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Sci-Fi Weekender February 28 - March 2, 2013

"Follow Your Dreams, And Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down" - Brian Blessed

Sci-Fi Weekender stage

It was the perfect weekend. It was a Geek Weekend. That kind of weekend where reality just isn’t welcome and doesn’t get the opportunity to intrude. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. There’s been some distracting tension and general bad times at the day job, it was the tail end of a long, hard winter, and better yet, it was kicking off on the day after my birthday. 

Here’s the confession. I had never actually been to a science fiction convention before. I had always WANTED to, but I had never got around to it. I guess the closest I’d experienced were a couple of GoreZone Weekend of Horror events I had attended in my capacity as head writer back in the day - 2008 & 2009. I was about to experience a whole new realm of entertainment, thanks to my friend and fellow Starburst writer Jon Gillam who kindly provided tickets for Steve and myself, along with a Geek Posse, the likes of which had never been seen before. Incredibly, the event, The Sci-Fi Weekender was actually and in a literal sense - on my doorstep. This proves the notion that if you stay in one place long enough, the cool stuff comes to YOU. I guess it’s the universe’s way of achieving balance.

But, less philosophising, more recounting the events.

Thursday February 28th, saw two Geeks in transit, heading toward my native North Wales, as Jon and independent film maker Dave Davies trekked from Brighton at the mercy of their GPS. It became apparent that I really DO live in the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone when their GPS system kind of just gave up and told them that they’d reached their destination - a couple of miles from the house.

After a relaxing and incredibly nerdy afternoon which involved conversations that would put Sheldon and Leonard to shame - we made our way to the convention site for our first look at what was to come. Kind of the pre-event event. This involved a lot of people walking around in costume. Some of them that I saw over the weekend were truly impressive - Daredevil’s Elektra, a female Thor (both of them the same person in different costumes) Spartacus, Tron, there was a veritable army of Imperial Stormtroopers, Darth Vader, Jedi, Sith, you couldn’t look in any direction without seeing at least ONE version of Doctor Who, Kick Ass, we saw dressed up Steampunk fans in droves, even those who didn’t really have the body for super heroics but hell, dressed up anyway as Captain America or Wonder Woman were truly in the spirit. (The shapely Silk Spectre from Watchmen in a movie-authentic suit I saw from behind but then turned out to be male when she...er..he.... turned around was a bit disturbing. It wasn’t my proudest moment and she’ll never look the same to me again.)

We saw a fan-made Dalek. It had a voice modulator so the operator inside would even sound authentic. It was the most polite Dalek ever, never failing to say an electronic "excuse me" as it manoeuvred itself through the crowds. Bizarre as THAT sounds, I also saw a midget Darth Vader - it was the first time I’ve ever known Vader to look up to anybody.

Dwarf Vader - so cute, but soooooo wrong.



That kind of pales into insignificance beside the sight of walking into the Gents and seeing Pinhead from Hellraiser in his full regalia at an urinal. (Understandably, there isn’t a photograph)

These were OUR people. We felt we fit right in. My daughter Tiffany said that she didn’t want to come along because she didn’t feel she was geeky enough, and maybe that was playing on our minds as well - but we soon got rid of that notion when Jon entered us into a small quiz that grew out of all proportion. It was just a warm-up icebreaker, and we met the final three members of our party, author Wayne Simmons, and two new friends we hit it off with instantly - Gary and Roy. All together we made an awesome team. Out of 84 teams entered we came second. At the half way point, we were in the lead. Yes, we truly WERE geeky enough.

Friday was our first full day and we got off to a flying start meeting horror authors Wayne and David Moody who were selling signed copies of their published works and making ourselves known to our Starburst colleague Rylan Cavell who was manning the Starburst stand selling OUR works to an unsuspecting public. (It really is a buzz being at a convention - more so when you can actually see magazines containing your work being sold)

There was so much going on, it literally was a visual and aural overload. And it started with the incredible Area 51 dancers on stage performing a Tron routine. Damn, those glowing costumes have never looked better on anybody. Or any bodies. Then, they came out and mingled with the crowd. I caught up to them when they were in Steampunk costumes and stilts.

