‘You’ve got all time and space’: B.C. director says making Doctor Who’s 60th-year special was ‘intimidating’

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Vancouver filmmaker Rachel Talalay already won widespread acclaim — and an award — for the episodes of Doctor Who she directed.

But being invited back into that chair for one of the BBC’s three special episodes marking the science fiction franchise’s 60th anniversary still made her a bit nervous, she admitted.

“There’s nothing more intimidating than a show that’s been on for 60 years and crazed fans,” she said in an interview with CBC’s On The Coast. “There’s a reason that it’s the longest-running science fiction show ever.”

Talalay, formerly an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of theatre and film, directed the episode Star Beast, which aired Nov. 25 as the first of three specials rolling out ahead of the launch of the show’s fourteenth season — or Series 14, as it is known by U.K. audiences.

The program reunited fan favourites David Tennant in the role of the Doctor, and comedian Catherine Tate as his companion, Donna Noble, after the pair last appeared in the show together in 2010. It also introduced Yasmin Finney to the series, playing Noble’s 15-year-old daughter.

WATCH | B.C. director says David Tennant had a blast making 60th anniversary show:

Doctor Who director says David Tennant had a blast making 60th anniversary episode

Featured VideoRachel Talalay, director of The Star Beast — the first of three episodes in the sci-fi TV series’ 60th anniversary special — talks about the making of the episode, working with David Tennant, and fans’ reactions during a live viewing at Chicago TARDIS, a fan-organized Doctor Who convention.

Talalay said working with Tennant, who last played the Doctor in 2013, was a delight, and that he was overjoyed to be back in the role.

“There’s a scene where he … runs through the entire set, and that’s pure joy. There’s no acting there,” she said. “It was a very special event for everyone.”

Long-running fandom

According to the industry publication RadioTimes, the special had an initial audience of 5.08 million people in the U.K., making it one of the biggest programs of the year. It also received positive reviews in both The Guardian and the Sunday Telegraph, with both publications praising the special as a return to form for the long-running series.

Outside of the U.K., the program is available on the streaming platform Disney Plus, where it debuted in the top five programs on the service in multiple countries, including Canada, according to online ratings aggregator FlixPatrol.

Talalay said she got to watch the episode debut in front of an audience of about 800 fans at a Doctor Who convention in Chicago, where it received a standing ovation.

“The reward was incredible to watch it like that.”

The director said the magic of the series, since its launch in 1963, is not just its universe of time-travel and alien civilizations, but how much it has always had to say about being human.

“If you’re a fan, you understand that it’s not just any old time travel show,” she explained. “It’s very scary and yet it’s very loving. 

“It’s the history of these beautiful monsters and these companions who are very, very human.”

First appearing on the BBC in 1963, Doctor Who follows the adventures of its extraterrestrial protagonist, who travels in a a time-travelling spacecraft, the TARDIS, disguised as a blue British police phone box. 

Thirteen actors have been cast in the role of the Doctor, over the course of nearly 900 episodes.

‘The bigger the better’

Talalay has directed eight episodes of the franchise, including the widely acclaimed two-part finale of the show’s ninth season, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent in 2015.

That year, the filmmaker was named best director from the SFX Awards for her work on the series.

WATCH | B.C. director, stars of Doctor Who talk about making 60th anniversary episode: 

Some of Talalay’s best-known directing work includes Tank Girl, episodes of Riverdale, Sherlock, and The Flash, as well as multiple contributions to the 1980s Nightmare on Elm Street horror franchise. 

She’s also won two Leo awards, and an outstanding directorial achievement award from the Directors Guild of Canada. 

Doctor Who‘s frequently philosophical, universal human themes inspired her to get creative once again in the role.

“Every episode [can] be about anything you want really,” she said. “I mean, you’ve got all time and space to go through.”

Among the highlights of her recently released episode, she said, was being able to dramatically destroy multiple vehicles on set.

“I love doing explosions, and I think that’s because as a kid … my parents were very strict about the gendering of toys,” she explained. “I wanted rockets that blew up.

“I was told I couldn’t. And so obviously the next thing you do is have a career where you get to blow things up — and the bigger the better.”

A film director gives instructions on a film set with two skeletons behind windows in the background.
British Columbia filmmaker Rachel Talalay, centre, speaks to actor Michelle Gomez while directing an episode of the British science fiction TV show Doctor Who in 2014. (BBC One)

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