Armageddon Pulp Culture Expo, Christchurch, 2007

Having been to the Wellington and Auckland Armageddons in 2006, I was keen to see if the first Christchurch Armageddon would live up to the same standard. I'm pleased to be able to report that the Christchurch event was every bit as good as the other two. In fact, in several ways it was better. The actual location (the Christchurch Convention Centre) is much better suited to this kind of event than the locations used for the other two. It was also not as crowded as the other events, although crowded enough for the organisers to announce that there would be another Christchurch Armageddon in 2008. The only slight disappointment was that there were rather fewer guest stars than last year.

To my surprise the vendors' area seemed every bit as big as that provided in the other Armageddons, and the vendors present at the other two events were basically all present at the Christchurch one. I chatted to one stall holder, who runs a shop in Hamilton. He told me that he had shipped thirteen boxes of novels and comics down from his shop, and he seemed pleased with the turnover. It's nice to know that at least one vendor found it worth his while to ship stock such distance at such expense.

Outpost 42 of the 501st Legion was present in force, which meant that there were lots of Stormtroopers, Darth Vaders, and Tusken Raiders wandering about. I talked to one of these guys, and was delighted to find that his voice was being modulated somehow, so that it sounded like you were hearing him over comms, complete with a krchchk! sound when he stopped talking. Refreshingly, they didn't charge anyone for anything - they were just there to spread the Imperial love. Very cool.

Joff with Stormtrooper Joff with Stormtroopers

But once again, I was really there to hear what the stars had to say. I was mostly interested in seeing John Rhys Davies, Don S. Davis, and Avery Brooks. Over the course of the two days each man took to the stage twice, telling stories and taking questions from the audience. I attended all six sessions. Somewhat to my surprise, in each case I adjudged the second session to be the best - it's just a shame that there were many fewer people attending on the second day.

The three speakers had very different approaches. John Rhys Davies was very erudite, talking about a wide range of important issues, rather than just things related to the entertainment industry. Don S. Davis, with his slow drawl and twinkling eyes, seemed to take great pleasure in regaling us with stories from his professional and private lives, while Avery Brooks, with his deep, rich, chocolaty voice, gave talks that were... well, to be frank, I don't think we've ever needed to coin words to describe what his talks were like.

(For convenience I have combined comments from the two sessions each man gave into a single section.)

John Rhys Davies

John Rhys Davies as Gimli John Rhys Davies on Stage
John Rhys Davies as Gimli
(Inscription reads: "For my bright friend Joff from his dumb pal Gimli.")
John Rhys Davies on Stage
(Image courtesy of Adrian White)

John Rhys Davies spent much of his time railing against the pronouncements of "experts", especially when the person feels that being an expert in one field gives them the right to pronounce on matters from other disciplines. As an example, he said that he found it very difficult to take the global warming threat seriously, as during his life he had heard experts predict an immanent ice-age, the depletion of all resources by 1975, that fusion power would solve all our problems, and that a cure for cancer was just around the corner.

He also weighed in on what he called the Creationist/Rationalist debate, accusing adherents on both extremes of a lack of imagination. He talked about the many, many coincidences that had gone into making intelligent life on earth possible, and how these coincidences seemed clear evidence for some kind of design. But then he said that he had learnt - through his tenure on the Advisory Board of the Planetary Society - just how vast the universe is. "There are a billion stars in our galaxy and a billion galaxies in the universe, [NB: the numbers he quotes here are too low by a factor of at least 100 in each case] and our universe might have 11 or more dimensions and there might be 10500 universes." His conclusion from this was that the universe is so huge that anything possible, no matter how unlikely, will have happened somewhere, and so people who think that the coincidences involved in our existence are evidence of design just don't understand the scale of the universe. But he also said that at the other end of the debate it was absurd to dismiss the possibility of God. He concluded that while agnosticism was a valid position to take, he thought both theists and atheists guilty of failures of imagination.

While talking about the Planetary Society he said that the people involved where among the smartest people he'd ever met ("Ladies, I advise you to go fishing in that gene pool.")

During these discourses he made frequent reference to himself becoming cynical: "I feel that I've gone straight from adolescence to 'cynescence' without passing through maturity along the way."

When asked about his work on the Lord of the Rings movies he had many fascinating things to say. When he was first offered the part of Gimli he really, really didn't want it. The thought of "spending 14 months on my knees with two inches of rubber on my face and a beard made from hair taken from particularly unpleasant parts of a yak" was too much to bear. He was also convinced that there was no way that an inexperienced young director could carry such a vast project to completion.

But his agent and his son both told him he'd be crazy not to take the part, so he flew to New Zealand "with duplicity in my heart," fully convinced that the project would collapse in a messy heap, and fully intending to find some way to get out of his commitments. He spent his first two weeks in New Zealand just visiting the various production departments and seeing what they were up to, and over those two weeks he completely changed his mind. He said that he was astonished to find that Peter Jackson had somehow assembled a production team the likes of which only two or three of the big production companies in the world would be capable of.

