Doctor Who: Peter Capaldi reveals the Special delights of playing The Doctor
Peter Capaldi admits he felt a little bit lonely coming onto a Doctor Who set without his usual "companion" Jenna Coleman.
The 58-year-old actor, who plays the 12th incarnation of the much-loved Time Lord on the long-running BBC sci-fi series, says the 30-year-old had "looked after him" right from the start of his Tardis reign in 2013. Coleman, who played Clara Oswald, left the show last year to pursue other acting jobs.
"She's always been there – she was my chum, my pal," says Capaldi down the phoneline from the UK, where here's in the middle of shooting the latest season. "It felt odd without her, but in a way that's alright because I think that's how The Doctor feels sometimes, so that was actually quite useful."
And besides, The Doctor has made some new friends. A new companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) will be introduced when the latest full season debuts early next year, but in the meantime there's a trio of characters onboard for this coming week's Doctor Who Christmas Special.
* Doctor Who's Peter Capaldi shares what to expect from the Christmas special
* Writer Moffat leaving Doctor Who after next season
* Former Doctor Who Peter Davison says role should never be played by a woman
* Doctor Who spin-off 'Class' cast is revealed
* Doctor Who actor Peter Capaldi visits New Zealand, is unimpressed by local delicacy
Subtitled The Return of Doctor Mysterio, the 60-minute festive episode (which debuts on Prime and in select cinemas on Boxing Day) involves The Doctor teaming up with Nardole (Matt Lucas' character, who was introduced in last year's Christmas Special),
Journalist Lucy Fletcher (The Player's Charity Wakefield) and a superhero called The Ghost (Orphan Black's Justin Chatwin) to battle brain-swapping aliens in New York.
Written by showrunner Steven Moffat and directed by former Vapors rock star Edward Bazalgette (they had a massive hit in 1980 with Turning Japanese), Capaldi describes the episode as "a genuine response to Christmas", but one which "evokes Christmas feelings without being exclusively about snow and mistletoe and tinsel".
"This is a gentle tribute to the superhero movies that used to show on Christmas Day – the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, for example. Those are very different to the superhero movies now, which are all very violent and very knowing. These were warmer, more ironic and had a deliberately naïve quality to them – which sort of suits Christmas Day and suits Doctor Who."
While it's our first glimpse of The Doctor in a year, Capaldi says he's actually been filming this and episodes for the upcoming season for the past six months.
"We didn't have as big a gap as the audience have, but it was still a bit worrying returning after a bit of a break. You think to yourself, 'how do I do this again?' and 'who is this person'. But actually it was fine because it is a mystery who he is, so it should always be a little bit tricky to 'find him'. I never really look for a familiarity. I think if you get into a groove with something, that's a wrong place to be as an actor. You should be constantly looking for new ways to do things."
The annual "Christmas Specials" give him a particular licence to do that, with their lighter tone and increased comedy quotient. Capaldi admits that he tends not to try and add to the number of gags himself, because the scripts are already quite full of them.
"And to be honest, it takes all my time to learn the lines and do the gags they have written for me already. But I do through things in that emerge as we go along.
"Obviously we now have Matt Lucas with us now too. He's fantastic and hugely funny and great to have around. He comes up with lots of great stuff."
As for the relationship between The Doctor and Lucas' Nardole, something that will explored throughout the 2017 season, Capaldi describes it as "interesting" and "complicated". "When you see us together, he looks quite alien, but in a gently comic kind of way. He definitely looks like he's from another planet. I think that brings another colour, another aspect to the show, which is good."
But what about new stars Wakefield and Chatwin – did they need much schooling about the world of Doctor Who?
"Charity knew about it because she's British, but it was kind of a mystery to Justin. Both, though, were absolutely fantastic. That's the wonderful thing about Doctor Who – it attracts such really good actors. It doesn't matter if they don't know anything about it – that's irrelevant. Once you tell them the basic premise, they just run with it."
So what then is the key to being a good Doctor Who actor?
"I think it's understanding the tone of it – the nature of it. This is a programme that has to swing from panto to tragedy – often in the same scene. From a gag-fest to an intellectual rumination on existence – often in the same scene. Once you get into the swing of that, you'll be fine."
With Chatwin and Wakefield, Capaldi says they were both able to hit the right tone of satire needed for their roles. "They are kind of playing sort of echoes of Clark Kent and Lois Lane so they had to be able to do that with great aplomb."
He also promises that this episode's New York setting is not simply pandering to the programme's burgeoning popularity in the US (indeed it's by no means The Doctor's first visit to the Big Apple).
"It's just a very exciting city that has a place in popular culture that is very strong. Most people who visit there have a feeling of familiarity or that they are going home because they've seen it so much in film and television. It's a place that can be a very evocative setting for almost anything and it brings a kind of energy or filmic quality to whatever you are doing. With us, and this particular episode, it just seemed absolutely the appropriate place to have a superhero adventure."
When we speak, earlier this month, Capaldi was about to have a few days off to return to another popular character – Paddington's Mr Curry. He's delighted to be joining the fun of making a sequel to the 2013 smash-hit family film. As for his future in the Tardis, Capaldi won't be drawn on how much longer he'll stay and says he doesn't even like to know much about what boss Moffat (who is in his final season on the show) and other have in store for him.
"Unless there's something I specifically have to work on to make it happen, I tend to not want to know what's up ahead. I'm not sure if it will really improve my performance by knowing what happens next. People in life don't know what's going to happen next, so I'd rather be ignorant. Steven [Moffat] tells me a little bit about the shape, but then he might tell me that three months before we begin shooting. In that intervening time, so many new ideas can emerge and things change that they become a different set of stories altogether, so until we get the script in front of us we don't know which ideas are going to land."
But there's an added complication here. Capaldi is playing a character who can travel through space and time and potentially knows everything. So does that make things trickier to navigate as an actor?
"The fact is, The Doctor knows a lot more than he ever let's on. Yes, my feeling is he probably does know everything. If you can travel back and forth in time and you're travelling with people, you'll have a consciousness about what's going to happen, especially to them. Also, if you are a Timelord, not a human being, they way you perceive time, understand and experience it, is completely different.
"I actually think that is one of the great reasons why he carries a deep well of melancholia with him. I think he knows how doomed a lot of people are and how the universe works. So I think he choose to ignore that knowledge.
"Yes it does make it difficult for me, but also fascinating as well, because I'm receiving a different set of info from all the other characters. I know things they don't know and can never know. That is one of the great delights and mysteries of playing The Doctor."
The Doctor Who Christmas Special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, will air on Prime at 7.30pm on Boxing Day. It will also screen in select cinemas (with a special introduction and behind-the-scenes footage) earlier in the day.