A journey to the stars…

Here I recount a recent day out. It’s a lengthy tale with various ponderings along the way, I’ve therefore divided it into the following sections:

  • The journey to the stars…
  • We arrived…
  • “Colonel Sheppard to the Gate Photo Room”…
  • “Dr Jackson to the Gate Photo Room”…
  • On the way home…

The journey to the stars…

My brother e-mailed me a request recently, that I go with him to a Comic Con event. He seemed sceptical that I would be interested and tried to entice me with the prospect of seeing some of the Stargate cast, or even Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (two shows that I enjoyed during my teens and 20s and have fond memories of to this day). I took a look at the website and guest list and thought it looked like it would be quite fun.

My brother bought the entry tickets online and he was also keen to pay to have his photograph taken with a celebrity; he mentioned that autographs cost too, and I joked with “Yeah, it’s called Comic ‘Con’ for a reason!” I wasn’t all that interested in parting with more money for photographs or autographs, feeling somewhat awkward about things like idolising people, obtaining enjoyment from material things, and the escalating costs; deciding who to have a photo taken with since there were a number of celebrities I recognised and could choose from would have been a challenge; I certainly couldn’t justify paying to have photos taken with all of them!

In the end my brother bought two photograph tickets, giving me the option of either Michael Shanks, aka Daniel Jackson, or Joe Flanigan, aka John Sheppard, from Stargate SG-1/Atlantis. I joked again, “You’re not giving me the option of Spike and Drusilla [from Buffy the Vampire Slayer], or Summer Glau/Jewel Staite [from Firefly]… or Miller from The Expanse!?” who were all on the guest list, along with many people I didn’t recognise.

I considered that each actor would have aged somewhat since these pictures were taken at the time of the respective show’s airing! (These were the ones I recognised!)

During the preceding days before the event I felt like a child at Christmas as I imagined how the day might pan out. Perhaps only once before have I been in the presence of a celebrity and now I was finding it quite surreal to think about seeing or meeting people I had only ever seen on a screen. It felt silly as my mind jostled between considering these people as either actors, the characters they have played, or just fellow human beings like myself. Not for the first time in my life was I imagining meeting famous people and considering what I might say to them, given the chance; I’d never being to a Comic Con before but I’d seen video clips from them and photographs people had taken at such events – I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.

The day arrived and we set off on the 3 hour drive – excited about what lay ahead; I’d made a little effort to dress up too. My brother had given me the option of driving, which I chose on various grounds; I think he’s a better passenger than me, and I liked the idea of driving my chosen route along the A5 from Anglesey, through the welsh mountains, to Telford – an easy route, if not long. The downside would hit me later.

On the way we stopped twice. The first (at Llangollen) was so my brother could use a toilet; I could have gone too but I objected to paying 30p/pee, I was happy to continue on until we found a free convenience, arrived at the venue, or needs be, I would find a suitable bush (I like camping and walking in the countryside, and therefore what’s good for the animals is good enough for me!) We discussed this (the paying to use a toilet) for a little while later; namely that I object to paying for such a necessity (like water). My brother’s response was that he was providing the guy that manned the toilets with a job; I countered this with a point about how a portion (if not the majority) of the cost was going to paying the guy to sit in his little cubical to take people’s money, the remainder on the actual up-keep of the facilities which I felt the local council should provide using taxes, since every human being needs to use a toilet. Admittedly I’m aware that public toilets are said to be left in a better condition when one has paid to use them.

There was a bit of hassle actually paying to pee, as we’d left the car without money and had to return to it, and then my brother attempted to pay with his phone, of which the process failed before he resorted to presenting his bank card to the card machine. I wondered how awkward it was for the guy in his box, in command of the rotating barrier, having to prevent someone relieving themselves until they handed over 30p. I remarked afterwards that this would have been more unfair on an elderly person or someone with a medical condition that affects their ability to hold their bladder (something I experienced for a while a few years ago). Perhaps the guy in charge could use his discretion and allow certain people entry first, and then accepting payment after.

