Friday, May 13, 2011

Boldly Went Where I Hadn’t Gone Before – FedCon XX

Almost a year ago, I watched a documentary called Trekkies and got my first inklings that some people believe being a Star Trek fan is uncool. Funny, I’d always thought the opposite. What could be cooler than being associated with a brainy SciFi show that promotes the pursuit of knowledge, education and self-improvement, and inspires people to create amazing gadgets we now can’t imagine our lives without? I don’t know. Others do, apparently.

Anyway, I watched Trekkies 1 & 2 and thought, well, here’s a bunch of people I admire! They have the courage to pursue their passion even in the face of ignorant ridicule, they believe in tolerance, they embrace diversity and they look towards the future. Not to mention they have these wonderful events called conventions where you get to see real Klingons and Vulcans, meet actors, buy your own combadge and just have unbelievable amounts of fun. That’s when I started thinking, would it be too much to hope that I could one day attend one of these conventions and experience Trek heaven myself? It didn’t take long for the thought to crystalize into determination, and the planning began. You could say this was my own Trek-style adventure: boldly going where I had never gone before.

One of the conventions featured in the Trekkies documentaries was FedCon, Europe’s biggest event of its kind, held in Germany (not exactly an unattractive destination in itself). I had a look at their website and got a little intimidated. They had thousands of participants! For a day or so, I thought, nah, this is too big for me, what would I do at a huge convention like that? Fortunately, the imbecility of that line of reasoning dawned on me in due time, and I decided to cut the waste matter and just go to FedCon.

Here I am, a year later, back from FedCon and a full-blown Trekkie myself. It was an extraordinary experience that I’ll try to describe in words below. This will probably be a long post, so if you have better things to do and just want to see pictures, here are the links to my photos from the convention and those from its host city, the beautiful Düsseldorf. For fellow Scott Bakula fans, I’ve compiled a special photo album, consisting exclusively of pictures of Scott at FedCon. OK, now that we’ve cleared that piece of space debris from our navigation path, set course for Trek heaven, maximum warp and engage!

For me, the highlight of the weekend was meeting and seeing Scott Bakula, who, I dare say, has become my favorite actor in the whole galaxy ever since I caught up with the rest of the world and watched Quantum Leap (which also happened about a year ago – I know, I’ve been living under a rock the whole time). I’m very happy about that, but I’m not going to say any more now because if I start going off on that particular topic right now, I’m not going to feel like talking about anything else afterwards. Besides, isn’t it always a treat when you can save the best for last?

So, FedCon! This year was a little special because they were at their 20th edition and everything was bigger and better than ever before. Nice timing on my part, you say?  I concur. The convention lasted for four days and was held at the Maritim Hotel in Düsseldorf, between April 28 and May 1.

Like any other first day, April 28 was a getting-used-to-my-environment day. I picked up my autograph vouchers (yay!) from the Info Booth and visited the Ferengi Market Place, which pretty much equals Trek heaven. I mean, you can find everything your heart desires in there, from uniforms and combadges, complete with all four Captain’s pips (for 40 eurobucks, no less; the combadge alone was 25 euros – call me crazy, but I had to have one ), to actor photos, with or without autographs, DVDs, books and a lot more. I got me an Enterprise-D coffee mug, which I now proudly use at work, a Voyager communicator and a smaller, absolutely beautiful TOS-style badge. What my heart desired and couldn’t acquire were these gorgeous paintings of the various Trek crews and ships. They were amazing, but a little pricy, and the Rules of Acquisition don’t state that you have to sell your plane ticket in order to get Star Trek artwork. I photographed them though, so at least I have that.

Trek artwork
There were also some great photos of Kirk and Spock with the actors’ autographs that I really liked, but again, a bit high on the latinum (that’s Ferengi currency, for people who are wondering), albeit completely justified. I mean, these guys are true legends, what can you expect? They also had these nice framed and autographed pictures of Scott, but I was in the fortunate position of being able to walk by donning a disinterested air. I was like, yeah, right, I can get my own, thank you very much. And I’ll actually get more for less money, because the ticket or whatever for the autograph session didn’t cost as much as those pictures (besides, the frames were kind of kitschy anyways, I wouldn’t put that in my house no matter whose picture was in it) and I’ll also get to meet him, which I think is something you can’t really put a price on.

