Interview: John Dorney | BIG FINISH

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Starburst caught up with writer and actor John Dorney to discuss recent releases and some of his many projects coming up later this year.

Starburst: John, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions; if we can start with Justice of Jalxar, a Fourth Doctor adventure released in March? This featured Tom Baker as the Doctor, Mary Tamm as Romana but also Jago & Litefoot as played by Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin. What was it like re-uniting Toms Doctor with these two Victorian gentlemen?

John Dorney: A lot of fun, predictably! I'd written quite a bit for both of them, by the time I got the call, so I wasn't especially intimidated. Initially we'd not planned to use them, but there was a great deal of demand for the reunion on the forums so we thought we'd have to run with it. But it made a lot more sense to have them meet Romana than Leela again - we'd already done that reunion, we've already seen Talons. If you're going to do it, you can't just re-tread the same ground. You need variation. So that was the decision.

I'd only really written one scene with them meeting the sixth Doctor for Jago and Litefoot 4, but I did notice that it was hard to keep that scene short as none of them ever shut up. This time it was like that for the whole play, so I consciously kept the plot and villains a little light and easy to best to allow for more banter time. The audience won't want to waste time on particularly sophisticated storytelling when there's magnificent banter to be had. It always had to be more about the reunion than the plot. I needed a couple of drafts to get the balance right - after all, they were guesting in Tom's show, not the other way round. But I'm delighted with the final product. One or two lines I wish I'd kept in the final draft, but that aside, very happy. It was so long after I wrote it that when it came out I could barely remember any of it, so it was like coming back to everything afresh. I look forward to that with the future Tom releases!

While were talking about Jago & Litefoot, what are you views on steampunk? Some people see a lot of steampunk overlap with some Doctor Who and Justice of Jalxar perhaps more than other stories. Have you any thoughts on that?

I've not really read enough, but I love the concept and imagery. I think the only examples I've read are the superlative Grandeville graphic novels by Brian Hitch. He describes them as 'scientific romances', rather than sci-fi, which I've shamelessly stolen as a means to describe my own work. There probably is a bit of crossover in Jalxar, but it's a little bit more real world than the alternate history of steampunk so whilst I can see the influence, it's not quite direct steampunk, I'd guess.

Moving forwards, July brings the second Counter-Measures boxset, the Big Finish 60s adventures that followed on from Remembrance of the Daleks. Your story is the final one, Sins of the Fathers. What can you tell us about that?

We all met up in a coffee shop - me, Matt [Fitton, writer], David [Richardson, producer], and Ken [Bentley, director] - and discussed what we wanted to do with series two, and what we wanted to avoid. We felt we'd done the big action finale with season one, and wanted to do something different, so it was always going to be strong on character and be less about plot. That's not to say there's not a massive amount of plot there, but that setting up character conflict was more important. Really explore them all as people. We'd a vague idea for a character arc and I just ran with that.

We also have a big thing about ambiguity. I'm very much a believer that questions are more interesting than answers. The film 2001 is more interesting than 2010, for example. Every time Ridley Scott posits Deckard as a replicant in Blade Runner a little piece of me dies - the whole point of that film lies in the possibility that he is. Come down either side and you castrate it, make it significantly less profound and interesting... trading it in for a cheap surprise twist. So there are moments within the series where we avoided being cut and dried - things like what happens in the study at the end of Manhunt [the first story by Matt Fitton], who exactly Ray is in Sins... they're rather up to you, the audience. You could ask me, Ken, David, Matt... we'd all have different responses. There are suggestions and implications... but if definite unequivocal answers were intended, they'd have been supplied.

It was a lot of fun to write, although the end was a bit tricksy to marshal. I'd no idea how I was going to feel writing those characters... but they're just as much a joy to write as Jago and Litefoot. From the opening debrief scene I knew I was going to have a blast.

You are also an actor as well as a writer; youve appeared in several Big Finish releases and are shortly to appear in the June / July Fourth Doctor Adventures. How do you find the experience differs in the studio compared to watching others perform your stories? Does it give you a particular insight into writing for these characters and actors having performed beside them?

If I'm in studio as a writer, I'm largely listening out for my own mistakes. Lines that sound dodgy, or unclear. But by and large I've done my job by that point, so it's relatively relaxed, and largely just comes down to laughing at my own jokes like a monstrous person. Acting is different because you're more focused, you're working harder (at least on that day) and using a totally different part of your brain. And equally, I hang out with the cast a bit more on those acting days, because getting comfortable with your fellow cast-mates improves the end product. Everyone's relaxed, having fun, and therefore the work is better. There's a third strand, oddly, when I help out with the Tom Baker stories – if I've not written it and I'm not in it, I hang out in a side-room and type so as to avoid interfering with the other processes going on.

I don't think having performed against them gives any particular insight. Meeting them in the studio gives you an idea of the real person, so if anything you've got to avoid writing the actor instead of the character. The main insight I bring is I know what actors do in general. I know how to make lines sayable, I know what annoys you in radio, and so on.

This is of course the 50th anniversary year for Doctor Who and you have written the November main range release Assassination Games which is the third of three releases themed on 1963. This also sees the reunion of the Seventh Doctor with the Counter-Measures team. Did you write this before or after you wrote Sins of the Father? Can you give away any clues as to the story? Does it connect back to Remembrance of the Daleks or is it something unique of its own?

I wrote it a few months after Sins. It took a long while to come up with a plot because practically everything I could think of we'd already done in Counter-Measures series one or two! But eventually my researches began to pay off. Particular paragraphs of Never Had it So Good, Dominic Sandbrook's excellent history of the sixties inspired a premise for the villain’s plan, as did some of the James Bond books, some real history. I was reading it largely behind the set of a show at the Edinburgh festival. Sophie Aldred was up so she came to see me and I was able to tell her I'd been researching a script for her on one side of the canvas whilst she was sat on the other side.

