There’s nothing like being on the Doctor Who Christmas special set to get you in a Yuletide mood. It’s August when I visit the Cardiff studio, but a blanket of snow covers the narrow streets of Victorian London and, round one corner, I glimpse the Tardis surrounded by pine trees. The show’s festive episode is always one of the biggest events of the TV calendar, but there’s an extra reason to watch this year. It’s the first time fans will see Jenna-Louise Coleman as the Doctor’s new sidekick, Clara.
When Karen Gillan’s replacement was announced, there was a collective cry of “Who?” While the 26-year-old undoubtedly has an impressive CV – she’s enjoyed stints in Emmerdale and Waterloo Road – before getting the Dr Who gig, Coleman wasn’t exactly a household name.
Fans of the show are notoriously protective of the format and the characters and any new addition to the cast has to prove their worth before being fully accepted into the Whovian family. It was the same for Gillan’s own predecessors Freema Agyeman and Catherine Tate who became the Timelord’s companions following the departure of Billie Piper.
However, when Coleman made a surprise appearance in the show earlier this year as a Dalek called Oswin, some viewers were left feeling a little confused. Was the good doctor really about to team up with one of his sworn enemies? It seems not.
“I’m not Oswin. I’m a different person,” says Coleman, fresh from wardrobe in a corseted burgundy gown – the Christmas Day episode is blessed with a large injection of Dickensian festive spirit.
“The connection is that it’s me playing both characters, but that’s the mystery. This is the starting point from where the rest of the series will go...”
Coleman tails off, at pains not to reveal too much.
As usual, the episode, titled The Snowmen, is shrouded in secrecy. Writer Steven Moffat has said he prefers to keep details of the Christmas-day plot a closely guarded secret and it’s a philosophy apparently embraced by the rest of the cast. What we do know is that it features the villainous Dr Simeon, played by Richard E Grant, who controls an army of snowmen with icicles for teeth.
We also know that Coleman is introduced as a barmaid in the Rose and Crown pub, but it is later revealed that she is a governess with a complex backstory of her own.
“Clara is feisty and curious. She’s up for adventure and knows what she wants and is very witty,” says Coleman. “She’s not intimated by the Doctor – she finds him amazing and ridiculous in equal measures. She’s on her own mission and lives by her own means. She is very resourceful.”
Whenever a new companion is introduced, there is one question which is always asked – is there a chance they and the Doctor will be more than just good friends?
“There’s definitely a flirtation between them both and they’re definitely drawn to each other,” is all Coleman will say.
“I would describe the relationship as something we are still developing. It is an interesting dynamic. It is a push and pull and there is a challenging nature to it. There is conflict but they really like each other and can’t help it.”
Born and brought up in Blackpool, Coleman’s career took off when she was offered the part of Emmerdale’s Jasmine Thomas while auditioning for drama schools.
Moving to Yorkshire, she proved a natural on the small screen and was nominated for a string of awards.
“I was a lesbian and had an affair with my best friend, Debbie,” says Coleman. “Then I got pregnant by her dad and I had an abortion and killed him with a chair leg.”
When Waterloo Road and a part in Julian Fellowes’ four-part Titanic drama came next and Coleman was quietly becoming an actress in demand. However, nothing could have prepared her for the demands of being part of the Doctor Who franchise. While a regular part on the show guarantees the kind of publicity many actors would kill for, the pressure to deliver is immense.
Before the official announcement was made, Coleman got a taste of things to come when she was told by Doctor Who producers to deny all involvement in the show.
“I wasn’t even allowed to say what I was auditioning for, I had to call it Men On Waves,” she says. “And we had different character names – Jasmine was one of them.”
“We had three auditions in the BBC basement and then I was told I was allowed to tell my mum I’d got the job because Karen did. I think my mum thought I was lying or winding her up.
“My friends knew I was auditioning but didn’t know what it was for. I had to tell them I didn’t get the part. I spun this web of lies and it got very extravagant.
“I live with a couple of my old school friends, so I had to make a decision about who to tell first. Some were initially a bit put out about the lies. But they were all really pleased for me.”
Probably sensibly, Coleman has been on a self-imposed “Google ban” ever since her casting was announced, but even having cut herself off from the online forums she admits the past few months have “been kind of crazy”.
“For the last two years I’ve mainly been doing period dramas and now I’ve been thrown into this world where there’s CGI monsters and a host of special effects. It’s very technical but also very fun and adventurous and it’s OK to run down a corridor shouting.
“It’s incredible being able to glimpse behind the scenes. Whole new sets can be built within just a couple of weeks. For the Christmas Day episode the set was filled with snow machines and it’s impossible not to feel like a big kid – it’s a licence to be as silly and ridiculous as you like.
“Having said all that, some of the scripts are so emotional and heartfelt as well. Being in this show really does give you everything, as an actress it would be hard to ask for anything more.”
However, Coleman admits that she did struggle in the early days with the sheer amount of action-packed scenes. “I get so carried away with the adventure that I’d end up being really clumsy and headbutting the camera in every single episode.”
The intense workload has had its advantages in that she’s had no time to process the enormity of the role. However, she has had support from those well versed in the Doctor Who machine, including her predecessor.
“Karen’s been great. One day I was pacing around the set and while I was trying to figure out a particular scene I checked my phone. She’d just sent me a text saying, ‘Good luck, you’re going to blow them out of the park’. She’s also told me the best places to eat in Cardiff and Matt has always got an ear out for me.
“I watched Karen’s last five episodes as we were filming. It was strange to watch her goodbye as I was just beginning. I don’t see it as me having to fill Karen’s shoes and I’m not sure that’s a particularly healthy way to look at it.
“It’s a whole new story, a whole new character. The Doctor has changed and it’s the beginning of a brand new journey. There’s no other way to consider it, than as something totally different.”
For his part, Smith says Coleman’s presence in the show will have an interesting effect on his alter ego, who’s feeling lonely and glum in a post-Ponds world. “He’s presented with this young beautiful woman and that does strange things to the Doctor – again. And it’s nice. Clara is very different to Amy, but that’s what’s so brilliant about the show. It allows itself to reinvent all the time.”
Smith, who has played the demanding role for three years, refuses to be drawn on when he will eventually hang up his sonic screwdriver, but says he hopes to be around for next year’s Christmas special.
But, for now, he’s thrilled to be involved in the 2012 festive episode. “I’m very proud to be a part of it,” he says. “It always feels special. I’ll probably be sitting down with the family to watch it. It’s one of the shows that can do Christmas properly and this is a proper Christmas treat.”
Doctor Who Christmas Special, BBC1, Christmas Day, 5.15pm.