Friday, 12 July 2013

2013 Melbourne Comic Con

Aradhna flashes a post-Shatner grin at Melbourne's Comic Con held this past weekend at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton. Its timing was serendipitous, as Aradhna and I recently watched the remastered season one of the original Star Trek TV series and are now pacing ourselves through season two. A running joke between my wife and I has been Aradhna's inability to discern Star Wars references from Star Trek. After seeing and loving Star Trek Into Darkness I felt she should be similarly exposed to the original TV series and ordered the DVDs from Amazon. She's far from full-on geekhood but she's now well-versed in Roddenberry's creation and has an unabashed crush on mid-'60s-era Captain Kirk.

Note large 'NO PHOTOGRAPHY' sign. Hence, this blurry quickie.
Which is kind of weird.

The passage of time didn't lessen our excitement at meeting William Shatner, a man whose rise to fame coincided with my birth in 1965 and has therefore been as familiar a face to me as LBJ or Mickey Mantle or Cap'n Crunch. Growing up in the NYC area before videos and DVDs made amassing old TV series' the adult equivalent of collecting Matchbox cars meant being exposed to Star Trek repeats on Channel 11 at every imaginable hour, any day of the week. (Though I most fondly remember it following 'The Odd Couple' and 'The Honeymooners' on weekdays at midnight). I loved Shatner as Denny Crane on 'Boston Legal' as well, but Captain Kirk and his crew on the Enterprise is as iconic as it gets in American pop culture. Shatner once famously mocked 'Trekkies' in a mid-'80s 'Saturday Night Live' sketch (pleading with them to "Get a life!") but he's obviously made peace with the adoration and longevity of a character he played for only three years. Leonard Nimoy made a cameo as an advice-giving Mr Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness and I hope Shatner gets a similar, well-placed cameo in the third installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise. JJ Abrams has expressed a desire to do so. At 82 years and counting, Shatner's time in our galaxy is limited.

Watching the original series through old-man-eyes makes me appreciate two things: The truly breathtaking Nichelle Nichols (Lt Uhura) and the camaraderie of Shatner, Nimoy, Nichols, the late DeForest Kelley (Bones McCoy) and the late James Doohan (Scotty). George Takei (Mr Sulu) is today a beloved 'out' Hollywood celebrity and social media star but it's still a kick to see him as ultra-serious Sulu. Planet shots and terrains are much improved by the 2007 remastering but the bulk of the show's special effects remain rudimentary.
Outside the 19th-century Royal Exhibition Building.

DVD extras include interviews with cast and crew and just about everyone mentions the show's low budget and tight production deadlines, but Star Trek's ultimate ascension to cult classic didn't depend on special effects. Credit for that goes to intriguing stories, clever acting and a radically multi-racial cast that was beamed into homes at a time when US television was as White Bread as Australia's is today.

As this was my first ever Comic Con I cajoled Aradhna into arriving before noon, thus giving us a chance to beat what I imagined would be later-arriving Sunday crowds. The Royal Exhibition Building has vast corridors -- it was built in 1880 at the height of Melbourne's gold rush era -- but its bottom floor was nonetheless packed with booths and fans in every variety of superhero/fantasy attire. Mimicking supermarkets that stock milk deep within the bowels of their stores, the organisers of Comic Con turned locating the booth that sold tokens for autographs and/or photos into a first-person shooter video game: Each time we were told by an inappropriately cheerful Comic Con staff we couldn't use a stairwell to get upstairs I imagined lowering a sawed-off shotgun and earning a fistful of points with a squeeze of the trigger.

Inside Comic Con 2013.

Like rats through a geek-filled maze we came upon an unguarded stairwell and were rewarded with a much less crowded top level. Booths for photos were on one side, autographs the other. In a far corner absent any signage sat our quarry, the elusive token booth.

