Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dragon*Con 2011: A n00b's Tale, Part IV

Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan) and William Adama (E...
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[When last we left our plucky D*C n00b, he was recovering from an unexpected Jedi-themed dance party. The infodump expands to the penultimate day of the con.]

SUNDAY

Again, my day began around 8:30 am as I snuck away from my hibernating roommates to scrounge breakfast at Peachtree Center. I think I stupidly drew from the Dairy Queen well, which is always a mistake. Nonetheless, I hit the panel scene about 9:30 and called an audible, electing to abandon my plans for the Skeptic Track's "Secular Plan to Take Over America" - I didn't want to brave the zealot crowd - so I snuck into the line for the other zealot crowd magnet, the Star Wars track. Specifically, the "Truth and Mythology of Star Wars" headlined by Timothy Zahn and Gary Kurtz.

Takeaway: I now know where the Star Wars franchise went wrong.

George Lucas stopped working with his co-producer, Gary Kurtz.

Kurtz is a self-effacing professorial gentleman who helped guide Lucas in the production of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. He was the man who owned the painting of Hannibal's elephants that inspired the AT-ATs. He calmly explained how the story structure of Empire is consciously inverted from its predecessor, working from a huge set-piece battle down to a pair of small, personal stories. He politely declined to elaborate on what creative differences led to his not working on Return of the Jedi, but his offhand knowledge and passion about the franchise embody everything that was missing from the prequel trilogy.

Timothy Zahn was there, but Kurtz dominated the conversation, which says far more about Kurtz than Zahn. Even the presence of snarky podcaster turned moderator Shaun Rosado (remember the name) couldn't cut through the Kurtz field.

The hour was too brief. I want to interview Kurtz for a couple of weeks. These panels are what Dragon*Con is all about.

At 11:30 I plumbed the depths of the Hyatt again to check out the Science Fiction Research Association's "about us" panel. No, the SFRA is not a cabal of mad scientists dreaming up grant-funded deathrays, weather-control satellites and robot assassins (more's the pity), but a resistance cell of literature professors spreading the gospel of sci-fi and fantasy lit within the snobbish erudition of academia.

I went in a skeptic about the mission and left equally so -- Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, Alduous Huxley, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Lethem, Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood don't seem to have any trouble getting assigned in Lit courses. For frak sake, Doris Lessig won the Nobel frakking Prize for literature. Does Asimov get dissed? Sure, but his prose is not exactly timeless. Same for Clarke and, to a lesser extent, Heinlein. And Ursula K. Le Guin is criminally overlooked. But being popular doesn't make you good, and sci-fi doesn't get any more or less hosed than romance, westerns, thrillers, or any other genre when it comes to academic disrespect.

Where the admittedly charming and well informed panelists made the beginning of case was in arguing that sci-fi is, at its best, in dialogue with society about change, often using fantastic settings as an abstraction to examine real world issues from a comfortable, cognitive distance. Sci-fi arose as a reaction to industrialization, and the interplay of technological angst evident in the form is somewhat unique. I would never argue that sci-fi is unworthy of study. These ideas underpin the value of sci-fi criticism, but even a geek like me has a hard time believing every lit faculty needs a specialist chair of spec fiction research. I would enjoy those classes, but not at the expense of studying Faulkner, Dickens or Shakespeare.

At 1pm, I wandered over to the BSG universe panel, which was a mistake. The panel was fan-run, by fans who seemed qualified only in the sense that they had met Edward James Olmos. The hour was largely wasted arguing why Caprica sucked and whether or not Starbuck was an angel, a Cylon or both. To this point D*C had avoided the mouthbreather nerd-rage con stereotype, but this panel stepped in it big time. Other than learning that Mr. Olmos likes to be called Eddie, I took nothing away from the hour.

Discouraged, I wandered back to the room to recharge and possibly rediscover my roommates. My roomies' grocery stash afforded me a chocolate granola bar as quasi-lunch, but the room was otherwise abandoned when I arrived, so I textblasted my guys to warn them I planned on redeeming my BSG con experience attending the Battlestar Galactica cast panel at 7pm, which would entail lining up early. Hickman and Charles affirmed their desire to play copilot, and Hickman suggested dinner while we waited. I heartily concurred.

As I awaited Hickman's arrival, I took in Carrie Fisher's live Q&A on D*CTV. I don't remember many specifics about her responses other than the strangely friendly profanity, general positive attitude and the revelation that, at 105 lbs., the studio still wanted her to lose weight to play Leia. (She performed the role at around 90.) It was a glib and charming hour, and I was glad for the serendipity of it. The tone reminded me of the fun to be had at Nerd Mardi Gras, and as the panel drew to a close, Hickman signaled his availability.

Vaguely related aside: The Velocity burger bar in the Marriott lobby does a pretty good plate of nachos, and the burgers aren't bad, either. Hickman and I shared the former and enjoyed the latter from about 5-6pm, after which he went in search of Charles and I staked a position in line for the BSG cast panel

Three. Blocks. Away.

Seriously.

It was occasionally raining, but my particular spot in line wound back on itself beneath the overhang of an office building entrance. Somehow, despite literally crossing town, the D*C crew filed all of us into the main ballroom at the Marriott at 6:45pm. As in, I would guess, about 4,000 of us.

Seriously.

