Tony Lee and The Doctors in the House
Tony Lee on Doctor Who: The Forgotten
IDW Publishing kicked off its Doctor Who line in December last year with monthly re-presentations of classic Doctor Who stories featuring the adventures of the Fourth Doctor by Pat Mills, John Wagner, Steve Moore and Dave Gibbons.
The San Diego-based publisher of comics and graphic novels announced the new Doctor Who comic at last year’s Comic-Con International: San Diego. The series featured the first-ever stories created exclusively for the US market with Doctor Who TV show script writer Gary Russell and artist Nick Roche attached to the project.
Coming this August is a story so massive that it could possibly bring all ten incarnations of the Doctor into comics.
All it takes is merely a case of amnesia, courtesy of British and Eagles Awards-nominated writer Tony Lee and superstar artist Pia Guerra, who recently concluded her and Brian . Vaughan’s 60-issue Vertigo series Y: The Last Man in January.
We spoke with Lee about bringing the Doctor, or Doctors, to the House of IDW.
Newsarama: What was your initial reaction when you heard that Doctor Who was coming back with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor in 2005?
Tony Lee: Concern, actually. Although I had a lot of respect for Russell T. Davies and had enjoyed his recent Casanova series, I still had that fear that it was going to be another Doctor Who - The Movie debacle which, although Paul McGann [who played the Eight Doctor in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie] did his best, was rather, well, rubbish really.
Also, the first thing we saw was Eccleston in a leather jacket and tank top, a far cry from the usual eccentric clothing that The Doctor was known to wear. It was almost like the BBC or Eccleston himself were trying to distance themselves from the old style of Doctor. Luckily, my concerns were proved wrong from pretty much the first scene.
NRAMA: Were you already a fan of the original Doctor Who TV series which ran on BBC One from 1963 to 1989?
TL: Oh, absolutely. I'd been a fan since my youth - one of my first memories is actually the entire family in about 1973, sitting around the TV watching Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor in “Planet Of The Spiders”. I was three at the time. I also remember being on my own a year later when Tom Baker's first one, “Robot” was on.
It was always my first love as a kid, and I watched pretty much every episode I could. And of course we're talking pre-DVDs and downloads, so I spent a lot of time hunting down old VCR copies of [William] Hartnell [the First Doctor] or [Patrick] Troughton [the Second Doctor] episodes. But by the time that Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) came in my love was waning a little, mainly as I'd discovered girls. And the 18-month gap they had didn't help, as these were in my formative teen years and by the time the Seventh Doctor came in? I was giving it a passing glance at best.
Thank God for the intervening years. People like Big Finish and the Virgin Books brought a more mature side to the Doctor and by the late 90s I'd regained my love. The UK cable channel UK Gold also used to play an entire Doctor Who story on a Sunday morning, in order - so I was able to catch a ton of old [Jon] Pertwee [the Third Doctor] and Tom Baker [the Fourth Doctor] episodes.
NRAMA: What's your favorite story or stories from the original series?
TL: I used to like the ones where the Doctors got back together - mush as it's lambasted, I do have a soft spot for “The Five Doctors”. Apart from that, I think it has to be the UNIT episodes. I wanted to be the Brigadier when I grew up.
NRAMA: And we should point out that you have some history with writing the Doctor. How did you end up writing the three-part story entitled "F.A.Q." which ran in issues #369-#371 of Panini's Doctor Who Magazine in 2006?
TL: Well, I'd been speaking to Clayton Hickman, the then Editor of DWM since about 2003 in relation to doing a strip, but I was a total unknown at the time. I'd sent a spec 8-pager in called “Old Friend” where the (then Eighth) Doctor arrived at an old people's home to find an old man named Pete, who knew of The Doctor - in fact, when he was a teenager he was a companion. But he was a companion of a Doctor yet to come. And so the Doctor patiently humors him and at the end, Pete gives him a key, something the Doctor gave him the first time they ever met, something he wants to give back now. It was to show that although the Doctor can bounce around time and space, he can't really affect his own timeline.
