Doctor Who: How Rachel Talalay Helped Shape the Peter Capaldi Era

We talked to the cast and writers of Doctor Who about Rachel Talalay's influence on the iconic show.

Television is traditionally a writer’s medium. It is a writer-showrunner who helms the show, with different directors coming in to take on one episode at a time.

Because of this structure, directors, while vital to the TV craft, don’t tend to have as much of a consistent influence on TV shows. Sure, you’ve got the director who films the pilot and, therefore, helps set the visual tone and language of the series. But, past that, directors come and go, and are often left out of the TV criticism conversation.

While directors might not often get recogized for their role in TV (especially outside of the prestige TV model), Steven Moffat emphasizes just vital they are to delivering a good episode of Doctor Who.

“The director’s influence is massive,” Moffat told Den of Geek at San Diego Comic Con. “These shows are all but impossible to make, and we’re making it for an audience that will then watch a Marvel film immediately afterwards. And there is no way we can keep up with that, but we have to pretend we can.”

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One who does a better job than most in making viewers forget that an episode of Doctor Who does not, in fact, have the same budget as a Marvel movie, is Rachel Talalay. She is one of those TV directors who has transcended the business model to make a lasting, notable mark on a TV show.

With Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi’s time on Doctor Who soon coming to an end, it’s time to talk about how Talalay has helped shape this era of the iconic British program.

Doctor Who: The Rachel Talalay Episodes

If you’re not familiar with which episodes of Doctor Who has Rachel Talalay directed, prepare for your mind to be blown. The American director first appeared on the Doctor Who scene (as a director at least — she is a longtime fan of the show) for the Season 8 two-part finale (“Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven”), becoming the first female director in Doctor Who history to direct a finale.

Talalay would then go on to direct the Season 9 two-part finale (the Hugo-nominated “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent”) and the Season 10 two-part finale (“World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls”). She will be returning for the 2017 Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time.”

Those are some memorable episodes, and it’s not hard to see why Moffat and co. asked Talalay to come back to direct the most important episodes of the Capaldi era. While the direction on NuWho is consistently good, Talalay’s episodes are notable for their visual ambition. 

“She’s an artist,” Capaldi told Den of Geek at San Diego Comic Con. “She pushed Doctor Who, our Doctor Who, into a different league visually and aesthetically and intellectually.”

Directing an episode of television is an incredibly fast-paced effort, one that doesn’t leave a lot of time for artistry. Somehow, against all odds, Talalay finds that time.

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“[In] the world of episodic television,” Capaldi continues, “it’s very easy to just deliver the material, or to just have a wide shot or a closeup, and some directors do that. And that works, but it’s better to have someone who is an artist and has a visual understanding and a cinematic understanding.”

Every episode, a new world.

For Talalay, each episode of Doctor Who is an opportunity to create something visually and narratively unique. “Doctor Who creates a new world every episode, be it comedy, horror, past or future,” Talalay told Den of Geek via email. “Doctor Who excels in variety. As a director, the variety makes returning more exciting.”

I have tried to give each episode a different style that worked with the script. For instance, the Doctor Who episode ‘Heaven Sent’ was Citizen Kane meets German Expressionism … In Harry Potter, ‘the Wand chooses the Wizard;’ in Doctor Who, the ‘words and worlds choose the style.’

For Moffat, this ability to create new worlds is one of the reasons why Talalay makes such a good Doctor Who director.

“She’s a very fluid director, and she’s somebody who can direct in any style,” Moffat said. “She doesn’t have a particular style; you don’t look at her and say, we’ll do a horror episode, and we’ll get Rachel. You can actually say to Rachel anything, she’s an absolutely amazing director.”

Of course, the end of Capaldi’s era as the Doctor will also mark the end of Moffat’s era as showrunner. Moffat has been a somewhat divisive amongst the fanbase, but those who have worked with the Doctor Who and Sherlock scribe have only good things to say…

“Steven is a genius,” Talalay told us. “You hear that a lot, but you need to experience it too. I was so in awe, I was tongue-tied around him for the first three episodes I worked with him.”

What is it about Moffat’s writing that Talalay most admires?

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Steven’s writing — human and humane — understanding of the world, of kindness, mixed with unexpected twists and insane creativity (a 400-mile spaceship escaping from a black hole as an excuse to make time run at different speed?! I’m there) … He has made me a better director. 

The Doctor Who cast on working with Talalay.

“Missy wouldn’t be Missy if it hadn’t been for Rachel,” Michelle Gomez told Den of Geek at San Diego Comic Con. “Peter, Rachel, and I all started together in that first run, and I’m very, very grateful to her. She gave me my confidence.”

Talalay called Gomez “just brilliant” and said that she and Gomez “created a bond” back in Season 8.

We have a shorthand, which includes her raising her hand, which means ‘let me do it again because I know what it needs.’ And then she hits every beat that I was going to speak to her about. But if I want her to try other things, she will and that will blow my mind as well. That’s awe.

