When geek families meet fan conventions

How would a two- and a four-year-old react to meeting Peter Capaldi at their first geek fan convention? Here's what happened...

Doctor Who 50th anniversary composite

I’ve been a geek since boyhood. I remember fondly sitting cross-legged on the carpet of my grandparents’ living room watching black-and-white re-runs of Lost In Space, gasping from behind the sofa (or at least a cushion) as Doctors Five, Six and Seven dashed to extricate themselves from the jaws of that week’s wobbly monster, and standing in the corner of the playground at primary school surrounded by a horde of twitching kids, dealing out snippets of Red Dwarf dialogue like they were bite-sized bags of amphetamine. In adolescence, I hid the light of my geeknicity under a bushel. I figured it was the best way to escape my teenage years with a better-than-fifty-per-cent chance of, you know, doing it. I was an inbetweener, a sleeper hit, a boy with one foot behind the bike sheds and the other in chess club.   I adored Star Trek and sci-fi and horror and time-travel and aliens and space-ships, but in public I surfed the mainstream, harbouring my inner-geek like a secret identity. I never read comic books (save the Beano, The Broons and Oor Wullie), joined fan clubs or went to conventions. It wasn’t until I became a father in my mid-thirties (my two boys, Jack and Christopher, are now four and two respectively) that the little geek hiding inside of my soul was able to step into the spotlight, taking my kids by the hands as it did so.  

 Our house echoes daily with the sounds of superheroes, secret lairs, robots, androids, Finn and Jake, and spaceships, but Doctor Who is the only piece of pop culture that unites the entire family… well, to a point. My partner, the matriarch of the family, loves the modern contingent of Doctors – Capaldi’s her favourite, and mine – but she refuses to watch any of the eight-and-under Doctors, citing as her primary reason the special effects that look as though they were achieved through using painted egg cartons, bubble-wrap and a loop of string. Many of them were. Each morning at breakfast, then, the kids and I watch a different episode of the Classic series. Like their mother, the kids adore Doctors Nine through Twelve, whose episodes we watch mainly at weekends, but there’s something about the exaggerated peril, the simpler storylines (except for you, Ghost Light), and exciting cliff-hangers (except for you, Dragonfire) of the first Who era that chime with their shorter attention spans and burgeoning sense of wonder. In any case, I figured it was better to inculcate them into the classic series now, before their critical faculties advance to such a point that they’ll inevitably have to ask: ‘Dad, why is Jon Pertwee running away from a sentient blob of rubber horse-poo?’ Or ‘Dad, why is Tom Baker being swallowed up by a monstrous set of illuminous male genitalia?’ And their mother will lean back with a sneer and say, ‘You see?’.  

Hit the road, Jack

 We’re always on the look out for geeky things to do with the kids. Last summer I heard about something called ‘The Falkirk Invasion’, a charity event that would bring professional cosplayers, movie sets, props, retro games stations, stalls, and famous faces from the worlds of TV, comics and film to our local town centre. All of the money raised by the event would go straight to Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS), an endlessly worthy charity, so how could we resist? I imagined the looks on my kids’ faces as they watched Iron Man teaming up with Batman to face down Darth Vader, as Chewbacca gargled furiously at a rogue Dalek. My partner and I didn’t tell the kids we were taking them to the event; we just took them into town and let magic do the rest. Sure enough, the first thing they saw as they stepped off the escalators in Falkirk’s Howgate Shopping Centre was a full-sized, fully-mobile Dalek menacing people outside the Pound Shop. I failed properly to appreciate how unsettling the sight of a ‘real’ Dalek might be to young kids, even ones who were big fans of Doctor Who. Once we calmed the kids down, we next introduced them to a nine-foot-tall Chewbacca, which proves that learning wasn’t our strong point. Nine-foot-tall hairy wolf beasts delivered without context to the eyes of tiny children who’ve never seen Star Wars tend to inspire a reasonably significant amount of blood-curdling terror. Thankfully, though, kids are as resilient as they are forgiving. Pretty soon my eldest was chasing the Dalek around town, waving his sonic screwdriver at it and goading it to exterminate him, as well as waving merrily at big Chewie each time he passed him. 