Anyway, a short distance on in our journey and we found free toilets. Indeed they were in a typical state for public toilets; the communal metal urinal had been removed at some point (I saw from a lack of paint on the wall where one used to be situated) so the only option was to piss in the pan – I’m glad I only needed a number 1 since I wouldn’t have wanted my buttocks to touch that seat (it was of a fixed, anti-vandal/theft variety).

Moving on… my bother bought himself a cup of tea and a tray of chips for us to share with our little picnic; I’d brought some pasties and a choice of baps I had prepared – a choice of sausage and cheese, sausage surprise, cheese surprise, or a combination of the above*. I also had a flask of coffee for myself.

We arrived…

We arrived at the Telford International Center in good time. It was busy but we found an available space in one of the multi-story carparks. I needlessly opted for the top level just so I could enjoy myself razzing noisily all the way up, that and an available space being almost guaranteed, and the car being easy to locate upon our return. Since it was a Sunday the carpark was only charging £1 for the full day (to be paid later), so I had little reason to object to this (I generally avoid paying to park if I can – preferring to walk further if I have to).

Upon arrival at the Center proper a police officer/security person was requesting to look in people’s bags; because you know, doing so makes you feel safe when you’re clandestinely reminded that some people like to blow shit up; I was attending Comic Con, I know sci-fi, and that had I been a baddy I would have had nuclear isotopes in my Thermos and my mobile phone would be the remote detonator, but those weren’t checked; rookie mistake Mr Officer.

Once in the event we had before us a mass of people packing out numerous large halls, a few of which were laid out like vast indoor markets/craft fairs, with autograph tables lining some of the perimeters, and a couple of auditoriums with celebrities scheduled throughout the day to talk about their stuff. In the corner of one of the halls was a smaller version of this, and at one point a particular actor from a show my brother had been a fan of since years ago was scheduled to appear, so we queues for and bought some refreshments before locating some seats.

It was my turn to pay, so I whipped out a £5 note, merely guessing that would be enough for a cup of tea and a cup of coffee since I hadn’t seen any prices and the automated machines decanting the hot beverages didn’t state anything. Indeed £5 was enough, spot on in fact, but cash was not accepted so now I had to fumble with my wallet for a card, feed it into a hand-held machine that was being thrust before me, mistype the pin because it missed a digit, press cancel, remove the card, rinse and repeat… my brother muttering about how I “don’t believe in contactless” [I’d opted out of that ‘feature’ when the bank tried to land me with such a card]… the refreshment-provider could have just taken my £5 note to keep the line moving (saving themselves a transaction cost from the bank too), but this is modern society and we seemingly have to use our gadgets and technology at every opportunity, that and (as I’m aware) the excuse of ‘Covid’ means we’re further encouraged to ditch archaic cash to reduce the handling of things (my fumbling with the terminal and pressing of numerous buttons thwarting that with comedic effect).

We found some seats and the host arrived on stage and introduced himself and got the audience a little more fired up before the guest got there. He made a point of requesting, on behalf of the guest’s request, that people in the audience wear masks, although a portion of people at the event had already opted to do that – I didn’t see anyone who wasn’t already wearing a mask now decide to put one on. I thought “fair enough, you can politely ask…”

When considering attending the event I had checked out the website to read their ‘Covid Guidelines’. The event was titled as ‘Wales Comic Con’, but it was held in Telford which was actually in England; I wondered if the event was being held here because stricter Covid Rules in Wales would make the event less or unfeasible, or were the premises simply better suited? Thankfully the event’s guidelines were just that, guidelines, and they felt welcoming and inclusive, although that didn’t stop me from feeling anxious in the preceding days (I’ve never been bothered about catching C., especially since I did, but rules, regulations, and the prospect/threat of confrontations has). The page promised that the photo ops would not require masks and guests would not be [hidden] behind perspex, for example; that was a relief. The day before I had checked the website again and the page had been updated with some clarification; nothing of note had changed which added further relief.

