Five years ago today, Jenna Coleman’s life changed forever
It is amazing how much can change in 5 short years.
On March 21, 2012, Doctor Who fans received the news that Jenna-Louise Coleman had been cast as the as-yet-unnamed new companion. With production under way on Series 7, the announcement indicated that Jenna, who was about to appear in a miniseries based on the sinking of the Titanic and had become well-known for her roles in Emmerale and Waterloo Road, and had also scored a bit part in the first Captain America movie, would be debuting in the 2012 Christmas special and taking over from Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as the new companion for the second half of Series 7 in 2013.
Looking back, it’s intriguing that no one thought to question the timing of the announcement, with no Christmas special filming expected for months yet and in fact the episodes featuring departing companions Amy and Rory were still a ways from completion too (I believe they still had Power of Three and Angels Take Manhattan to go yet). In what remains one of the best kept secrets in Who franchise history, Steven Moffat and his team managed to keep the fact that Jenna would actually debut in the series 7 premiere a secret right up to the broadcast day - even with several advance screenings!
As we learned more about Jenna’s career path, we began to see that her casting in Doctor Who was a hard-fought victory. She’d spent quite a while trying without success to find meaningful work in the US after her run on Waterloo Road ended (apparently she even had to work in a London pub at one point to save money to go to LA). She got a role in a short film that apparently has never been released (though it’s trailer is still on YouTube), and YouTube has some of the audition tapes she made for parts as varied as Max, the role played by Kat Dennings on the sitcom 2 Broke Girls, and also the character eventually played by Meaghan Markle on the legal drama Suits. According to an interview she gave on The Last Leg, she very nearly got cast as an Australian in a sitcom that never went past the pilot stage. At some point she even record a voice for the video game Xenoblade Chronicles (no I’ve never heard of it either). She eventually returned to the UK and things started to look up, even though she had to endure a few “rites of passage” along the way, including a topless scene in BBC post-watershed potboiler and a role in another miniseries that seemed to require her to do little more than look good in lingerie and be convincing as a typist. Her part in Captain America was little more than a cameo, though it certainly boosted her profile (I do remember seeing some online posts asking “who is that girl?” which isn’t bad considering she was in competition for attention with Hayley Atwell and Natalie Dormer). But her role in Titanic was more substantial and things were looking up. Even though she was only about 25 or 26 when she was cast as Clara (famously getting the word when she was at a grocery store - the identity of which appears to change from time to time! - while buying an avocado), I don’t think anyone can deny that Jenna had paid quite a few dues already.
For Jenna (who dropped the -Louise a year later), it was the start of an amazing journey that saw her mature in many ways as an actress and as a public figure as she first began working with Matt Smith, demonstrating incredible chemistry with him. And then, most remarkable of all, her partnership with Peter Capaldi that not only paid off handsomely on screen, but it also launched one of the sweetest real-life friendships many of us have ever seen.
Jenna would go on to surpass Karen as the longest-serving of the Modern Era companions, along the way placing herself among the greats not only of the revival, but she holds her head high alongside the likes of Katy Manning, Carole Ann Ford, Janet Fielding and Elisabeth Sladen, as well. One couldn’t have asked for a better Golden Anniversary Companion, a title that is Jenna’s and Jenna’s alone. And although other characters may claim to have met every Doctor in dialogue, Jenna remains the only actor to - thanks to digital editing and a bit of body doubling - share scenes with, in some form or other, every Doctor from Hartnell to Capaldi (and who knows, maybe she’ll be there when Thirteen arrives). She’s also played more individual characters than any other one actress in the show. (Clara, Clara Oswin, Oswin, the TARDIS interface (Hide), Saibra (Time Heist), Bonnie, multiple other Clara echoes, several different Clara Primes in Clara and the TARDIS, and Alice Watson in the audio book Destiny of the Doctors: The Time Machine - in which she also gave voice to the Eleventh Doctor himself!)
Today, of course, Jenna remains a bright-shining star, leading her very own TV series, the acclaimed Victoria, and there’s no doubt more greatness awaits for her. Will that include a return to Doctor Who in some form before Peter leaves? Who is to say? But it’s been a great ride so far.
I wonder if she ever got round to buying that avocado, though.