His kid brother was a different story. Despite learning to tolerate the presence of the plethora of crazy creatures and costumed maniacs swirling around him, he was unwilling to share a photo pose with anyone other than your local friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. Their meeting was adorable. My youngest kept patting at his Spiderman cardigan in disbelief whilst making cooing noises at the flesh-and-blood Spidey squatting next to him, as if to say: ‘Spiderman, how the Hell did you manage to escape from the confines of my cardigan?’. It was a genuinely great day, during which we ran the full geek gauntlet: donning shades and grabbing guns to pose as a family of Terminators; hugging droids; swishing wands; shooting guns; buying geeky T-shirts and Doctor Who toys; and getting our pictures taken next to full-size replicas of Doc Brown’s time-machine and Lightning McQueen. I even got my photo taken squatting over a replica of Daryl Dixon’s bike with an imitation Lucille gripped in my hand. Cool, as Abed would say. Coolcoolcoolcoolcool.   We discovered that The Falkirk Invasion was simply the appetiser for a full-on, fan-run, not-for-profit convention that was happening in Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange the coming February. Capital Sci Fi Con would run for three days, and boast more and bigger of everything: stars, props, sets, costumes, cosplayers, not to mention a numbing multiplicity of things to see and do. It would be a convention. A real and proper convention. None of us had ever been to a convention before.   I was desperate for us all to go, especially the kids, but still a little voice from my childhood was whispering in my ear: ‘Saddo. Big kid. Geek.’ I was raised in an area where such sentiments reigned – especially in the playground. Dressing up was dorky. Outpourings of passion for anything other than football was anathema. Comic-cons were for freaks and misfits, right?

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A break with convention

 I remembered, as a teenager, using fan conventions and comic cons as a ‘line in the sand’, a way to reassure people who may have learned about my love of sci-fi that I hadn’t gone ‘full geek’. I’d say things like: ‘You know, I like the sci-fi shows, but I just watch them, and that’s as far as it goes. If I liked The Bill I wouldn’t dress up as a copper and go stand in a room with thousands of other people dressed as coppers, so why would I want to stand in a room with a bunch of people dressed as Klingons?’ That was one of the first things I noticed when we arrived at Capital Sci-fi Con earlier this year: the total lack of Klingons. I wondered if you could take the pulse of geekdom by looking at the range and proliferation of costumes worn by fans and cosplayers at conventions; get a real sense of the franchises, alien races and characters that have seized the public’s imagination. If so, the Klingons were doomed. I’d always considered them perennial favourites, but, if that was true, then where were they? Perhaps the old guard of Next Generation fans had hung up their bat’leths; perhaps Discovery‘s new iteration of Klingons were too tricky to replicate, or too derided by the fans to excite the imagination. Maybe Star Trek had simply been drowned out by a billion other jostling franchises. There were no Kirks, Spocks, or McCoys. No Sloths, Doc Browns, Bortuses, Listers, Elevens, Tigers or Wolfs. It’s hard to know if those absences mean anything. I’ve only been to one convention, after all. Maybe at a bigger convention, say in London or San Francisco, there would be Meekons, Meeseeks, Marty McFlys and Emergency Medical Holograms as far as the eye could see; Klingons on the starboard bow, Klingons portside, Klingons climbing up the hull; hell, Klingons knocking back drinks in Ten Forward whilst dancing the samba. Klingons bloody everywhere. What the convention did have – to name-drop but a few faces and franchises – was multiple Deadpools, a Marge Simpson, a Rick Sanchez (complete with a pickled version of himself poking out from his top pocket), a gaggle of Ghostbusters, a platoon of colonial marines, Star Wars soldiers aplenty, an eerily in-character Michael Myers (in terms of his gait and head-cocks, rather than his penchant for stabbing people to death) and a broad cross-section of heroes and villains from both DC and Marvel. The franchise most heavily represented in terms of costumes was Doctor Who, hardly surprising since two of the biggest names meeting and greeting fans over the weekend were Peter Davison and Peter Capaldi – Doctors Five and Twelve respectively. We elected to dress our boys, Jack and Christopher, as Doctors Four and Eleven (Baker the 1st and Smith). Thankfully, the kids entered the fray without fear. They slalomed merrily through hordes of vikings and Gods of War, milled about in crowds of gun-slingers, ghosts and goblins, all without the faintest acknowledgement that there was anything even remotely amiss about such a gathering. In essence, they were in the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars, and loving every grungy, gungey, gruesome bloody minute of it (later on in the day, we had the good fortune to hear that famous, rooty-tooty little ditty being played by a sci-fi-centric brass band). Jack spent most of his day offering jelly babies to anyone and everyone: fellow incarnations of the Doctor, a giant Xenomorph, his arch-nemesis The Penguin, Deadpool, even a disconcertingly polite and appreciative Bane. Jack’s little brother, Chris, spent most of his day bouncing along by his big brother’s side, a tiny be-suited boy barking out beautiful nonsense at the goodies and baddies above them. The kids were running riot down the long corridors of their imaginations, but in real life. Fantasy and magic were all around them. There are few greater gifts that you can bestow upon your children than that.