My brother and I were now sat waiting for this talk to begin. We weren’t sat in the actual audience area (since that was already full) but at some seats and tables a little behind and adjacent to the refreshment-providing services. We positioned our chairs to face the stage and awaited the arrival of the guest speaker. Sadly as things got underway more people turned up and stood between us and the stage; blocking both the view of the stage and some of the sound emanating from the loudspeakers. The sound was further blocked by the usage of masks; the host had now donned his, and the guest was wearing at least one also (rightly so I suppose since the audience had been requested to wear theirs, now repeatedly, prior to his arrival). This had begun to grate on me (and my brother); I had started to run out of fingers on my left hand, counting the number of times the host had mentioned the mask thing, that he’d drop in every once in a while; it seemed pointless to me that people in the audience and meters (at least) away from the stage were being expected to wear masks. Sadly, as the guest got talking, he further set the tone with what could have been deemed to be a lecture about C. and how the storylines in his show from a decade or two ago (but set in the future) echoed/foresaw such events from today, such as C. and global warming – I’ve become increasingly aware of how these two things get bundled together into a same sentence or topic (sceptics might point out that this is evidence that the former was created as a solution to the latter).

The guest told stories of how he knew at least a few people who had died of C., but I considered “whose to know any context behind these losses?” Those with their masks on were clearly more sympathetic than my questioning mind, clapping when they agreed with his opinions; “did these people he spoke of die of or with C.?… how old were they?… did they have underlying health issues?… does this guy simply know a lot of unhealthy people? He surely knows a lot of people.” My brother, who had elected to stand to unblock his view of the stage had now become irritated – he had been a fan of the show the guy was from; I had never actively watched it. I dare say the guy had lost at least one fan, although perhaps further cemented himself as an idol to others; we elected to leave the area and make our way to our first photo session, talking on the way about what we had just observed. “Some people just make use of the platform they find themselves on.” I said, by way of sympathising with both my brother and people like the guest [I use my platform here to share my views on things after all]. As we were two people who had had Covid, and know numerous other people who have also had it, my brother seems to object to the way some people talk about it; perhaps he takes offence to the seeming ‘importance’ given to a “Covid death” when the death of his dad (my step dad) was pre-Covid. While I think I’m perhaps more tolerant I do object when people’s views are presented as demands on others and how people on such a platform can seemingly take advantage of/exploit their position – sadly it seems a lot of people on that side of the fence also think dictating to those on the other is right, when those on the other just want to be left alone (this observation was made on a recent Timcast IRL video I recently watched on Youtube).

“Colonel Sheppard to the Gate Photo Room”…

Our first photo session was with Joe Flanigan, aka John Sheppard, from Stargate SG-1. We had assumed our ticket for this would allow only one of us to go in for the picture, and since I had opted for Michael Shanks, I thought I would stay with my brother until I was perhaps turned away, but it turned out we were both allowed in and could have a joint picture. There was a further mass of people queuing, either for whichever star was before Flanigan, Flanigan, or whoever was after, but we patiently shuffled through as instructions were called out.

Something we were continually relying on for the day was technology. I’d looked at Google Maps the day before and written myself some basic directions and printed off the event area, but my brother’s access to maps on his phone had certainly helped us get there (the map being clear on the screen). Now, since my brother had purchased the tickets online and had them on his phone, or access to them online, he needed to call up the photo-specific ticket, which rather than being a snapshot saved on his phone as he had done with the main entry tickets, was stored online. He realised he had no internet access in this area but after explaining this to a second person they directed him to connect to the event’s available internet connection, and now he could present his QR code. Technology eh? “Don’t worry!” the member of staff said, who, as they explained, was accustomed to such panics by now.

