Whether it was the will of the Force or not, a day or so before Dragoncon, the "Nooo" Blu-Ray controversy erupted across the internet. I'm sure everyone privy to this can understand my growing trepidation.
In Atlanta, GA, Dragoncon takes place every Labor Day weekend. The biggest con in the Southeast, it is a unique four day adventure, a sublime descent into perpetual fandom. Awesome celebrities, brilliant costumes, fascinating panels, homemade robots, author readings, avant garde musicians, wallet-breaking dealer rooms, and about sixty thousand fans make up the spine of the convention.
Words always abandon me when it comes to capturing the true essence of Dragoncon. Perhaps a friend summed it up best when he described it as Halloween, Christmas, and New Year's Eve, all rolled into one. It is a time of ecstatic, fan-driven revelry, because in this case, the geeks truly inherit the Earth. For four days anyway.
So naturally I was concerned. As a Star Wars fan, I didn't want my highly-anticipated weekend to dissolve into a bitch-and-moan fest about new changes to the "holy trilogy" and the ruined childhoods that inevitably followed. Fandom had just turned a corner, too, right before lapsing back into its all too familiar, bipolar habits.
Still, I needn't have worried. After getting my con badge in record time thanks to a co-worker in line (good job, Todd) and a new scanning system, I made my way from the Sheraton down to the Hilton. Already, costumed characters were deftly navigating increasingly crowded sidewalks with the practiced ease of veteran con-goers. There was a tangible excitement growing in the air, as though the city itself were anxiously waiting for the geek-inspired madness to finally erupt.
Appropriately, I saw an astromech droid beeping and whirring in the middle of a crowd of excited families the moment I stepped out of the Atlanta heat and into the merciful cool of the Hilton lobby. And not just any astromech droid, but the astromech droid. A fully-functioning, lovingly-crafted R2-D2 was winning considerable attention, with male and female, young and old, all eagerly posing to have their picture taken with him.
This is Star Wars, I thought to myself, breathing a silent sigh of relief. No angry internet posts, no ponderous petitions, no grumbling and complaining. No matter their age, everyone was six years old again and grinning from ear to ear.
This was the real magic of the saga, no matter how lost in the shuffle it might get sometimes. The moment was brilliant in its genuiness and sincerity, and as fresh and spontaneous as it was that long ago summer of 1977. And I then knew, if I didn't already, that this power as intangible as the Force itself was never going away, despite all the anonymous legions of critics and second-guessers.
I have to admit, as I lined up for my own photo of R2, I had a nostalgic Fanboys moment, one that Dragoncon always promised and rarely failed to deliver.
We're home, boys.
Not too surprisingly, when I arrived with my crew the next day, my second panel was a Star Wars one in the Hyatt. And what a Wars panel to jumpstart the weekend with, featuring the likes of the gargantuan Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in four of the films; Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano in the Clone Wars; and Tom Kane, who famously voices Yoda but also a plethora of others. As usual, they were all as talented, gracious, and funny as any fan could have asked for.
Unfortunately, I was a tad late, having yet to find my con-footing in the now five hotels that play host to the event. As a ten year veteran, I have very little excuse on that front, no matter the width and breadth of the endless ballrooms and conference suites begging to be investigated. I snagged a decent seat, though I was proud to see there was barely standing room before it was all over. As I said, the Wars just aren't going away.
It was also gratifying to hear Tom and Ashley saying early on that they personally loved all the films, and they were all Star Wars. Even better was the resounding applause this elicited from the Force-inspired audience. It nicely cleansed the palate after days of online moaning over the Blu-Ray edition.
Early on, Ashley expressed my own feelings again, remarking how great the saga was going to be once the Clone Wars were complete, and the whole canon could be watched in its entirety. This right before a little kid bravely stepped up to the microphone and asked her how dirty Ahsoka got while fighting those "lizards" in the season three finale.
I should point out another boy stepped up to the plate not long after to make sure they knew the correct species name was "Trandoshan." Perhaps another Leland Chee of the Holocron fame in the making?