Pearl Mackie, who plays Bill Potts, called working with Talalay “a dream,” describing her directorial style like this:

She always asks an actual question. She’s like, ‘What do you think of this? Have you thought of that. What about this?’ And it’s never a, ‘I’m telling you to do it like this.’ It’s an, ‘I’m asking you what you think about it.’ And, sometimes, you’re like, ‘Yes, exactly.’ And, sometimes, you’re like, ‘No.’ It’s never wrong. 

Gomez echoed Mackie’s sentiment: “She’s very generous as a director, so at the beginning of the day, she really talks out, fleshes out as to what that day’s gonna look like and what do you as a character want to achieve in that day.”

“For me, it means I’m with someone I can trust,” said Capaldi of working with Talalay. “I don’t have to ask Rachel why, she tells me to do something and I don’t ask, I just do it. She’s just brilliant.”

How does Talalay describe her own directorial style? “I don’t even like the word ‘Director,” said Talalay, “because that implies that I am telling the actor what to do and that seems anti-creative and not safe for them. I’m like a chief creative officer, trying to support their best work.” 

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Talalay elaborates:

By approaching direction as a question, I am inviting the actor to think through the role at that point and see if there is another color or texture or idea. I will be quite specific with directions if I need to be, but the caliber of actors on Doctor Who, it’s much more about painting with soft strokes.

“She should be directing Star Wars.”

Both Gomez and Matt Lucas, who plays Nardole, praised Talalay’s ability to do so much with such a relatively small budget. “The end product looks incredibly expensive and it’s not,” said Gomez. “It’s sticky-back plastic and a lot of imagination.”

“She should be directing Star Wars,” said Lucas. “She’s that good. And it’s time. I know they often don’t have women directors doing sci-fi in Hollywood. It’s not really a thing, but, it should be, because she’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.”

“Matt knows I want to do a mega-action film,” said Talalay in response. “I love Fury Road. And Force Awakens. I want to be able to do what I do on Who — but on 70mm with major stunts and visual effects and an explosive Dolby atmos soundtrack.” (Can someone please give Rachel Talalay a big-budget action film? Thank you.)

Though Talalay has directed eight movies, including 1995’s ahead-of-its-time cult hit Tank Girl, Talalay has not yet been given the kinds of opportunities awarded to many of her male colleagues with similar experience. Talalay said:

People think it should be easier for me because I do so much for so little in the Whoniverse. But nothing is easy. I still have to work to get meetings on these types of movies and have yet to make it up the rungs of the ladder.

I keep kicking the glass ceiling.

Though Talalay notes that there is a lot of talk behind-the-scenes about making Hollywood a more inclusive place behind-the-camera as well as in front of it, “dialogue isn’t action” and “statistics don’t show improvement at the moment.”

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What has tended to happen is a series of initiatives that include ‘training programs’ and ‘shadowing.’ These mostly end up diverting attention from the need for actual hiring. It’s particularly hard for women crew members … And it does matter. Diverse voices matter and need to be heard. 

On coming back to direct Peter Capaldi’s final episode.

Talalay came back to direct Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat’s final (at least for now) episode of Doctor Who:”Twice Upon a Time,” the 2017 Christmas special.

“I asked her to come and do my last [episode],” says Capaldi, “and I’m grateful she agreed, because I wanted it to be in the hands of somebody who was a visionary and who has a cinematic thing about her.”

For Talalay, the decision to return was a tough one because it meant being away from her family for another three months and “mothering-by-Skype,” as she puts it.

“I sometimes Facetime them on set so they can say hey to the people they know, see new locations, feel involved while thousands of miles away,” Talalay said of how she handles being away for longer lengths of time. “And they will speak to me from school and walk me around the class or the doctor’s office. Here, modern technology is a life-saver, but it’s not the same as a hug.”

What eventually helped her make the decision? 

We had a family pow-wow. I read out the emails Steven and Peter wrote me when they knew I was equivocating — flattering, persuasive and also hilarious. Part of the notes had to do with the importance of this episode to both them. And so it became a no-brainer.

It seems fitting that Talalay would return for Capaldi’s final episode of Doctor Who, as she has been one of the chief storytelling forces of his era. When asked what she thinks makes Peter Capaldi’s Doctor so popular amongst fans, Talalay said:

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The finest of acting mixed with the rock star and the comic. Utter commitment. Never boring, never predictable, always magnificent. You can’t keep your eyes off him. No matter how brilliant everyone around him is, he is still the center of your attention.

His peerless speeches, proclaiming kindness and good. And carrying that out into the real world. So many acts of charity outside.

His ability to joke and make you cry in the same breath. Now that’s a choking hazard.

He is The Doctor. Always.

As for her own influence on the legacy of Doctor Who, Talalay has an understandably less verbose perspective. “I can’t really talk about how I will be remembered,” says Talalay on her Doctor Who legacy. “I want to do a great job and make inspiring episodes.”

Mission accomplished, Rachel Talalay.

Read our full interview with Rachel Talalay here.

Read and download the full Den of Geek Special Edition magazine here!