This entry’s going to be a little bit different. As was mentioned previously, I have had the privilege of attending this year’s San Diego Comic Con, something I have not done in some time. As a trip to Comic Con covers so many different areas, this entry will be divided into largely unrelated subcategories, each to discuss some of the most prominent and exciting things I got to explore, in roughly chronological order.
1. Arrival and Exhibit Hall
This year, more than ever as far as I’ve seen, was absolutely packed. The first sign of that for me was on the journey over. San Diego public transportation is, on the best of days, a bit rubbish. But never have I seen it so magnificently strained before. The trolley cars traveling to the convention were packed, and when I say packed, I mean there was phsyically no more room to get people in because of the preexisting wall of people going all the way through the car and down the steps to just inside the doors.
This also manifested in another difficulty. The line to claim lanyards for badges, programmes, and bags, all staples of a Comic Con trip and rather important for any visitor to have, was absolutely ludicrous. It stretched all the way across from the Sails Pavilion to the second floor by Hall H, and even around that corner towards the bay. An online distance calculator informs me that this distance is something around a quarter of a mile, all of human bodies standing packed in a roped off area and barely moving at all. I don’t know whether a result of an emergency or of just sheer numbers, but it was something I have never before seen at Comic Con and something that was horrifying to witness. People I spoke to even decided not to bother at all, and I personally didn’t take care of that until late in the day, after the panels I attended, when the line died down. Before that, it was just too ludicrous to bother with.
Speaking of bodies packed together, the exhibit hall, where I spent most of my morning, continued that theme. There were plenty of exciting booths to visit, with exciting wares for sale. Delightfully, the BBC America booth had a massive Dalek that would periodically shout at passers by, at one point terrifying some passing girls I saw posing by the Dalek to take pictures. Lego stunned as always, with three fantastic sculptures of Luke Skywalker, the Flash, and Thor, as well as plenty of previews of obscenely large and expensive sets. Titan, of course, had a ton of Doctor Who products, including their comics and vinyl figurines. The BBC America booth had other stuff, too, like shirts and sonics. There was one vanishing player, which was a shame. The former Underground Toys booth, still listed as such in the directory, only offered mugs and the like. But nerdy goodness is scattered all across the floor. Individual sellers might have TARDIS bathrobes, Doctor t-shirts, action figures…these things are thoroughly scattered around from a dozen different sellers. The exhibit hall at Comic Con is basically a nerd mall built on fandom spectacle, be it comics, toys, television, blockbuster films, or even erotica (yes, entire booths devoted to hentai for you to overt your gaze from as inconspicuously as possible)…certainly, if you need a skeevy drawing of Princess Leia’s breasts and a rare cartoon Funko Pop, Comic Con is the place to go. It’ll have it all and more.
And, of course, there’s the freebies. Free posters, free pins, free bags, free food, a Comic Con badge is a great gateway to things you may never work out what to do with, but clutter you’re glad to lug around. In terms of media content, the exhibit hall is a lot more lacking, particularly in recent years for me. But it’s still the heart of the con, full of all sorts of weird and exciting transactions. It’s what I’ll always think of as Comic Con, the place where I stumbled across Russell T Davies or Stan Lee in past years and where I’ve spent many hours walking and shopping and exploring till my legs were numb. I didn’t get too much out of it this year, but it’s nice to have had the time to wander.
2. Titan Comics Con exclusive thoughts
Titan Comics has, of late, been winning me over with their Doctor Who content. For a frequenter of Comic Con over the years, I’ve never been able to get into reading comics, on the whole. I only ever regularly read Bionicle issues as a kid, and have always been scared by the continuity of the superhero titles. But the Doctor Who stuff has been stellar. Grounded in wonderful new characters like Alice Obiefune and Gabby Gonzalez, they’ve really embraced the use of diversity and character focus to approach new horizons for Doctor Who. The stories of Alice, black and working class and depressed, and of Gabby, so like Bill in her fight to escape social entrapment and pursue a dream, but through art and a strong cultural backbone, really are fertile places for storytelling, and they certainly have me with a fair bit of goodwill to offer the line. Well, $10 worth, at the very least.
