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ReGeneration Who: A celebration of the marginalized, famous, and forgotten in the Doctor Who universe

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Apr 12, 2018

Last month, diehard Doctor Who fans came together to celebrate the enduring sci-fi series at ReGeneration Who 4. The Maryland-based convention covers every aspect of Doctor Who including games, novels, comics, fan fiction, movies, and Big Finish audio dramas. ReGeneration Who packs the star power of mega conventions like DragonCon, yet its smaller size (approximately 2250 attendees) is perfect for fans who want to see their favorite stars without hours of queueing for panels and photo ops. The convention complied an impressive guest list with recent cast members Peter Capaldi (Twelfth Doctor) and Michelle Gomez (Missy/The Master) along with Classic fan favorites like Peter Davison (Fifth Doctor) and Colin Baker (Sixth Doctor).

ReGeneration Who — known as ReGen to attendees — is a new-ish fan-run Doctor Who convention, but it stands out from its predecessors with a woman at the helm. ReGen’s co-founder and showrunner is Oni Durant, a marketing professional and the founder/CEO of Onezumi Events. Oni’s journey toward founding her own conventions started years ago she was an internet-based artist. After hearing how her work changed a fan’s life, she made it her mission to create inclusive, educational events that truly put the fans first.

“Fandoms save lives. Art saves lives.” – Oni Durant

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Kara Dennison (l) and Oni Durant (r) share a moment the mainstage

Image Credit: Tai Gooden 

Oni's motto of kindness and inclusion permeated throughout the event, and was best seen during an LGBTQ meetup hosted by writer Jennifer DiGiacomo. The Saturday night panel discussed how Doctor Who has positively affected members of their community. DiGiacomo, a bisexual trans woman, shared her story about being a Doctor Who fan in the '70s during a time when she was trying to find her identity. The concept of regeneration spoke to her — a similar sentiment expressed by fellow Doctor Who fan and FANGRRLS writer Riley Silverman –— and she wanted to create an LGBTQ panel for this year’s ReGeneration Who. She revealed her transition at a previous ReGen and used the pictures from the con to heal her relationship with her estranged parents. She said Doctor Who’s normalization of LGBTQ characters makes her feel like the show has her back.

“You get a new body but you are still you.” – Jennifer DiGiacomo

Jennifer’s candid nature encouraged others to stand up and talk about what the show means to them. One attendee who identified as a gay man said Bill Potts helped him understand the importance of representation. A trans man paralleled his journey toward being accepted by family with Clara’s reaction to the Eleventh Doctor’s regeneration. Clara was unhappy with this new person who still claimed to be the Doctor, and asked Madame Vastra if there was any way to bring the old Doctor back. Madame Vastra’s response was that he was showing her his authentic self and she should consider herself fortunate to be a part of this new journey. He said it helped him understand how it could be difficult for his inner circle to accept him, but they, like Clara, came to stand by his side.

One of the most striking (and tear-inducing) moments came from a young trans male attendee. He said his parents often laughed at his preferred pronoun and he was called a lesbian at school. But Doctor Who was his refuge from the world and this panel made him feel validated by his fandom community. The room gave him lots of love and support on his journey, encouraging him to continue his path toward a life and identity that felt authentic. It was the type of panel that makes Oni smile.

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Jennifer DiGiacomo chats with the audience

Image Credit: Tai Gooden 

Two of Oni's closest creative partners-in-crime are also women — a rare occurrence in a largely male-dominated arena. Anime writer Kara Dennison serves as ReGeneration Who’s social media community manager and frequently moderates panels, including Peter Capaldi’s first interview since leaving Doctor Who at this year’s event. Angela Pritchett rounds out the convention’s formidable trio as the head of press, making sure diverse outlets/writers are invited to cover the convention and also participating in the con’s infamous Dave Ross Variety Hour as a ukulele player. The ladies work alongside a solid staff and programming expert Craig Cobalt to create a memorable experience for attendees.

Each year, ReGeneration Who celebrates the classic and modern eras of the series via fan panels. This year featured several panels focusing on the women of Doctor Who in all capacities. Actress Pearl Mackie was a scheduled guest for ReGeneration Who 4 but was unable to attend due to her role in the British play Birthday Party. But fans of Bill Potts still came together to celebrate her story arc. The “From Serving Chips to World War I: The Bill Potts Panel” featured all women (myself included) and we discussed her importance as a Black lesbian character, the episodes in which she shone as a companion, and her messy departure from the series.

Panelists Alyssa Franke of Whovian Feminism and Reality Bomb podcast co-producer Joy Piedmont both looked forward to seeing a fresh set of eyes in the TARDIS. Joy loved Clara, but she wanted to see a traveler with a sense of wonder. Alyssa noted that our perception of the Doctor changes depending on the companion and Pearl Mackie’s decision to not watch Doctor Who helped her keep the character unique and fresh. As a queer woman, Alyssa wanted to see Bill’s romantic relationships be a defining part of her life without overwhelming the story or reducing queer people to the “lesson of the week." Moderator and writer Amanda Poldark and I looked forward to a Doctor/companion relationship that had a fun dynamic while appropriately handling race issues.

