Tony Lee: A Look at the Pen That Writes The Doctor

A comics interview article by: Ray C. Tate
Tony Lee is a writer of genre fiction ranging from adventure to science fiction. His latest work is the IDW ongoing Doctor Who comic book series. Mr. Lee was kind enough take some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about his past, present and future.

Ray Tate: What was it that convinced you to become a writer?

Tony Lee: When I was in Junior school, probably about nine or ten years old, we had a children's writer come to our school to do a talk. Annoyingly I can't remember his name now, but I remember the talk, and I remember sitting at the end of the talk thinking that more than anything I really wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Or something like that. And over the years I've written pretty much every genre, so I can say I'm definitely a writer!

RT: Why did you decide that you would stick with the comic book format?

TL: Well, I haven't decided to “stick” with the format, it's the format that I'm currently enjoying. I'm also writing a screenplay and a novel, so I'm playing with different styles. But to be honest, over two decades I've written in every genre -- I've written sketches and radio ads, I've been a journalist, I've even written catalogue blurbs -- the truth is that I absolutely love comics, and I love writing them.

RT: You had a brief period at Marvel. Why did you not stay there? Was it a bad fit professionally? Was it the super-hero genre?

TL: No, it was because they didn't call me. Simple as that. I speak to several editors at Marvel and I have many that I call friend who work there. The fact of the matter is that there are a finite amount of spaces at Marvel and DC and a massive amount of writers trying for them. And every now and then I get to play in the sandbox. Would I like more? Sure. Am I gutted that I don't get it? Not really. I have a lot of work. I'm not sitting by the phone or anything. They know where I am. And my “brief” period reappears every couple of years, so I'm sure I'll have another bite soon. I can't complain though -- even though they were brief, I can still say I've written Spider-Man and The X-Men...And for the record, I love the super hero genre :-)

RT: You have written in other areas. Can you describe some of the benefits and limitations of working on sci-fi vs. horror or fantasy?

TL: Mainly the language. Apart from that, the limitations are only what your imagination gives you. Horror involves lots of shocks, so you need to understand the value of a right hand page turn, ensuring the surprise isn't given away too early -- I'd also say you need to learn that gore does not equal horror. Gore just makes girls go “ew” and bury their heads into their movie date's shoulder. That's dull. True horror scares the living shit out of you. With sci-fi you need to be careful that you're not talking technobollocks because someone somewhere WILL pull you up on it, trust me, so you do find yourself doing a lot of reading and research. And of course fantasy is easier to do, as you don't need to worry about the real world -- you can make up anything and just blame “magic” -- but of course then you hit the fact that no matter what you do, someone somewhere will have done the same world, only better...

RT: When was the last time a movie or book gave you a genuine scare? For me, it was probably Anatomy with Franke Potente. Before that it was The Candyman.

TL: To be honest, I've stopped watching horror recently after Drag Me To Hell couldn't decide what it was. I still get shivers from the classics though.

RT: Do you prefer mature themes or all ages material?

TL: This is a tough one, actually -- because I try to write as mature as I can in all stories. Children don't want to be patronized and if you do so, you come off looking bad. That said, you can write a whole lot more into a mature persons story. Currently I'm doing both and in the children's books there's a lot more action and the dialogue is shorter, more punchier -- whereas the adult stuff has a little bit more meat to the bones. Of course that said, writing the children's stories makes me a better writer because I learn from the brevity of words that I'm forced to make. At the end of the day though, I try to write the stories that I would enjoy, whatever the age I am/was when I would have read it.

RT: One of your projects was a Starship Troopers comic strip. Originally, Starship Troopers was a book by Robert Heinlein, but it became a cult hit. Do you write such a thing for that specific audience, or were you looking for a broader audience using Starship Troopers as a foothold in hard sci-fi?

TL: Starship Troopers was a work for hire gig for a games company when it first started, and it was to create new areas for the games company to exploit. But it was my big Vietnam War movie, I will admit. I wanted to write the story where pretty much anyone could die. And we had some shocks in the tale as it moved along. But by the time we reached the third book, Damaged Justice, I wanted to play more with the whole society that was involved. The whole “become a citizen” plan was very much like the Romans had used, and I wanted to place a comparison between the decadence of one culture with the other. But that said, I wanted to tell a bloody good story foremost. And I think I managed that.

RT: You wrote a Doctor Who story with Mike Collins for Doctor Who Magazine. Was that your first time writing Doctor Who? Including fan fiction?

TL: When I was about nineteen years old I was writing for magazines and I actively pitched Andrew Cartmel, then the script editor for the show -- and then with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor -- for a shot of writing an episode. I really thought I was the dogs bollocks and put together a story that pretty much ripped off Hellblazer in great chunks but followed the whole “Dark Doctor” angle that the show went in the late eighties. Unfortunately the show was cancelled and I never did anything more with it.

