Visions 97 Convention Review

By Brad Black, Pictures by Paula Gross.

This is so f**king cool!

The Visions Convention is a fan run convention held in Chicago every November. As this web page deals primarily with Blake's 7, and I myself am a B7 fanatic, I will concentrate on the B7 aspect of Visions. Visions features guests from British and American Sci-Fi television and movies. This years guest list was quite diverse:
Babylon 5:Julie Caitlin Brown (Na'Toth)
Jeff Conway (Zack Allen)
Patricia Tallman (Lyta Alexander)
Adam "Mojo" Lebowitz (CGI & FX artist)
Doctor Who:Peter Davison (Doctor # 5)
Frazer Hines (Jamie)
Blake's 7:Sally Knyvette (Jenna Stannis)
Sheelagh Wells (make up artist and friend of B7 fans everywhere)
David Maloney (Producer)
2001 A Space Odyssey:Gary Lockwood (Frank Poole)
ST Voyager:Jeri Ryan (7 of 9)
Starlog Magazine:Dave McDonnell
Joe Nazzaro (also the husband of Sheelagh Wells with whom he co-authored "Blake's 7 the Inside Story" and another friend to Blake's 7 fans everywhere).

Joe (21K)

Visions is an extremely well run fan convention. This isn't to say that everything is perfect, but on the whole Visions remains a popular convention for fans and celebrity guests alike. The convention maintains a Web page. Write that down, you'll need it later...

Visions offers its attendees quite a lot to do in three days (sorry, Judith, still no Filk sing alongs). Some of these events, like the fan variety show, have grown out of smaller, older events. Others are long established traditions.

Opening Ceremonies: The opening ceremonies are primarily an introduction of celebrity guests. It sounds simple, but in the drive to be innovative, Visions have tried several formats to get the guests on stage in an entertaining way. I've seen eight different formats in eight years. Not one has worked. It is somewhat entertaining to see our beloved convention staff willingly make fools of themselves for our entertainment. But I suggest that once they start trotting the guests out they keep them coming with as few interruptions as possible.

Throughout the convention, Visions typically groups celebrities together by show. Thus all B5 guests are together for photos, autographs, & panels. The same with all B7 guests, etc.

Autographs: Visions offers one autograph and one photograph session with every actor each day. In general these run quite smoothly. These sessions give everyone ample opportunity to meet their favorite celebrity guests. As a result, the guests themselves seem quite at ease, able to roam the convention between sessions without fear of being mobbed. One piece of advice: If a particular autograph session is vital to you, get there at least an hour early. This can make it impossible to see everything, but you must establish your priorities early on.

While I like "Star Trek: Voyager" I am not a big fan of the show, nor am I particularly fond of sexy blonde bombshells (unless their surname is Knyvette), but I have to devote some space in this review to heap praise on Jeri Ryan, Seven of Nine. She arrived late on Friday due to scheduling conflicts and reportedly was also suffering from a bad cold or a case of the flu. Her autograph lines were HUGE. I did not line up myself, preferring to stick to Blake's 7, but I heard reports of waits over two hours. Autograph sessions can be hard on a celebrity, especially if she's not well. But Jeri stayed late and as far as I know signed for everyone that lined up, no matter how it interfered with her schedule. I have almost come to expect such dedication to fans from my favorite British guests (Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow are renowned for their dedication). Such sacrifice on the part of an American star is less common. Perhaps Jeri hasn't been around the Hollywood scene long enough to get spoiled yet. Or perhaps she's just a first class act.

Photographs: Get your pictures taken with your favorite celebrities of sci-fi. You can have a staff member use your own camera, or you can pay six dollars to have a Polaroid taken, or you can do both. This year Visions banned flash photography at the photo sessions. This is understandable. 500 flashes a day (a conservative estimate) can be quite rough on the eyes of our beloved celebrity guests. Visions did set up professional lighting. Supposedly if you had 400 speed film in your camera the pictures would turn out just fine. I wouldn't know, mine came out black. Fortunately we ponied up the six bucks for a Polaroid. That turned out fine, but who wants a Polaroid? Other than this little quirk, the photo sessions are as well run as the autograph sessions. And if I know Visions, they'll have the lighting problem fixed by next year. But to be on the safe side, buy the Polaroid or bring an expensive SLR camera. Photo sessions tend to run a little faster than autographs so you don't need to be quite as early for these.

Celebrity Panels: Each day Visions offers one question and answer session with each celebrity. These can be the most entertaining events of the con and are heavily attended. There's plenty of seating, so you can come and go as you please.