Meet Peter and Peter

 We’d bought tickets online to gain entry to the event itself, but had to wait in a separate queue to pick up a time-allocation ticket to meet Peter Capaldi. We were standing in that very queue when, unbeknownst to us, Peter Capaldi arrived at the venue, bounding in behind us with a spring in his step, and a rucksack slung over his shoulder. Neither of us noticed our eldest son, Jack – resplendent in his Tom Baker hat-and-scarf-combo – boldly strolling up to the Twelfth Doctor with his little paper bag of jelly babies held aloft (truly, we’re terrible parents, and even worse Sherlock fans). I turned around just as Capaldi popped a jelly baby into his mouth. I fumbled desperately in my pocket for my phone, with the cackhanded urgency of a horror movie heroine trying to unlock a door. I managed to get a few shots of Peter brandishing Jack’s sonic screwdriver, and affectionately tapping the top of the little man’s hat as he headed off to his meet-and-greet table, but they were all fuzzy. No matter. I’m sure the moment will remain burned into my son’s imagination with ferocious clarity for many decades to come. The smile on Jack’s face was pure and indelible.

“How do you feel, Jack?” I asked him. “Good,” he beamed, nodding excitedly. “Lovely,” he added, figuring that one mood-related adjective wasn’t sufficient. “And what about you, Chris?” I asked our youngest, mainly so he woudn’t feel left out. His language skills are still somewhere in the caveman-range of proficiency. “Twelve!” he pointed in Capaldi’s direction, wide-eyed and shell-shocked. “Twelve!” he said again, his inflection rising. “TV!” he exclaimed, jabbing his finger in Capaldi’s direction. “TV!” What a year it’s been for Chris. First Spiderman escapes from his cardigan, and then the Doctor escapes from his TV. We queued to meet Peter Davison, better known to Whovians everywhere as the Fifth Doctor – and better known to my partner as, ‘So which one is he again?’ I had to pre-warn my eldest to expect a slightly different Doctor to the one he’d seen dashing down corridors with Tegan & Co during our breakfast Doc-a-thons. Capaldi wouldn’t look any different, but Davison… well, none of us can stay thirty forever. As expected, Davison was warm and friendly. I started telling him about our morning ritual, and mentioned that we’d just watched one of his classics that morning over Cornflakes. ‘Death Shock,’ beamed my partner, trying to pretend she was an OG Whovian. ‘EARTH Shock,’ I enunciated, shaking my head. I’d just been humiliated in-front of my first childhood Doctor. That’s a stain that won’t shift. Jack looked more bewildered than happy, perhaps still unable to reconcile the man signing his Doctor Who/Mr Men mash-up book with the man whose adventures in time and space he’d watched many times over. Christopher stayed silent, staring ahead as if to say, “Is this the man we’re getting the Capaldi tickets from?”

Time and the Time Lord

 And so began the long wait to ‘meet’ the Twelfth Doctor, even though – you know – we’d already sort of met him. We got our ticket – number 328, of a possible 500 – at half-ten. We were told to come back at half-one. Half-one came, half-one went. Oh well, we thought. It’s just a busy day, that’s all. Half-two came, half-two went. We weren’t averse to waiting. The Peters were a sweetener, but we’d come for the full shebang. We packed a lot of geeky goodness into the day. Between bouts of shouting DON’T TOUCH at the kids (‘Don’t touch the owls! Don’t touch the LEGO figures! Don’t touch the one-of-a-kind artwork! Don’t touch Poison Ivy’s bum!), we managed to eat a picnic outside next to a unicorn and a posse of Doctors, watch a fantastic all-puppet version of Back To The Future, see some Ghostbusters strut their stuff, play some board games, hold some owls, and visit Arkham Asylum to electrocute each other. All in a day’s work. Still, it was getting later. Half-three came, half-three went.     The kids got tired. Half-four came, half-four went. The kids got even more tired. The little one fell asleep. The bigger one started getting stroppy. We thought we’d have to bail out. We almost did. We were so close, especially when our eldest dropped subtle hints that he wanted to go home, like, “I want to go home.” But we didn’t. And boy are we glad we didn’t.  Do you know what the hold-up was?: Peter Capaldi being an extraordinarily nice, decent and generally awesome human being, that’s what. He was a Doctor who was once a fan. He knew what it was like to be on the other side of that desk, so he didn’t want to rush his fans along like produce on a conveyor belt. He was so committed to the fans, and the event itself, that he had to be forced by the organisers to take a toilet break sometime around 4pm. FORCED. He’d already declared that every penny of the money he raised by signing autographs would be donated straight to Children’s Hospices Across Scotland.   We finally joined the final queue to meet him around 5pm. I got chatting to a chap behind us, another fully-grown man, just like me. “I’m nervous,” I said. “Me too,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that,” I said. “Me neither,” he said. “My heart’s hammering in my chest.” We needn’t have accelerated our heart rate on Peter’s account. As before, he was entirely lovely. We were ostensibly his three-hundred-and-twenty-eighth group of visitors, but he made us feel like the first. “Time moves on,” he told us with a wistful shrug, after we told him he was our favourite. He signed Jack’s Mr Men Mash-up book, Doctor Twelfth, reciting his words as he scrawled them: ‘To… Jack …and… Christopher, from Doctor… Who?’ he asked them, with a twinkle in his eye. “You’re number twelve,” said Jack, looking at him as if he was senile. Peter stayed at the convention until long after its end to make sure that everyone who’d picked up a ticket got to meet him. He was marvellous with the kids, particularly those who were connected with the event’s chosen charity (a connection we all hope a child of ours will never have to make). Towards the end of the night, he even broke out a guitar and regaled the remaining crowd with a rendition of Bowie’s Star Man. I know we normally only say this about Ace Rimmer, but… what a guy.   

 Afterwards, my partner, kids and I went to a nearby McDonalds for a cheaty, treaty tea, only to find that the restaurant was a Comic Con over-spill. There were Doctors and devils and Anime characters and the unicorn from lunch-time. And everyone knew each other. This wasn’t just a bunch of people dressing up. This was something far more cohesive, inclusive and transcendent than a bunch of geeks mucking about: this was a true community; a place of fun, friendship, love and acceptance. Where people are free to be who they are, or who they aren’t, without judgement or rancour. That’s something you don’t see a lot of in this world of ours. It’s something I’d like to see again. Something I wish I’d seen sooner in my life. We’ll be back. And maybe next time I’ll dress as a Klingon.