“The Last Action Figure” is not the most remarkable of Titan Comics, I must admit. It’s grounded in a wonderful nostalgic charm perfect to Comic Con, as the splashy full page advertisement really beautifully establishes. It hits a right blend of simple and crass with nostalgic emotion, blended really wonderfully with a short and sweet love story. The first couple pages are probably the most lovely and human of the lot, them bonding over collecting these figures and searching everywhere for the last one. Unfortunately, from there, the plot hits accelerate. Collecting them all causes them to come to life and attack, which the Doctor quickly sorts out, and so they tour around with the full set of figures, now life size as a result of the attack, at cons. And we get a sweet little pun from Bill, “Go figure.” It’s never really explained what the figures are or where they came from, or even why they do what they do. They just are, and the story just gets on with closing itself up. It’s a sweet tribute to the Con world, and probably as much as it could be, but with all the focus on nostalgia and sweetness, I wish the plot engaged a bit more with that character and a bit less with action figures coming to life.
It’s a joy still, of course. Bill referencing the infinity stones from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is probably the most Bill geeky moment ever, and really fits the comic con environment of the piece. The reuse of the Doctor movies gag from “Empress of Mars” adds nicely to that, too. Meanwhile, there’s some lovely obscure in-jokes I had a lot of fun picking up on. The Fifth Doctor, Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan sorting out a past attack by the figures with the help of David Tennant’s Unbound/UNIT character Colonel Brimmicome-Wood is pure fanwank, but it’s so earnest and obscure that you can’t help but love it. What’s the point of having an obscure convention special comic if you’re not gonna indulge in the geeky process throughout? Not to mention the gratuitous reference to department C19, from the controversial book “Who Killed Kennedy.” It’s delighting in collecting the obscure corners of the Doctor Who universe in a story all about the nostalgic impulse to collect, collecting contunuity the way the main couple collect 90s action figures. It might kill in the end, but hey, it’s good fun to show off at cons.
3. BBC America Booth content
And, of course, BBC America had loads more goodies for sale, a few of which exclusive. My personal favorite, which I couldn’t resist buying myself, was a TARDIS tour shirt done in the style of a band tour, ending in San Diego, 2017. It’s something that wouldn’t work in any other scenario, really, but god, it’s a lovely design and a fun concept. That the front design matches the freebie pin being given out at the BBC America booth to patrons doesn’t hurt, either. It’s a nice little defining aesthetic for the year, and something I think I’ll be treasuring.
Beyond that, there was some pretty spectacular merch I didn’t go for. There were some really beautiful rainbow TARDIS shirts, which seemed particularly fitting after the wonderful Bill has come through this year. There were some amazing crystal etchings for $100 each that I longed for and immediately knew I would never buy, each shaped like the TARDIS on the outside, but with blue light projected in to show an incarnation of the Doctor inside, which is, really, for a fan product, absolutely inspired. There were lovely necklaces desgined to Time Lord and Dalek themes, and a nice exclusive TARDIS vinyl I was kinda temped to check out. And, of course, I must mention the cute cartoony t-shirts they had in abundance, with the artist on hand to chat and sign away. Sure, there was some Sherlock, Dirk Gently, and Orphan Black content there, too, but as ever, Doctor Who owned the BBC America stage. It’s only right.
4. Van Helsing panel
A quirk of Comic Con is that panels are not cleared out between presentations. So, if you want to get the best possible seats for an event, you do so by sitting through the previous presentations. And, in general, it’s best to show up early, because lines can be crazy. In this case, I wanted to catch the BritBox classic Doctor Who panel, and had little else going on, so I showed up several hours early. And the presentation room in the hotel in which this panel was held was enormous and very empty, which worked out quite nicely for me. Second row, near center.