Sally (31K)

Sally Knyvette offered a mouth watering rumor for Blake's 7 fans during her panel. I'll try to report this as I heard it. I apologies in advance if I start any untoward rumors <grin>. It seems that just before leaving for Visions her agent informed her that she and Jan Chapel had both been approached to perform together in a new Science Fiction production. Unfortunately Sally had no other details. She thought they might be portraying Jenna and Call again, in a "Direct To" video similar to "The Stranger" series or Jan Chapel's appearance in "Shakedown." That she and Jan have been approached to do some sort of sci-fi production was reported as fact. Anything else seems to be speculation at this point, so don't get too excited. Sally was quite interested in portraying Jenna again and working with her good friend Jan Chapel. A plot line of "This time the girls run the show" also appeals to Sally. (Girls, was her word). As a rabid Blake's 7 fan and proponent of strong female characters in sci-fi, I for one will be waiting impatiently, credit card at the ready (and trying hard not to drool). Sally seemed somewhat surprised that the fans at this panel were so interested in such a prospect. I think she underestimates the show's popularity as well as her own.

Fan Panels: Fans groups may also host a discussion panel. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), held a very entertaining demonstration of medieval and renaissance armor and weaponry, but my favorite was a quiet discussion group dedicated to the memory of Terry Nation, held by Tom Beck of The Prydonians Of Prynceton.

Dealer Rooms: Visions turns one of the hotel's Grand Ball Rooms into a massive Pro Dealer Room, affectionately referred to by me as "my personal toy store." Visions also offers a fan-dealer room. Attendance at the latter was down this year. See my "Rant" section below.

Variety Shows: Visions offers two variety shows for convention attendees. The Saturday night show is extremely popular and features the celebrity guests. The Friday night show is put on by the fans as a sort of Amateur Night. The Fan variety show grew out of the costume ball and is really taking off. Last year was the initial Fan Variety Show and to be frank, things were a little ragged form both an organizational point of view and an entertainment perspective. This year's show was incredible. In addition to some great costumes the talent level was up tremendously over last year. Best of show was won by "The Great Rassalon" a magic act with an obvious Doctor Who theme. All my attempts to describe the brilliance of this act have failed miserably. Ya had to be there!

The big attraction is the Celebrity Variety Show. This year's show was hosted by Peter Davison. In addition to playing guitar and keeping things moving, he provided much needed comic relief with his "Doctor" puppet, and did a hilarious routine explaining Pantomime to the "American" audience: "After two hours of having candy and eggs thrown at them, the British audience brushes themselves off and goes home. You lot would sue the pants off me. That's why pantomime had never become popular in the States."

Sally Knyvette promised to do something she had never done before at the variety show and she did not disappoint. She began by reading a poem. Then in her own words, she sang in public for the first time in her life (and I was there, heavy sigh). To any who know her mannerisms she was obviously a little nervous as she belted out "Summertime" from Gershwin's "Porgy And Bess." She has a clear strong voice and once she got over a slight case of the "I've never sang in front of 500 people before" jitters, she displayed a commanding stage presence. As a former music teacher I give her high marks for artistic impression and fair marks for technical merit. In other words she has the hard part down pat. I remain skeptical as to whether this was indeed her first singing performance. While not as polished as a Broadway veteran (who is?), she was far too good for an amateur. I absolutely adore Sally (This will come as no surprise to Horizon members). Nevertheless there's something about "Porgy and Bess" with a British accent that I find disconcerting. Are there any musicals in her future? Sally was also wise enough to leave the audience wanting more. A fine point of showmanship lost on two of the American performers.

Julie Caitlin Brown has a marvelous voice and is an accomplished guitar player. I enjoyed her act immensely - at least for the first half hour. She performed songs from her upcoming album. In fact she performed seven songs, which was AT LEAST three too many for a variety show featuring several other performers. I do strongly suggest you look for her album if you were not at Visions, especially if you like "female with an attitude" blues rock. If you were at Visions, you've already heard the whole album.

Jeff Conway is a true veteran performer. In addition to his roles on "Babylon Five" and "Taxi", he created the role of Danny in the Broadway production of "Grease" and even has a Billboard hit, "Hey Gyp" to his credit. He read poetry and performed several songs. He too, was on stage for a good half hour, but in his case it was perhaps only a matter of one song and two poems too many. Jeff is one of the nicest and most entertaining guys you could meet, if a bit of a rouge and a scoundrel (Princess Leia would love him).

