In the summer of 1985, my mom had a fellowship at Oxford University, so we packed and moved to a rental place in the U.K. I'd lived in Britain before, including when my mom was in grad school, but I'd never spent much time in Oxford before, and it was a great town to wander around while my parents were off doing professor stuff. My memories of that summer are soundtracked entirely by David Bowie's Let's Dance album, which I had on cassette tape and listened to endlessly, along with my usual diet of Prince and P-Funk.
Somehow I found a group of Oxford Doctor Who fans, who were all much older, probably in their twenties, and didn't mind an American kid hanging about and borrowing their VHS tapes of Colin Baker's first season (which hadn't hit American TV yet.) They made me ninth-generation copies of the audio from missing stories like "The Massacre" and "Evil of the Daleks", and I listened to those whenever I took a break from Bowie. These fans also let me know that a Who convention was happening in Brighton that summer: Panopticon V, organized by the Doctor Who Appreciation Society. I begged my parents to let me go, and they arranged to visit some family friends who lived in Brighton at the time so I could spend my days there.
This was the greatest convention I've ever gone to, or ever will, and my first real experience of the wonder of fandom. I recently found an envelope full of blurry photographs I took there, in a box of stuff my mom made me remove from my childhood home. I shall inflict a small sampling of those photos on you all here.
Why was Panopticon V the best convention? One obvious reason: three Doctors were present. Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Peter Davison all showed up, and I got all of their autographs. (I think those are in another one of the boxes my mom made me take away.) Troughton died a relatively short time after this, so it was my only chance to see him in person, and he showed up in costume, jovially answering fan questions about a television show that he had worked on nearly twenty years earlier. I think Troughton and Pertwee were there on separate days, so they didn't do the double-act they'd sometimes done at conventions since their Doctors had teamed up in "The Three Doctors." Pertwee played to the crowd with enormous gusto, and I remember Davison (who was only recently departed from the TARDIS) being a bit subdued.
Also, Panopticon V had a fan-guest ratio that would be utterly unthinkable today. I remember looking around and seeing actors from the show everywhere: companions, random baddies, other performers. Nicola Bryant kissed me on the cheek! Directors like Matthew Robinson were also there, along with writers like Bob Baker and Dave Martin. I saw Graham Williams, who'd produced the show in the late 1970s, holding court with some fans at a table at the hotel restaurant. Back in the States, we were having Who cons organized by Creation Conventions, which would bring in one companion or maybe one Doctor to speak to a ginormous mob of fans, so this was utterly mind-blowing.
(Note: I've attemped to refresh my memory by looking around the internet, but there's surprisingly little documentation of this con other than the fact that it apparently nearly bankrupted the D.W.A.S. and was considered a huge disaster, a fact I was unaware of at the time.)
Weirdly, my favorite interaction with a guest at the con wasn't any of the Doctors or companions. At one point, I was milling around between panels and saw an elderly man standing by himself in the corner. I got closer and realized this was Dennis Spooner, who was the second ever script editor of Doctor Who and co-writer of "The Dalek Master Plan." At a normal con, I would like to believe that Spooner would have been mobbed by fans wanting to ask him questions about the early years of Who, but here he was being left to his own devices. I wandered over and said hello, and he seemed happy to chat for a while with some random American kid.
Mostly, I remember asking Spooner about his moves to inject humor into Doctor Who, which had been a pretty serious affair until then. Spooner was saddled with the need to keep doing "historical" stories, in which the Doctor meets Napoleon or the Emperor Nero and absolutely no aliens turn up, and he decided he might as well play them for laughs. (But also, in retrospect, Spooner's lighter tone also brought out more of a twinkle from William Hartnell, the original Doctor, and laid the groundwork for the show's frequent embrace of madcap humor in later years. I feel like Dennis Spooner deserves way more credit for his contributions to Who.)
According to the internet, Spooner died less than a year later, so this was another person I was lucky to get to see.