The flip side of it is, you wind up sitting through presentations on shows you may never have heard of. In my vase, Van Helsing. The passion of the crew and of their small but clearly tremendously enthusiastic community of fans made for a nice experience to sit through. From the sound of things, it’s basically a pulpy SyFy channel series full of blood and gratuitousness, but grounded in a cast of strong women. And the world needs that, doesn’t it? It needs pulpy escapism with women every bit as much as it needs well-defined, complex women leads in heavier drama. Kelly Overton, Rukiya Bernard, and Missy Peregrym all seemed to greatly enjoy discussing their perspectives on their meaty roles. Rukiya Bernard had much to say on finding sympathy for her, from the sound of things, former antagonist and bringing realism to her guilt and struggles, Kelly Overton offered up her perspectives on how strong becoming a new mother made her feel and how she brought that to her character, and Missy Peregrym spoke lovingly about all the exciting weapons she got to play with in the series. The whole lot of them seemed to have a pleasant family dynamic and relaxed atmosphere for all their talk about bloody roman baths, and that made me really wish them well.
They were also quite open about production, which was fascinating. For example, one lengthy Q and A answer discussed the impacts of the weather on their storytelling, bringing both huge filming difficulties and heightened realism. My personal favorite moment, however, was when a fan of the lead writer’s playwriting career asked what it was like moving into serialized television, both in how it shows the many journeys that screenwriters can take that I hope I one day may manage, and spoke to the challenges and joys of having to keep building characters and pushing them in new directions, rather than taking them to a set point like you would in a play. Overall, it was a worthwhile experience, small as it may be. They mentioned that they hope to be back next year, and while I’m not sure the show has the kind of grounding to get it there, and probably won’t be tuning in myself, I can’t help but hope they do.
5. Panel: Z-Nation
Another hour, another show I’ve not seen but can’t help but root for because of the passion of the people there. From hearing lead black actress Kellita Smith talking about how she doesn’t get badass lead roles like this to the writers trying to explain a character being raised by crows (baby shows them to water, they bring baby food, process continues, become family), the b-movie charm and potential for something more meaningful and potent that the show seems to be built on carried over well to the panel, reflected by its kooky and enthusiastic fans. One interesting suggestion, for example, is the show’s interest in engaging the question of if zombies do still have the people they once were inside, and of what that makes of them. There was also some fun conversations about future plans to toy with zombies, particularly making ones that can’t be killed and how to deal with that. It, like Van Helsing, owns its position in the bloody bowels of genre entertainment and seems to wear that as a badge of honor, and while it’s not my cup of tea, I can’t help but smile along with them.
One interesting conversation came up about the topic of character deaths. It’s always an area I’m on edge with, generally being an advocate for keeping a character going and the potential narratives that unlocks. Not that characters shouldn’t die, but it’s always a difficult question of what’s added versus what’s lost. I suppose, with the zombie genre, unlike Doctor Who, killing characters is just a necessary part of what makes it work. The writers mentioned that they do it to feel more real and add stakes, but I’m not so sold on that as an explanation. Zombies aren’t realistic, particularly with the kind of tone the show is going for from the sound of things, Rather, it’s that it’s a signifier of the genre and a core to what makes a zombie story work. It’s about survivors fighting to not get picked off, and it’s built in the suggestion that a few of them will be. Z-Nation, from the sound of things, is a quirky, humorous, meta reflection on the genre, and I expect there’s a lot of rich commentary they could get in by lampshading or subverting these cornerstones. But, at the end of the day, they are a huge part of what it seeks to be, and of course the story will embrace that, for better or worse.
I couldn’t help but get a chuckle out of the studio for the show, as well, Asylum, of such infamous mockbusters as Titanic 2 and Transmorphers. B-movies like that are really every bit as important to the pop culture landscape as the big tentpole films, fueling humor and reflection and Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. And, slowly, Asylum is digging into its cultural niche and coming out with things that spread far and mean something. First Sharknado, now this. The representative of Asylum at the panel mentioned Z-Nation is the first time he can get his wife to watch the stuff they put out, let alone watch it as a fan. I really have to applaud that. It’s turning the thankless job of absurd b-movie cash-ins to something with its own charm and weirdness in spades, and that’s the kind of underdog story anybody can get behind.
