WASHINGTON — What’s the use of a “Doctor Who Christmas Special” if you can’t have the children cowering behind couches by the end?
In the case of this year’s special, to be broadcast Christmas Day at 9 p.m. EST on BBC America, you may never see a familiar holiday icon in the same benign light. The show will be available on iTunes on Dec. 26.
“Doctor Who,” a British science fiction children’s show, chronicles the travels of a Time Lord who, with a companion or two, travels in a time machine which camouflages itself as a blue British police box. The series was laid to rest in 1989 and had an unsuccessful TV movie in 1995. It was rebooted to great success in 2005. There have been 11 Doctors over the life of the series, the latest being Matt Smith.
In this year’s Christmas special, the Doctor, heartsick over losing his last companions, lands in the England of 1892, feeling very “bah humbug” about life in general.
“The Doctor is in a Scrooge-like state, being very depressed, like an old grumpy grandpa,” says Jenna-Louise Coleman, 26, who plays Clara, the new companion, “and they meet. Clara takes an interest in him and so begins a new story.”
“I think there’s nothing like a Christmas special that’s set in snowy Victorian England,” says Caroline Skinner, co-executive producer of the series. “It gives it a real sense of landscape a slightly larger-than-life feeling, and you’ve got some incredibly scary monsters. There’s something gloriously freaky about taking something that you’re so used to in life to take it and give it an evil ‘Doctor Who’ twist. “I think it will really speak to kids, and terrify the socks off them, I hope. “
The villain is Richard E. Grant, better known for roles in “Dracula” and “The Iron Lady.” He plays Doctor Simeon, a man who is out to settle a vendetta.
“Doctor Who’s” appeal has spanned generations.
“‘Doctor Who’ is certainly something in the U.K. you kind of grow up with it. It’s part of your DNA,” Skinner says. “It’s just always been there, ‘Doctor Who.’”
Her first hazy memories start with the seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy in the late 1980s and 1990s, but she and her father watched “loads and loads of Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor, 1974-81) episodes back-to-back” later on.
Coleman didn’t grow up with the Doctor. “It was never around when I was growing it. It was the gap (of 16 years when “Doctor Who” was off the air.) I missed it in my childhood. When it came back in 2005, I was about 18, so I kinda missed it. I’ve always been very aware of it.”
Her grandmother “is a huge fan” and her aunt in Australia was terrified by “Who” villains the Daleks as a child, so for them “it’s a really huge deal as well because it’s something they’ve grown up with.” Coleman hopes to watch all the episodes soon going back as far as the original 1963 ones.
She says her character’s name, Clara, came not from “The Nutcracker” but from executive producer Steven Moffat. “Steven was walking around his bedroom shouting “Clara!” and realized it’s a really good name to shout,” she says.
As for the scares in this year’s Christmas special, Skinner says, “I hope we’re carrying on in that glorious legacy of sending children behind the sofa."