As I mentioned, I'd probably dragged my parents to a couple of Creation-organized Who cons by this point, so I was used to being around other Who fans. But this felt like an experience of fandom on a whole other level, because of a couple of things that happened.
First, this was a moment when Doctor Who's future hung in the balance. The show had nearly been canceled after Colin Baker's first season (even though the ratings had remained high.) At Panopticon V, the rumors were just trickling out that Baker's second season would have fewer stories and a shorter running time — which turned out to be true. (This was before Twitter. Rumors still trickled back then.) People at Panopticon V were freaking out and debating whether the rumors were true, and a brand new issue of the renegade fanzine DWB came out, adding fuel to the fire. Even though I was as upset as anybody, this was my first experience of getting to be part of a moment where things were happening and the fans were reacting, and I got to be there, in the middle of it. After obsessively tracking Who news from across the pond for so long, this was electrifying.
And then there were the missing episodes. As many Doctor Who fans know, the BBC foolishly destroyed their only copies of a ton of episodes from the 1960s and early 1970s. Back in 1985, I think there were only a tiny handful of episodes from Troughton's era still in existence, mostly from his final season. As I mentioned earlier, I'd gotten to hang out with some Who fans in Oxford, and they knew a guy who claimed to have bought two lost episodes at a rummage sale or out of a car trunk or something: one episode each from "The Faceless Ones" and "Evil of the Daleks." This dude was planning on renting a theater and showing the two episodes, which nobody had seen since 1967.
The whole con was abuzz with the notion that the tiny number of extant Troughton appearances had been increased by two — and especially that we'd get to see any of "Evil." Because I knew some folks who knew the guy with the film cans (and because this really was a tiny con) I got to eavesdrop as superfan and disco music producer Ian Levine frantically tried to get to the bottom of this, asking a million random questions about Victorian Daleks. Actual history was being made, and I got to be sort of adjacent to it. In the end, the two lost episodes turned out to be real, which is why I now have them on DVD, but the BBC (I think) put the kibosh on the idea of showing them at a theater.
This was a magical weekend, and not just because I got to be close to so many Who legends. I felt in a whole new way that fandom was a living, breathing community, full of new discoveries, excitement and sometimes rancor. I'd already glimpsed some of the toxic aspects of fandom, but for a few days I was just swept away by the feeling of being part of something big and vital and alive. I've had other great con experiences since then, but I doubt Panopticon V will ever be topped.
Oh, and I almost forgot. I got my picture in the local paper, the Brighton Evening Argus, with a group of other fans in costume. That's me in the phone booth, wearing the Fifth Doctor costume my grandmother made for me.
Like everyone else on the planet, I listened to Lizzo's new album Special when it came out a while back. And I liked it a whole lot, what with all the upbeat disco-ey soul music vibes. Then I randomly picked it up again and put it on, and it's been growing on me more and more, until it's become one of my favorite albums of recent years. I her reassuring vibe, but her willingness to be honest about her insecurities and messed-up relationships feels utterly healing. And the celebration of female friendships is fuckin amazing too. I pick up on more stuff with every listen, like the deft usage of a sample of Kool and the Gang's "Summer Madness," and some really nifty vocal arrangements. If I ever meet Lizzo, I wanna ask her if she's listened to Millie Jackson, because this unapologetically bawdy album is reminding me of Millie Jackson in the best possible way.
I've had a LOT of stuff going on lately — seriously, I made a video for Instagram and Tiktok the other day listing everything I've been doing, and I still left a few things out. But the most important thing I need to share is that we released the cover for the third book in my young adult trilogy. Promises Stronger Than Darkness comes out April 11, 2023, and I cannot wait for you to experience it. I think this one is by far the most fun, and the weirdest, of the three space fantasy books. It's available for pre-order from all the places you get books. I bet your local bookstore would LOVE to hear from you about pre-ordering it.
Check out this gorgeousness, with art by Razaras and design by Lesley Worrell: