I went to Armageddon in Christchurch once again this year. When I arrived the line to buy tickets was about 100m long - fortunately I had pre-bought my tickets and could just waltz in. As each person arrived a plastic bag was thrust into their hands. This bag contained a programme guide, some advertising guff, a packet of Doritos, a packet of Oreos, and a packet of microwave Macaroni Cheese, presumably for those with the foresight to bring their own microwave oven.
As always the place was crowded, and there were lots of people about in costume, although most of the costumes I couldn't place. The vendor hall was much the same as usual, with stalls selling comics, plastic media tie-in toys, DVDs and the like. There were no book stores at all though that I could see.
Outside the main vendor hall, just across from the exceedingly-loud wrestling ring I stumbled upon a guy sitting behind a pile of books. It was an Australian author, one Christian Tamblyn, selling his first book, Dragon of the Second Moon. I chatted with a guy a little, and he seemed a nice chap, so I bought a copy of his book. Who knows, it might be good.
The only panel I had time to attend on day one was that given by Paul McGann, who played the eighth Doctor Who in a one-off movie that was supposed to be the pilot for a series of the show that would crack the American market. The series never eventuated, and McGann's Doctor was to be the only incarnation between Sylvester McCoy's Doctor (1986) and Christopher Eccleston's (2005).
The talk was preceded by the showing of a twenty-minute Doctor Who spoof called "The Curse of Fatal Death", featuring Rowan Atkinson and many other luminaries of the UK TV scene. I had never seen it before. It was very funny, and lovingly mocked many aspects of the show. For example the sets were very cheesy, the Doctor expressed his frustration with gravel quarries, and whenever anyone pointed out a plot flaw the answer was always, "I'll explain that later." My favourite scene came when the Doctor and the Master where trying to one-up each other by repeatedly going ever-further back in time to convince the architect of the building they were in to install or counter various traps to ensnare the Doctor. It did a good job of highlighting obvious paradoxes that are rarely addressed in time-travel stories.
McGann introduced himself by saying that he was Doctor Who for about six weeks fifteen years ago. Although the has done some 20 or 30 movies, whenever he is "stopped on the street", it is always because of his involvement in Doctor Who or Withnail and I, which was even earlier than his Doctor Who stint.
The format of the panel was audience question and answer. My favourite question came from a pre-school lad in the front row, who had his arm in the air patiently for about 20 minutes before being selected. When his time finally came, the question was, "Did it hurt when you regenerated?"
He was asked about how well he got on with the other members of the Doctor Who cast. He said that in general well, although it was strange to work with American actors who knew nothing at all about the Doctor Who phenomenon.
When asked who his favourite Doctor was, he said Bill Hartnell, the first Doctor.
All four of the McGann brothers are actors, and one audience member asked him about his experiences playing John Lennon in Imagine, only to be told that that wasn't Paul but Mark McGann. Although he assured the guy who asked the question that his brother had a great time doing the role.
When asked whether he was a better Doctor than Eccleston, he said that he was certainly the happier Doctor – that Eccleston had never enjoyed the role, presumably explaining why he was only the Doctor for a season.
McGann said that he really enjoyed doing radio work, as you could turn up late wearing whatever you wanted, and could get roles that would be impossible in other media, like for example when he played Othello.
When asked about the best thing that had happened to him as a result of his brief stint as the Doctor, McGann said that it was doing conventions like Armageddon. He initially didn't like the idea, but has grown to like doing the convention circuit.
He was asked about his work on the Hornblower TV show. He said that it was a job from heaven, and that it was the first time he'd ever been on a proper sailing ship and had loved it. Although he found it difficult working in an all-male show for ten weeks.
When asked had he picked up any "die-hard crazy fans", he said that he had only "quiet die-hard crazy fans". He said that he hadn't even realised that his agent used to be one of the Doctor's companions until a fan came up and reeled off all her accomplishments on the show.
He enjoyed working on Alien 3, although he said it was a long shoot owing to "political trouble". He talked about the day when the director addressed the company excitedly saying, "This is the day you get to run down ventilation shafts while being chased by monsters!"
He has never seen Torchwood, as he doesn't have a TV.
He spent two months in New Zealand in 2005 to film Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. He described New Zealand as the most beautiful country in the world. He claimed that many of the cast and crew were Scottish, and they had been grumbling about why the shoot couldn't be done in Scotland where the story is set. When they saw the terrain here, they said that it was the Scottish highland of their dreams, rather than of the reality.
On the second day I went to the show with Jess, who took the time to catch up with a couple of buddies:
Lee is one of the leads in the TV show Heroes. His talk was a little strange. The audience was particularly inattentive for some reason, and he was asked some questions several times, including "Which superpower would you like to have?" three times. (And he came up with three different answers: the ability to learn a musical instrument instantly, the ability to fly, and the ability to rewatch his dreams.) A couple of people started off by saying, "I've never seen Heroes, but..." and then proceeded to ask a question about Heroes! All very odd.
He had some interesting things to say. As a Korean man playing a Japanese character, he was asked if he had trouble speaking Japanese. He said that he viewed it as a learning opportunity, and spent about 40 hours per episode learning Japanese. He was pleased that he was learning a new language, although wondered how useful knowing how to say "Save the cheerleader, save the world," in Japanese would turn out to be. He was also asked if playing a Japanese character had lead to any backlash from either the Korean or Japanese communities, and he said no: such things were not a problem for the younger generation.
When asked which lead role in a movie he would have liked he replied, "Come on! Who doesn't want to be Han Solo!". As for potential projects, he would like to be the lead in a superhero movie based on a comic book.
He was asked about meeting George Takai. ("How did you not go 'YOU'RE SULU!'") He said that Takai was a nice guy and well-travelled, and he enjoyed just listening to him talk about everyday things in his marvelous voice. He did an impression of Takai saying, "James, we're out of granola bars."
Given that he loves comic books and superhero stories, one member of the audience wanted to know if filming such material takes away the magic for him, and he said not at all, that he loved working on set, and loved working with green-screen (something a lot of actors loathe). He explained this by saying that the actors become like the audience, as they don't get to see the whole show until it airs either. He talked about working on a set representing an alleyway in India until 1am one morning, and then coming back to work the next day to find that it had been transformed into an alleyway in Tokyo.
He said that on the Heroes set they work very long hours under great pressure with little rehearsal time. He mentioned that in one particular week they were working on bits for four different episodes at once, with four different directors, which got very confusing for all concerned.
When asked about his favourite actor, he said those like Daniel Day Lewis and Meryl Streep who are so versatile that you can hardly recognize them from project to project were his favourites
Commenting on whether acting opportunities for Asian characters were limited, he said that things had changed a lot in the last ten years, and that there were lots more opportunities now.
When asked about what he thought of New Zealand, he said it was the closest country in the world to Pandora, and that perhaps we didn't appreciate what he had, living here all the time.
Keating and Billingsley were both regulars in Star Trek: Enterprise. Their talk was a complete blast. When you put two high-energy extrovert actors on stage who share a common experience as mighty as Star Trek you're in for a wild ride. The two were constantly interrupting each other to try and one-up each other, and it was sometimes hard to work out whether they were on the level or telling a tall tale. They would take a question from the audience and recurse on it, telling a story inspired by something in the story they were telling which was in turn inspired by something they were saying to answer the question. Sometimes they would pop the stack enough to get around to actually answering the question - but sometimes not. During one digression Billingsley said, "We only need to be asked one question!" It all made it rather hard to take notes. It was gloriously shambolic, and made for a very fun and funny hour. Keating dubbed their act "Sushi and Tempura - Fresh and Deep-fried".
I had previously seen Billingsley on stage at Armageddon in 2006, and several of his stories I recognised from that appearance. However, being the professional that he is, he still managed to tell the stories as if they'd just occurred to him, despite presumably telling them hundreds of times over the years.
They started off the session by acknowledging a couple of people in the audience that they had met. Keating said that one woman in the audience had had dinner with one of them and then breakfast with the other, and that she was clearly trying to eat her way through the Star Trek cast.
Several times they mentioned how much everyone in the cast disliked having to wear the spacesuits. Billingsley said that Keating "swore like a fishwife's bastard son" every time he had to get into his suit.
Billingsley was asked about how his character had come about, and he talked about how the only direction he had prior to the audition was that he was to speak in a "slight alien accent". So he settled on an accent, and then decided to add a squawk now and then as if his species had descended from birds. Keating told the story from the other side of the casting room door, of hearing this guy inside squawking at random moments. Billingsley was not told to make any changes to his performance until the first rehearsal ("To make it a better story, let's say that the cameras were rolling, and it wasn't a rehearsal at all"). Billingsley's and Keating's recollections differed on precisely which swear word the director used to make him stop with the squawking. Billingsley decided that from then on Dr Phlox was squawking on the inside only.
Someone asked about Seth MacFarlane's appearance in the show, and Keating was adamant that they must have the wrong show, as MacFarlane had never been on Enterprise. Another member of the audience looked it up on his iPod, and sure enough he had played one Ensign Rivers for two episodes. Billingsley asked, "Anyone else want to ask us about people we can't remember working with?" A little later a kid asked who their favourite aliens were, Keating said, "the blue ones with the tendrils - what where they called?" When the audience supplied the answer - Andorians - Keating shouted in his defence, "That was five years and a lot of pot ago!"
Billingsley said that he hated having to wear body paint, but "I realise that lots of you do it for fun." When asked if he would like to do a Doctor Who episode, Billingsley reacted enthusiastically, but Keating cut him off with, "But that's BBC money honey."
Billingsley said that it was never easy to get into a character, as for the first few eps the actors are guessing, trying to figure out what the director wants and what their characters are about. Initially he was also afraid that his character was only in the show for comedic effect, and thus was very pleased to do episodes like "Dear Doctor" in which his character had gravitas.
Somehow Keating managed to work in a story about how the first thing he ever drove was a Chieftain Tank, which he crashed into a telegraph pole in a village in Germany, while Billingsley mentioned that he had his "nudity waiver" (whatever that may be) framed on the wall of his bathroom.
They were asked if they had taken any souvenirs from the show as it wrapped. Billingsley claimed to have the Captain's chair in his bathroom, and every time he used it he thought of Scott Bacula. He also claimed that the producers had installed cameras in the ceiling precisely to stop people nicking off with stuff, and that this was connected with Tim Russ's side business in selling off his used pointy ears on the Internet. ("Ruined it for the rest of us.")
Apparently Jolene Blalock has a predilection for farting, a fact that Billingsley used a bowl of cheese as a metaphor for in a manner I didn't really get. Keating told the story of him and Blalock sitting in a car together at the lights when a car came up beside them and the guys in it started staring at her. "Yeah yeah," she said, "I know I'm hot," and then let loose one of her trademark farts.
When asked if they had been fans of Star Trek before landing their roles in Enterprise, both said that they had seen the original series as kids, but hadn't seen much of the other series until they started studying up for their parts in Enterprise. Keating told a hilarious story about the time he spent living in a hippy commune. The leader had a satellite TV feed, and would allow his disciples to take a tap off his feed to watch in their own homes. But this meant that they could only watch whatever the leader was watching. And the leader only watched two things: Star Trek: The Next Generation and hard-core porn. It made turning on the TV a dicey experience. ("OH MY GOD THAT'S... oh wait, it's just Picard's bald head.")
One audience member was very irate about the "annoying western twang" that was added to the theme music in one season. Keating attributed this to a back-hand deal done by one of the producers ("little short-arsed guy, failed actor") as a sop to another producer who wanted, apparently in all seriousness, to add a boy band to the mess hall scenes aboard the Enterprise. This same producer couldn't see why Blalock - the Vulcan - had to have pointy ears, and who opined that she would be much cuter without.
When asked if there was any chance of Enterprise being resuscitated, they said that there was no way, and that the break between the older shows and JJ Abrams new franchise was so complete that Abrams had been ordered not to use so much as a makeup artist if they had worked on any previous incarnation of the show.
The session was just brilliant, and a model for how these things should go.
Ramsey and Winslow, two actors from the Police Academy franchise, had Q&A sessions on the Saturday which I didn't attend. Their Sunday session was billed as a "performance," and so we went along a little unsure what we were in for.
The show started with Ramsey belting out a couple of Tina Turner crowd-pleasers, complete with goofing off on stage with a very game guy from the audience.
Then Winslow came on stage. He is known as "the guy who makes funny noises," and boy did he ever make funny noises. Some of his routine was straight impersonation, such as an utterly convincing Louis Armstrong. In another segment he did Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, vocally doing both the tripped-out vocals AND the tripped-out guitar riffs, complete with feedback and distortion. He also added hip hop rhythms to a segment of The Sound of Music projected on the screen above him, and did a great impression of turning the tuning dial on the old-style radios he remembers from his childhood. But my favourite sequence was when they projected the scene from Star Wars where the Millenium Falcon escapes from the Death Star with four TIE fighters in pursuit. Winslow provided all the voices - human and wookie - AND all the sound effects, with incoming TIE fighters and laser blasts and things blowing up. It was a remarkable and very funny performance.
While wandering about I noticed another writer sitting behind a pile of books. This was Robert Rankin, whom I have somehow managed to not hear of despite him having written 30 books, apparently in a Pratchettesque style. I had a bit of a chat with the guy, and he seemed like an interesting raconteur. I asked him which of his books I should start with, and he pointed out four saying, "This one's about the second world war, this one's about music, this one's about football, and this one's about zombies. Take your pick." I wound up getting the one about zombies. He took the time to create quite an ornate dedication page, rather than just a name and signature as most authors do. He was wearing interesting steampunk clockwork-inspired badges, and someone was sitting beside him selling them. I wish I had bought one now, as they were quite funky. Neither of the two authors at the con seemed to be doing a very brisk trade, which is a great shame.
I've never gone to the cosplay events (= costume competitions) at Armageddon, but this year Jess and I decided we'd take a look. Most of the costumes were related to anime and manga. I recognised Alice in Wonderland, and knew vaguely who Megatron was, but I didn't recognise any other costumes. It was most peculiar to be at a geek event and not have the faintest idea what was going on!
For my money by far the best costume wasn't in the competition at all, but on a little kid wandering about the event with his or her parents. It was a kid about five years old dressed as Chewbacca! It was a very good costume, down to the utility bandoleer and bowcaster. If there's a cuter thing in the world than an Ewok-sized Wookie I'd like to see it. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to take a photo.
Fortunately we missed the drama, but heard through the grapevine that at one of the events on the Saturday - perhaps during a cosplay session - someone took it upon himself to take a piss off the stage towards the audience. Apparently he got himself arrested for his troubles.
And by bumping into some of Jess's friends we heard that during one of the wrestling bouts the fight went over the ropes and into the crowd. The fight ended when one combatant threw the other into the wall - smashing through the plasterboard! Jess and I went to check out the damage, and sure enough there was a large body-sized fracture in the wall. I bet the Convention Centre will be having words with the poor con organizers over that...
While walking home from Armageddon on the Sunday evening three young women in a bright-yellow car pulled up beside me. They wanted to know where I'd gotten my satchel from, as they wanted to get one just like it. I think they were a little shocked to hear that such a stylish accessory was only available to those who had purchased the Collectors' Edition of Tomb Raider Underworld!
Another year, another fun and eclectic Armageddon.