What they didn’t have at the Ferengi Market Place and I would have really liked to get were those NX-01 baseball caps from Enterprise. I would have loved one of those! Oh well, maybe next time.

Right around the corner from the Ferengi Market Place were a few rooms with some fantastic model displays. The first one I saw was the R2D2 Builders, and I have to say I was impressed. I’m not that big on Star Wars, but when I walked into that room and saw those R2D2 models, my God, I was stunned! They looked so real, and with Darth Vader himself swinging by, it actually started to feel like Star Wars. By the way, Darth Vader was one of the best costumes at the convention. The guy wearing it also had the proper attitude, which only added to the impression that this was actually Star Wars, and not good old Planet Earth that we mostly take for granted. One of the things I love about Star Trek is that no matter how many exciting and exotic worlds they go to, Earth is still the one they get mushy about. It’s home, I guess you can’t beat that, can you?

R2D2 models
The Trek models and costumes were just as impressive. I got a close look at a DS9 runabout (the USS Ganges, I think), a tridimensional chess board, Locutus’s Borg headpiece and a few working LCARS displays. The Klingons, though, were the best! They looked so convincing it was hard to believe we were anywhere but in Star Trek. And I got to see a real bat’leth, no less!

 My first FedCon day ended on a high note with Garrett Wang’s panel and the opening ceremony. And it was a fitting beginning, too, because Garrett is so funny and such a great stage performer! I’ll say another thing about him that also stands for all the other actors I saw at this convention. They behaved like completely down-to-earth and regular people, there was no conceit or arrogance about them, they didn’t act like they were better than everyone else, and they seemed genuinely happy to share those four days with their fans. The atmosphere was truly fantastic. It really felt like we were all in it together, like we were on the same level, just sharing our common love of SciFi and having a four-day long party. A lot of people who get to see their favorite actors in person describe the experience as unreal or surreal. You know, I tried to feel that way, but it didn’t happen because everything felt very real and very authentic, and it was wonderful.
The actors I was most impressed with were:
  • Garrett Wang - as I said, very funny, great entertainer. We could have definitely gotten more from Ens. Kim, but what can you do?
  • Marina Sirtis - very warm and open with the fans, hilariously funny, fantastic on stage. I was dying to see her anyway. She’s one of my earliest and fondest memories related to Star Trek. She looked so beautiful as Deanna, I was stunned whenever she was on screen. If there was anybody I would have liked to look like when I’d grown up, it was her.
  • Dirk Benedict – I never watched any of his shows, but I was amazed by him as a person. To be thoroughly objective, which I am capable of, his panel was my favorite because, before taking questions, he just talked to us about stuff that really matters. You know, little things like steering away from the diseased tendency to live in the past or constantly plan for the future and just make the best of the present moment because that’s all you really have, finding joy in the midst of sorrow, trusting your intuition rather than other people’s unsolicited advice because you’re the only expert on your own life, and the fact that life is made of paradoxes – when you think you’re in the lowest and blackest of pits, that’s where the opportunities lie, that’s what creates perspective and allows you to grow. Neat guy, this fellow.
  • Richard Dean Anderson – I’m not a big MacGyver or Stargate fan, but I really liked him. Also very cool guy, not shy about goofing around and making us laugh. 

What? No Scott in this list? Weeell, keep your shirt on, Lieutenant!

The second day was definitely the most exciting for me because I got to do all that cool fan stuff like standing in lines for autographs, chit chatting with fellow Trekkies, staring in disbelief mixed with ecstasy at Alien, Predator and Darth Vader strolling around, and of course, actually meeting and talking to two of my favorite Trek actors. Just being there with all those people was wonderful because I knew this was a group where I definitely fit in, and I’m glad to say I took Dirk Benedict’s advice before he even gave it and enjoyed every minute of it.