It was during this stretch that we were happy for the brief appearances of Peter Davison's alter ego, the Doctor Puppet. Peter showed an impeccable sense of timing as well as displaying smart British fashion.

Sheelagh (24K)

For a Blake's 7 fan the highlight of the convention came to us via Sheelagh Wells at the Variety show. Sheelagh brought us a video tape of last July's Wolf 359 convention at Blackpool, which hosted the SFX awards. In addition to the tape she told us a fascinating story. The following is my feeble attempt at a recreation. "Babylon 5" won the award for best science fiction series, beating out "The X Files" and "Neverwhere." J. Michael Straczynski (Joe), creator of "Babylon 5" is well known as a "Blake's 7" fan, and has admitted that "Blake's 7" was a considerable influence on his vision for Babylon 5. Any B7 fan who has watched a few episodes of B5 has certainly noticed elements of Blake, Avon, and Cally in Sheridan, Garibaldi, and Delenn. As Joe approached the stage to accept his award, he had no idea that SFX personnel had conspired with Sheelagh Wells to spring a surprise on him.

It seems that someone at SFX thought that since "Blake's 7" had been such an influence on Joe's vision of "Babylon 5" it would be really cool if Gareth Thomas could present the award. Enter Sheelagh Wells, make up supervisor for "Blake's 7" and former companion to Gareth Thomas. Sheelagh approached Gareth, who jumped at the chance (the man is a ham, a loveable talented ham, but a ham nonetheless). Once Gareth Thomas was on board it was decided that it would be even more fun if Gareth could present the award as Blake.

If you can close your eyes and read at the same time, do so now and picture this in your mind. Joe approaches the stage to accept his award as the theme from "Babylon 5" heralds his arrival. Claudia Christian hands Joe with the award and immediately snatches it back (realizing she's made a mistake).

A dumbfounded Joe shrugs and starts to leave the stage as Claudia explains, "You remember a BBC show called Blake's 7, and how you've said it was an influence on Babylon 5?" Joe nods in agreement as Claudia inquires, "A major influence or a minor influence?"

Joe replies, "Substitute." (note: at least I think that's what he said).

Claudia rejoins, "That's fair, He's the king... Well we have someone special to present this award. From "Blake's 7" we have Blake!" The lights dim, the theme from Blake's 7 blares from the PA system and through a shroud of special effects created mist out steps...


Yes, Blake. Stern, confident, determined, dark haired (!), dressed in bounty hunter garb and sporting a nasty scar over one eye. He received a warm welcome on the tape, as well a huge ovation from the live crowd at Visions. This was not Gareth Thomas in a Blake suit, nor was it any feeble attempt to recreate the past. THIS WAS BLAKE! The effect was truly startling, as though Blake himself had stepped off the video tape and into the convention hall. Aside from one laugh at Joe's reaction there was no sign of Gareth Thomas' jovial, gregarious personality. This man was Blake and he was all business. I've always known Sheelagh Wells was a genius with make up. Now I have to wonder if she doesn't have some supernatural secrets. Gareth barely looked a day older than he did when he walked off the set of "Blake" 16 years ago.

The effect on Joe was astounding. For a full two minutes, as "Blake" spoke, presented the award, and waited for a reply, Joe was no longer J. Michael Straczynski, creator of one of the most popular sci-fi shows of all time. He was simply Joe, awestruck, tongue-tied Blake's 7 fan (I've met Gareth and I know what it feels like).

Once he found his tongue, Joe's reaction to all this was typically Fannish, "You have to understand, when I used to watch Blake's 7, and I watch it all the time, it was a great show." And to Gareth, "Great ending, too." After a pause he concluded with, "This is so f**king cool!" Surely a motto for Con goes everywhere.

Other neat stuff: Sheelagh Wells hosted a make up seminar. If you were a big enough fan to attend, you got a sneak preview of the J. Michael Straczynski / Gareth Thomas tape. Sheelagh attends nearly every Vision's con, and over the years I've come to think of her more as a friend than a celebrity. Such is her nature. The Convention also offers a computer gaming center. I don't see the point in that personally, but I won't be judgmental. The Charity Auction is always a good show. It's a good way to see which of your favorite stars can think on their feet.

All this is quite wonderful, but it's not the reason I go to conventions. The single best reason to go to a convention is to meet your fellow fans. I live in the Midwestern section of the United States. Sure we have Chicago and Indianapolis, but just five miles outside the city limits we have corn farms. Where else but at a convention can I be approached by a woman in a silver Avon suit asking if I like slash? Where else can I ask perfect strangers if they believe Blake was honest with Avon at Star One and actually get an answer rather than a strange look? Where else but at a convention can I wander around in a cape and top hat and not have my sexual preference questioned? Where else but at a convention am I actually considered a normal person? Go to a convention. You'll have fun.

