Breakdown – Steven Moffat on Jenna-Louise Coleman and the return of Doctor Who

[Editor's Note: You can read our in-depth review of "The Bells of Saint John" here.]

When The Doctor returns to battle in his trademark blue police box on Saturday, he will be doing it without Amy and Rory Pond, the two companions who have until now been a staple of lead writer and executive producer Steven Moffat’s time at the helm of Doctor Who.

In a conference call with reporters earlier this week, Moffat talked about this Saturday’s episode, “The Bells of St. John,” and gave some insight into Clara Oswald, the show’s newest companion. Incarnations of Oswald, played be Jenna-Louise Coleman, have already appeared in two previous episodes this season. Both of those versions of Clara ended up dying. But in “The Bells of St. John,” The Doctor will stumble across a third incarnation of Oswald, one who is living in modern day London.

While the mystery of Clara being “twice dead” gives the season an intriguing mystery to unravel, the key to making the show work is finding the right companion to play off The Doctor. Moffat explained why finding a great companion is so important to the vitality of the show.

Doctor Who is almost more, in a way, the story of the companion. It’s her take on The Doctor, it’s her adventure she goes on with The Doctor,” Moffat said.

In Moffat’s eyes, this is the only way to tell the story, since the companion is the character the audience relates to while The Doctor is a mysterious, god-like figure who is difficult to truly know and understand.

“A hero is somebody who saves the day and is extraordinary and you stand back and admire and that’s The Doctor,” explained Moffat. “But for the storytelling, the emotional connection has to happen to somebody. The Doctor himself has to happen to somebody. And so you very often in Doctor Who the companion is sort of the main character – not the hero, not the one with all the cool lines, not with all the cool moments, but is the hero.”

In finding a new companion to replace The Ponds, Moffat had a specific set of rules in his head that he followed. The first rule is finding someone who is compatible with the madman in the box.

“You have to think this is somebody a) who would fly away in that TARDIS and b) The Doctor would want to fly away in the TARDIS. The Doctor is quite picky he doesn’t like everybody. He’s a difficult man to deal with, so it’s not anybody that he actually formed a proper friendship with,” said Moffat.

Compatibility is one thing, but before you can get to know The Doctor and find out if you two get along, you first have to trust him enough to run away with him inside the TARDIS. And that takes a very specific type of person to be willing to run away with a stranger.

“I don’t know what sort of person would run through those blue doors. A lot of people would run the other direction, probably including me, to be honest, when I discovered how dangerous it was,” the executive producer admitted. “So you have to imagine somebody who’s ready to say yes to running away with a clearly insane man and ride in a time machine and that is your starting point with that character.

“What point in their life are they? What decisions have they made? What worked out and what hasn’t worked out for them that leads them to respond positively to a travel request from a lunatic in a bow tie?”

The other challenge is finding a compelling reason for The Doctor to invite a new companion into the TARDIS. Throughout his run on the series, Moffat has explored the idea that The Doctor needs humans in his life to keep him from becoming too cold and too removed from society. But it’s still a tough sell to convince him to let someone into his life, since inevitably that person will either die long before he will or he or she will leave him to return to a “normal” life.

“If you were told the way to heal yourself and to make yourself a better person and function better was to permanently endanger another human being, you might be hesitant too,” said Moffat. “He is aware that he causes damage to those people or can cause damage to those people he travels with and he puts them in terrible danger. He’s also aware that a relationship or a friendship for him, like it or not, is postponed bereavement and it’s not even postponed that long. You know that he will outlive them, they will die and he will be roughly the same age. So I think those two factors make him very, very hesitant about taking someone on board.”

With Clara, Moffat designed a mystery that The Doctor has to solve. He’s desperate to make sense of why this girl keeps showing up in his life and why he has twice failed to save her. So he is drawn to her. But the modern-day Clara isn’t that impressed by The Doctor, at least not initially. She’s reluctant to run off with inside the TARDIS with this bizarre stranger.

“The Doctor is always the remote, inaccessible, mysterious one and the companion is always the fluffy, friendly one – well, Amy tested that theory from time to time,” Moffat said, “where at this time Clara is the slightly difficult to get to know one that is probably going to be slightly difficult to hug and because The Doctor is haunted by her and met her twice before, he is slightly the needy one. So I like throwing in that around, she’s the unsolvable mystery in the enigma and he’s the one chasing after her. It’s a reversal of the normal Doctor-companion dynamic, which I’ve been rather enjoying.”

Once he created Clara and built a season-spanning mystery around here, the next thing Moffat had to do was find the right actor for the role. Moffat described Jenna-Louise Coleman as “terrific” and explained that it was clear she was the right person for the role.

“She’s a terribly, terribly good actress. I know that sounds like a terribly dull thing to say, but it’s the truth. You can be as beautiful and charming as you like, if you’re not terrific at acting, it will mean nothing on the screen. But she’s a terrific actress,” Moffat said.

He added: “In addition, she looks great, she has great comic timing. She looks like she belongs somehow next to Matt Smith. When the two can stand together, it looks like an instant team. They have enough in common and yet have enough sharp contrast that it’s instant poster when you stand them together.”

For their first adventure together, The Doctor and Clara will find themselves facing off against a new set of villains – the Spoonheads. Moffat was tight-lipped on exactly what the Spoonheads are, but he did explain that they would be using Wi-Fi to terrorize the populace.

“I’m not going to tell very much because you’ll learn all about them on Saturday, but suffice to say Wi-Fi covers every civilized country now,” said Moffat. “So if something got into the Wi-Fi, that would be a problem for us all, a new way to invade us. Beyond that the Spoonheads are for Saturday.”