RT: Do you think the “Dark Doctor” concept was more of a perception rather than an actuality? I know that the books ran with it with a disgusting amount of gusto, but I just can’t see John Nathan-Turner -- the Russell T. Davies of his time -- going so far away from the Doctor as a hero. He in fact rejected some ideas that wound up being recycled in the books. Does the “Dark Doctor” concept even fit anymore with the resurgence of Doctor Who?

TL: Oh I think the Dark Doctor would and could have worked -- he was still a hero, you just saw more flaws. And I feel that a lot of that was put in Doctors Nine and Ten through the Time War. And with "Survival," I think they all knew that it was the end, and wanted a happy ending!

RT: When did you become a fan of Doctor Who?

TL: My first memory was sitting with the family watching Jon Pertwee turn into Tom Baker. The last episode of "Planet Of The Spiders." So, 1973. Thirty five odd years ago. I was three. I was a fan of the show since a child though, and over the last few years had considered writing something to pitch to Big Finish (publisher of Doctor Who audios) or such -- and I actually pitched Doctor Who Magazine before the new show was even announced. But the slots were filled and my one shot tale, “Old Friend” -- a story about the Doctor meeting an old man in a retirement home who turned out to be a companion of a later Doctor when he was a teenager -- was never made. But I still carried on hassling Clayton, the editor of the magazine and in 2006 had the shot to write "F.A.Q" -- which is liked or hated, but suffered from the fact that when we wrote it, all we had for the Doctor's character was twenty minutes of "The Christmas Invasion."

RT: What is your least favorite episode of Doctor Who, and why?

TL: I never liked the "Two Doctors," when Doctors Six and Two met each other. I felt that it should have been a bigger event, not just an “oh we're bound to bump into each other” throwaway line -- and I hated the eyebrows that they made Troughton wear, and they never explained the ages of the Doctors -- in "Time Crash," the Children In Need story where Ten meets Five, Moffat uses one line about the elasticity of time to explain why Peter Davison now doesn't look like peter Davison then. And a world of fanboys sighed with relief. So yeah, the "Two Doctors." That said, I did enjoy parts of it. And I loved the "Five Doctors."

RT: For me it was "Power of Kroll." I’m not fond of that at all. It’s just rather shoddy looking. The story "FAQ" allowed you to characterize Rose Tyler. What are some insights that you had while writing her?

TL: At the time, the insights were that she'd gone from being the ditzy sidekick to becoming the Doctor's “nurse” -- as he learned who he was in this new body. But at the same time I saw things we already knew -- she was tougher than she looked, she was very empathic to peoples emotions, and she had a cunning that didn't come from books. She was, in the words of Tim Roth in Lie To Me - a “Natural.”

RT: Would you have liked to do more stories with the Doctor and Rose?

TL: Yes and no. I enjoyed Rose, and I loved being able to revisit her in "The Forgotten" when she was with Nine, but I think that Russell T. Davies and the host of incredibly talented writers that he had on the show did the stories that I would have wanted to do. If I used her now, it'd have to be something new. And I think her story's been told.

RT: Many of the characters in "FAQ" struck me as having the potential to feature in more stories. Did you intend to revisit the cast in the future, or were they set up to be strictly one-time appearances?

TL: Strictly one-time appearances. The character of 'Craig' was actually based on my then housemate, and originally it was two separate stories that merged together into a three parter. That said, the character of Trudy was originally intended to be Craig's memories of his dead sister, having found a voice and a body in the virtual world. And I liked the idea of her “infecting” the TARDIS at the end, leading into another story. But we changed the end, and she never left with the TARDIS in any way. Although we did cheat and still show her in the final panel. But thanks for the compliment -- I always try to make my characters seem so much more than walk-ons. (Time And Relative Dimension In Space, The Doctor's Time Machine.)

RT: In creating such rich characters that end up in a single adventure, do you sometimes regret that you haven't used them over again?

TL: Not really, because often the character will be there for a specific purpose. That said, occasionally they can surprise you. I had one shot characters in Starship Troopers that people liked and when I did a Tamari flashback issue for the ongoing #0 I was able to return to them, if only for a few pages. There are a couple that beg to be used again, but usually I can tell from the start if the character's going to be a “keeper.” But even when they're not, I try not to make them two dimensional as much as I can.

RT: Do you ever cannibalize characters from previous stories to create new ones?

TL: Always. I also cannibalize stories. In “The Forgotten,” the Ninth Doctor story that I mention above? It was originally one of my first pitches to Clayton back in 2006. “Silver Scream,” the story that was the first two issues of the IDW ongoing? I must have tried two or three times to get that done by Doctor Who Magazine, only to be stopped by schedules. And characters turn up in the most surprising of places. The Advocate (in “Fugitive,” issues #3 - #6) is from a story I wrote years ago and never published. Hope Falls had half the characters taken from a Western idea I had. As long as they work, I'm happy to do that -- but only when I feel that character A isn't working, and would do so much better in story B. I don't do it for doing's sake.