 

The gorgeous girls of Area 51

 

Me, with Area 51

 

Steve with Area 51 (he never showed an interest in steampunk before...)


We caught a presentation by Dez Skinn. Dez is as close as the UK has to having its own Stan Lee. He’s a comics publisher, a magazine publisher, he was the creator of Starburst back in the 1977 and to this day is our honorary publisher. He was on hand to describe the making of an earlier magazine - House of Hammer, which was Starburst’s predecessor. Dez worked hand in hand with Hammer CEO Michael Carreras on this magazine, and went through the process of how the magazine gestated until the final product hit the news stands. I can well remember seeing that magazine for the first time, buying it and a can of Coke and sitting in the sun reading it a park in town on a perfect summer’s day in 1976. It was the third issue and I was hooked, I placed a regular order and tracked down the back issues I had missed. I still have those magazines in my collection.

Later on, we caught up with Dez in the Main Void area (- kind of the central hub of the event) and chatted for a while. He was telling us about his involvement in the creation of V For Vendetta, which prompted Steve to head for the Forbidden Planet stand in the dealer’s area and purchase a copy of the graphic novel, which Dez signed for him.(As Steve came back with his copy, Dez lapsed in to his native broad Yorkshire accent "Ave thee got thee boooook, lad?")

With publishing legend and Starburst creator Dez Skinn
 

The most bizarre chat of the day was with sci-fi author Robert Rankin, who had (of all things) a bondage tea pot on display - which I couldn’t resist asking him about.

 

Robert Rankin's bondage teapot.


He told me that he wanted to make something different out of something totally innocuous for a book cover and decided to make a bondage teapot. He went to a bondage shop in his home town of Brighton and asked for some studs. He was asked what he was making, and replied that he was working on a project of his own. The proprietor told him that they could make ANYTHING he wanted in that shop - so Rankin replied that he wanted a bondage teapot. The proprietor accused Rankin of not taking bondage seriously and told him to fuck off out of the shop before he called the police.

As the day progressed, we caught two screenings - one, a film I’d never heard of Ghosts With Shit Jobs and one of my all-time favourites, Mad Max 2 (or The Road Warrior, if you’re in the US). I’ve loved that movie since the first time I saw it theatrically in 1982 and in that same year - it was the first film I had in my embryonic film collection on VHS. It was a treat to see it on a big screen again - but cool as that was, it was just the beginning. As soon as I left that screening, I was headed back to the Main Void to meet and chat with one of the cast members from that movie - Virginia Hey, the Warrior Woman. I mean really - how often do you get to revisit an iconic movie you’ve loved for over thirty years and then get to meet a cast member? How far off the Richter scale of cool is that? I got a signed photo for the study’s wall of fame AND a business card because we have something even cooler set up for the near future.
 


 

Sometimes, things just work out perfectly. The stars are lined up just right and Lady Luck figures the universe owes you a break. At the signing tables right next to Virginia Hey was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine regular Chase Masterson.

I’m a huge Star Trek fan in all its forms (except when it has the name J.J.Abrams attached and yes, I purposely boycotted THAT screening in the event). This was the first time I had ever met an actor or actress from ANY of the series. Again, there will be further coolness with Chase Masterson unfolding as we have a project coming. (Jesus, I love this life!)

With Chase Masterson


Both of these ladies were just fantastic to talk to - it was an honour and really, I can’t wait until you guys find out what happens next - but that’s another story for another time. Just watch this space.

Dumping my haul of merchandise (signed photos and graphic novels) in the car, it was time to head for the Imaginarium. That’s the evening show - and what an incredible spectacle it was.

Opening the show were again Area 51 with an incredible native dancing number involving a lot of flaming torches, with a seven feet tall Predator also on stage, while a full sized Alien stalked the front of the stage.
 

Area 51 - Flames

Flames, bright light, dancing girls. This is the life.


We saw a contortionist who could seemingly dislocate his shoulders at will and then put them back again. In a vomit inducing sequence, he actually had the palms of his hands facing outwards while his elbows touched in front of him. (And I know you’re trying that right now. Impossible, huh? Not for this guy.) These was a stage magician, and sadly a truly lamentable guy doing weird and unfunny Dalek songs with a saucepan on his head.