The point was that the Doctor now had a key which, at some point down the line he'd give to a new companion, a teenager called Pete. Clayton felt it was a bit too dark (Pete passes away in his sleep at the end) and a bit 'fan wanky' [laughs] and of course it'll never see print now, as Steven Moffatt pretty much did the same idea as a subplot in the recent River Song episodes.
But through that, I'd still proven that I could write, and in 2005 I spoke again to Clayton about writing for Doctor Who, this time I had some chops behind me with a Starship Troopers book and an X-Men, and we discussed some ideas. Two of them, Pandora's Paradox and Imaginary Friend were merged into one and we had our three-parter.
NRAMA: It was a story about the Tenth Doctor and his then companion, Rose Tyler and centered on Craig Phillips and his imaginary girl pal named Trudy, right?
TL: Yes. Basically it came out just after the Ninth/Tenth change, and although written for Ninth, had a massive rewrite. It was The Doctor and Rose effectively in a strange mind controlled world, where they try to rescue this kid called Craig. You discover during the tale though that Trudy, his friend isn't real - she's, well in the end she's a manifestation of his mind, but in the original script she was his dead twin. We had to change some of that because of another episode that was coming up that touched on the same stuff.
NRAMA: As a writer, what did you learn from that first Doctor Who comic book writing experience?
TL: That writing for the BBC is never easy! It took seven rewrites until the concept was greenlit. Each script synopsis took another seven or so rewrites - one took eleven. The script itself? Took almost nine every time before it was done. It was incredibly hard work, but fun.
We also had a nightmare on how Tennant's Doctor spoke - at the time of writing part #1 we only had a seven minute “Children In Need” special to go on, and by part #3 only the first episode of the series had come out. We did a lot of back and forth with Russell as he knew better how the Doctor spoke - but it was like a blind man trying to explain to a deaf man about colors. Interpretation of opinion, that sort of thing. But in the end we produced a rather good story. I mean, anything with a cowboy on a dinosaur has to be, right?
NRAMA: You'd said before that the current Doctor played by David Tennant is your favorite, right?
TL: For years it was Tom Baker, mainly because I grew up with him. But there's something about Tennant's portrayal, you can see that behind the actor there's a 10-year-old fan going “Oh my God! I said Time Lord! I said TARDIS!” etc. He puts everything into his performance and it shows.
And it's had some of the best stories as well, I mean look at “Blink”!
NRAMA: What did you like best about the stories that outgoing Executive Producer Russell T. Davies brought to the revived TV series back in 2005?
TL: Well, I was a massive fan on the old 25-minute cliffhanger shows, but I understand how that they were unfeasible in this day and age. That said, I like the fact that many of the writers seem to put in a cliffhanger around the halfway point, as a kind of homage.
I think the best thing that was brought in was the Psychic Paper. I know there are a lot of people out there who hate the fact that the Doctor can walk into a situation, flash the paper and say “I'm from the (insert name here)” and the people looking at it see the ID, but it's a real time saver. In the past the Doctor would arrive, be arrested, dumped in the brig, eventually freed only when all hell was breaking loose - often you'd have an entire episode wasted on this. With the Paper? It's a speedbump now. “Hello, you're in trouble, I can help. See? Accreditation. Now, where are we?” And job done.
NRAMA: So, at what point in time did IDW come a-calling and how did the six-issue Doctor Who: The Forgotten come about?
TL: I'd been talking to [IDW Publisher and Editor-in-Chief] Chris Ryall for a while about doing something with IDW, and around 2006 we started discussing some Star Trek Year 4 ideas. At the time they were also going for the license, and one day Chris contacted me out of the blue saying that they had it, and they wanted some ideas. I suggested a story that involved Gallifreyan cloning technology and a story from the Doctor's past that he wanted to forget.
We bounced around for a bit but in the end, in early 2007, Gary Russell became the writer. I have no ego where Gary's concerned - he's been involved with Doctor Who for years and was totally the best choice. I stepped back into the shadows.
Then in late 2007, Chris contacted me again saying there was a chance to do a separate six-parter and [asked if I had] any ideas? I wanted to do something that showed the new-to-Who reader/viewer who the previous nine incarnations were, and the only way we could do that was do a 'spotlight’ style story, with a top and tail Tenth Doctor story. Unfortunately, the Tenth Doctor didn't like that, and has slowly been taking over more and more of the comics as we go along...