RT: I suspected she might be somebody special.

TL: Oh, she is. Just keep reading. Or am I saying that to misdirect you?

RT: [Laughs] British books and magazines are metric whereas American publishers print their material in a much smaller format. Do you have prefer one over the other?

TL: I don't really think about it, to be honest. All it means is an extra panel perhaps in the page. The more important thing is that British books and magazines do smaller self contained stories, and expect an equal level of tale to the American ones. So you learn to tell a 22 page story in 9, for example. You learn to tell the story in the beats that you have. The size of the page is irrelevant -- it's the amount of beats you have to tell the story in that count.

RT: Can you briefly explain to the reader what beats are?

TL: The beats of a story are the panels. In a 22 page story you have about 128, 130 panels, so 130 “beats” of a story. These are the moments that you have to snapshot, you have to show. When I talk to wannabe writers I discuss beats in more detail, taking a movie scene of about twenty seconds and discussing how many beats it would be. Nobody is wrong, as beats are a very personal thing, style wise.

RT: You started writing the Doctor Who comic book with its first proper story arc -- since DWM publishes a continuing genuine comic strip. Were you happy with fan response toward "The Forgotten?"

TL: I was more than happy, because I expected it to bomb. At the time I was writing a 2000AD story called Stalag 666 and it was getting some serious hate mail from 2000AD diehards. And because of this, my confidence was shot. “The Forgotten” changed that. I think I only ever saw one bad review, story wise. There were a lot of “this is fanwank” angles but that's fine, because as a fan myself, I could never do anything but.

The only response I hated was the backlash against Stefano Martino, who took over issue #3. People had two issues with Pia and suddenly this below par issue comes out and he was literally crucified in the forums. Which is utter bollocks. The poor sod had a lose-lose situation. He did that book at the last minute when Pia had to pull off it, and he had something like just under two weeks to draw and ink the entire book, all twenty two pages. That's a ton of work. And bar a couple of faces he pretty much nailed the story. He's one of the greatest underrated artists out there at the moment and people bitched because The Doctor “didn't look right.” He killed himself for the fans and they hated him anyway. Which is bullshit and needs to be rectified. Kelly Yates had double the time to do his issue and knocked it out of the park as far as Stefano did. Stefano was a bloody megastar and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise.

RT: Yeah, I’m pretty generous when I review artwork that’s clearly a rush job, unless it’s like stick figures or something. What was it about Stalag 666 that the 2000AD fans didn’t like? It’s about a future prison right, sounds nasty, right up their alley.

TL: Yeah, but it was a slow build. It was The Great Escape in space -- and what people forget about The Great Escape is that the Escape doesn't even begin for the first twenty minutes or so. Turn that into a five pages a week story and you've got three weeks of character building. No real explosions or car chases. In hindsight, I should have started with the escape and flashbacked, but it's too late now.

RT: Having done "The Forgotten" and managed all ten Doctors, do you wish that you could revisit any of them? Would you for instance like to do an eighth Doctor adventure for the comic book?

TL: Funny enough, the day we announced the ongoing, BBC announced no more classic Doctor comics, so that's not going to happen. Although I have a Fifth, Seventh or Eighth Doctor story (and there's a plot reason it's only those three) called “Thirteen Deaths” that's been hammering around in my head for a while -- and I might look at telling that down the line. Maybe as an audio or a novel. Who knows.

RT: You next did a Doctor Who one-shot with Paul Grist. This was a direct sequel to the Doctor Who story "Talons of Weng Chiang." Were you writing this story for the entrenched fans, or did you want this to be an introduction into the world of Doctor Who?

TL: It started off as a whole trip into the “timey wimey.” I wanted to show that to the Doctor, chronology (in particular Earth's) isn't a linear progression. I wanted to show that he could pop in before something was done and sort it out for a previous Doctor -- that whole hindsight thing shown in the skit I mentioned above, “Time Crash,” where Ten remembers how to save the TARDIS because he remembers being Five and watching ten save the TARDIS.

Still with me? Good. So I wanted a solid Victorian romp, I wanted Victorian Torchwood and I realized that time-wise, it fit nicely with Talons, and when I thought about the whole nature of the story, the time travel element, it only made sense to use Talons, as it was itself a time travel story, and the villains were from the 51st Century, where "Silence In The Library" was set -- and piece by piece the story came to life. I don't want to give anything away, but that was one of the most fun convoluted tales that I've written and only a small proportion of readers guessed the ending -- in fact many commented on the “deliberate” mistake before they read to the end!

