Snow under foot! Christmas lights! Tinsel! If there’s one thing the set of the Christmas Doctor Who promises to deliver it’s festive cheer by the sleigh‑load. I am at Roath Lock studios, in Cardiff, and, despite it being a mild day in September, I am walking down a Victorian street decked with boughs of holly and crispy snow. Noël feels very joyeux. Except that something isn’t quite right. This Christmas past is also a Christmas future. One shop has a sign in its window saying, “FAMILY OWNED FOR CCCLV YEARS”. Next door there is a poster for “UNION CLASS STARSHIPS”. And there, at the end of the street, nestled in the snow, is a blue police box…
“It’s the most Christmassy Doctor Who ever!” jokes Steven Moffat, the series’ executive producer, who’s written the Christmas special. “Obviously we hammer Christmas quite hard in the opening few minutes and then we just get on with it. But it is Christmassy in the sense that it’s a sort of funny, fast, madcap chase episode with the Doctor and a big robot… and River.
Ah yes, River. Next door to the Christmas set is another warehouse containing the Tardis’s circular interior and in it, running towards the camera and then being bounced back by a pulsating red laser beam, is Alex Kingston, aka River Song.
River is another time traveller who has gradually infused the series’ mythology since she first appeared in the show in 2008. Over more than 10 episodes, she has inhabited various guises, generally as a naughtier version of the Doctor who has his powers but not his sense of right and wrong. But it has been more than two years since we last saw her.
“I had sort of thought we were done with River,” says Moffat. “But Russell[T Davies] and I had been emailing about River. He was always saying, ‘You can’t not bring her back because she’s got to be together with [Peter]Capaldi [who plays the Doctor] – it will be a sex storm!’ ”
Kingston, speaking in a break during filming, reiterates the theme: “There have been moments on set where we’ve started to call it ‘Doctor Blue’. Say no more.”
Quite how this “sex storm” will fit in with the Christmas episode’s 5.15pm time slot remains to be seen. But the other elements that make up “classic” Who are all present and correct. River and the Doctor form a likeable couple with a different dynamic to the usual master/companion pairing.
“They’re equals,” says Kingston, who is wearing a leather jacket and some kind of gadget on her wrist. “River is never somebody who is asking him questions in the way that companions might. The interaction between the two is something like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn – there’s a fast-paced screwball quality to it.”
The pair find themselves being chased across space and time in the established manner by a very big, very nasty robot, played by Greg Davies. The BBC have taken two entire casts of his head in order to create a character called King Hydroflax whose body and brain are detachable.
When I meet Davies he is wearing a large smile and an even larger prosthetic scar on his left cheek. “He’s a petrifying – yet deluded – nine-foot cyborg,” says Davies, who is himself 6ft 8in. Davies is best known as a comedy performer – the addition of both him and Matt Lucas to the cast in guest roles suggests that the Christmas special is intended not only to be fun but to be funny too, a welcome shift in tone following a series that was criticised for being too dark and on too late (post 8pm on Saturdays).
One of the running gags is that, for a large part of the episode, River Song doesn’t recognise the Doctor – a pardonable error given that the last Doctor, to whom she was married, was Matt Smith, an actor nearly 25 years Capaldi’s junior.
In the story it’s played for laughs but it’s also recognition that Capaldi, 57, is a very different Doctor to the two young bucks who preceded him. When I meet him a few weeks later he is walking with a stick and looks tired. He is recovering from a knee operation caused, he says, by all that running down corridors he has had to do. A sign, perhaps, that these days the Doctor is a role for a younger man?
“It’s the same operation Matt Smith had!” he counters. “I took him for lunch the first time I met him and he was on crutches. I said, ‘What’s happened to you?’ He said, ‘This f—— show, mate!’ I never believed him – and now I’ve got exactly the same injury. You tend to twist your knee when you’re being chased by a monster and then you swivel around to present yourself to camera. It’s the curse of the Doctor…”
Capaldi says that he doesn’t read reviews but he admits that comments about his appointment and performance over the last two years have filtered back.
“Some feel good and some feel bad. I always think that if you’re Doctor Who, somebody somewhere’s going to love you. That’s comfort. But if people don’t like me there’ll be another one along in a minute. It’s only Doctor Who – and I say that with the greatest of respect and affection. It’s not a life-threatening illness.”
Does he mind the criticisms about his age? “No, because every Doctor should be different from the last one. If you want exclusively young, sexy guys, to me that’s not Doctor Who. You want occasional ones like that – but then some other eccentrics.”
Capaldi has already committed to a third year in the role, but nothing is set in stone after that.
“This could be my final year – it’s terrifying. I love Doctor Who but it can be quite an insular world and I do want to do other things. There will come a time when this is over. But I knew that when I started. I was thinking about my regeneration scene from the outset. That’s my terrible melancholic nature. When you accept the job you know there’ll come a day, inevitably, when you’ll be saying goodbye.”
For now, though, he is delighted to see the show back in the schedules where it belongs: the tea‑time slot.
“It’s a very festive, light‑hearted Christmas afternoon show,” he says. “Although a lot of adults really like it, at its heart Doctor Who is designed to entertain children as well. I like the idea of families watching together. That’s what I did when I was a child.”
First published in The Telegraph