DoWntime Interviews – Tony Jones and “The Tactics of Defeat”

If you’ve been following DoWntime coverage & stuff this year, you might have heard of a little story called “The Tactics of Defeat“, written by new BF scribe Tony Jones.

We called it one of the best stories of the year – an absolutely incredibly well-structured story that packed tons of rich symbolism and drama in a tense power play between characters.

And, being the huge nerds that we are, we just … kind of sat down with Tony Jones and interviewed him. For science.

Before everything, thank you again for accepting this interview!

No problem, I was flattered to be asked!

You’ve done a lot of work before ending up as a writer for Big Finish – could you work us through your career for a bit?

I’ve certainly done a lot before ending up writing at Big Finish, though most if it hasn’t been connected to writing. I was a programmer in the 1980s, worked in a support team in the 90s and moved to management consultancy in 2000. I did a lot of writing as a consultant, often in teams so the idea of a producer or script editor critiquing and changing my work didn’t bother me. I started blogging a few years back (2010) and using twitter as an experiment and I’m still there. I always meant to write ‘that book’ but find short stories easier (I’m lazy). I took a writing course and from that built up a portfolio of little bits.

You’ve done a lot of work as a reviewer for various websites: do you think that has an influence in your writing style?

I’ve reviewed on my own site and from that built into reviewing for various magazines and blogs. It sharpened my ability to writer a few hundred words at short notice and keep to the point (hopefully). My natural style is influenced by studying physics many, many years ago and if I don’t catch myself I drift into passive style too easily. I’m also prone to long sentences if I don’t concentrate. I think all non-fiction writing polishes that skill, but writing prose (and scripts aren’t prose) is different. As a reviewer of Big Finish for many years, I did have connections in the organisation, and that gave me an (accidental) opportunity to pitch the story that became Helmstone. As I’ve listened to hundreds of audios in many ranges, I hope I’ve got a sense of what works, and dialogue writing. I’ll let others judge the success.

The Tactics of Defeat” wasn’t the first story you wrote for Big Finish: you worked on Short Trips before, with a subscriber-exclusive one, “Helmstone”, and the main range one “Rulebook”, with Nicola Bryant. The two ranges have a lot in common, in that they offer little vignettes on important scenes in beloved characters’ lives, but do you think they differ at a meaningful level? Is writing one very different from the other?

Helmstone” was actually written first but recorded second. I like to think Ian Atkins (range producer) thought “Helmstone” was strong enough to have been a Short Trips proper (ie – read by the relevant cast member). The writing process was identical, the recording was very different. I’d not met Nicola before, and Dan Starkey was also in studio having his story recorded. I was so enthralled in the process I forgot to chat to Dan all day! Having done both I would say it can be different, in that an actor like Nicola puts a lot of effort into producing a voice for each character. Sometimes she had to flit between many parts in a short space of time. Stephen Critchlow (who read “Helmstone“) also does a range of voices, but it’s still delivered as more of a reading. At the core they are very similar in concept though.

“Tactics” is, of course, a story of two clever women standing up and outsmarting a man who happens to be a military terrorist. In an era of Trump, anxieties of war, and #MeToo, were any of those tensions in mind while crafting the story? And, follow-up question, what do you think the roles of politics should be within Doctor Who?

I very much think anything could be a topic and politics has long been part of Doctor Who (off the top of my head “Happiness Patrol” and “Sun Makers” but there will be many, many more). I wrote Tactics around the time Trump was elected but you have to also consider the brief I had. The characters were provided, though obviously Deakin was almost a blank sheet. The setting (puzzles in a temple) was suggested and I went for Belize as it had been a British territory in South America. Is Deakin a terrorist? He is certainly the villain and has crossed lots of lines, but I feel part of his character is positive. Don’t forget he is under a degree of alien influence. There are always tensions in the world and I don’t think Deakin would have been more of less generous to anyone, be they male, female, Russian, American or Sontaran (none of which were considered). I’m pleased with the material near the end when he is fighting for survival, the twists and turns he considers and his vision for a world under his dominion. He very sees himself as a would-be benevolent dictator. Of course he isn’t, but having been in studio when Matthew Brenher brought him to life, I did want to write more for him!

With the idea of puzzles, I wanted to have Capt Ruth Matheson as a game player as much as Zoe just being brilliant (and not without the arrogance of brilliant youth). I also couldn’t use the Doctor himself, though how much did he manipulate offstage?

Deakin is an older character (not far off my age) and has been through several life changing experiences, I get the feeling he could almost live in his temple without fuss but wants people to come to him just to feel superior to them. There’s some big ideas floating around about the threat he might pose and how far UNIT would go to stop him

Both “Tactics” and “Rulebook” have elements in common – they both involve a set of rules characters are fighting against: be it the laws of a planet, or simply the rules of Deakin’s game. Was this intended, is this a theme you want to explore? Or is this just the roleplaying instinct?

Isn’t a lot of Doctor Who about fighting against needless rules? Deakin’s are more obviously man-made but I feel the rules in “Rulebook” are in some ways worse as they are delivered by a society, though even then it still takes people to carry them out. Am I a rebel? I certainly liked to do things my own way at work, but not at the expense of others. I believe writing needs to be driven by tension, and as the Doctor is normally an outsider, rule breaking is part of a large percentage of stories.

Related to the last question – is there a Tony Jones trademark style, something that you think really defines your writing?

