A University of British Columbia professor has gone from being a fan of the iconic British television series Doctor Who to directing some of its biggest episodes in barely more than 18 months.
Last March, UBC film-production professor Rachel Talalay was selected to direct the two-part finale of the eighth season of Doctor Who, a science-fiction television show with a international cult following. Talalay was quickly called upon again to direct the current season’s two-part finale. Her latest episodes were airing on Nov. 28 and Dec. 5.
In the world of the show, The Doctor is a face-changing alien who travels through time and space in a 1960s British police call box. Peter Capaldi plays the 12th incarnation of the character.
This series, Talalay had a new challenge. Heaven Sent, the 11th episode of the series, will be the first episode to feature only The Doctor. There will be no other actors or characters in the episode.
“They told me from the beginning that I was getting this conceptual episode that was just Capaldi,” Talalay said. Steven Moffat, the head show writer “wanted it scary, he wanted it beautiful, he wanted it different, and that’s a dream come true from a director’s standpoint.”
The episode allowed Talalay to experiment. She used Citizen Kane and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as references to give the episode a German Expressionism visual influence.
Working on the show has been a dream come true for Talalay. When she was a kid, Talalay spent a year in the United Kingdom and watched episodes of Doctor Who’s classic series, which ran from 1963 to 1989.
The show has developed an international fan base, with the 50th-anniversary special being simulcast across the globe in 2013.
“I also think that Doctor Who is intelligent science fiction, it does not dumb down ideas, and it does not entirely rely on special effects to make the stories work,” Gillian Leitch, an Ottawa-based author and editor of Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on Themes, Characters, History and Fandom, 1963-2012, said. “It is something that you can get into.”
After graduating with a degree in applied mathematics from Yale University, Talalay got involved in film production and produced several films for U.S. filmmaker John Waters. She directed the sixth Nightmare on Elm Street film and the cult science-fiction film Tank Girl in 1995 and later got into directing television.
When Doctor Who was rebooted in 2005 by writer Russell T. Davies, Talalay was impressed with the quality of the writing and the scale of the show’s special effects week to week.
She knew that she had to work on the show and was submitting pitches to direct episodes of the show through her U.K. agent since its second series starring David Tennant in 2006.
“Now that I’ve been there and I know how little money they work on, it’s an even bigger miracle. It’s utter complete passion,” Talalay said.
In the eighth series of the show, Talalay directed Dark Water and Death in Heaven, written by Steven Moffat. Talalay was excited by the scripts and by the opportunity to work with Moffat because of the quality of his writing.
But Talalay wasn’t prepared for one of the biggest twists in the scripts and admits to screaming with excitement when she gave the scripts a first read on a flight to the United Kingdom. The episodes made waves when The Doctor’s arch-nemesis, The Master, was recast as a woman and renamed “Missy.”
“Missy is an important moment in Doctor Who because of the idea of gender being fluid for Time Lords,” Leitch said.
Now, Talalay is directing episodes of The CW television network’s series, The Flash, which is shooting in Vancouver during November.
She also hopes to take on a movie from the Marvel cinematic universe in the future.
“The complexity of the writing and the intelligence of the acting on Doctor Who, it ups your directing. I’m a better director for having worked on Doctor Who for these four episodes,” Talalay said.