It has no direct connection to Remembrance. What clues can I give - well, I love the villains; gloriously nasty pieces of work and revelling in it. They've an audacious plan that I don't think has turned up anywhere in fiction, so I'm chuffed about that. There's a one line reference to it somewhere in Counter Measures 2, that's another clue. And there’s an unusual role for the Doctor.

And thats not your only contribution to the anniversary as you will be playing Bob Dovie in the Big Finish special release Light at the End to be released in November amongst five Doctors, five immediate companions and a whole host of others. Though you cant share any of the plot with us (unless you want to!) what was it like in studio recording this mammoth project? In one sentence, why should people buy this?

I think you've just said the sentence! Five Doctors, their companions, a host of others, The Master... why wouldn't you want to buy it? I hear the edit is coming together very well, so I'm really looking forward to it.

As for being in studio – well, it was very exciting. Lots of moments when you were wondering how various people were going to react to each other, all these fresh tingly goose-bump bits: Paul and India back together, with Tom and Louise, for example! Peter Davison against The Master!

I'm barely in it – despite the fan-base's erroneous impressions from the press release – but that hardly matters. I had the best seat in the house!

Weve discussed writing and acting, are there any talents hidden away? Directing maybe?

Directing's never really appealed. I'd probably be able to do an adequate enough job, but I'd never be especially good at it. I've worked with some lauded directors – theatre's Howard Davies, for example – and it's like alchemy. I don't know how they do it. I'd be mediocre at it. The only hidden talent I've got is, probably, that I'm an adequate if not especially good close-up card magician.

And just before we conclude, are there any other projects we should be looking out for? Have you already written/ performed in several pieces for 2014?

Oh, I'm certain I've got several things lined up for 2014... I've written one thing for 2015, and I'm currently pulling together an idea for 2016! The trouble is most of the stories for next year were done so long ago, I've forgotten! I've two stories for the third Tom Baker series - the King of Sontar and The Crooked Man... we recorded them over a year ago, and the titles were only recently announced. I'd completely wiped them from my memory as a result! They're very contrasting tales: a full scale action thriller and a quiet, creepy fairy tale.

I also get to write the final Companion Chronicle, Second Chances, for Wendy Padbury. This finishes the on-going arc of Zoe's memory troubles that's been going on since I wrote Echoes of Grey. This is probably the longest gestating project I've had with Big Finish as I pitched the basic idea at the recording of Guardians of Prophecy, which was July 2010... David said yes, and it comes out a mere four years later. One thing that I should perhaps mention (because people have made the assumption) is that it doesn't feature Charlie Hayes as Jen, even though the character is present. There are reasons for this. Charlie does get to play a rather different part in my Lost Story Lords of the Red Planet though, which she said was her favourite BF role, so I don't think she'll feel left out! I think that'll be a lot of fun too, that one; I’m really proud of it.

Survivors is coming up - that's just been announced. The storyline's been approved and I'm probably going to write that in September. Can hardly wait... I'm very excited by the storyline, looking to get a grip on that world. I remember loving the original show - Law and Order is certainly one of the best episodes of any TV series ever.

Beyond that... well, I'm always working on something. I'm doing a pair of scripts presently that I couldn't be happier about being involved in. Just finished a script recording at the end of the month which David has said he thinks is my best ever. I think it's out next November. As I've mentioned elsewhere (because it gives no clues at all), the letter 'i' is important. Let's see what comes next.

Big Finish has just announced that it will be making full cast audios of the classic TV series The Avengers and youve been adapting the scripts for audio. Could you give a brief background into the lost Avengers scripts and share the experience of adapting them?

Doctor Who fans are used to the idea of lost episodes, but we almost come out of it well. The first series of The Avengers barely exists - out of twenty six, there are just two complete episodes, and the frustratingly Steed-less first act of the first episode. And even then, not every script exists; there are no soundtracks, not much in the way of telesnaps. And the most that's in the public domain are some synopses of the episodes, so it's deeply intriguing for us fans - we've far less access to what these stories were actually like. So the idea of actually giving the audience chance to experience the original sixties scripts was a hugely exciting one to me.

I think I was in the right place at the right time to adapt them. David mentioned the idea as we headed to record Light at the End... and I just blurted out that I'd been watching an episode of the second series the previous night (it's a great reference for Counter-Measures, a great Fitton tip!). So it suddenly became me doing them. I think I was really sold by the choice of actors for Steed and Keel. The choice was so spot on I immediately went from 'but surely they're irreplaceable' to 'yeah, that'll work'. Macnee is and always will be iconic... but I think our new Steed will work as both a tribute and a great interpretation in its own right. I can't wait to get into studio.

In terms of the adaptation - I've barely touched them. Fortunately these scripts were written by people with theatre and radio backgrounds a lot of the time, and they're heavily dialogue led, long, talky scenes rather than action and film sequences, so there's not a massive amount of descriptive dialogue to be added.

I'm working from the existing camera scripts and sometimes they don't give quite enough information - film and action sequences are sometimes under-described if at all - so from time to time you need to throw in a bit of educated guesswork or artistic licence - but by and large these are as close as practically possible to what would have been shown on TV in the sixties. I've resisted the urge to tidy up plot holes or fix issues, they're warts and all. If anything, they're story restorations rather than adaptation.

It's been thrilling discovering the evolution of the series - the character development, the producers discovering what the show actually is... all these things I've not been able to experience until now. It's a window into a lost world and I think Avengers’ fans will find them fascinating and delightful and fun in equal measures, I know I certainly did.

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