We shuffled further through, queued a little more, and then there he was; Joe Flanigan having a his photo taken with each of the fans before us. Our moment arrived and we were ushered over to him, “Hello!”, me on one side and my brother on the other; “smile!” The moment was very brief as we couldn’t help but keep the line moving, but I thought about how Flanigan came across as pretty quiet, if not borderline shy, or perhaps a little tired from long weekend end meeting hundreds of fans like us; we said our “Nice to meet you!”s as we were whisked out of the cubicle and left to wander off to collect the print.

We now had a couple of hours to spare until our next photo session so we wandered round the busy market-like stalls some more, perhaps wondering which celebrities we might catch a glimpse of as they sat signing autographs. It was fun to see other people’s costumes, especially when people were getting photos taken together; there were fellow ‘Gaters’ from Stargate, Storm Toopers and Darth Vader himself, complete with electronic voice/breathing effects, along with with many characters I didn’t have a clue what they were from. It was quite odd to approach strangers who were so heavily clad in costume; I think I looked at the visors of the Star Wars crew to try and figure out where the people’s eyes were when we spoke to them (I’m actually conscious of this when I’m out cycling with sunglasses on and encounter someone to talk to; I will pretty much always take my sunglasses of so they can see my eyes).

There were various exhibits to admire; there was a Delorian from Back to the Future II (or a replica) for people to pay to have their photograph professionally taken with – while in the moment of seeing it I was quite happy to watch a group posing on it, but it wasn’t until a day later I thought “I should have done this and got a photo too!” Oh well. There was an impressive replica Johnny 5 that I got to pose with for a free photo and the guy who had spent years creating it got talking with us (the event quiet enough here to do this).

We also spoke to a few stall holders about their wares; it being especially enjoyable to speak with others with common interests. Sometimes there were vast queues for certain autographs, while other celebrities were either away from their tables (perhaps giving talks elsewhere, having photos taken, or taking some time out), or there were less popular celebrities with fewer fans approaching them; I felt bad for these! Imagine being there waiting for someone to request your autograph while a neighbouring celebrity had a mile-long queue for theirs.

There were also St. John’s Ambulance crews wandering around; the whole venue was packed out, we were often bumping shoulders with people, and it felt pretty warm at times (I was glad to not be in a stifling costume!) While I don’t have photos of the overall spectacle, I did find these online from the 2019 Con; the scene just the same, and as busy, but with a distinct lack of masks:

2019’s event.

At one point I had a sense of feeling overwhelmed by being among so many people; I can’t remember the last time I was at such a big event and I’m so used to living a quiet existence in rural Wales these days with me and my cat, the occasional visit to a client, and the occasional visit to a supermarket where you’re expected to keep your distance from others. There was no ‘social distancing’ here, not that I cared for that, I just wasn’t used to this. For a brief moment I thought back to the time I was donating blood and had almost passed out; I’d started to stupidly consider that all my blood was being drained out of me… then the world started to turn white before the nurse glanced over to see me turning pale. In this moment at the event I was having some similar considerations, like “If I hadn’t already had C. I was certainly going to get it now!” I took some deep breathes and got myself out of that head space, and was just left thinking “this must be what it’s like when people have panic/anxiety attacks when being in public.” I could see the need for paramedics to be around. These sensations of anxiety appear to begin subconsciously, and like when I was donating blood, I didn’t feel consciously “scared” about the prospect of donating blood, just like now I wasn’t consciously bothered about being among a mass of people – my ego doesn’t permit me to be scared about such things. It was very strange. My advice for anyone who has these issues is to work at it; recognise the early signs as they happen and take some deep breaths; every time you practice this it gets better (I improved each time I donated blood until I had no issue).