The evening ended with the panels I was anticipating the most, Scott Bakula and Marina Sirtis. They both got standing ovations, although Scott’s lasted a little longer. Well, it goes without saying, he was a bit like royalty around that crowd. One of the funniest stories Marina told us was about Deanna’s most famous line, ‘Captain, he’s hiding something.’ So, they’re shooting a scene, she says it and Picard answers, ‘We know that, you stupid cow!’, then proceeds to hide behind Data. She gives him a look and says, ‘Well, there’s no point in hiding behind Data, you idiot, he’s not really an android and doesn’t have any superhuman powers!’. That and the fact that Captain Picard’s nickname around the set was ‘Old Baldie’. Until he was knighted by the Queen of England and they started calling him ‘Sir Old Baldie’. I’ll tell ya, I still think Jean-Luc is the coolest cat in Starfleet, but I won’t be able to help remembering this whenever I watch another TNG episode.

The third day was a little more laid back. I did a little sightseeing, then headed for the convention, to take part in another evening of tremendous fun. I attended the Costume Talent Contest, the show of the Saarlac Survivors (a Star Wars music band) and Scott Bakula’s second panel.

The Costume Talent Contest was another event I was particularly interested in. There were a few odd ones out, but most of the participants had amazing costumes and put on worthy performances. This was Paul McGillion’s turn to be funny. He kept collecting stuff that the contestants had accidentally dropped on stage, mainly plastic weapons of all sorts, and at one point he started throwing tribbles into the audience.

I also had two strange moments of my own. The first happened right at the beginning of the contest. I’m sitting there rather excited, waiting for the show to start, and this lady carrying a fairly sized teddy bear sits down next to me, looking eager to introduce me to the thing. She’s pointing it in my direction, wiggling its stuffed paws, probably expecting me to say hi, or something. If you remember Mr. Bean and his teddy bear, you’ll get a spot-on idea of what I was dealing with, only that was a character on TV and this was REALITY. Anyway, I smile politely to the lady and to her imaginary friend, ‘cause what else can you do in a situation like that, and then look around to see if there aren’t any other available seats on my row. Unfortunately, there weren’t. Well, she proved to be harmless in the end. She did make a point of criticizing my camera, though. She saw me taking a picture of whatever was happening on stage and asked me what the zoom on my camera was. It says 5.1 megapixels on it, so I told her that. She goes, ‘I hate digital cameras, they’re no good in low lighting. Do you know what the zoom was in the old ones?’ I say no, not that I care, and she says ’30! But no one knows that anymore!’ I was like, wow, yeah, that’s something, but digital still rules in my book, no matter what Crazy Teddy Bear Lady says. Jeez!

Another moment that had me wondering was about half an hour into the show, when one of the contestants presented a little video about how he used to have a weight problem that he’d finally managed to overcome. Then he himself came on stage, wearing a form-fitting outfit and looking quite well indeed. The crowd was cheering, of course, and a guy behind me shouts, ‘Take the shirt off!’ I’m thinking, why is a guy shouting that? If it had been a girl, I would have understood, but a guy? Well, that was… interesting. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, of course.

I also loved the performance of the Saarlac Survivors. They kicked off their show with Rammstein’s Ich Will and I knew right then and there that this was going to be good. Man, that was a treat! I’ll have to say Rammstein didn’t seem to be sitting very well with Crazy Teddy Bear Lady, though. I was having fun, rocking it out in my seat, you know, but she didn’t look too happy. Well, I was, very happy indeed.

Ceiling of the Maritim Hall during one of the shows
Then we had the privilege of spending another hour with Scott. Ensign Kim got a privilege of his own, too. Towards the end of the panel, a message appeared on the screen above the stage reading, ‘Please remain seated after the panel. There may be a surprise.’ A stir of enthusiastic ‘aaahs’ sweeps the room and Scott says, ‘Now I’m starting to feel a little nervous.’ He answers his last question, sings a few more lines from Somewhere In The Night, as promised, and then leaves the stage. We’re still on our feet, clapping and cheering madly, MC Garrett Wang starts chanting his name and gets us going as well, so he finally comes back out on stage, only it turns out he has a mission, too, of the kind only Captains can accomplish. He says, ‘Well, turns out I’m the surprise, and I’m here to promote Ensign Kim to Lieutenant.’ So, Captain Archer himself holds up the two pips to the crowd and then puts them on now Lieutenant Kim’s collar, thus laying to rest one of fans’ worst grievances over Voyager, which was that, in 7 years, Harry Kim never got promoted. That’s not a bad surprise, especially since it’s not every day that you get to witness a Trek promotion live.

