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'Doctor Who' is back! We meet his latest assistant

Jenna-Louise Coleman, Matt Smith and showrunner Steven Moffat tell us what we can expect from the rest of series seven

By Gabriel Tate

Are you going to die in every episode?

‘That would be giving it away… It’s a great premise to start off, but I don’t know if Steven [Moffat] could keep it up in every single episode. The new Clara from the end of the Christmas special is the Clara for the new series.’

She’s been a cockney barmaid, a governess, a Dalek… what’s the new Clara like?

‘She’s a contemporary girl. The mystery of the different Claras is going to be drawn out through the series, but the essence is always the same: she holds her own, she’s very resourceful, adventurous, quite fun and flirtatious. She isn’t always the damsel in distress and complements the Doctor very well.’

Did the fact she was a contemporary figure make her easier to play?

‘Personally, no. I’ve spent the last few years working in period dramas and playing characters quite far removed from myself, which I always find easier. The closer someone is to me, the harder it is to play.’

Do you see any of yourself in Clara?

‘Yeah. When I got the part, I’d auditioned for all these different characters in all these different accents, and I really didn’t have a clue what was going on. They were getting me to try loads of things because they were trying to figure out what they were looking for in a new companion. The original idea was for her to be the Mary Poppins-esque governess for the full time. But the part just evolved and bits of me kept appearing in Clara – things Steven couldn’t possibly have known, like that we both live in an attic bedroom. And now little sayings and quirks are being written into the character of Clara because of how I’ve played her.’

So the way you played the part persuaded Steven that Clara would be a contemporary figure?

‘Not exactly. I think it happened during the audition process. They had a lot of girls in to read for the Mary Poppins-esque role, but I think they were worried it might tire as a concept.’

How much do you know about Clara’s story?

‘I know where it ends now, but things are always moving in Steven’s mind. But he didn’t want to tell us until he’d figured it out – we only found out a couple of weeks before the end of filming.’

It reminds me of all the on-set secrecy over the identity of 'River Song'.

‘Yeah, Matt [Smith] told me about all that! I always wonder whether I’d have played it differently if I’d known what was to come [for Clara]. But I didn’t need to know because Clara didn’t know. The Doctor and Clara hit it off right away and are drawn to each other, but they’re also constantly trying to work each other out, even though they can’t stop hanging out together. The Doctor hates an unsolved mystery and that’s what she is… It’s a great dynamic to play.’

How would you describe your working relationship with Matt?

‘I came into this well-oiled machine trying to find my place, and when Matt’s the Doctor you have to be on the move all the time. So it was really interesting trying to figure out where I fitted in. Matt described it as a dance, and it is.’

Did that come from the audition? Because you and Matt were left to do some scenes together.

‘Yeah, I hadn’t watched a great deal of the show before, so I didn’t know Matt personally or as the Doctor. It helped because it made it very spontaneous. I had no idea what he was going to throw at me so my reactions to this alien in front of me were very genuine. The writing reflected what we were going through as actors, as we got to know each other.’

How did you prepare for the audition?

‘I was quite relaxed, really. I got the call while I was working on “Dancing on the Edge”. It was flattering, but it didn’t feel quite real. After my first audition with Matt, I was absolutely buzzing – I’d enjoyed it so much, having him throw me off in different directions. He made me feel like he was auditioning with me, which was lovely. It was only after the third audition that I was terrified, because I knew what I’d miss out on if I didn’t get it.’

Have you been able to apply the lessons you learnt when you worked on ‘Waterloo Road’ and ‘Emmerdale’?

‘I’m glad I did it the way I did, because “Emmerdale” and “Waterloo Road” are so fast, while we got a lot more time on “Titanic” and “Dancing on the Edge”. It was just a question of learning the technique of television acting.’

How has the reality of the show matched up to your expectations?

‘It’s the question I’m asked most. We spent seven or eight months of last year in the studio in Cardiff. You’re protected there, in a way, it’s like a big family unit. It’s odd because I’d almost forgotten people would get to see what we’d been working on all this time.’

Would you rather be able to soak it up a bit more?

‘No – if I started to think about that kind of pressure, it wouldn’t be useful. But after getting so used to walking around London and seeing big posters with Matt and Karen [Gillen], and then starting to see yourself on them, it’s hard not to feel a bit superimposed on to that kind of world.’

Do you have any favourite moments we should look out for?

‘We loved riding around London on a motorbike past all these London landmarks, like Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. That was a real “pinch yourself” moment. Or standing in an amphitheatre of aliens with prosthetic heads. Or walking on a cloud in the Christmas episode… And I’d never seen Matt as quiet on set as when Diana Rigg was working with his daughter, Rachael Stirling. We were just watching them in silence.’