Anyway, I should also point out how great these actors were with the real fans inheriting the Force, namely the kids. It must have been awesome to be in the same room with Ahsoka, Yoda, and Chewbacca at such a young age. My mind probably would have overheated like an excited radiator. Quite frankly, it still did, especially when Tom Kane broke out the Yoda voice, a voice poignantly recognizable and pregnant with mythic resonance.
Ashley assured the first boy that her on-screen persona did indeed get "very" dirty during her ordeal, answering with that sweet sincerity that could be her tradework. Since Chewbacca made his animated debut in those episodes, Tom assured the audience that at least she didn't need as much shampoo as her Wookiee companion, to which the iconic Peter Mayhew agreed. "You should see the water bill."
After deftly fielding the inevitable "How does Ahsoka die?" question, Ashley was really put on the spot when a little girl asked her who Anakin cared the most about, Ahsoka or R2-D2. Ashley admitted to being biased but, as it turns out, her own personal favorite is R2. Tom sensibly added that surely Anakin has a "backup for R2 on a harddrive somewhere."
Ashley also expressed interest in another team-up between Ahsoka and Barriss Offee, clearly enjoying that dynamic as much as the fans.
But it was all fun. One of the highlights of panel was Ashley harkening back to another acting job, that of Jan Brady in The Brady Bunch television movie. She expertly and colorfully paraphrased that character's catchphrase: "Yoda, Yoda, Yoda!"
Speaking of the little green master, Tom admitted a lot of the work he's done with the character has come from his own insight and understanding. After all, he's done twenty times more Yoda than Frank Oz now, much of which has no frame of reference or template at all.
He also spoke of his other characters, including the Narrator voice which gives the classic vibe of an old-time radio announcer before every episode. While he missed the opening crawl in the Clone Wars movie, he thought it worked very well on television, which is true enough.
Then he proclaimed the role of the Narrator as "small but very important," giving the same great inflection that the announcer does, much to the delight of the audience.
His other most well-known character is of course Yularin, who Tom is very interested in, particularly his rise to the admiral we see in the Death Star. "As a fan, I want to know," Tom remarked, right as an ice cream truck or something started backing up next to the exit door I was camped out by.
Over the dull blare of the noise, I did notice that Tom used the word "mindful" to describe his awareness of all the talented people who can do Yoda's voice, so key points for that.
By the time the truck outside had apparently slid into a parking place, Ashley recounted a story about her nieces and nephews. With her impressive Star Wars credentials, it's become an issue over who gets to sit next to her at dinner, which she described as providing some nice bonding moments.
Seriously, can you imagine being a kid and having Ahsoka for an aunt?
Anyway, she also admitted to having showrunner Dave Filoni on speed-dial to ensure she doesn't give any secrets away when she's being needled for questions, which probably isn't a bad idea.
After another round of questions regarding everyone's favorite Clone Wars episodes, the topic invariably turned to the end of season three. Peter Mayhew spoke a little about his original stint on Star Wars, emphasizing that it was so important that it was "his own eyes seen on screen." Given the furry Wookiee costume, that was about all he had to work with.
Everyone was happy to learn Peter actually went to Skywalker Ranch to ensure the animators got the look and walk of Chewbacca just perfect. "It was a labor of love to get the hair and everything right," he said. It was indeed and, as always, it showed on screen.
Arguably the best moment came when a fan asked the three stars who they thought shot first in the cantina, Han Solo or Greedo. Tom sided with Han, Ashely opted out, but Peter had the best reply to that burning question which has kept fanboys up at night for the past fourteen years.
"I didn't see," he deadpanned, thinking back to that long ago cantina. "I was too busy finishing my drink."
Of course, no Dragoncon would be complete without a visit to the Hall of Fame, that huge set of banquet rooms on the upper floor of the Hilton that is lined with row after row of tables. Stationed behind said tables are all the sci-fi and fantasy celebrities hosted by the con, with autograph hounds and picture seekers alike continuously winding around them.
The Hall of Fame is where I'd first seen David Prowse, the original Darth Vader, and met the always awesome Ray Park, who portrayed the high-kicking, devil-faced Darth Maul. It was a good scene for Darths, though no Sith Lords were on my agenda that day. First up was a bounty hunter. With deference to his son Boba, perhaps the bounty hunter.