5. BritBox Classic Doctor Who panel
Here we are at last. For the first time in decades, certainly at the least since Davies revived the show, classic Doctor Who has come to Comic Con, promoting a new impending accessibility for it with new fans through BritBox. It feels like a cornerstone in the classic series’ reassension to a vital part of geek culture, and that’s a truly wonderful thing. Near the beginning of the panel, the moderator asked the audience to raise their hands if they had never seen a classic serial. Hardly anyone did. For a show that ten years ago most people I knew had never even heard of, it’s come a long way back.
It’s still moving forward too, of course. The inevitable first question asked to Sophie Aldred, Peter Davison, and Colin Baker was their thoughts on Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, and I was immediately dreading what Peter Davison would say, given his past engagements with the topic. To his credit, despite headlines currently going around, he was quite eloquent and tactful, noting that “I’m sure she’ll be wonderful” and “I’m sure she’ll do a great job of it,” even while he called for sympathy for the people opposed to the concept to give them the space to come around to it, including himself. And good thing, too. The mood of the crowd was quite palpable and on edge in contrast to the loud cheers for Sophie Aldred and Colin Baker’s enthusiasm, and I fear that had he taken a more oppositional stance, he’d be facing a more concrete threat than a few clickbait-y headlines.
The reality is, of course it’s an awkward topic. Colin Baker wasn’t exempt from that, cracking a funny but slightly awkward joke about being himself the first female Doctor and remarking that women tended to be more opposed to Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor than men, probably because they’d rather look at David Tennant. His passion and progressive leanings were utterly charming, and I couldn’t help but applaud when he talked about how this hopefully was a break from the BBC’s cowardice with the casting when a black fan asked about the possibility of a person of color as the Doctor, frustrated that Jodie Whittaker is still white. Of course it’s a victory and of course that motion needs to be made, and Colin Baker was probably right in suggesting that skipping to a woman of color would be too big a step for the BBC. (Though it must be noted that a man of color was offered the role by Steven Moffat prior to Matt Smith.) But Big Finish, lovely as they are as a showcase for Colin Baker, haven’t really done much better. The one companion of color they’ve had is Roz from the Virgin books, discounting Erimem, Egyptian pharaoh, for being played by a white woman. And the writing and direction within the company are still overwhelmingly dominated by white men. It’s not just the BBC and not just televised Doctor Who that are struggling with the representation question. The entire media landscape is, and basically everyone is guilty to at least some degree.
Controversy aside, though, this return of Classic Who to the Comic Con limelight was an occasion of joy. The running gag of whether or not Steven Moffat was in the audience was a cheeky delight, for example, as was the way that was never answered one way or another. Perhaps the funniest moment, however, came from the new series. Peter Davison brought up “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” as his favorite from outside his era, which prompted a recollection of Colin Baker about how schoolchildren pretended to have gas masks and called “are you my mummy” to each other, cementing the new life of the show for him. And then Sophie Aldred one-upped all, describing how she and her husband sent their young children to bed to watch it together, worried it would be too scary for them, only to get a beautifully ironic fright when one of their kids, coming down the stairs and silhouetted in shadow, called out, “Mummy!”
Meanwhile, Poor Peter Davison continued the leak on Big Finish’s worst-kept secret after his daughter and one of the writers, mentioning quite explicitly that the Doctor’s daughter, Jenny, will be coming to audio soon. The poor man mistakenly thought Big Finish had officially announced it already, as a result of Georgia Tennant tweeting about the leak and confirming that it was indeed going to happen, resulting in yet another person spilling the beans on the long-rumored spinoff audios. He sees her as the female Doctor already and doesn’t get the need for “our” Doctor to be a woman, as well, and while that misses the point a fair bit (she’s hardly the lead of the television series, is she?), it’ll be interesting to see how Big Finish handles that blank slate of a character. There certainly are many possibilities to explore.