He told a couple of hilarious stories about working on the movies. While in Queenstown there was a big flood, throwing the production plans into chaos. It resulted in a memorable line from a call-sheet: "No filming tomorrow as the lake is underwater." He said it was the first time in his life that he'd had to get into his hotel room via a ladder.

When asked about how much the Lord of the Rings had raised New Zealand's profile overseas, he said that he didn't have any figures but was certain that "Peter Jackson has done more to put New Zealand on the map than any man since Captain Cook."

He was asked several times about the fourth Indiana Jones movie, currently in pre-production, but said that he knew nothing about it, and that he certainly hadn't been approached about the possibility of reprising his character Sallah.

When asked about his acting career, he said that he was very lucky in that he was very rarely out of work. "When you're a tall, fat, ugly actor with a loud voice, you're in a sellers' market."

On the subject of luck, he was once told by a friend that he was unlucky, as he never won money on lotteries. He thought about it for a bit and replied, "I have survived car crashes, plane crashes, and mortar fire. I have been in 120 movies and get taken all around the world for free. I don't consider myself unlucky."

When asked about his thoughts on and connection to New Zealand, he was effusive, but his praise contained a warning. "New Zealand is a fabulous country, with lovely people, but I sometimes wonder if you are aware of how dangerous the world is outside your borders." He said that, as resources elsewhere began to dwindle, we would be seen as a "sudden resource area," and he urged us to maintain our defense forces.

He also mentioned that he was the father of a "future Silver Fern," so his ties with New Zealand must be strong indeed.

Even though he has benefited from what he was decrying, he said that "celebrity is nonsense, twaddle," and "there's barely an actor in the world who has left the world even tidy, let alone a better place."

He was equally talkative at the autograph desk. He offered the following sage advice to a young lad standing in front of me in the queue: "Write your obituary now. Something like, 'He received his first Nobel Prize before the age of thirty, then turned his attention to parapsychology where he discovered the first definitive proof of paranormal powers. In later life he was single-handedly responsible for rescuing two astronauts from the moon. He died at age 108, falling from his horse', and then do your best to live up to it."

He reserved his most damning and hard-hitting comments for the state of the movie-making industry in Hollywood. This fusillade was released by questions over the making of a movie version of the Hobbit, and in particular the fan outcry over the fact that Peter Jackson wasn't offered the directorship because he is currently suing New Line Cinema.

He said that New Line (and the other big production companies) were a "bunch of greedy bastards" who routinely use accounting practices that would get ordinary people arrested. But the big Hollywood production companies are above the law. He claimed that the core of Peter Jackson's lawsuit was that the whole merchandising arm of the Lord of the Rings juggernaut had, on paper, made no money at all, and that therefore New Line owed no-one who was in for a cut of the profit any money at all. Davies said that the claim that they had made no profit was simply a manufactured result of deceitful accounting practices, and that such things were common in the industry, but no-one before Jackson had had the courage to take the big players on. [NB: Rhys-Davies's version of the underlying issues of the lawsuit is very different from that commonly outlined on the web. I have no idea if Rhys-Davies's version is correct or not - I'm just reporting it as he said it.]

And it is not just Jackson who has been underpaid by these practices. The actors themselves, of whom posters and action figures and busts and so forth are made, are supposed to receive a small slice of the pie. But since (on paper) there is no pie to be sliced, they also miss out.

Given that Peter Jackson had made New Line six billion dollars, he felt that the way that they had treated him was, "sad, pitiful, and a bit of a disgrace."

However, his best guess was that New Line would eventually see that they stood to make much more money from a successful Jackson-directed version of the Hobbit than they would pay out in a legal settlement, so he thought that they would eventually settle with Jackson and then get him to make the movie for them.

Don S. Davis

Don S. Davis as General Hammond Don S. Davis on stage
Don S. Davis as General Hammond
(Inscription reads: "Joff - thanks for watching Stargate SG1.")
Don S. Davis on stage
(Image courtesy of Adrian White)

Don S. Davis came across as a gentle, jovial man, who seemed to be genuinely happy with his life. He wandered about the stage telling stories from his life, answering questions, and indulging in ribald jokes whenever he felt that the mood needed to be lifted.

He had one of the most interesting stories I've ever heard about how he got into the acting business in the first place. As a young lad his family was very poor, and he was faced with the prospect of having to leave school to work to support his family. He got involved in some kind of program which allowed him to spend half of each day at school, and the other half earning money. The company he happened to be placed with was a professional acting troupe. He described his job with the troupe as a "stage rat," which seems to mean general dogsbody.

He found that he liked the work well enough, but had no interest and no intention of ever appearing on stage. But then one play the troupe was to start rehearsals for required the leading man to lift the leading lady off the floor and over his head at one stage. None of the actors in the troupe were up to the task. (Whether this was due to a deficiency on the part of the men or an over-sufficiency on the part of the woman was not discussed.) The worried director happened to spot their stage rat lifting something heavy, and basically told him that he was cast. And that was the start of a 50-year career on stage and screen, variously as an actor, stuntman, and theatre-studies lecturer. He also picked up a PhD in theatre studies along the way.