While boasting no helmeted armor that afternoon, Jango Fett was nonetheless towards the back of the hall, live and in person.
"Hi, I'm Paul," I cleverly said, stepping up to the table with hand extended. Already standing, the New Zealand-born Temuera Morrison gave me an appropriately strong handshake, as one might expect from the man who played one of the baddest bounty hunters in the galaxy. "Nice to meet you, Paul."
It didn't surprise me to learn later on that Morrison was in fact the voice of Air New Zealand. The guy has a really great accent, on-screen and in-person. Of course, I can't recall a lot of the conversation, because one does get a little star-struck at these things. The first time I met Peter Mayhew, I had an almost five minute conversation with him. While I'm told I acquitted myself quite well, to this day I can barely remember a word.
I do recall Morrison and I briefly chatting about Daniel Logan, who of course played his son in the film. While I didn't meet him, I did see him at a panel last year. Funny and gregarious, Daniel regaled us with behind-the-scenes comedy, including the times he had to pull a fully-costumed Morrison out of the Lazy-Boy chair in his room because he couldn't stand up.
All the armored duds may be very impressive onscreen, but one good push in reality and even Vader would be on his back like a helpless turtle.
"It's great that both of you have made an appearance here," I remarked, as I picked out a nifty photo for an autograph.
"Daniel's a great kid," Morrison acknowledged, signing the pic with gusto.
"Yeah, if only we could bring him out of his shell," I joked, gratefully getting my autograph.
Of course, I had something for him, too. As a Star Wars scholar and essayist extraordinaire (or so I tell myself), I had made a point to compose a few pages on the characters brought to life by several of the actors in attendance. Slipping him a folder, I watched him flip through my Jango Fett analysis ("Father of the Hunt" for the curious, which will inevitably debut somewhere).
"Thanks," Morrison said with a quick, Jango-esque nod. "I need you guys to keep me informed about all this. You all know more about him than I do."
Next stop in the Hall of Fame was down in the left hand corner of the busy room, with a couple of tables reserved for the voice cast of the Clone Wars. As the Force would have it, both Ahsoka and Yoda were there, and I managed to grab a moment with the latter at a rare time when the crowds were down.
The great Tom Kane was sitting there, looking as wise and alert as the master he brings to life every week. He was also wearing a fantastic baseball jersey shirt with one simple word inscribed across it: Jedi.
After getting the requisite introductions out of the way, I firmly shook his hand. "You know, the Clone Wars cast is not simply talented," I began, making sure I had his eye, "But you guys are some of the best ambassadors Star Wars fans could hope for."
He accepted the compliment graciously, and I think he could tell I meant it. I would tell Ashley the same thing, earnestly trying to convey just how much their contributions to Star Wars have been appreciated, not to mention their accessibility with the fans.
We talked for a few minutes, the conversation soon turning back into what the Wars meant to us. As he'd said earlier, the often derided prequels were as much Star Wars to him as the originals, and I obviously feel the same way. As do most of us, I think.
"And now with the Clone Wars, we're on our third generation of fans," I pointed out, selecting a groovy Yoda pic for him to sign. "I sometimes feel I was the perfect age for the original trilogy, and the perfect age for the prequels."
Taking my photo, I mentioned how The Phantom Menace had debuted during the summer I was starting my last year of college. As an English major, I'd spent years learning how to analyze stories and interpret poetry and, while not the most marketable skill, it magnified my appreciation of George Lucas and Star Wars a hundredfold.
Never one to pass up a good segue, I likewise presented him with an essay of mine on the first episode of the animated series, Ambush. It analyzed Yoda's adventure with some allusions to Eastern philosophy, and here's hoping he enjoys it. Called "How a Jedi Makes War," it will hopefully appear as a Forcecast editorial in the next month or so.
Tom thanked me for it and we shook hands again. He also whipped out his Yoda voice on me with the effortless ease of a master, but I was so geeked out I have no idea what he actually said.
By this time, the crowd around Ashley a table over was finally thinning. I'd been fortunate enough to meet her the year before but, predictably, I had another essay in my bookbag. This one can be read online, as it chronicled the season two episode Lightsaber Lost.