Truth in advertising.
Absent the power of flight we navigated the upstairs labyrinth and eventually came to autograph tables. Shatner sat at the first one, a stern guard standing behind him with eyes peeled for cameras. Two assistants processed a half dozen or so people waiting beside Shatner's table, while at least 100 people were lined up for Ron Perlman two tables to the left. Huh? You'd need to understand a bit about 'bikie culture' in this country to comprehend the scenario, but it's enough to know that playing the president of a motorcycle club on 'Sons of Anarchy' makes Perlman a serious TV star in Australia. I'd doubt the bulk of middle-aged men and women waiting for his autograph knew anything about 2004's 'Hellboy', the first of Perlman's collaborations with sci-fi/horror director Guillermo del Toro, or its followup in 2008. Or about his time as the Beast on a Beauty and the Beast TV show back in the '80s. No, his role as tattooed badass Clay Morrow on Sons of Anarchy qualifies him as a role model in many parts of country Victoria, where many of those in line had no doubt traveled from.

To quote George Takei: Oh. My.
But I digress.

There was no wait at all to buy tokens (they were actually printed tickets) to get Shatner's autograph. On the opposite upstairs area several hundred men and women waited in lines at four empty photo booths. Obviously, many had arrived before doors opened at 9:00 am to ensure they'd get a photo with Shatner, Perlman, Tia Carrere (the hot Asian girl in 'Wayne's World') and a bunch of others whose publicity photos I didn't recognise. That may have also explained the lack of line at Shatner's autograph table, as he'd already been there an hour and was down to his last few minutes.

Aradhna and I walked right up, presented our tokens to the assistants, grabbed two classic Captain Kirk 8x10s and presented them to a man holding a Sharpie whose spoken-word version of 'Mr Tambourine Man' remains forever stuck in my head like a stray bullet. My autographed photo was for a friend in the UK so he double-checked the spelling as we chit-chatted about nothing. Aradhna had him sign 'To Aradhna and Joe' and Shatner busted her on the incongruity of our names. All these years together and that was the first time anyone's ever done that. At the time it was funny. The very definition of star-struck.

And that was our encounter. We stood beside an upper floor balcony afterwards and watched a growing throng of superheroes, comic book characters and scantily clad women with high IQs snake past booths below. Meeting Shatner had drawn us to Comic Con, but even with our main mission accomplished we were both enjoying the scene more than we expected. 
Homemade Iron Man and I-don't-know-what.
Tokens were $50 apiece for Shatner's autograph and I of course wondered afterwards if it was worth it. Put simply, it was. The odds of William Shatner appearing in Melbourne at the exact time I'm watching Star Trek for the first time in 30 years and Aradhna is becoming a Trekkie are incalculable. Our friend in the UK will be thrilled to receive an 8x10 of Captain Kirk autographed by the man himself and Aradhna's already requested our photo be framed and hung in a place of prominence. Besides the celebrity, and his iconic Kirk, I admire Shatner's resilience, and the fact he was in Australia for what must be his billionth Comic Con. I hope he earned a nice packet for doing Melbourne's.

We wandered around downstairs a bit, gawking at people's outfits and keeping our eyes peeled for original Star Trek merchandise. I bought a light-blue button with the word 'Fascinating' on it from Austrek, "the oldest Star Trek fan club in Australia, and the second oldest Star Trek fan club in the world." Spoke with 'Captain Peter', Austrek's president, about growing up a Star Trek fan in Australia, a country with zero homegrown sci-fi heritage. Aradhna had several Star Fleet pins to choose from before buying a gold-plated one and fastening it to her coat. We eventually left Comic Con, passing a massive line of people waiting to buy tickets at the door, and wandered through a chilly CBD before grabbing a train back to Balaclava. We'd gotten our geek on ... and loved it.

Somewhere, George Lucas feels the force telling him, "You're missing out on royalty payments."

Sad to say I'd have bought every one if I'd been there alone.

We'd seen 'Man of Steel' the night before, though I doubt Aradhna required a reminder.

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