NRAMA: Who brought Pia, fresh from her groundbreaking run on Y: The Last Man with Brian K. Vaughan, on board for this project?
TL: It was Kody Chamberlain actually. He pointed out that on one of the Bendis Board threads, around March last year, Pia had posted how she'd love to draw Doctor Who. I went on and suggested people she should talk to, and then we spoke a bit off board. Personally? I never expected to be working with her. This is Pia Guerra for Christ’s sake!
But she spoke to Chris Ryall, and they worked something out, and then once he had Pia interested, he then grabbed me and put us together.
NRAMA: How has the whole working process been like with Pia?
TL: Brilliant. She's as big a Who fan as I am, and we're constantly working out little things to throw in. The entire comic is an Easter egg of goodies for the long term fan - we have a Voord helmet, for example - whilst keeping the new fan entertained. And she's always coming up with ideas that we can throw in.
In March this year, the Doctor Who Exhibition had a massive launch in London and both Pia and I were invited, so we got to discuss the story, suggest ideas, have a press photo beside the actual TARDIS and press a big, red button.
And it’s like, Pia Guerra, you know?
NRAMA: Now, Gary Russell reportedly has two years worth of stories mapped out. Did you have a chance to discuss with him about his plans? Will The Forgotten have a direct or an indirect tie-in with his IDW comic series?
TL: I haven't spoke to Gary direct about his stories, although he's a de facto BBC liason/script editor for our books and we've spoken a couple of times about those. I know we couldn't use one particular villain because he was going to be using them in his series but apart from that, it's all through Chris, or whichever poor editor has been thrown to us this week. We burn them out, you know.
NRAMA: When does The Forgotten take place? Is it before Martha leaving The Doctor in the TV episode "Last of the Time Lords"? Or during her days with UNIT and Torchwood Three?
TL: It's set half-way through Season Three. Martha doesn't know about regenerations, Daleks or The Master at this point. At the time of setting this up, Sci Fi in the USA had only just finished the first Tennant Season, we expected another year or so before the next season hit over there. Unfortunately, they jumped up far quicker than we expected, so the comics are a year behind. But it's still a damned good standalone Doctor/Martha tale.
NRAMA: According to the solicits, The Doctor has "lost his memories of every one of his previous incarnations" and both he and Martha are on a quest to regain his memories. How did he get to such a predicament in the first place?
TL: Ah, and that's the question, isn't it? Nobody knows. He starts the story in a strange museum, with no TARDIS in sight, no recollection of how he got there... And no memories at all of his life before he regenerated into the Tenth. He has to force his memories back to the surface by focusing on items from his past. But he's not a total amnesiac - he remembers snippets here and there, he remembers the Time War although it wasn't this incarnation that fought in it...
So how much does he remember, how much has he forgotten, and how much is he simply being blocked from accessing? And if so, who's doing the blocking?
All I'll say is that things aren't what they seem and that by the end of #6 you'll understand everything.
NRAMA: Again, the solicits mentioned that they will encounter The First Doctor's granddaughter Susan Foreman and schoolteachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton in the first issue. Will he actually "meet" his earlier incarnations as well?
TL: These are played out in 'flashback' memories, seven- or eight-page spotlights that are aimed purely to show a snapshot of a previous Doctor, to help new fans understand what The Doctor's past has been like. And the First Doctor indeed has Susan, Ian and Barbara with him.
Does he meet them? You'll have to wait and see. I can tell you that there's a two-page spread in #6 that'll be possibly the most downloaded Doctor Who image in a loonnnggg time...
NRAMA: IDW is also re-presenting classic Doctor Who comics from across time and space. Which Doctor Who comic strip runs of the past do you remember with the most affection?
TL: There's a Fourth Doctor one called “The Iron Legion” [from Doctor Who Weekly #1-#8] (which is being serialised by them at the moment) and there was a Sixth Doctor one called “Voyager” [from Doctor Who Monthly #90-#94]. Both of these are brilliant. But I will say, if you're a fan of old school [Who, check out “The Ten Doctors” by Rich Morris. It's a fan-fic cartoon, but it's well worth reading.