwriter Gareth Robert’s flatmate. Mr. Robert’s had taken ill after his previous talk, alas. His flatmate is another Whoverse writer and was actually sitting at the kitchen table throwing out ideas while the script was being written, so it all worked out well for us in the audience. They had lots of amusing tidbits to add about the difficulty of working with the cat, the freakiness of the stairway in real life, how Ms. Simpson made sure she was on set the day they shot the shower scene, and what had to change due to budget considerations, etc. Nobody knew what the deal was with that weird painting that’s hanging in the hallway, though. You know, the one that looks like a zombie version of Richard E. Grant? Total mystery.

MiAmor, who had been spending the weekend with his SoCal family while we flitted about at the Con, showed up for the closing ceremonies, which were charming. I therefore got to introduce him around to folks I’d met, especially Kalima and scarlettgirl. scarlettgirl talked about how her fandom interests were changing, although she enjoyed diving into the Whedonverse again as the editor of Whedonistas! The only tricky part was finding someone to write with enthusiasm about the comics. Three people started, but all three became disillusioned before the deadline. That's why there is nothing about the Buffy comics in the book. She was very sweet, and told me that my girls were the highlight of the con for her. I mentioned that I had met MiAmor at Comic-Con, and she laughed. “Your daughter never really had a chance, did she?” Heh. Nope. Really, really born to it, my girl.

I’ve just learned that Jane will be a guest again next year, as will Mark Sheppard. I know where I’ll be next Presidents’ Day weekend!

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