As ever, the notion of new life even for the old seemed to hang over this panel as the preview clip of the BritBox reconstruction of “The Wheel in Space” broadcast on two massive screens before an utterly rapt audience. Really, it’s probably the first time anyone paid that much attention to a classic Doctor Who reconstruction, let alone on that kind of scale. I’m absolutely delighted. Like Colin Baker said at the panel, the best place to start the classic series is in order, from the very beginning. And the only way to do that, really, for quite some time, has been telesnap reconstructions. It’s what I did, as have many others. This brings them to an official sort of status, not just a thing fans do and post on YouTube and Dailymotion but something that will be officially available on the official streaming site for Doctor Who. Better yet, the clip was of excellent quality, with beautifully crisp sound and far more legible text than anything Loose Cannon has provided. I hope it will bring many new fans to watch the show from the very beginning, and follow the arc of its development as well as anyone can in the present day. Friday, 21 July, 2017, the classic series of Doctor Who reclaimed its rightful place among the heights of pop culture at comic con, and it brought this old method of viewing history with it. I can’t think of anything more delightful than that.
There was a special BritBox trial code for panel attendees, as well as one for Comic Con guests in general. I look forward to trying out the service myself. I’m not going to say what the codes are, but I’m sure someone’s posted it somewhere if you’re the kind of person to take advantage of that.
6. Inhumans preview
As a delightful final surprise of the day, after the exhibit hall closed and I was ready to go home, some people were handing out flyers for a Marvel Cinematic Universe preview event, which, given it’s basically the geek pop culture cornerstone right now, I couldn’t not go to. Even as a televised show and not a film, it’s the sort of exclusive peek that can best be described “unmissable.”
I went on the off-chance that the line hadn’t already filled up beyond belief, as is usually the case for Marvel Comic Con events. I saw the premiere of the Age of Ultron trailer and a preview clip, for example, but that was after a night camped out in line. (There was no Doctor Who panel that year, had to fill it with something.) But, I had nowhere to be, time to kill, and a healthy serving of curiosity, so along I went. And against all expectations I had, I got in.
First off, when they say concessions and emphasize the size of the poster, they’re kidding on neither count. I was blown away by the massive poster I was grappling with trying to hold, though the complimentary rubber bands helped keep it under control, but that was before also trying to juggle a slice of pizza, a bag of popcorn, a water bottle, and a chocolate bar with my backpack, shopping bags, and that poster. Chaos. Beautiful, delicious chaos. And literally all the food was specially packaged with the Inhumans logo, a dedication to branding that I can’t help but applaud. I don’t know how much they were spending to feed us all and show us a free IMAX preview, but I must say, that’s the kind of dedication to marketing that makes Comic Con so fun to attend.
And seriously, big, big poster. Here’s it with my hand for comparison:
All in all, they showed us four sequences from the pilot episode on that massive screen. Of them, there’s a lot to discuss. First off, the cinematography was beautiful, really earned the IMAX approach. Gratuitous slow motion shots of running through a rain forest all added a real sense of spectacle and wonder to the whole thing, something past Marvel television series have strove to skirt around. The Defenders series and Agents of SHIELD, at least at the beginning, pre-blue alien worlds, strive to ground themselves in the real world in a way that Marvel’s bigger escapism doesn’t. This feels like an attempt to capture some of that grandeur. In a way, it reminds me of the first Thor film, one I’ve always loved and considered rather underrated. In more ways than just that, which I’ll get to in a moment.
There were some weaknesses, however. Namely, the dialogue is tremendously, tremendously stilted. The second sequence in particular, an Inhumans family dinner argument, was tremendously stilted, in a way you’d expect for political machinations of a royal family in basically any television series, but lacking in the self-aware humor you’d hope for from Marvel. It looked gorgeous, and actors like Iwan Rheon clearly were having a blast spitting it out, but it was lacking in nuance, depth, or realism, and it did feel like some of the actors were struggling. Anson Mount probably flew the highest with the sequence, communicating through vigorous sign language and a steely expression a strong and demanding presence.
