It’s been a long wait for Doctor Who fans since the 2012 Christmas Special “The Snowman,” which introduced the mystery of Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Louise-Coleman. Indeed, Matt Smith’s portrayal of The Doctor returns Saturday with “The Bells of St. John,” which sees The Doctor back in action in a big way following the events of the first half of the season, when his longtime companions Amy Pond and Rory Williams disappeared from his life.
To give viewers a better idea of what to expect from the latter half of Season 7, showrunner Steven Moffat joined press for a conference call to discuss the upcoming midseason premiere, the villainous Spoonheads, the structure of a Doctor Who adventure, the return of the Ice Warriors and — of course — the introduction of Jenna Louise-Coleman as The Doctor’s new companion.
“Doctor Who is more the story, in a way, about the companion,” Moffat said. “It’s her take on The Doctor, it’s her adventure she goes on with the Doctor. It’s a story that you tell because the companion, the other character, changes more than the Doctor ever does. What Jenna in particular brings, she has a speed and wit and unimpressed quality that makes the Doctor dance a bit harder, he works a little harder with Clara. Clara is a little bit of a reach — obviously, secretly devoted to him — but a little harder to impress. She’s tough, she’s fast and she’s hard to impress exactly in the way the Doctor generally speaking doesn’t like, but he’s absolutely devoted to Clara. That’s very much driven by Jenna’s particular style. It’s a very, very fast, snappy style. She’s a beautiful girl, but there’s a toughness in that face of someone who could be a real adversary if she wants to be.”
Moffat has been teasing Clara’s arrival for some time, first with Louise-Coleman’s appearance in “Asylum of the Daleks” and later on in “The Snowmen,” but even as the show moves on from fan-favorite companion Amy Pond, the showrunner still draws parallels between Clara and Amy. A recent online prologue for “The Bells of St. John” saw the Doctor interact with a young Clara Oswald, much in the same manner he first met Amy.
“He’s had such an odd introduction to Clara twice and lost her twice in such exotic surroundings — in the Dalek and then in the governess who is also a barmaid — I thought it would be nice if we did something just sweet and ordinary,” Moffat said of the prologue. “Something that specifically calls back to Amy, which I’ve done twice now with the Pond thing and that, sort of keys up the fact that the relationship, whether he likes it or not, is coming back, that there are resemblances. I suppose I’m a bit interested — too interested — in the fact that the Doctor’s lifespan and time-traveling ways means that really when he knows somebody, he probably knows them over a huge amount of their lifespan and a tiny amount of his. I was always interested in exploring that — he can know them as a child, he can know them as an adult, he can know them as an old person.”
Moffat places great importance on the companions beyond mere affection, as he feels they’re integral to telling an effective story.
“A hero is somebody who saves the day and does something extraordinary to stand back and admire — and that’s the Doctor. For the story to have an emotional connection, it has to happen to somebody,” he said. “The Doctor himself has to happen to somebody. Very often in Doctor Who, the companion is sort of the main character — not the hero, not the one with all the cool moments — but is the person who’s story it is and how this experience changed them. We never see how the Doctor began his journey; we’ll probably never see how he ends it, we’ll probably never know why he embarked on it. We know all those companions, who they were before they met the Doctor. We know why they ran away with him, we know exactly where they ended up. Those stories are complete. The Doctor is the enigma that enters their lives and changes them. The story is always about the person that changes the most rather than necessarily about the person who affects those changes.”
He noted the vital importance of developing companions from the ground up as “somebody who would fly away in the TARDIS and the Doctor would want to fly away in the TARDIS.”
“I think when you start with a character who’s going to be a companion, who’s going to be on the TARDIS, you can’t think of the word ‘companion.’ You can’t think that they know that they’re a supporting character on a TV show,” Moffat said. “The Doctor’s quite picky, he doesn’t like everybody, he’s a difficult man to deal with — so it’s not anybody that he forms up a friendship with. What sort of person would run through those blue doors? An awful lot of people would run the other direction, probably including me to be honest when I found out how dangerous it was. You have to imagine somebody who is ready to say, ‘Yes’ to running away with a clearly insane man with a time machine. 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.”