“There’s a difference between a person traveling the universe because they are experienced with it and they want that adventure and are seeking thrills as opposed to a person who is like “What?! It’s bigger on the inside.” — Joy Piedmont

Everyone agreed that the Monk episodes ("Extremis," "The Pyramid at the End of the World," "Lie of the Land") were some of the worst Season 10 episodes, but Joy said “Lie of the Land” was a good storyline for Bill. Her imagined relationship with her mother and how it led to her saving the world gave the character agency and power. Alyssa agreed, saying Mackie portrayed quiet yet profound grief with fervor. Alyssa also thought "Thin Ice" was a strong Bill episode because she comes to terms with who the Doctor is and how his morality is skewed due to his lifestyle.

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Panelists Joy Piedmont, Alyssa Franke, Tai Gooden, and Amanda Rae Prescott

Image Credit: Chip Sudderth

My vote went toward “Eaters of Light” because it gave Bill a chance to be separated from the Doctor and have profound conversation with the young, fearful soldiers who had abandoned their posts. The episode was written by Rona Munroe, a Classic Who female writer, and showed Bill talking with the men about sexuality, fear, and destiny. Bill was the galvanizing force which helped them find the will to fight again. She had a chance to have her rousing monologue and tap into her Doctorish side without trying to take the Doctor’s place. Bill challenged the Doctor by stopping him from sacrificing his life and making sure the soldiers and people of the land had the agency they deserved to stop evil forces.

Amanda, along with several audience members, said "Knock Knock" showed off the grandfather/granddaughter aspect of their relationship. Bill was intuitive and led others to make wise choices. The conversation soon shifted to the season finale two-parter “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls” with most of the room expressing disappointment in Bill’s farewell. Alyssa said Bill was sidelined due to the Twelfth Doctor’s impending departure and the focus of the story being between The Doctor/Master/Missy. Joy agreed and pointed out how Bill could have been interchanged with any random person.

I thought Bill’s choice between traveling with Heather and going back home was uninformed because she didn’t know the Doctor could regenerate. And Bill was denied her right to express her anger and frustration over becoming a Cyberman, which is a problematic situation because Black women are typically not given the space to parse through emotions because of dehumanizing stereotypes.

“You can’t treat a woman of color the same way you would treat a White character.” — Amanda Rae Prescott

Bill never got any reconciliation in the Christmas special because it wasn’t actually Bill with the Doctor. She was used as a vehicle to convince him to regenerate once again, leaving the real Bill traveling and believing the Doctor died in his TARDIS. But the audience hoped she was having wonderful adventures with a woman she only knew for five minutes.

One audience member asked what we would have liked to seen if Bill had gotten more time on the show. Joy wanted to see more stories like “Eaters of Light” where Bill got a chance to go off on her own and develop as a person who is helping saving the universe. Alyssa wanted a better relationship developed between Bill and Heather before she left to travel with her, but she would have loved to see Bill and Thirteen together. She also wanted a Bill-centric season arc similar to what Rose got during season one. As a period drama nerd, Amanda wanted more period episodes like “Thin Ice.”

Overall, the panel was a celebration of a highly popular character. Audience members shared their thoughts about how smart, capable, and fun Bill was and how she truly represented a character type we don’t get to see much on TV — a Black girl nerd.

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Martha Jones panelists together for a photo opp

Image Credit: Tai Gooden

ReGeneration Who also celebrated the modern Who companion who is often forgotten — Dr. Martha Jones. The companion made her debut in 2007 after the departure of Rose Tyler. For many new viewers, Rose was their first companion and a relatable person as a working-class teenage girl, and the relationship between Rose and the Tenth Doctor inspired fanfiction around the world. So, when Martha came on as a companion, much of the fandom refused to give her a chance. She was called everything from an “uppity Negro” on discussion boards to “replacement Rose” by critics. But the “Martha Jones is EXCELLENT” panel was put together by ukulele player and mega Martha fan Cat Smith to celebrate a companion who combined intelligence, inquisitiveness, bravery, and a solid sense of self-worth. The panel room was packed as Cat, Amanda-Rae Prescott, and myself (as moderator) spent an hour celebrating all things Martha-related.

Cat wasn’t impressed with the Tenth Doctor right away, but Martha immediately captured her attention. She loves the underdog and felt like Martha got a bad deal from the writers despite being a brilliant and noble companion. She encourages new Whovians to look past the unrequited love theme and to see the deeper elements of her character that made her incredible. Amanda started cosplaying the character in 2010 and was excited to see a companion who was smart and looked like her.

I threw several questions toward the panelists and opened the floor for the audience to interject their thoughts. Like any season of Doctor Who, Martha’s run had its ups and downs, but there were several episodes in which Martha’s performance and characterization were strong. Cat loved Martha in “The Doctor’s Daughter,” even though she wasstuck in the B-plot. Martha took the time to care for one of the Hath creatures and even made efforts to communicate with them. Cat thought her storyline was more interesting than the drama with Jenny.