RT: Torchwood of course is the Institute created by Queen Victoria to thwart “magical” attacks against the empire, and that includes "sorcerers" such as The Doctor. According to the series, Torchwood continues on trying to capture or kill the Doctor, until Captain Jack Harkness takes over, and it spins off into a positive force. Will Torchwood be a constant threat to the Doctor in your series of comic books?

TL: Oh, I think they still wanted to capture the Doctor, even when Jack was there. Just look at "Doomsday," when they were still at Canary Wharf (the same location I use in Victorian times). Actually, Torchwood won't be used again in my series, mainly because there's not really an opportunity to do so bar one two parter -- and if they did turn up they'd literally be shoe horned in, so I don't think so. I'd only use them if I had a really valid reason to do so.

RT: The current IDW series would be set in between Series Four and Series Five. The Doctor is traveling alone. Do you prefer the Doctor alone so he can better interact with your characters, or would you rather be writing him accompanied by a proper companion like Rose or Martha Jones?

TL: He has people who accompany him. You just haven't seen them travel with him. I like the Doctor alone because you get to focus more on him. If you have a companion that becomes two stories because the companion always gets separated and has another tale all by themselves. Add a third and whoof, a third spike to the wheel. And with twenty two pages, time is a real estate that you don't have much of. That said, the Doctor's skill is interaction.

The fun of the story is the Doctor being clever to someone going “gosh” and so companions are a necessary evil. Like Robin in Batman. They're told what's going on so that the reader also learns. But where are the stories set? Definitely during the specials. Personally, I'd say they were at the end of the specials, shortly before Tennant's final episodes. Are they before “Waters Of Mars?” You'll have to wait to find out... ("Water of Mars" is the next Doctor Who special. It airs sometime after "Planet of the Dead," and is not yet available in the USA. Why, yes, waiting for the DVDs is excruciating, thanks for asking.)

RT: You seem to indicate in "Silent Scream" that the Doctor's attitude toward his companions has changed. At one point the dialogue suggests the Doctor's and Donna's split was like a messy break-up. Why this change?

TL: Some of that was due to Chaplin not being allowed to be used, and dialogue changes on the fly. But I think that The Doctor has had enough loss. Donna was a great “mate” -- but then she lost everything including her memories of him. Rose was his soulmate of sorts, and she left him for a cheap replica. Martha left and got engaged. Jack's just wrong, and now has his own friends. The Doctor is the one who is left at the party when everyone, including the people hosting it have gone home. But we all know he has companions, that he needs companions -- so what will happen to him in the first six issues, and how will this change his outlook?

RT: This really frustrated me -- especially when given in an overall inhospitable atmosphere in super hero comics, but after reading the first part of "Fugitive," I think the reader gets a better sense of the love the Doctor has for his companions. Who is your least favorite companion on the show?

TL: It seems easy to say Adric, as all he did was whine -- but I'd probably say Victoria, as I never warmed to her.

RT: I have no problem with Victoria, although I like Zoe much better. Jo Grant really irritated me. As did Adric. In addition to writing the Doctor Who comic and comic strip, you have also adapted a few fantasy novels to the comic book format. Is it easier to do an adaptation than it is to write a story wholecloth? Were there any pitfalls you didn't expect?

TL: You stop being creative when you're adapting, because you're not enhancing the story, you're making the best transfer from one medium to another. And so the jokes you write, the scenes you create -- are all from someone else's mind. It's actually something that I enjoy doing and have discovered that I can do well, but there are times when I sit wishing I could create something of my own. But that said, the biggest pitfall is the page count. You could have three books, each three hundred pages long, each needing to be turned into a graphic novel -- and one might be easy, one stupidly difficult, all depending in the content. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is incredibly hard, as there's a lot that must, on pain of death, be kept in it, and the scenes are lengthy and wordy. Ensuring you have that mix is important.

RT: What can readers expect next?

TL: In Doctor Who? The Doctor is on the run from the Shadow Proclamation, Mister Finch and the Krillitanes, and all he has to help him are a Sontaran, a Draconian and an Ogron. In other books my Dracula sequel From The Pages Of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula': Harker comes out in November, the first “book” of my Necrophim story started in 2000AD the 30th of September and I'll be doing a ton of signings and visits and conventions until Christmas, when my Lady Action one shot comes out. And then 2010? That's a whole different story.

RT: Who is Lady Action? Is this in conjunction with the Captain Action tie-ins?

TL: Yup -- Captain Action returned as a comic and I was approached by the licenser to create a character based on their incredibly popular “Lady Action” model, Niki. And so I created this Emma Peel-esque British agent called Nicola Sinclair for a couple of back stories. And surprisingly, they loved them and so did the fans -- so much so that I was allowed to do a 22 page solo story for her that is drawn by the excellent Jake Minor and comes out at the end of the year.

RT: Thanks for talking with me.

TL: A pleasure.

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