My brother and I sat in on a couple of activities/talks before making our way to the next photo session with Michael Shanks. We had quite a long wait here but we got talking to another fan and one of the event’s crew who told us how all the crew there were actually unpaid volunteers. I thought it was a little odd that such a large event would rely on unpaid staff, although there was the obvious perk of being at the event for free and getting to enjoy the atmosphere and meet other fans – why pay people if you don’t need to? This is similar to motor racing where the marshals dotted around the circuit are also unpaid volunteers but they essentially get to take part and still see the race as any other spectator would, just with a lack of freedom to go off and do your own thing. The fellow fan seemed to mention that Michael Shanks, who was running a bit late, had been wearing a mask for the previous day’s photo session, so I had a bit of concern about this; the event’s website had made the assurance that masks wouldn’t be required for photo sessions, but I suppose that wouldn’t stop a guest from choosing to wear one, even if they’d agreed to not wear one. I realise this tone is no better considering there are people that think that anyone who refuses to get vaccinated should not be allowed to participate in societal things.

“Dr Jackson to the Gate Photo Room”…

Eventually the man himself turned up and the queue before us started filing through, first with people who had VIP tickets, and then us lesser mortals. My brother had earlier wondered why there weren’t more opportunities for people to see stars and have more time with them and ask them questions and I tried to explain that that’s what people pay for with the more expensive tickets – you can be whisked around without queuing, spend more time with stars, or perhaps get the best seats if your pockets are deep enough. For everyone else you have to take advantage of the various talks going on where the audience get to ask questions. My brother thought this division based on money/wealth was unfair and that everyone should be treated equally. I suggested that the system doesn’t work like that; there are people with plenty of money to just pay whatever; “not everyone can fly first class.” Indeed the whole of society works on a class/caste system; some people are born into a higher up position, to billionaire parents, into royalty, or a life of celebrity; everyone else is beneath them (sometimes brutally so), perhaps with some opportunity to work their way up, while the remainder flutter about like a wet tadpole in the bottom of a waterless pan.

Michael Shanks appeared taller than I’d previously thought and his accent was quite striking (compared to his on-screen voice we were familiar with) as he welcomed us over “Hi guys!” He was very smiley, inviting and engaging for the brief moment we had. For some reason in that moment, and entirely unplanned, I found myself asking to shake his hand – I was super-chuffed to be meeting the guy that had played Daniel Jackson for around 10 years on a show I thoroughly enjoyed throughout.

Again we were ushered out after the shot was taken and we wandered off to collect our next photograph. These were being printed in the other room as before, a short distance away. Tables were laid out with each photo being placed there once it had been printed (kind of like the photos at a theme park ride, I recalled). The technology here was quite clever I thought; the photographer’s camera sending each snap off wirelessly and the printer(s) doing their thing. We now requested extra so we could have one each and the price for this was very reasonable. This took a while as it involved the team of staff there to manually find the photo in the system from the numbered slip of paper we had been given in each photo booth (luckily we still had the one from the Joe Flanigan session but this took them some time). As we waited we glanced over the other pictures and noticed a table separate from the others with yet-to-be-collected pictures. Something seemed apparent; these pictures were of a particular few celebrities and fans, but notably each celebrity was either maintaining a distance from their fan, wearing a mask, or sat at a table with them but with a small perspex divider between them. I thought this was a real shame; the white background particularly stark in the picture of fans and social-distancing star – one could have taken the picture for themselves and cut off the half with the fan on and possibly Photoshopped themselves there instead – not so fun, but possible. “Were these pictures all left here by disappointed fans?” I wondered. I respect that some people want to social distance, wear a mask, or be separated from strangers by a perspex screen, but those celebrities (like the one talking earlier) perhaps shouldn’t have made themselves available at such a public event with masses of people in close proximity if they were going to be like that… unless of course they expect everyone to agree with that way of things (but I don’t see how one can agree to go to such an event if they’re all for “stopping the spread of C.” Unless you were buttoned up in a mask/muzzle for the entire event, I can’t see how you would avoid C. in the place, considering how rampant it is portrayed as being.