His character suggests the other issue I’m apprehensive of, however, that of the treatment of royalty. It’s an iffy subject to portray, because key to a lot of genre tales are stories of rightful kings being ousted and fighting their way to return to their noble place of rule, but, of course, monarchy is a dated and rather unjust as a system of government. That isn’t so bad in a story like Thor, which distances itself from Asgard politics by grounding itself in our world, but in a story like Inhumans, which leads with aspirations of political drama in the Game of Thrones vein but all set in the present day with a persecuted science fiction minority (a metaphor Agents of SHIELD has spent much time developing), the politics of the series could get very confused very quickly. There’s eight episodes to do interesting and exciting things with these threads, and I very much hope it does, particularly given the plot the final scenes establish, but for now, it really could go any way.
At its best, however, it captured the pure joy of Marvel entertainment. The sequence that really captured the attention of the audience, I think, was the fourth and final one. It did something more demanding with the action that first lost the audience, with at least one member yelling loudly about not understanding it, before picking up in a beautifully comic book way to exclamations of “no way!” and general gasps of appreciation, by playing with the possibilities Inhumans’ powers offer, something most Marvel television has shied away from, aside from latter day Agents of SHIELD.
Below, I’ll get into full spoilers, so if you don’t want to see any of that, I hope you’ve enjoyed my coverage and have a lovely day. Oh, one more thing, before I dive into spoilers: on my way out, the whole cast was posing in front of the giant dog. Sadly, I didn’t capture a photo, but not for lack of trying.
Perhaps the cleverest trick of the footage shown was in the opening sequence. It sets up as an archetypal opening to a series. Ordinary girl enters this Inhuman world, having recently experienced terrigenesis herself. She’s scared, running from men with guns, when an Inhuman from the city shows up to save her. Everything looks to be set for the show’s premise. However, she is shot, and soon, so is he, by the people hunting them down. Immediately, the logic of the typical series is skewered. Instead of getting a Skye/Daisy-like identification figure, it embraces its fantastic world totally.
Better yet, the final twisty sequence pays that off, revealing that Iwan Rheon’s Maximus set the whole thing up as a talking point for his political machinations, flinging into a rather brilliant action sequence of the royal family and loyalists being hunted down as he takes power. The particular moment that threw the audience I was with and blew their minds was the establishment of Ken Leung’s powers as Karnak, appearing to be shot dead before being revealed to be able to see how things pan out and adjust his actions accordingly, making a fantastic escape in a dynamic action sequence.
Less successful is Maximus’ attempted seduction of Medusa, which feels like a rapey retread of his unpleasant Game of Thrones character. She holds her own, fortunately, with her hair holding him back, but it’s uncomfortable to see the need for a strong woman to be established through unwanted sexual advances from men. So far, it’s her character that I am most apprehensive of, as she seems to be a key focus of the series, and I feel like I have yet to get an idea of where her complexities and richness lie. Hopefully, that material is still to come. There’s hints she may have had a more radical political past, but that’s also tied to a past relationship she had with him. It’s unfortunate to see her character so firmly bound in relationships with men, either with Maximus or her husband, the king, Black Bolt. Agents of SHIELD was a triumph as the origin for the MCU’s first woman superhero lead, Daisy, something direly needed in a mostly male environment. It’ll take more than previewed to achieve that with Medusa, but I live in hope.
Most exciting, though, is that this series does appear to be doing the Thor trick of evacuating the leads to Earth, even while Maximus’ presence in the Inhuman city should maintain the otherworldly grandeur in a way that film didn’t. So much of my complaints, directed at the stilted, politically disconnected, otherworldly realm can become the basis of the show, as the Inhuman royal family plot their return in the real world. And as that’s the note the preview leaves us on, it’s my hope that that will be the direction the show explores. If it sticks to that over its eight episodes, it could make for something very rich and powerful, playing up its grand comic book roots while all the while embedding them in real world meaning. In essence, I think this may be how Inhumans finds its humanity.