The last day, as Garrett Wang said, was bittersweet. We’d had three wonderful days and now we’d eventually reached the one where it all ended. Oh well, I personally had the time of my life, what more can you ask for? On the last day, I saw Lance Henriksen and Dirk Benedict, had another hearty session of laughter with Garrett Wang and Robert Duncan McNeill (they’re both insane in the best possible way), paid a last visit to the Ferengi Market Place and bought my own combadge (I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t), then went back for the closing ceremony. Everyone said their goodbyes, Marina told us we were the best beeping fans in the world, and we all shared a last disco dance on Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. No, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Scott Bakula

I could probably write a fairly-sized book about how much I love Scott. The blame for that falls entirely on Quantum Leap. He was so great in it, that the existence of a time when I wasn’t his fan has been completely erased from my memory and I could probably listen to him talk about water polo (that’s Captain Archer’s favorite sport, one that I don’t find particularly intriguing) for an entire day. Meeting him was truly an unhoped-for privilege. I admit I sort of wished it for, like, a split second, but contact with green aliens from space seemed more likely, so it never even crossed my mind that it could happen. You see, this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me. It happens to those lucky bastards I’m so jealous of… er, I mean nice people who live in the States and always get to rub shoulders with their favorite stars at lavish conventions. Well, last week’s events have forced me to reconsider my theory of probable and improbable events. I’m still optimistic about contact with aliens (years of watching Star Trek will do that to you), but lavish conventions are apparently not that far from home either.

As a general comment, I was deeply impressed with how gracious and warm he was to fans. He seemed genuinely touched by our enthusiasm and happy to return the feeling. He was wonderful, and I am grateful that I had this chance to meet him, see him on stage and hear him sing live. And I’ll tell you something else: it’s so nice to meet somebody you admire and discover that they really are as great as you think they are. The antithesis of disappointment is a fabulous feeling. I love it!

And now, to the specifics! First up was the photo session. Yes, these people actually agreed to have their picture taken with us. For a fee, of course, but I still find it amazing. Don't ask where the resulting picture is, I ain't sharing that one. Besides, I don't really care about the picture per se, I just wanted to meet the man. Anyway, it all happened so fast, that I was a little taken by surprise. I can't say I was terribly nervous, just excited. Besides, queuing for these things with a bunch of happy, noisy people you feel in tune with although you don't know any of them is quite a lot of fun. We also got a visit from Alien & Predator while we were waiting, which was great because I really wanted to see the Xenomorph. Turns out he / it has quite a lovely personality in real life.

The alien to end all aliens
Another reason why I wasn’t that nervous was the look on people’s faces as they came out of the photo session room. They were so elated, I realized I would have been a fool to waste my time worrying instead of just living the present moment, which, believe me, I did.

Well, my turn for the photo is coming up. I enter the room, leave my bag, I’m fairly calm, or at least I think I am. I see that he’s willing to shake hands and everything, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll shake his hand!’. The guy managing the line says to me ‘Go, go, go!’, so I do. I say hi, shake his hand feeling like I’m being awarded the Nobel prize (very good handshake, by the way). All smiles, he looks down at me (he’s quite tall) and says, ‘How you doin’?’ in a tone of voice that completely threw me off guard. It gave me the distinct impression that he really was excited to meet ME... I thought, ‘Is this guy for real? How can anybody be this nice? And who am I anyway’ Of course, I froze and mumbled something incoherent, but he was great. He’s probably used to people reacting like that. Oh, and he is real, I hugged him, so I know for sure. Or, rather, he hugged me, for the picture. I honestly couldn’t believe that he was willing to put his arm around people like that, as if he’d been posing with old friends. I would have never dared to ask for a hug. I’m a stick-by-the-rules sort of person and the rules said no hugs and no personalized autographs. Well, what do you know, I got both! Amazing!