Moffat was similarly secretive about his plans for the rest of the season, though he did give a few hints at what’s in store for the Time Lord and his new companion. Moffat promised that we would get to the bottom of the enigma surrounded Clara by the end of the season. He also promised that a classic race of villains would resurface – the Ice Warriors.

The Ice Warriors will be returning in “Cold War,” an episode that takes place aboard a submarine. It was the writer of that episode, Mark Gatiss, who convinced Moffat to bring back the vintage villains.

“The impetus really was Mark Gatiss,” Moffat said. “I wasn’t that keen initially on bringing the Ice Warriors back. They’ve never been any special favorite of mine in the old series. I thought they were good but I never quite got into them, but Mark Gatiss kept nagging me about bringing them back and then he came up with an idea, which I’m going to leave that as a surprise in Cold War, which really made them come to life for me.”

Moffat said one of the biggest challenges was updating the look of the Ice Warriors for modern viewers. While he has previously felt the need to change the appearance of more iconic foes like the Daleks and the Cybermen to keep them from looking stale, for the Ice Warriors he was simply worried about making sure they didn’t look cheesy on high-definition television sets.

“It’s a design classic buffed up a bit for HD, rather than changed or revised I would say and that was the challenge to make. The one that they designed for the fuzzy old televisions weren’t for the other, less-forgiving HD cameras of today,” said Moffat.

While he was reluctant to go into too much detail about what was in store for the rest of the season, Moffat was even more reluctant to talk about the fast-approaching Doctor Who 50th anniversary special.

“I’m going to stick to talking about Saturday and this series,” Moffat said when first asked about the special. “We’ll deliver a good show, but more of that later. I want to concentrate on what we’re going to do on Saturday, which is a whole eight episodes before we even have to worry about that. But we’ll deliver, I’m pretty confident.”

When further pressed about the 50th anniversary, Moffat said that he felt dwelling too much on the past was something he thought could be detrimental to the show.

“It’s all about the next 50 years, not about the last 50 years,” said Moffat. “If you start putting a full stop on it, if you start thinking it’s all about nostalgia, then you’re finished. It’s about moving forward.

“So, you know, The Doctor is moving forward, as he always does and he wants to solve the mystery of Clara. He’s not thinking about all his previous incarnations and his previous adventures, he’s thinking about the future. And that for me is important.The show must never feel old. It must always feel brand new and a 50th anniversary can play against that.”

Living in the present and always moving forward is a philosophy Moffat shares with The Doctor.

“I would say that my favorite episode is next Saturday’s episode and that’s probably always true. It’s probably always true that the next one on is the one I’m most focused on and I’m most excited about,” said Moffat.

It’s safe to assume Moffat isn’t the only person ridiculously excited about “The Bells of St. John” on Saturday. Much like The Doctor, Whovians will be flocking to their TV sets to try to get to the bottom of the mystery of Clara.

That’s what happens when you find the right companion.

And another thing …

Here are a few other fun tidbits from Moffat’s conference call:

  • Moffat on why the show is suddenly so popular in America: “Accessibility in a way … you can start watching Doctor Who at any point in its history. You don’t have to catch up with the rest of it. It’s a very simple myth. It’s a man that can travel anywhere in time and space inside a box bigger on the inside. That’s as much format as we have. You can join it anytime, absolutely get a hold of it and, you know, dare I say I just think it’s one of the great pieces of television entertainment that’s ever been.

    “That’s why we latch onto it, it’s terrific, it’s simple to understand what it’s about and it’s hugely entertaining and every so often it completely reinvents itself to feel at home in its new era, which is really is key ingredient.”

  • Moffat on the pressures of writing iconic characters: “You have to treat those characters – I’ll get into trouble for saying this – as if they’re your own. Otherwise you’re not writing them properly. I keep saying to the writers and directors that have come on to Doctor Who and Sherlock, ‘Treat it like you own it it’s not an heirloom.’ You have to be authorial, even though you know in your heart it’s not really yours, you behave as though it is.”
  • Moffat on which of his villains is his favorite to write: “I’m tempted to say Weeping Angels because I’m standing looking at one because it’s in my back garden. I probably – the one I got the most kick out of might have been the Silence.

    “I loved the gimmick of the Silence – you couldn’t remember them. I just thought finding ways to employ that and finding ways to make that frightening and I think pretty involved than I’ve used so far. I think was a very exciting thing I hugely enjoyed writing the Silence.

    “The Weeping Angels are of course by far actually was the most popular adversary I’ve invented and I’m sure will always be the most popular ones I’ve invented. But they are a bugger to write because they don’t move and it’s always really hard to work out how you’re going to do a chase scene this time.”

  • Moffat on why he depicted Clara as a child in the online prequel: “I suppose I’m only a bit interested – maybe too interested I’m sure some people would say – in the fact that The Doctor’s lifespan and time traveling ways means really when he knows somebody he probably knows them over a huge amount of their life span and a tiny span of his.

    “And I’m always quite interested in exploring that. He can know them as a child, he could know them as an adult, he could know them as an old person. I’m absolutely fascinated by that, possibly too fascinated I’m sure I should stop repeating myself but I think that’s probably why.”

Written by Joel Murphy. Doctor Who returns Saturday night on BBC America. You can contact Joel at murphyslaw@hobotrashcan.com.

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  1. Jenn March 29, 2013
  2. Joel Murphy March 29, 2013

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