We saw Titan the robot and an incredible act called Theremin Hero. For those of you who don’t know - a theremin is the instrument they played the Dr Who, Star Trek and Day The Earth Stood Still themes on. The act consisted, naturally of a theremin sequence, and also a laser harp. I had never seen that before. Laser beams linked to a musical program, so that breaking a beam caused a musical note to play. So, you had this crazy guy on stage using his hands rapidly to play a song on laser beams. Believe me - he WAS rapid, otherwise those beams would’ve burnt straight through his heavy asbestos gloves.

Area 51 closed an unforgettable show with another Tron number, BUT for an encore, Chase Masterson delivered a sultry rendition of Fever and that was it - exhausted after a solidly packed fifteen hours, we called it a day.
 

Area 51 - Tron

Could ANYTHING seriously surpass what we’d already seen and experienced? Well, in a word "yes" - there was Saturday. We had a plan. Rather than the randomness of Friday - we had specific targets to hit because so much was happening in different venues on the site. You have to pick and choose and some of these events overlap. Yep, we had our nerd schedule.

Saturday began well with the arrival of Markie (he hates being called Markie, so it stuck) who’d driven for hours just to be at the Weekender for one day. It was a day, which, in his words was worth the effort.

Although I don’t write any of the Doctor Who content for Starburst, (there are plenty of people far better qualified that I who do that) I do consider myself to be more than a casual fan. It’s something that has always been there - even if as a kid ( warning - incoming heresy) I was more of an Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space fan. Truth is, we had a weak BBC signal in the sixties, perpetual static and ghosting. ITV (we only had 2 channels back then) came in clear as a bell so we kind of stuck with that. Since its return, I find I like the series now more than before. It used to be something I could take or leave, but needed to watch if the Cybermen or the Daleks were around. Nowadays, it's required viewing.

On the Friday, I had enjoyed the BBC exhibit of Doctor Who props and had met a Weeping Angel face to face.
 

Face to face with a Weeping Angel

But what better way to kick off the good Doctor’s fiftieth anniversary year than by attending a panel hosted by Who historian (Whostorian???) David J.Howe, and consisting of the longest running companion Frazer Hines (Jamie from the Troughton years) and the fifth Doctor, Peter Davidson. I admit, I had found it incredibly funny the previous day when Peter Davidson’s signing session had to be postponed because Doctor Who had missed his train!

I apologise for the quality of the photo but, same old story - lights shining toward us, distance and so on.
 

Dr Who panel. L-R David Howe, Frazer Hines, Peter Davidson

I loved hearing the light hearted stories of filming at breakneck speed back in the day. I didn’t realise that Hines did an uncanny impersonation of Patrick Troughton and actually voiced Troughton’s Doctor on the audio adventures available on CD. Both speakers were on their A-game, delighting the crowd over an hour’s session.

That was the warm-up for the next session. Robert Rankin who, himself is certainly outgoing as a personality, interviewing the legendary Brian Blessed on stage. Among a weekend of nothing but highlights, this one spiked pretty high. Blessed is the very definition of "larger than life" and ran to the front of the stage to bellow out "GORDON’S ALIIIIIIIIVE" as the crowd of nearly three thousand cheered.

Blessed really IS a legend, he’s done it all. He’s a star of stage, TV, films. At 76, he’s a keen adventurer and mountaineer and is the oldest man to have climbed Everest. He has spent time with the Dalai Lama and has actually boxed with him. Yes - Brian Blessed has BOXED with the most peaceful man on Earth. He had also made the poor man beg for forgiveness on his KNEES for inferring that Blessed was fat. He has a enthusiastic interest in both science fiction AND science fact, with a hands on interest in space exploration and we were the first people to hear him announce that a few days earlier, he had officially qualified as a Cosmonaut and was fully intending to literally head out into space for real. I’ve titled this column after a quote of his which resounded in my head and I've adopted as a personal mantra after a difficult time at the day job - "Follow your dreams, and don’t let the bastards grind you down". That last part needs to be bellowed, because that’s what Brian does - he bellows and booms.