Rant Time: Now that I've spent 6 full pages (unless Judith wises up and starts editing me) praising Visions and all it's glory, it's rant time. Before I pull my axe out of the closet and start grinding it, let me take a moment to restate what a great time I have every year at Visions...

Okay, that's long enough.

For a rabid Blake's 7 fan such as myself there have been some disturbing trends the last year or so. One rumor form a very high source is that Visions is considering doing away with the fan dealer room. Presumably one reason is the need for more space (they had poor Jeri Ryan of "ST: Voyager" signing autographs at a table in the corridor). Another reason may be lack of turnout by fan dealers. One problem is the retirement of Bill Hupe. With his abdication there is no longer a large well organized 'zine dealer in the Midwest. Another reason for the poor turnout is perpetuated by Visions itself.

Two years ago Visions announced they would not invite any "Robin Of Sherwood" guests to the '96 convention. At the time we were assured that this was a temporary layoff only. Bending to pressure from the ROS fan club, in September of '96 they invited Mark Ryan. Poor Mark wound up hosting a panel all by himself. Visions personnel then made an obvious and somewhat tacky appearance to count the turnout for Mark, which was understandably light given that he was on his own, in one of the lesser panel rooms, and facing competition from other activities. And on the '96 Vision's vote, ROS was no longer listed for fans to vote for. If you wanted ROS, you had to write them in.

"Robin Of Sherwood" may not have been the most popular show at Visions, but the following they have is fiercely loyal. And most importantly to the convention, they brought their fan club, including a nice set up in the dealer room. There are also a few jewelry and costume tables that were missing this year because they anticipated a poor market with no ROS fans there. So why am I waffling on about ROS when I promised to concentrate on B7? By May of '97 Visions had still not listed a B7 invitee on their web page (, so I emailed them, encouraging B7 representation. They replied that they were planning to "give B7 a rest for a year," but nothing was definite. I did not panic at that time because it was still early, and because I figured they'd do something big for the 20th anniversary in '98.

At this point, Horizon, the B7 fan club was not planning to attend the con, because there were no B7 guests invited, and because they had their hands full with the Deliverance con. In other words we would be one more table short in the fan dealer room.

In September with only 10 weeks to the con, they invited Sally Knyvette (hooray!). Okay, it's only one guest, but I'm easy (no comments, Judith). They also had David Maloney present. He could be a DW guest as well as a B7 guest, but he paneled with Sally and Sheelagh. So at least Sally wasn't on her own as Mark Ryan had been.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my Visions vote and discovered that Blake's 7 was not listed as a show for the fans to vote for Visions 98. NOT LISTED! And it's the twentieth anniversary! Now you can call me paranoid, give me a big gun, and send me to Gauda Prime to shoot Blake, but I sense a trend here.

The Visions web page ( announces that they are planning to invite guests from Doctor Who, Babylon 5, and Red Dwarf for the 98 con. I emailed them asking them to please consider B7 for Visions 98 as it was the twentieth anniversary. I received a very prompt email explaining that this was just a preliminary list. It was also explained that while they liked receiving email, the Visions vote survey carried more weight in determining which shows were invited because it gave everybody an equal chance. I agree whole heartedly, or at least I would if all the shows were listed! B7 has been a part of Visions since their first con in 1990. Okay, the show doesn't draw as well as B5, Doctor Who, or Star Trek, but is does draw a sizeable loyal following. I think it at least deserves the honor of being listed on the Visions Vote for 98. If a show is listed and not voted for - end of story.

Now I'm a calm, rational person. I detest rabble rousers of all sorts, so I'm not going to suggest that you visit Their Web Page and email Visions to invite some Blake's 7 guests for '98. I won't suggest you visit and email them if you're planning to attend in '98. I certainly won't suggest you visit and email them if you're only thinking about attending. I definitely won't suggest you email them at and tell them that as a B7 fan, the guest list might influence your decision. And I absolutely refuse to suggest that you visit as a matter of principle even if you think you probably won't attend.

Well that's if from me. Visions is a wonderful time and a great con, especially if there are some B7 guests there. Bye for now. My name is Brad. If you were at Visions and want to tell me what a fool I am, I can be emailed at

Brad D. Black
Michigan City, In.

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