Good question! I’d suggest I’ve not done enough yet, though as I implied earlier I’m a bit lazy, so my writing tends to be economical. I hope my dialogue comes across as natural, and maybe my stories have been a bit linear (a comment I’ve seen against my two Short Trips). I’m a huge fan of Douglas Adams, as well as the classic short story writers such as Asimov; in my head bits of “Rulebook” are in an Adams style, not that it’s been picked up on!

Tactics” is quite interesting in that it’s a bit of an aesthetic clash between a rather modern era of Who, with the original character of Ruth Mathieson, created by Jonathan Morris in the early 2010s, barging in a Troughton story. Was that a challenge to get right? How did you manage to mix all of that with the ancient temple setting and make it all coherent? (this is both a genuine question and an admirative statement)

Obviously I needed to re-listen to all of the Ruth Matheson stories so far and re-watch some Second Doctor (and Fifth!) to get some continuity of speaking patterns. As I said earlier I’ve heard a lot of Big Finish so to some extent have a version of Zoe I can play in my head. On the surface the juxtaposition is unsettling, and I went a lot further than Jonathan Morris did when he introduced Capt Matheson. The setting needed a bit of research on temples and Belize, but the angle I think works well was having Deakin being Australian (and full marks to Ian Atkins here). The script was also looked over by Ian Atkins and then script edited by Jacqueline Rayner (and I’m pleased to say Jac had comparatively little to do). Making it coherent also happens at outline stage. Ian and I were backwards and forwards with the outline a few times, and Ian then took a pair of scissors to a large scene in my first draft! I had to lose a big piece of part one and actually make the Matheson / Deakin scenes more like a verbal chess game.

If you look back at the Troughton era, he was capable of being very dark, though compared to the rest of the boxset, “Tactics” is very dark indeed! Is it Ruth crashing a second Doctor story or Zoe crashing a Capt Matheson story? Both?

Is there a temptation, particularly in working with beloved old characters like Zoe, to indulge in everything you’ve ever theorized or wished for a character at the expense of getting on with quite a short and pacey story? And if so, how do you toe the line between writing as a fan and writing as a writer to make the most of both worlds? (Clearly, if that temptation was present, you did a damn good job.)

Not going over the top can be a challenge. I think I gave Ruth a lot of backstory but that was fine as she’s far less developed than Zoe. Getting Zoe right needed work – I had to re-watch Krotons just to find out if she would say HADS or H A D S and there were other things I debated. I knew we only had Wendy for a short time in studio, so I never fell into the trap of overdoing Zoe (this time!). By the time the script or story is being written, the outline has been agreed (and approved by the BBC) so the wackier ideas have gone. You should see my first ideas for the story that became “Rulebook” – enough material for two discs, too many characters and way too dark!

I did think I’d put in too many references back to other episodes, and there’s a lot of ideas floating around I’d like to develop someday, so I think if you look there’s lots of little hooks someone could develop.

Looking back at the script – are you happy with it? Is there anything you’d do differently now? And also, because we’re always curious – were there bits that got cut in the production process?

Like many (all?) writers I do feel I could have done more. It’s my first professional script, and there’s a lot to learn. I’m mostly pleased with the way the sound effects work, but there are a couple of places I wish I’d said more of what was in my head. As I said above a lot got cut in the drafting, and it’s a much better piece for that. Once you hit studio it’s down to the odd typo and also Daphne picked up where I’d missed an Americanism. I’d gone out of my way to work in the word baseball just for Daphne as well!

So. You’ve written a story, and it’s very good – what next for you? You have a new Short Trip coming out this December, “Tuesday”, exclusively available to Monthly Range subscribers, which sees the Eighth Doctor meet up with Harry Sullivan (another clash of eras! Is that a thing you’re into?) – could you tell us a bit about it, without of course breaking the secrecy? Any other projects?

Tuesday” was actually written and recorded years ago. I wasn’t able to be in studio when it was done so I’m really looking forward to hearing it. Ian gave me the opportunity to pitch when we were in studio for the recording of Helmstone and just said mix it up, maybe eighth Doctor and Harry. I thought it a good starting point as Harry is a great and underused character. There’s some era clash, but there’s a lot more than that going on. I absolutely can’t give any hints, but I’d love to discuss it once people have heard it.

As to other projects, nothing I’m afraid. While Big Finish has a lot of work at the moment, it has a big stable of writers as well. Obviously I’d love to do more!

Is there a dream project you haven’t had the chance to do that you would like to explore within the worlds of Doctor Who, and do you think you might soon have the opportunity to give it a go?

I’d like to develop the Samuel Pepys thread from Tactics. I did have a very early chat with Ian about something linking it to (eg) Jago & Litefoot, in my mind it could easily crossover into the Counter Measures or Torchwood ranges. I’d also love to write the scene (if there is one) where Susan meets River Song for the first time. I’ve a scrapbook of maybe fifty ideas for either scenes or bits of plot, across a range of Doctors and other characters. I’ve done a story for a charity collection (“Temporal Logbook II”) and I’d hope to do a bit more in that direction while I wait for something bigger to come up. I was also in studio (as an interviewer) for the first Churchill boxset recording, and I think that range has potential as well. If I were to pick one, it would be something for the eighth Doctor – Paul McGann was the reason I got into Big Finish, and my blog is named for the planet in the first Lucie Miller stories.

Tony Jones, thank you so much for your time, and we hope to hear your stories again soon!

No problem, and thanks again for your many kind words on “Tactics“.


Interview conducted over e-mail on the 18/08/2018 by Kevin Burnard & Samuel Maleski.

The title picture of the interviewee and Wendy Padbury was graciously provided to us by Tony Jones himself.

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