He spoke of his friendship with Patrick Stewart and his encounter back in his early days as an actor with a young man who just couldn’t act. All he could do was stand and speak his lines. Blessed gave him some tips and he got an acting job with a theatre company before landing a role in TV soap Coronation Street. The young man was William Roache who has played Ken Barlow for 53 years. Quote "And he STILL can’t act for shit! Fuck you Ken Barlow" - while waving two fingers.

He dislikes "great" actors who have "their heads up their asses" and his way of dealing with these pompous fools is to goose them! He chases them around, goosing them growling "Where's your ass?". But in case you think he’s some kind of deviant the increasingly hilarious and irreverent Blessed says "I’m straight, in fact I’d have given Jimmy Savile a run for his money. I’d shag anything that moved!"

He recounted his time on the set of Flash Gordon, adding his own sound effects to his blaster rifle during a critical (and expensive) scene. All in all, that man is a national treasure. I found his cavalier attitude toward ageing refreshing and inspirational. If he can achieve what he does at 76, then I’m convinced that at 53, I’m just warming up.

It was time to head for some more shopping - Steve buying some geek goodies - a screen used alien cube from Super 8 and a signed photo display of Chris Hemsworth as Thor (I sought out signed photos Robert Downey Jnr in the Iron Man suit or a Stan Lee autograph but came up short). I did however buy a Superman emblem lanyard for my security pass at the day job because the one we’re given are mind numbingly boring and I need something to remind me of better days. Time a change of venue some food and the opportunity of grabbing great seats at the Screening Zone - luckily, right next to the bar where they served some spectacular burgers. (To clarify - these were days when Steve and I survived on a steady diet of burgers and pizza).

The sickest film maker on the planet - check out his Animal Soup movie some time, but not immediately before or after a meal (and one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet to be honest) is Dave Davies who asked not to be judged because he wanted to catch the screening of Willow. And to be fair - we didn’t judge. We joined. (What’s a sci-fi convention without Warwick Davies popping up in some fashion?)

Then it was another highlight of immense proportions - an opportunity to attend a screening of Flash Gordon - introduced by King Vultan of the Hawkmen himself, the indomitable Brian Blessed. Y’know, you don’t get to be a part of something that’s THIS insanely cool every day. It was just a privilege to be there in the second row and hear him point out trivia like in the title sequence a "volcanic eruption" switch is flashing on and off just before his name appears.... "WHAT DO THEY MEAN?"
 

Brian Blessed - Legend

He was offered a microphone before the introduction but pushed it away, delivering an anecdote riddled speech that everybody in the packed screening could hear, without the aid of amplification. Brian is quite amplified enough.
 

Gordon's ALIVE ??????

I hadn’t seen Flash Gordon on the big screen since its 1980 release and it was a treat to be sitting there with Steve, Markie, Jon and Dave, cheering every time Blessed appeared on screen. I’d love to write "we were kids again" but that would imply that we had, at some point grown out of this stuff - and that would be a lie.

Then it was time for Blastermind!

Blastermind - oh, boy. How do I describe this? It’s Mastermind for UberGeeks. It’s 90 questions for as many teams of up to eight people as can fit in the room. There were over 100 teams of the geekiest, nerdiest genre hard core fans in that room. The questions ranged from obscure posters and tag lines to anagrams (which Steve had an uncanny talent for solving). There was (thankfully) a Twilight Zone trivia round, a round of Arnold Schwarzenegger quotes that had to be matched up to films - it was tough going and a very tough crowd.

We came third. Out of ALL those teams, WE came THIRD overall. That’s a magnificent achievement. Originally there were only going to be first and second prizes, but we, as a team, have been invited to be special V.I.P guests at the Sci-Fi London convention at the end of April.

We celebrated our stunning victory with one last screening that we just couldn’t let slide by.
 

The final screening - a classic!

And then, at approximately 1:30 on Sunday morning, it was over. Literally the best Geek Weekend Steve and I have ever had. Great times with great people. As I write this a couple of days after the event, I’ve been asking myself, overall what WAS the highlight?

The highlight was definitely the people. Everybody I saw in costume who either amazed me, bewildered me or made me smile. Great new friends made, great old friends along for the ride - and of course Steve, my usual partner in crime and co-conspirator in all my adventures.

You’re ALL super heroes.
 

Copyright © 2010 - 2013 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.

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