Our extra prints arrived and we hurried off to collect a sword my brother had decided to buy earlier (I’d tried to dissuade his materialistic urge). By now the event was closing up and all the throngs of people had disappeared; seeing the venue in a hurried state of disassembly was a little bump back to reality, but we’d had a fun time, and I’d got to shake the hand of Michael Shanks!

On the way home…

I’ve often wondered what it’s like for celebrities. Sometimes it seems they are fuelled by ego and the result is they look down on the masses of mere fans who reside outside of their world. Others are perhaps more capable of seeing the human in everyone (something I sensed from Shanks as he called us over for our photograph and smiled at us); I think of all of the thousands of fans they’ve had to meet over the years. I don’t think I’d want to be a celebrity; I feel far more freedom to travel around as I please without being recognised as someone famous and being gawked at or approached as and when people see fit – if they’re born into a life of this I could imagine the toll this could take, never having the freedom to just meet people naturally.

My brother and I found our way back to the carpark and located a payment meter. We tried inserting the our parking ticket but after a few failed attempts a voice came on a speaker and we were told to use the meter on Level 2 (I guessed technology could have allowed this person to be speaking from the comfort of their own home, even from the other side of the world, but prevented them from being in the vicinity to simply come along and slap an “Out of Order” sign on the faulty machine), so up the stairs we went, a group behind us following suite but opting for the lazy lift. We still got to the next meter before them (if you think lifts/elevators are quicker, you’re mistaken… if you find they are then perhaps you need to start avoiding them!); we successfully paid our £1, yet again with my brother’s bank card. Up to Level 4 we headed only to find the door beyond 3 had been locked already, so we had to take the lift up to the Top; no more keeping fit for us.

Once we set off in the car we again found our way with the use of the map on my brother’s phone, at least until we got onto the easy A5. On the way we needed petrol and my brother wanted more food. I suggested he look ahead on the map on his phone for such services but that seemed to be in vain; technology not being that well cobbled together to make it clear which restaurant was at each of the services, or what might be available in a nearby town as a convenient takeaway along the route. I suggested we just wing it and see what we find at a services. That turned out to be a Burger King. We trundled round the car park to decide on a space and just then a rather large BANG occurred as the car landed in the largest pot hole I’ve ever hit. Thankfully we’d only been going slow and (surprisingly) no damage seemed to have been done, but that hole was horrific; cliff-like edges and big enough to bury a foot in – how a member of staff of any of the surrounding businesses could not have noticed that hole in daylight hours and got it tended to beggars belief.

The remainder of our 3 hour drive home, following our various fuel toppings up, was long as we motored on through the dark. The drive through the welsh mountains was not like it had been during the pleasant day time; no landscape to be seen, only a glimpse every now and then of a silhouetted hill or mountain. I became pretty tired on the way back, it had been a long day and many hours of driving; but I’m glad I was the one driving rather than having to be a nervous passenger while the driver yawned! My brother is quite a talker so that helped, although my ability to participate waned. As soon as I got home, late in the evening, I went straight to bed, my Fitbit buzzing as I ascended my stairs, to inform me I had done 10,000 steps. I went out like a light.

If I were to attend another Comic Con I would consider:

  • Buying a two-day ticket and having a stay overnight somewhere.
  • Travelling there the day before (given the distance I had to travel) and staying overnight somewhere to arrive fresh and early on the day.
  • Then using the prompt arrival to properly plan out the event and who I wanted to see.
  • Further photos would be dependent on the guests attending.
  • Likely staying a further night somewhere to travel back home afresh the next day. (I’d actually considered an AirBnB for this event but this wasn’t really an option because of my brother needing to get back for his son (too young to come along)).
  • I think making a little effort to dress up provides another fun aspect; I enjoyed making my own SGC patches from images found online.

*As I explained to my brother, who questioned what the surprise in the sausage/cheese baps was, it was cheese/sausage respectively.

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