Acting in Doctor Who special was ‘heaven’

The Doctor Who Christmas Special is something of an institution in the UK.

It is almost as much of a TV tradition as watching the Queen's Speech, just with more aliens and time travel.

This year's special - titled Twice Upon a Time - is a major milestone for the series.

Not only is it the last episode to feature Oscar-winner Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, it is also the last episode for current showrunner Steven Moffat.

Of course, as has been widely reported, Capaldi will be handing the role of enigmatic time-traveller to Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to take on the iconic mantle, while Moffat hands the reins to Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall.

It is also a finale for writer and actor Mark Gatiss.

Primarily known for his work in dark comedy The League Of Gentlemen, Game Of Thrones or as Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock, Gatiss has been part of the Who family since it's relaunch in 2005.

Of course he's been a fan of the 54-year-old franchise since he was a youngster but even playing The Doctor in a spoof of the show in 2000.

Since 2005, he has written nine episodes and featured in four.

Twice Upon a Time will make it five (though on the second time he will be recognisable on camera) as he plays a First World War captain caught between two Doctors as the Twelfth will meet his original self, the First Doctor, played by David Bradley (who you will from Game Of Thrones or the Harry Potter films).

Here, Gatiss talks about this epic swan song.

What can we look forward to in this episode?

This is not just a Christmas special, it's also the end of Steven Moffat's era and the end of Peter Capaldi's era. It's got two Doctors interacting, two TARDISes, Bill (the Doctor's companion played by Pearl Mackie) is back, and there's a very interesting new threat. Plus there's lots of snow, lots of laughs and lots of tears and - not only that - we get to meet the Thirteenth Doctor. Lucky for some!

How did you get the casting call?

It happened very touchingly a couple of months ago.

We were at a script meeting for the series ten episode I'd written, Empress of Mars, when Steven took me aside and said "I know you get booked up quickly so will you keep June and July free?"

I said yes straight away, and then asked why! He said "I'm writing a part you'd be perfect for in Peter's last story, and I want you to be there when I go".

Which is a Doctorish line in itself and made me well up.

It's my privilege and pleasure to be involved. It was honestly one of the happiest jobs I've ever had.

It's been utterly delightful with Peter, Pearl and David. Though dealing with epic themes it's actually quite a contained, intimate story on one level - in some ways a chamber piece. We've had a really good laugh. It's been delightful.

Pearl Mackie as Bill, Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and David Bradley as The Doctor in Twice Upon A Time
Pearl Mackie as Bill, Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and David Bradley as The Doctor in Twice Upon A TimePHOTO: BBC

What was it like to finally get to travel with the doctor?

It was heaven - I got to do it all!

At one point I even come through the TARDIS doors and say in amazement "it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside!".

All these things I've always wanted to do! I did have to ask myself how I would cope with experiencing that, and actually I made sure that my character didn't get used to it too quickly.

I wanted to make sure you get a sense - which is in the script - of The Captain being overwhelmed by it all and really shocked, rather than just taking it in his stride. But at the same time he is a soldier, so he reacts to certain other situations in quite a straight forward way.

Were there any sets or locations that you particularly enjoyed working on?

I play a Captain from the First World War so there is a trench and battlefield element, which we filmed on location across a number of fields. We had one hundred extras playing German, French and British soldiers and it was really very moving to be part of. Something about the sheer amount of people in these splendid uniforms.

The weather was quite drizzly, but it suited the story and it got very muddy, which of course it really would have been. There was an incredible moment when all these extras swarmed over the battlefield - at which point everyone on set was tearing up. It was moving and extraordinary to be a part of.

How would you describe the tone of this episode?

It's a very funny and very lovely story. It's perfect for Christmas as - for me at least - I feel that Christmas is always a mixture of happy and sad. It's Peter's last story and it's obviously infused with that, but it's a story that takes place out of time, where he has one last adventure before he goes and regenerates into the Thirteenth Doctor. And I suppose it's about that - it's about letting go.

The Twelfth Doctor's encounter with the First Doctor is the central part of the story, with all the lessons that he learns from that.

How did you feel to be part of Peter's final episode?

I know that Peter really just wanted to enjoy his last adventure. I'm sure that as he got to the last few days the sense of finality will have sunk in - you know, "that's the last time on location, that's the last time I'll run down a corridor, that's the last time I fight a monster…" etcetera, but it was a really joyous shoot to be a part of.

With my old Doctor Who fan head on, to be a part of any Doctor's final adventure was incredible, but particularly for Peter who I think has been magnificent. It's the end of so many eras and you couldn't help but feel that. It was a real pleasure.

Why should we tune in to Twice Upon A Time?

There's always something magical about being on Christmas Day, and I think Doctor Who itself has a magic to it.

Somewhere deep in its bones there's something brilliant about this show, and the combination of the two things gives you that shiver. It's a wonderful thing to be there as a Christmas Day treat.

This episode, as it's the end of an era, has that. Christmas is an interesting time too. There's something special about it, something in the frosty air that always feels like it's a good time for ghost stories or stories of enchantment; it's happy but bittersweet. That's what this episode has in spades.

Catch Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time express from the UK on Tuesday, December 26 from 8am on BBC First (StarHub ch 522) and BBC Player.