While the companion may be the one through which the story is told, the Doctor has his fair share of problems — including the revelation over the last few seasons that it’s bad news for him when he travels alone.
“If you were told that the way you could heal yourself and make yourself a better person and to function better was the permanently endanger another human being, you might be hesitant, [to bring on a companion],” Moffat said. “He is aware that he causes damage to those people — or can cause damage to the people — that travel with him and he keeps them in terrible danger. He’s also aware that a relationship and a friendship for him, like it or not, is postponed bereavement, and it’s not even postponed that long. He will outlive them. They will die and he will be roughly the same age. I think those two factors make him very, very hesitant about taking someone onboard. There’s also the fact that he’s the Doctor. Can you imagine trying to tell The Doctor something, trying to put him right, trying to explain something to him and have him believe you? He, generally speaking, does know better than you, but he always thinks he does. He’d be a hard man, I think, to advise.”
In addition to Clara, “The Bells of St. John” introduces to Doctor Who mythology the Spoonheads, a race that manages to infiltrate the Wi-Fi network of the entire Earth, and makes a worthy addition to Moffat’s growing rogues gallery of the Weeping Angels and The Silence.
“Suffice to say, Wi-Fi covers every civilized country now, so if something got into the Wi-Fi, that would be a problem for us all. It’d be a new way to invade us,” he said. “I never really know which ones are going to be scary and so on, but I’d really say that I suppose ‘The Bells of St. John’ is an action roller coaster, whereas the Weeping Angels story and The Silence story were more consciously designed to be scary adventures. It’s really not up to me, it’s up to the kids to say which ones gives them nightmares. So, I’ll not pre-judge it. I think they’re quite creepy, I think it’s a rollicking adventure ride. I think it’s a cracker of an episode.”
The following episode, “Cold War,” will feature the reintroduction of the Ice Warriors to Doctor Who, brought on largely by the insistence of Moffat’s Sherlock cohort Mark Gatiss.
“I wasn’t that keen initially about bringing the Ice Warriors back. They had never been a special favorite of mine in the old series,” Moffat said. “I thought they were good, but I never quite got into them. Mark Gatiss kept nagging me about bringing them back and then he came up with an idea, which I won’t tell you — I’ll leave that as a surprise, which really made them come to life for me. At that point, I really got into it. That was Mark’s creativity rather than mine. They are far, far less familiar to the general audience than say, the Daleks or the Cybermen or Dagross, where you feel you have to wing the changes a bit with the look of them because they’re very familiar. With the Ice Warriors, we wanted to create a really good, super-duper version of the one that’s already there. It’s a design classic buffed up a bit for HD rather than changed or revised. That was the challenge — to make the ones they designed for the fuzzy old televisions work for the other less forgiving cameras of today.”
Gatiss was also responsible for the appearance of Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachel Sterling in an upcoming episode.
“[He] was appearing in a play with Diana Rigg’s daughter, Rachel Sterling, and he was writing the episode at the time and said, ‘I think you and your mom should play the mother/daughter part in this Doctor Who I’m writing,’ and they were up for it,” Moffat said. “It’s all down to Mark and his little black book. He knows absolutely everybody.”
Rigg’s appearance is one of the many exciting aspects of this season, which happens to fall during the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. While Moffat admitted he was “concerned” about making the anniversary year “special and big,” the team isn’t primarily concerned with looking back, but going forward.
“It’s about the next 50 years, not the last 50 years,” Moffat said. “If you start thinking it’s all about nostalgia, then you’re finished. It’s about moving forward. The Doctor is moving forward as he always does. He wants to solve the mystery of Clara. He’s not thinking of all his previous incarnations, all his previous adventures. He’s thinking about the future. 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.”
Doctor Who returns with “The Bells of St. John” Saturday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on BBC America.