When asked why he was cast on Stargate SG1 he said, "Well it sure wasn't because of my intelligence. I was cast because they knew I was loyal and healed quick."

One person asked him if there was an episode of Stargate that made him cringe. He replied by saying that he never actually watched anything he appeared in. "I already know I'm ugly! Every time I step in front of the mirror I wonder what's wrong with my wife."

On a more serious note he had a plea for the audience on behalf of the US soldiers in Iraq. Having been a soldier himself for three years, he knew that the guys on the ground didn't choose to go there. "Whatever you think of the war, don't blame the military." It wasn't the military who decided to go to war, it was the politicians.

When asked about how well he was doing in the movie industry, he said that he had made a lot of money as a young man, but had given it all to his first wife to make her go away.

He summed up the life of the working actor like this: "They overfeed me, they overpay me, then they tell me to go away."

In answer to the inevitable question on what Richard Dean Anderson was like, he was positively effusive in his praise, saying that he was one of the finest guys he'd ever met in his life: loyal, honest, and straight-forward. He also talked about his selfless charity work and involvement with conservation organisations such as Sea Shepherd. He also called him an adrenalin junkie, who delighted in doing dangerous things that he was contractually obliged not to do.

He was also asked about Johnny Depp, having worked with him on 21 Jump Street. "Let me put it this way - some of the things he put into his system didn't have a prescription." He also said that in the early days he had a "James Dean complex," all brooding and dark. But all this changed when his first child was born, and now he's a completely different person.

When asked if he had taken any props with him when he left Stargate, he said no, but that he had really wanted to keep the watch that his character had worn in the show. He claimed that it was worth $3200, and that at the time he started working on Stargate he had never even had a car worth that much!

One of Davis's co-stars on the show, Chris Judge, is well-known as a practical joker on set. Davis was asked several times if he had ever indulged in perpetrating practical jokes, or if he had ever gotten Judge back for his pranks. He said that he never intentionally pulled a prank, but that he had an unfortunate tendency to nod off on set and start snoring loudly when the cameras weren't on him, and many people thought this was deliberate.

As for Judge, he related a hilarious story about the time when the whole crew got him back. Apparently Judge takes great delight in farting boisterously at any occasion. ("He could just about play a tune.") One episode called for him to perform inside a hazmat suit. The production crew deliberately arranged for the relevant scene to be shot in the afternoon, and put on a Mexican feast for lunch. According to Davis, Judge ate "about five pounds" of beans. Then they sealed him up in the hazmat suit, and soon the inevitable started, and before long Judge was looking very green from being trapped with his own emissions. "You can't take a hazmat suit off yourself. Someone has to do it for you. No-one would."

Davis, while contractually obliged to appear in two upcoming movies and two new TV series, is trying to withdraw from the industry entirely, so that he can devote his time to his painting and sculpting. Examples of his work are available on the web.

Avery Brooks

Avery Brooks as Captain Sisko Avery Brooks as on stage
Avery Brooks as Captain Sisko Avery Brooks on stage
(Image courtesy of Adrian White)

Avery Brooks's talks were strange, trippy, surreal experiences. In response to perfectly straight-forward questions he would go rambling off on long complex philosophical discourses. My brain tried bravely to follow the threads of his reasoning, but each time it would give up. Frankly, I don't think there were any threads there to be followed. The fact that neither he nor anyone else in the audience had died yet he thought an observation of such profundity that it was worth repeating many times. And he would say things like, "The only thing that separates us... is distance!"

These strange dreamy utterances were peppered here in there with moments of complete lucidity, and with startling bursts of laughter. On more than one occasion he turned to the giant picture of himself as Captain Sisko on the screen behind him and held a conversation with the character, where only he could hear Sisko's half of the conversation.

How this man could ever hold it together long enough to learn lines and so forth is beyond me.

The thing is, everyone else in the audience seemed much more taken with him than I was. Personally I think that they were just so seduced by his extraordinary, gorgeous voice, that they didn't care that none of the actual words made sense.

Still, on the odd occasion when I could make sense of his utterances, he did have interesting things to say.

For example, he said that he had always been fascinated by New Zealand - both the good and the bad aspects, and that The Bone People was one of his favourite books. I really wanted to ask him about what bad aspects of our society fascinated him so, but I never got the chance. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to understand his answer anyway.

Since Deep Space 9 ended, he has been concentrating on making music, and has appeared in a number of stage plays: King Lear, Othello, and a cycle of ancient Greek plays performed in a 4000 year old auditorium at the base of the Acropolis.

As for life on the DS9 set, he said he enjoyed Colm Meany's company the most, as he made him laugh every day.

He told the story of an apparently serious memo that was sent to all the actors from the production company's health and safety people. It remonstrated with them to check that their phasers were not loaded before pointing them at other actors.

He was asked about his relationship with the other actors on the show, and said that right from the start he had treated his on-screen son as if he was really one of his own sons, and that this relationship lasted to this day.

At the end of his second session, Bill (the compere) described Brooks, without evident irony, as being on a different level. Oh boy, you can say that again.

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