DOCTOR WHO Star Ncuti Gatwa on His First Christmas Special and Fifteen’s Stylish Wardrobe

Spoiler Alert

After meeting Ncuti Gatwa’s delightful (and beautiful and flirtatious) Fifteenth in the Doctor Who anniversary special “The Giggle,” fans were beyond ready for his first full on-screen adventure. (It’s me, I’m fans.) Thankfully, we got our wish on Christmas Day 2023 with “The Church on Ruby Road,” a holiday adventure with baby-eating and singing goblins, a companion with a mysterious past, and Fifteen hitting the club in a kilt. What more could any of us want? We caught up with Ncuti Gatwa to talk about this Doctor Who holiday special, the Fifteenth Doctor’s style, his chemistry with Millie Gibson, working with Russell T Davies, and that very fun musical number.

Nerdist: “The Church on Ruby Road” gave us more insight into who the Fifteenth Doctor is in terms of his personality, style, and how he approaches problems. How much input did you have when it came to formulating your Doctor’s unique identity and aesthetic?

Ncuti Gatwa: It’s tricky. I find that question hard to answer because it was an ongoing process that I would figure out throughout season one. When I initially was approaching crafting Fifteen, I had this idea that I was going to watch every single Doctor and take a little something from each single one. And by the time that I’ve done that, I’ll have an idea of the extra thing that I want to add on, and then I’ll be the “super Doctor.” 

But I then was like, “Oh, they all seem to encapsulate everything. They’re all completely different from one another. Completely unique, but all instantly identifiable as the Doctor.” So I guess what they’ve done is just be themselves. And so that is what I have to do. I have to let the script guide me. It’s all there in [showrunner Russell T Davies’] amazing scripts. And I have to let that guide me and just try my best to stand on the shoulders of each one of my predecessors and the foundation that they’ve built for the character. I can only be my beautiful Black self. That’s all I can do. 

In terms of his style, I found a line that Ralph Lauren did with Morehouse College. They did this collaboration with HBCUs and I loved it. I was like, “That’s going to be perfect for my Doctor. It’s heritage, it’s Black, it’s everything that I want for this character.” And the production team were like, “We can do that, but we can also do a lot more. We can do something different for each episode, and we’ve cast you for a reason. You will just take all your fashion loving-ness and put it into the character.” And so I work with Pam Downe, who is the costume designer, and she is an incredible visionary and she shows me her sketches and we pick which one we want.

Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor stands near a glass stained window wearing a checkered brown suit, orange sweater, and a cowboy hat
James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

I love that! Now, in this episode, the Doctor and Ruby Sunday got their own musical moment. It was such a delight. What was it like to prepare for and film that scene? 

Gatwa: There was no preparation. [laughs] Any production that I’ve done before, if you’re doing a song, you go to a recording studio, record it there, and then mime over what you did on the day [of filming]. And in anticipation of that scene coming up, I kept being like, “Oh, tomorrow will be the day that I go to the recording studio, or it’ll be tomorrow.” And then we kept getting closer to the day, and I was like, “Millie, we’ve not gone to the recording studio yet. When are we going to do that?” On the day of, they were like, “Here’s your mics, off you go.” 

Oh nooooo!

Gatwa: I was like, “Oh my God. You don’t even know if I can sing. What if I can’t?!”  But I guess they had trust and faith in us. What I love about working with Millie [Gibson] is how quick her mind is and that we’re able to bounce off each other. We’re both from the north of the UK and so we’ve got a similar banter and rapport with one another. And so we just instantly had to think on our feet and be like, “How do we make this…” The aim of the game is the Doctor and Ruby have landed in a situation that they don’t know and you need to think quickly on their feet to get themselves out of it. So it was a perfect inception moment.

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson sit beside each other tied to a pole in doctor who christmas special episode
Lara Cornell/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

It was brilliant. Your Doctor has this new lease of freedom and optimism about traveling, but he’s still kind of dealing with some residual pain from the past. How do you think that his newfound friendship with Ruby Sunday will help him heal and move forward?

Gatwa: Great question! I think that Ruby does what all the companions do—allow the Doctor to not be afraid of their feelings. They’re also like the vessel in which the Doctor replenishes themselves in a way… Because the Doctor has seen all of time and space and has been around forever, it’s a long, lonely road. And I think [the Doctors] keep themselves alive and fresh and curious about the universe and wanting to help and wanting to involve themselves through the eyes of this companion, through someone who’s never seen any of what he’s seen before. And within that he’s able to relive his youth in a way. Ruby is so instrumental in the Doctor’s journey this season in helping him step out of his comfort zone of being like a lone wanderer or wolf.

That’s amazing. I could be wrong, but I’d imagine that playing the Doctor would open the door for improvisation. Did you get a chance to do that, or even want to, during the holiday special? 

Gatwa: No, which was cool. I’m an actor who loves to improvise and that was my specialty at drama school. That was the class that I excelled in. Loved it. But that’s not the way that Russell works. It’s allowed for, and if it works, it works. But Russell is such a great writer and he sits with these scripts for months and months, maybe years. Some of these concepts that have come into his head have maybe been in there for years and have been stewing and cooking before they come out into the perfect puff pastry that they are. And so he’s got a really clear idea of how things should sound and how it should flow.

The Fifteenth Doctor stands outside in the snow with a tree lit up behind him
Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

I’ve said it before, but working with Russell is a little bit like whenever I did Shakespeare when I was doing theater back in the day. There’s such a specificity to the flow of it. It is almost like there’s an iambic pentameter within his monologues and within his speeches. There’s a rhythm to it, and it just works. And that was quite interesting for me being like, “Oh, I’m going to try and improv this.” And he’d be like, “Really?” And I’d be like, “Yeah, I’m going to try…” And then I’ll be like, “It doesn’t quite work.” It has to be what is on the page. The words are there for a reason, and it’s a real joy to honor them. Specificity as well as fun is the name of the game, I think, when tackling his script.

That is awesome. And you did a beautiful job. “The Church on Ruby Road” is a fun ride and I am grateful that the Doctor is you and looks like you. Your Doctor already means so much to so many fans.

Gatwa: Thank you. It’s an honor to hear that. Honor to chat with you.

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