This is your third Doctor Who Christmas special in a row -
I know, I got a hat trick! [Laughs]
- and all as different characters. Quite unique in the Whoniverse.
The Snowmen [the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas Special] was great because it was a lovely script and we established Strax was coming back. Which was very good for me but it was a good story as well. Last year’s one [The Time Of The Doctor] was great in that I was cameoing as two separate Sontarans but I didn’t know anything else about the rest of the story. So I could be in it, but then also watch it as a fan as well; the best of both worlds.
Third time around, it’s very fortunate. It’s really on Christmas Day sitting down after a couple of bottles and watching yourself entertaining the nation. That’s a pretty nice feeling really! [Laughs] Last year I thought, “OK, that’s pretty good, I won’t get too excited [about another Christmas special] and then… Doctor Who is the gift that keeps on giving. [Laughs]
How does it feel not be playing someone who’s not Strax in Doctor Who?
It was great actually. It’s very interesting. With Strax the make-up is much more extreme and I can’t really hear - I have to do a lot of homework before I get on set! [Laughs] And also, Strax usually has a couple of gags each scene and I have to make sure I land those in quite a specific way.
But because I can react to people normally, you can see my face, it’s been much more loose. It’s been fun. The first day was like, “Ah, this is my actual face on camera! [Laughs] What am I doing? [Laughs] Obviously with Strax’s face it’s a mask that I have to almost choreograph. I have to to tilt because he’s very difficult to light because of his deep brow ridge and his eyes disappear quite easily.
With this, ‘cos it’s my face, theoretically it’s a lot more easy to manipulate! [Laughs] It’s been great to have that opportunity. After seven years in a rubber suit it’s quite freeing - having just an hour in make up rather than three. It’s been lovely.
I think I’d mentioned to Andy Pryor [Doctor Who’s casting guru] at some function or other and he reassured me that, “We’re always thinking about getting you on board but it would be something that was appropriate.” At one point, we thought, during The Snowmen, we thought we could have a crowd scene perhaps with Neve [McIntosh, who plays Vastra] and I as a slightly mismatched couple in the background.
Has Steven written this part, playing to your strengths?
I think he’s aware of what I can do, certainly. It’s a slightly more comic character, perhaps. As you can imagine Christmas elves with ears like this [points to his impressive prosthetic ears], it’s not going to be deep Stanislavski [laughs]. I suppose, after a while, writers have a voice in their head and they’re aware of what you can do.
Do you have any input in to the many prequels, online reports and cinema intros you’ve filmed?
It’s all scripted. I think as Strax has grown, and also I’ve done a lot of little events where I’ve improvised in character as Strax, I think my voice has become more distinct in the sort of thing that he likes. With those intros, they’ve got to be quite tight in that they are performing a very specific function - especially showing it around the world. It’s quite specifically written, but my performance is there.
Does the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas Special deal with the Doctor Who Series 8 story arc?
Not as far as I’m aware. I’m watching it on television as it unfolds so, as far as I know, no. [This interview was conducted halfway through the recent series.] Thing is, I like watching it as a fan as well so I like to know as little as possible.
Dan went on to discuss his character and the script of the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas Special:
He’s an elf, there are two elves - Ian and the Wolf. We’re both Santa’s little helpers undermining Santa’s authority, at various points. [Laughs] When Santa comes along in his heroic guise as Mr Christmas, Ian and the Wolf are there to undermine him slightly and be helpful as best they can.
It’s a lovely script. It’s got quite a dream-like hallucinatory feel in certain places. It’s very nice and Christmassy in that it’s got a ghost story edge to it even though it’s science-fictiony. It’s got a MR James quality - creeping chills and stuff. As ever, with Doctor Who, there are some good laughs with it but that means you can then wrap up the scares as well. It’s got a good mixture of those two things.
The costumes are beautiful, they’re actually handmade. Just look at the shoes, the shoes are something special. That’s all I’ll say! [Laughs] It’s pretty special!
How has the transition of Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi been for you as a fan?
It’s great. I think Peter’s Doctor has been keeping the audience on their toes a lot more because he’s not as an engaging or avauncular character as Matt was, or the audience’s friend like David [Tennant] was. The audience has to come to him a bit more. But he’s still THE Doctor.
It’s interesting having a Doctor who’s a bit more abrasive as well. I remember when I was a kid, I used to play Doctor Who in the playground I was always a crotchety little bugger and doing that [grabs lapels a la Hartnell]. I like that quality as well, something that is very alien and also slightly childish as well. It’s a nice combination.
Is it still as much a thrill getting an acting gig on Doctor Who as it was back in 2008?
Oh God yes, absolutely. It’s always great. Ostensibly, Strax, Vastra and Jenny are set in the Victorian period, it’s a programme that can take you anywhere - they’re making a different feature film every three weeks here. It’s always lovely seeing what will be dreamed up next.
Do you think Steven would like a Paternoster Gang spin-off show?
Certainly! I think if he and Mark [Gatiss] weren’t writing Doctor Who AND Sherlock - I think they’re quite busy at the moment! [Laughs] In theory I think it would be great to have some Victorian hi-jinx!