UBC’s Rachel Talalay on directing an episode of the hit TV series Doctor Who
During her summer break UBC’s Rachel Talalay managed to fulfill one of her dreams: working on the classic TV series Doctor Who. The Department of Theatre & Film assistant prof directed the two-part finale of the BBC TV sci-fi series scheduled to air in early November.
Chronicling the adventures of a time-travelling alien and his companions, Doctor Who first aired on the BBC for 26 seasons from 1963 to 1989, and was revived in 2005. It now has a worldwide viewership of 77 million and is listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the longest running and most successful sci-fi TV series of all time.”
Talalay, whose credits include directing Tank Girl and Nightmare on Elm Street 6, and producing John Waters’ Hairspray and Cry Baby, spoke to UBC News about her experience with the Doctor Who universe.
How did the opportunity to direct Doctor Who arise?
Directing an episode of Doctor Who was on my bucket list. The first time I saw the reboot, I asked, why is this so good? I loved the legacy of the show, the writing, the time travel element, loved that there was so much attention to detail. And I wanted to be a part of that, but how do you convince them you’re the right person?
I have a British agent, after working in London to produce The Borrowers in the ‘90s. And so this opportunity was really about being persistent and my agent remaining assiduous. I had interviewed for it a couple of times but not been able to gain much traction.
I worked on The Wind In The Willows with Mark Gatiss, who co-created the Sherlock series with (Doctor Who showrunner) Steven Moffat, and had done some campaigning through Mark. I sent Steven a visual effects reel and an action reel to show them I was knowledgeable about the genre, and that helped a lot.
The show is a significant part of British popular culture and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Was it a daunting experience to take on?
Absolutely. Doctor Who is so iconic and transcends generations. It has a legacy that no other show does. But I knew it would work out because I was so passionate about it and so excited to be there.
What was it like working with the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi?
He’s amazing. He’s very different from David Tennant and Matt Smith. A bit like the old school Doctors, but very much his own take on the Doctor. And Peter is so talented and versatile that he gives you so much to work with.
What locations did your episode shoot in?
The core shoot was in Cardiff, Wales. We did shoot in London for two days and it was a huge deal that we shot at St. Paul’s Cathedral with Cybermen. That was one of the most interesting experiences of my filmmaking life. One of the iconic images from the ‘60s show was Cybermen coming out of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and we got to replicate that and take it a step further.
With so much of the show’s legacy to work with, was there much opportunity for you to inject some of your creative vision into your episode?
Very much so. I was fortunate to work on the two-part finale written by Steven Moffat. While he was working on the script, Steven said to us, ‘It’s going to scare you,’ meaning, ‘it’s going to be big and really challenging.’ And producer Peter Bennett and I agreed, ‘Great, bring it on.’
It was like making a Marvel movie for a fraction of the budget. I drew from my experience with effects, going all the way back to things I learned on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, always wondering, how do we keep pushing the envelope?
You’ve been involved in secretive, high profile productions before, but is it tougher in this age of social media?
Absolutely. Because Doctor Who is so big, fans would come to outdoor shoots and record rehearsals and post them online. There are spoilers everywhere, and keeping any production secrets is a challenge.
By the same token it’s great to feel the fans’ energy and excitement for the new season.
The Season 8 finale of Doctor Who that Rachel Talalay directed airs Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.