Do you know what your role is in the fiftieth anniversary episode?

‘Vaguely – we’re starting to film soon. But I can tell you that Matt and I will be in it!’

Where in space and time would you send the Tardis?

‘I’d love to go to Ancient Egypt and solve the mystery of the pyramids.’

What else do you have coming up?

‘Just more “Doctor Who”! I can’t believe we’ve already done ten episodes. I know I’m around for the next little while, so it’ll be nice to feel a bit more cemented in the character. I can’t think of another TV drama where each new script is a completely new drama in a completely new space and time. And every two weeks, these amazing actors are coming in and out doing these great turns. You can’t relax on this show…’

Doctor Who’ returns on Saturday March 30 2013, 6.15pm, BBC1

The pace of the show seems to be getting faster and faster.

‘It’s got faster down the years, but then all television has. You do try and go madly fast in “Doctor Who”. We’ve got three fast-paced nailbiters in a row this year – we don’t settle down for ages.’

And we’re journeying to the centre of the Tardis in one episode?

‘You will see more of the Tardis than you ever have before. I remember years ago reading about an episode in the Radio Times where the doctor dodges the Suntarans through the many rooms of the Tardis. I could not wait for Saturday, but there was a problem with the scenery and they shot it all in a disused hospital and it was so disappointing! I thought, some day, I shall remedy this!’

How do you balance appealing to the fanboys with keeping the casual viewers interested?

‘People stop me in the street with the most abstruse questions, and they’re real people. Everyone’s a fan, and the level of knowledge is very intense. But it’s very easy to keep “Doctor Who” accessible, because it’s designed to be. The format is so simple: a man who can travel anywhere in time and space in a box that’s bigger on the inside. That’s it! Americans often ask me what a good jumping-on point is, which is like asking which James Bond film is a good one to start with is. They’re all fine, you’ll get it.’

And the Ice Warriors are back…

‘I don’t think we have to go into the back catalogue any more, now that the new and old shows are merged together. We thought, they’re slow-moving and you can’t really hear what they’re saying – is that the archetypal slightly silly monster? But Mark [Gatiss] had been going about it and started pitching a couple of very clever ideas about what we could do with an Ice Warrior. This one is a super version of the original.’

Do you ever worry about using the same idea in an episode of ‘Doctor Who’ and an episode of ‘Sherlock’?

‘They just live in different parts of my head. The pace of “Doctor Who” is completely different. “Sherlock” has this reputation of being really really fast, and it is, but it has the longest scenes in the world – nine minute scenes. It lives in a different place. Mark and I are always saying you can never do something, or not do something, because we both do both shows. You wouldn’t worry about that if they were made by different people.’

What are your own highlights from the new series?

‘The Doctor’s greatest secret will be revealed. It actually will!’

Doctor Who’ returns on Saturday March 30 2013, 6.15pm, BBC1

How has the Doctor responded to a new companion?

‘It’s nice for the Doctor. Having got his grieving for the Ponds out of the way, it’s reignited his curiosity in the universe and given him his mojo back.’

What can you say about the fiftieth anniversary episode?

‘I read the script and clapped at the end. It’s hilarious, epic and vast. It’s going to be the biggest, best, most exciting and inventive year for the series, and this script delivers on all those. It pays homage to everything and looks forward. We’re upping the scale a bit – there’s a bit more bang for your buck.’

Do you have any personal highlights from the new series?

‘We’ve got a submarine, the ice warriors, the Cybermen back in a new guise, Neil Gaiman writing a script, Diana Rigg playing an old hag – but brilliantly, with great charm and sexiness and grace… And I think, towards the end of the season, we might have one of the new classic monsters as well.’

Is it a struggle to keep everything such a secret?

‘You cultivate the habit of giving nothing away. It’s one of the responsibilities of being on the show – the show is based on impact.’

Doctor Who’ returns on Saturday March 30 2013, 6.15pm, BBC1

Read our review of the new 'Doctor Who'

Doctor Who - series seven, episode seven

4 out of 5 stars
Things to do TV, radio and podcast recordings

It’s been described as ‘Doctor Who’ does ‘Skyfall’ and, as a hectic, stunt-filled romp across London, this mid-series comeback certainly fits that bill. But there’s also more than a shade of ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’ and ‘Black Mirror’ in the concept of ‘The Bells of Saint John’, which sees Celia Imrie’s mysterious corporation hijacking wifi and uploading people’s souls to a data hub on behalf of a client whose motives are as mysterious as their identity.

Read the full 'Doctor Who' review

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