Amanda didn’t like the plot in “Daleks in Manhattan,” but she appreciated Martha’s interactions with other characters. Her empathetic nature and ability to deduce the Dalek’s plan proved why she deserved to be a companion. I loved “Smith and Jones” because of Martha and Ten’s excellent chemistry. She immediately showed the personality traits that fans admire in a companion. She was intrigued by supernatural forces and willing to explore a dangerous situation, which captured Ten’s attention. Martha also established herself as a woman with a firm sense of self and a clear path toward success. She was pursuing her dream to become a doctor and didn’t feel the need to escape her life. For her, The Doctor wasn’t a savior, but rather an interesting distraction during a busy phase.

The audience chimed in with several of their favorite Martha stories, including “Family of Blood,” “42,” “Gridlock,” and “The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords.” Everyone celebrated how Martha rarely played the victim and took charge to become a hero in her own right. Her return to the Whoniverse in Torchwood was praised, showing her growth as a medical professional and how her time in the TARDIS had made her even more kickass.

The Season 3 finale episodes opened up a conversation about Martha’s time on her own and her exit from the series. One audience member said her year walking the Earth must have been a traumatic time because she saw so much death and destruction. She was also feeling the weight of her family’s imprisonment and had time to reevaluate her relationship with the Doctor. Her exit was lauded as the best in modern Doctor Who because she made a choice to leave. For a companion who was often mistreated, it was satisfying to see her exit under her own volition and with so much agency. She realized it was unhealthy to keep subjecting herself to this relationship. Martha was also family-oriented and knew her loved ones had been deeply affected by their imprisonment. It was an act of self-preservation and selflessness as she told the Doctor that she WAS good!

Martha’s mysterious year walking the Earth was a missed TV opportunity, but it wasn’t the only thing we wanted to see Martha do on Doctor Who. Amanda brought up a set of children’s books featuring Martha and said there were so many great adventures with her using medical knowledge across time and space. She wanted to see those stories come to life. While I would be thrilled with more Martha via Big Finish, Cat wanted a full spinoff of Martha similar to Sarah Jane Adventures.

In the end, one audience member summed up Martha perfectly: “She really defines herself outside of the Doctor. She always introduces herself as Martha and a doctor in her own right. She made things happen instead of things happening to her.”

All hail Dr. Martha Jones — the Doctor’s doctor, UNIT badass, and the subject of a Cat Smith penned song.

Video Credit: Tai Gooden

ReGeneration Who also celebrated women behind the camera in the show’s Classic era. Alyssa Franke started off the conversation by diving into Fifth Doctor story “Enlightenment,” one of few Doctor Who stories to be written and directed by women. Director Fiona Cumming and writer Barbara Clegg were both lauded for their work on creating a menacing and epic episode. It is considered one of the strongest works of the Classic era. Cummings also worked on the Fifth Doctor’s debut episode “Castrolava” after working as a Doctor Who production assistant during the show’s earlier years. Clegg was the first woman to write for the show and her work was recently featured in a Big Finish story entitled “The Elite.”

Women often face increased scrutiny and the biased thought that they can’t handle stories with high action sequences. Patty Russell was an exception to this rule, directing several episodes including “Horror Fang Rock” and “Pyramids of Mars” during the Fourth Doctor era. She was the first woman to direct Doctor Who in 1966 — only three years after (female) producer Verity Lambert launched the program. Russell spoke about actor Tom Baker’s difficult attitude on set, yet she managed to create stunning visuals to accompany great character stories. Panelist Nathan Skreslet said Russell was hired by four different producers and delivered quality content each time.

All three panelists expressed appreciation for “Underwater Menace.” The Second Doctor serial is half missing, but what still exists showcases the work of Julia Smith. The textures and intricate details used to make the underwater scenes were impressive for late 1960s television. It is intense, uncomfortable, and bizarre — all qualities of an interesting Doctor Who episode. Unfortunately, much of the early women's work has been lost because of missing/destroyed episodes.

These women’s contributions laid the framework for modern day directors like Rachel Talalay, who recently directed several Twelfth Doctor episodes. Talalay was a guest at ReGen and spoke about her experience as a creative. Alyssa had previously interviewed her and said she had to come to Doctor Who with an extensive resume to even be considered for the job. This was confirmed during the “From Conception to Reality” panel, when Talalay and two male creatives were asked about their best moment while working with the show. The men had fond stories centered around relationships and creativity, but Talalay said her best moment was actually getting the chance to become a part of Doctor Who history. Women have been key elements in the show, but there are still massive strides to be made with more gender and race inclusion.

Big-name guests at conventions are a major draw for many attendees, but it is the fan panels celebrating marginalized groups, impactful characters, and the often-forgotten creative minds behind Doctor Who that encourages fans to continue to come back. ReGeneration Who’s intentional focus on creating a convention that shows the diversity in fandom makes it feel like the perfect space for ALL Whovians. And, with a fifth event in the works, ReGeneration Who will keep on rocking for many years to come.