The ballroom included a set of elevated camera platforms and two giant projection screens so folks in back could see and hear what the panelists were saying. We all giggled collectively at the bantering of the Sci-fi Janitors skits playing on D*CTV whilst awaiting the arrival of the cast. Now, one of the dirty secrets of Dragon*Con panels (as I would learn) is that, when it comes to big media casts, lineups are a crap shoot. It doesn't matter what the program says, the stars listed on the panel may not show up, and unlisted celebs may unexpectedly crash the party. The few minutes leading up to a major panel are fraught with anticipation as the crowd awaits the discovery of who is actually there.

Our panel? JACKPOT.

Edward James Olmos. Mary McDonnell. Tahmoh Penikett. Richard Hatch.

Awesome is an inadequate description.

The quartet was mutually deferential, polite, and seemed genuinely delighted to be there. Richard Hatch was complimentary to a fault. Tahmoh and he dominated the first half of the session, with the former explaining how he had to write his own backstory to method-act his scenes on Caprica with Sharon/Athena. (Check the character progression immediately before and after Sharon asks "who do you think our child will look like?")

When Eddie (they really do call him Eddie) Olmos and Mary finally jumped in, they jumped in deep, discussing their love scenes from the later seasons and continuing to flirt and banter like school kids. We also came to learn that McDonnell has an innate ability to make high-tension or heavy scenes impossible to shoot, as she is often overcome with fits of giggles before, during and after takes. This was evident during the panel, too. If I learned nothing else, that would have been enough. But there, mid-panel, Mary McDonnell doubled down on the awesome.

A year ago, two fans got engaged in the middle of the BSG panel on Sunday night. They couldn't attend this year, as they were getting married at the exact time and date of this year's panel session. So Mary stopped the proceedings and instructed all of us to wish the couple a happy wedding. Followed, of course, by an Olmos invocation of "So say we all!" Mary assured us that D*CTV would get the video to the happy newlyweds.

Yes, this totally happened. We filmed a wedding toast in the middle of BSG panel, for the benefit of BSG fans. Mary McDonnell wins herself a Dragon*Con.

The final portion of the panel was Eddie expounding on how many active duty military officers thanked him for portraying the toll that command decisions wreak on commanding officers, and for the vulnerability he was willing to display. Hatch backed him up on this, especially for having the courage to appear so weak and broken on camera, as many leading men aren't willing to do.

This led to a final conversation on why Battlestar Galactica resonates. Of how it speaks to perseverance, and clinging to your humanity -- even when you aren't human. It was thrilling to see Olmos not only stir his own passion on the subject but declare -- even demand -- that BSG continue. It ended the only way it could, with a triumphant, triune chorus of "So Say We All!"

I would have taken a bullet for Eddie in that moment. Me and 4,000 other people. This, above all else, is why fans go to cons. You can buy the swag, gander at the art, take in photos of the costumes, see videos of the panels, and argue in chat forums about every topic covered -- all via the internet. But there is no substitute, no commensurate thrill for being in a room with literally thousands of like-minded fans, collectively feeding off the energy and exultation of a shared experience. Go read some Durkheim and you'll understand. I saw the lightning strike that evening, felt the air crackle with its energy, and felt greater still the bond -- ephemeral but undeniable -- forged between us all. We are fans. We are geeks. We are one.

So. Say. We. ALL.

But wait, it gets better.

I lost track of Hickman and Charles, but somehow floated my way to the "Big Bang Theory: Are We the Joke?" panel. It drew literally twice the audience as the Gary Kurtz panel earlier in the day. Do that math: The guy who co-invented Star Wars had less of a crowd than a sitcom about four dorks and a hottie neighbor. There was a guy in the crowd cosplaying Howard Wolowitz. Complete with NES controller belt buckle and checkerboard slip-on Vans! SERIOUSLY! This was a panel that boyfriends were dragged into by girlfriends, and they left fans of the show! This is the stuff that happens to Star Trek and Firefly, and was happening to a primetime sitcom about nerds!

We are not the joke. We are the victors. All those sitcoms that spent decades mocking the beer-swilling, football-watching clueless ex-jock husbands? Now us geeks are getting equal mockery. Nerd culture is now just culture. We win.

But wait, it gets better.

Remember Shaun Rosado, the blogger/podcaster from the Kurtz/Zahn Star Wars panel? Well, he runs a rather unconventional -- some would say envelope-pushing -- panel at 10pm on Sunday evening of Dragon*Con. It was only tried once before, and while highly popular, it was also controversial.

"Adult Themes in Star Wars."

Yes, Adult Themes. In Star Wars.

Basically, Shaun and a few of his cohorts do an improv comedy Q&A theorizing on the sexual exploits of characters in the Star Wars universe. While passing around booze. And handing out sextoys to Q&A participants. And encouraging nudity from the crowd. Successfully.

Sound crazy? It was. Offensive? Definitely. Hilarious? Hell yes.

The midsize ballroom that held the Last Party on Alderaan rave the night before was packed to near capacity (with 18-and-over ID checks at the door) for the Jedi perv-a-thon. And that's with a good 10% of the crowd bailing out at the first bit regarding wampa (ahem) emissions. For every squeamish traditionalist that bowed out, two more raucous scoundrels took their place.

The panel was scheduled for 2 hours. It lasted 2.5, and ended only because the door staff had to go off shift. And every damn second was funny. I never had more or less respect for Star Wars fandom, and its ability to (finally) not take itself so seriously.

I wandered back to the room, giddy on an irreverent and unlikely cocktail of geek pride and gleeful nerd-perv shame. It was awesome.

Three days of Dragon*Con down, one day to go.

[To be continued...]

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