British institutions don’t get much more British than Doctor Who, the beloved, long-running, and wonderfully eccentric BBC time travel show. So how come its two-part finale—the first half of which screened last Saturday—is being overseen by American director, Rachel Talalay? “Well, first of all, I’m half-British,” says Talalay, whose credits include the 1995 film Tank Girl as well as a slew of TV shows. ” I say, I grew up in America, but I had a British upbringing. I very strongly pursued [Doctor Who]. I mean, this wasn’t arbitrary. I was on a mission. From the moment I saw the reboot, I thought, I really really want to do this show. But how I drifted to the top of the list? You’ll have to ask [Doctor Who showrunner] Steven Moffat.”
Last Saturday’s show, “Dark Water,” was something of a trial by fire for Talalay, featuring, as it did, the (apparent) death of Danny Pink, Clara’s (apparent) betrayal of the Doctor, the definite return of the Cybermen, and the revelation that Michelle Gomez’s Missy was in fact a female iteration of the Master. The director says she had to hit the ground running—running straight to the TARDIS, that is. “I had nine days between the first email I got saying, ‘Can you come over?’ and then leaving for Cardiff,” she says. “The first day you’re like, I can’t believe I’m here. And the first thing they do is say, ‘Would you like to go on the TARDIS?’ And you’re like, Are you kidding me? Is that a rhetorical question or what? It’s that weird line between trying to pretend that you’re cool and together and absolutely wanting to shriek and immediately post selfies. And then I had my birthday on the TARDIS and they gave me a TARDIS cake and I’m like, This is not my life, this is so amazing.”
What was it like for Talalay to direct Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi in an episode which saw the relationship between the pair’s character’s seemingly stretch to breaking point, and beyond? “It’s so interesting,” Talalay says. “What was amazing was, the depth of Steven’s writing—and you’ll find this in episode 12 as well. There are certain scenes between Clara and the Doctor where every line has seven meanings. And you have these really substantive actors who can do so many things with that. So, you’re just sitting there with your mouth open watching them develop, and watching them discover, and trying to work [it] out. And then the fun comes again in the editing room, when you’re [thinking], What is the truth? What is a lie? And what is the right texture? The fandom is interesting because sometimes they say Clara is too big, and too important, [but] I think it balances beautifully in these episodes. It’s nice to have a companion who is strong, and flawed, and more rounded, because the Whovian feminists want a female Doctor and want the companion not to be seen as what you would expect from a companion in the 1960s. There is nothing about Jenna that is that companion.”
Talalay reveals that one of the best—if one of the most grueling—days of shooting came when she filmed the end sequence of “Dark Water” and the emergence of the dreaded Cybermen onto the streets of London. “I mean, even Peter Capaldi said, ‘Oh my god, we’re just standing on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral—this isn’t really happening,'” she recalls. “One of the great things about working with Peter was that he was constantly as excited to be the Doctor as I was excited to be directing on Doctor Who. So there were these moments of magic. It was remarkable. It was also hot, and crowded, and friggin’ hard. Very limited time, space, very important scenes, and very hot. Massive crowds. They call it ‘work’ for a reason.”
The second half of this season’s two-part season finale (“Death in Heaven”) will air this Saturday on BBC America. Watch the show’s trailer below.