I'd remarked to her last time how much I'd enjoyed it. I recall she'd gotten a telling sparkle in her eye then, saying, "Wait till you see some of the episodes next season." Now I know that was inspired by the landmark Mortis trilogy, her favorite.
When I finally stepped up to the table, Ashley was readying to leave. "I'm already late for an interview," she explained, kindly offering a quick autograph.
Since I wanted a moment to actually talk to her, I elected to let a few kids see her instead. It's amazing, but even in a hurry, she was all attentive and generous with her time.
I used my own time wisely until she said she was scheduled to come back. After grabbing something to eat in the food court, I wondered back to the Hilton. Her Universe, Ashley's sci-fi fashion line for women, had set up shop outside the Hall of Fame. After checking out the unique design of the shirts, I went back in and stole a moment with Peter Mayhew.
"I already have your autograph, but I just wanted to tell you how moving Chewbacca's return was in the Clone Wars," I told him, adding, "I didn't expect it to have such emotional resonance for me."
With his Wookiee-like mane of graying hair, Peter smiled. "It was done right." We talked a few moments and then I got to shake his hand, too. Incidentally, if any of you out there haven't shaken Peter's hand, it's quite an experience. It swallowed my own, easily twice it's size. Just the way it should be.
When Ashley came back around, I remembered her interview with the Force.net correspondent that showed up online last con.
"So was it with Mandy B?" I asked, establishing a little in-fandom knowledge. The ever sweet and lovely Ashley shook her head. "Nope, I don't have anything lined up with Mandy this year."
To be honest, I wanted to talk to Ashley in particular. Last year, I was once again readying myself to set sail on the sometimes turbulent seas of Star Wars fandom. After the epic Revenge of the Sith, my energy and enthusiasm for the Wars was admittedly waning a bit. Especially after all the interminable infighting about the prequels.
Or at least it was until the Clone Wars, not to mention this other little show called the Forcecast. When I mentioned the two hosts, Jason and Jimmy Mac, Ashley's own enthusiasm grew.
"Those guys," she said simply, "Are awesome."
"I wouldn't go that far," I replied, only of course I didn't. I joke. Naturally, I agreed wholeheartedly. I took a minute to thank her for all her appearances on the show, telling her just how much we listeners appreciated it.
"We didn't have that with the prequels, much less with the originals," I remarked, thinking back to those days when three month old interviews in Starlog magazine were the closest thing to interaction we had with our on-screen heroes.
Recounting what I'd told Tom about my experiences with The Phantom Menace in college, I reminded her of my eagerness to get back to writing about that galaxy far, far away. Since we'd last spoken, I'd taken to mainline fandom again, producing any number of works on my own blog as well as for the Forcecast editorials project.
I informed her I had enough material for a book or two now (more on that in Part 2), and it all really started again with the republication of my old The Case for Jar Jar essay courtesy of Jimmy Mac.
Presenting her with my Slower and Less Intense essay on Tera Sinube, I assured her it was her own copy. There was maybe a split second with everyone where they all wondered if I expected them to read my stuff then and there. I joked about them having to read it on the spot but no, I at least had the foresight to print out copies ahead of time.
"Well, I do like to ramble sometimes," I admitted, as if anyone reading this hadn't noticed. "But if you ever get really bored, I hope you enjoy reading it."
"Oh, I'll definitely read it," Ashley replied with sincere interest, even adding, "Have you ever done anything on the Mortis trilogy? I would love to read something on that, too."
I had to shake my head. "Well, I've made a few notes, but nothing dissertation-worthy, yet." However, I promise to work on that in case she comes back with Her Universe next year.
Unable to resist another autograph, I asked her for a picture as well. She graciously agreed, though one of the perils of having a significant other as well as friends who all work for the Atlanta Radio Theater Company is that one often traverses Dragoncon alone.
This means cameras have to be passed off to willing photographers in line. While I am grateful I got a shot, I would have appreciated if the amateur photographer had waited for me to look ahead and smile after fielding a question about my camera.
From the looks of things, that was just too much to ask. Great one of Ash, though.
Join me for Part Two, in which:
Princess Leia swears like a sailor;
Shards of Alderaan are discovered;
And I get hugged by a Wookiee.