The autograph session went much better. I spent two or three hours in the line, but it was the most fun line I ever stood in. Part of me was thinking, ‘I’m in a line to get autographs from Scott Bakula. Am I dreaming?’, and the other part was madly savoring the moment because, obviously, it wasn’t at all a dream. That’s when I started feeling a little sorry that I had bought only one picture from the Ferengi Market Place. It was a nice one, granted, but other people had these huge posters and piles of pictures that they kept fluttering under my nose, which made me feel a little stupid. I had assumed that asking for more than one autograph would have come off as a bit cheeky, but apparently I was the only one with that idea in mind. Well, my worries were put to rest when a minuscule gentleman came out with a bunch of Quantum Leap photos, telling us that they were available at the entrance to the autograph room. From then on, I just enjoyed and discretely studied my company. This was a cheerful, chattering bunch that felt very comforting to be a part of. Each time the line went a few steps forward, which happened at relatively infrequent intervals, a wave of cheers came from behind me. I kept eyeing some of those huge posters from time to time, thinking, ‘Holy Mother of God, that thing is huge and I want it.’ I refrained however from molesting the owners and stealing their posters. I wouldn’t have wanted to infringe the rule stating that riots never break out at SciFi conventions. It’s interesting how fandom works, though. Somebody shows up with a bigger poster than yours and you suddenly feel a few inches shorter.

Well, I got into a few conversations and time passed. As I finally reached the door to the autograph room, I got a look at the pictures they had on sale. I wasn’t too happy with the QL ones, I took more flattering captures from the DVDs myself, but that’s that. I ended up buying one of those and another Enterprise publicity photo. I could have gone with the obvious and gotten the cute Archie & Porthos pic (I know one Beagle fan who will appreciate this), but I figured, since I can’t have a huge poster, I might as well have a huge close-up. Anyway, the line is moving forward.

I managed to snap this little nugget before one of the FedCon guys told me delicately that no photos were allowed. I had honestly been unaware of that. Had I known, I would have surely missed out on taking this lovely pic.
The guy in front of me is having his pictures signed and Scott says to him, ‘hey, sorry for waiting’, which again impressed me a great deal. I mean, he was doing us a favor and he was the one apologizing to us? I don’t imagine it was easy for him to sit there and write for hours, so I don’t know who should have apologized to whom. Besides, I’ve waited in line my whole life for stuff I could easily live without, like paying taxes, for instance. This was actually worth the wait, for a change.

My turn came, finally. I got another handshake and this time I actually managed to tell him that I was very glad I’d been given the chance to meet him. The sentence came out as fairly coherent although I was visibly nervous. I can’t beat myself up too much for that, really. This wasn’t exactly your regular encounter, and in addition to that, the lady next to him was eyeing me intensely for some reason. Well, I thanked him for the autographs and he said, ‘My pleasure’, sounding disarmingly warm and genuine. I’m a sucker for people who actually mean the nice things they say. Like everyone else before me, I walked out of there with a smile the size of a Texas and feeling slightly happier and luckier than if I'd been chosen to be on the next space shuttle.

That evening and the one after ended in a grand manner with Scott’s two panels. The conference hall was full, of course, and the standing ovations lengthy. There was such positive energy in that room that I wish I could have bottled it and taken it with me. Well, I suppose, in a way, that’s what cameras do, so it’s a good thing I managed to take such nice pictures (sticking it to Teddy Bear Lady). For me, the best part of the panels was the fact that I got to hear him sing. I absolutely love his voice and hearing him sing live was another secret wish of mine that miraculously got granted at this convention. In addition to the songs from QL, he also sang a few notes from the Enterprise theme song, which is a considerable source of unrest and controversy among Star Trek fans. I’m not particularly crazy about the song. I don’t hate it with a passion, but I don’t resonate very well with it either. However, I have to say that, coming from him, it sounded a whole lot better.

Well, it's been fun, but my story would have to end here. You could say this was a miracle that lasted for four days instead of three and you'd be right. I had an amazing time and I hope to do it again.

And now, with no more delays, I'll be going back to the serious business that goes on around here - screen captures, that is. Kicking off Season 2, I will be posting the captures from "Honeymoon Express" soon.

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