The onscreen presentation of a script largely falls under the remit of the Director. Television is a collaborative effort which utilises a variety of different skills from talented people. However, the final visual signature often falls under the control of the Director. Although approaching 55 years of televised stories there have only been 10 female Doctor Who directors. Today we reflect on these great women and their work on Doctor Who.

Doctor Who director Julia Smith on the set of Eastenders

Paddy Russell and Julia Smith

Two directors at the forefront of changing female roles in television were Paddy Russell and Julia Smith. The pair were the first female directors to work for the BBC and of course the first female Doctor Who directors. Russell became the first woman to direct a Doctor Who story with ‘The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve‘ broadcast in 1966. Later that year Smith would direct ‘The Smugglers‘, William Hartnell’s penultimate adventure. Sadly both are largely missing from the BBC archive with only limited clips and behind the scenes footage surviving. Fortunately two episodes of Julia Smith’s second and final directorial job on Doctor Who, ‘The Underwater Menace‘, do exist for us to enjoy. Smith is perhaps best remembered as a creative force behind soap opera ‘Eastenders’. She was also a Producer on the less successful soap ‘Eldorado’, working with former Doctor Who Producer Verity Lambert.

Image from @bbcdoctorwho

Paddy Russell would return to Doctor Who on multiple occasions working with the Third and Fourth Doctors. ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs‘ directed by Russell was broadcast in 1974 and proved to be the only story of Jon Pertwee’s tenure to have a female director. Paddy Russell would also be the only female director to work with Tom Baker during his seven year run as the Fourth Doctor. Russell directed the classic story ‘Pyramids of Mars‘ (1975) and ‘Horror of Fang Rock‘ (1977). Both of these stories are highly regarded with a strong directorial style credited to Paddy Russell. The work of Paddy Russell and Julia Smith would pave the way for more female Doctor Who directors who would follow in the 1980’s.

Director Fiona Cumming from the Doctor Who: Enlightenment DVD release

Fiona Cumming

One of the Assistant Floor Managers working with Paddy Russell on ‘The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve‘ was Fiona Cumming. She would become only the third female Doctor Who director with ‘Castrovalva‘ broadcast in 1982. Working throughout the Fifth Doctor’s era, Cumming notched up four Doctor Who stories in total. Following Peter Davison’s first broadcast story, she directed a further two stories during Season 20; ‘Snakedance‘ and ‘Enlightenment‘. Cumming would also direct Peter Davison’s penultimate story ‘Planet of Fire‘. This pivotal story saw the introduction of new companion Peri and the departure of Turlough. In addition Cumming also had to contend with overseas filming in Lanzarote for the story.

Doctor Who - Terminus
Doctor Who – Terminus

Mary Ridge

Another female director to work with the Fifth Doctor was Mary Ridge. She would direct ‘Terminus‘, also broadcast in 1983’s 20th Anniversary Season. This story saw the departure of Nyssa from the TARDIS and thus Sarah Sutton from the show. Ridge is also notable for directing the final episode of Blake’s 7’s fourth season ‘Blake’, famous for the dramatic closing moments.

Director of Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani – Sarah Hellings

Sarah Hellings

The only female director of the Sixth Doctor’s era proved to be Sarah Hellings. Directing ‘The Mark of the Rani‘ broadcast in 1985, Hellings also proved to be the final female Doctor Who director of the classic era. This story was notable for the introduction of ‘The Rani’, the first villainous female Gallifreyan viewers had seen. Working with Kate O’Mara, Director Sarah Hellings helped create The Rani, a character whose influence could be felt with Steven Moffat’s recent creation ‘Missy’. Hellings’ career would also include directing stints on ‘Howard’s Way’, ‘Angels’ and ‘Midsummer Murders’. Unfortunately it would be another 22 years before another female director would take charge of a Doctor Who story.

Doctor Who: Blink – Director Hettie MacDonald prepares for a take (c) BBC

Hettie MacDonald

Although Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005 it wasn’t until the Series 3 episode ‘Blink‘ in 2007 that a woman would be given the role of Director. ‘Blink‘ remains a hugely popular episode of the show with fans and critics alike, winning the Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form). It also introduced the Weeping Angels and starred soon to be Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan. Hettie MacDonald would return to Doctor Who several years later, directing the Series 9 opener ‘The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar‘ in 2015.

Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Daughter – Director Alice Troughton and the camera team. (c) BBC

Alice Troughton

No relation to Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, Alice Troughton began her connection to the Doctor Who universe by directing two episodes of Torchwood, ‘Small Worlds‘ and ‘Out of Time‘ in 2006. She would also direct five stories for The Sarah Jane Adventures. In 2008 she was appointed Director on ‘The Doctor’s Daughter‘ and ‘Midnight‘. She remains the only female director to have worked on Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, a feat only matched by two male directors, Ashley Way and Colin Teague.

Doctor Who: The Lodger – Director Catherine Morshead on location with Matt Smith and James Corden (c) BBC

Catherine Morshead

The only female director to work on the Eleventh Doctor’s era proved to be Catherine Morshead. She was director for the Series 5 episodes ‘Amy’s Choice‘ and ‘The Lodger‘ in 2010. Morshead has also worked on shows including, ‘Emmerdale’, ‘Cutting It’, ‘The Bill’ and ‘Downton Abbey’.

Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night – Abigail Eames, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman prepare for a scene. (c) BBC

Sheree Folkson

Sheree Folkson took charge of ‘In the Forrest of the Night’ during Peter Capaldi’s debut season. She had previously worked with Tenth Doctor David Tennant on ‘Casanova’, taking the helm of the opening 3 episodes. Her other previous work includes episodes of ‘Call the Midwife’ and even the second ever episode of US show ‘Ugly Betty’. Most recently she has directed two episodes of Sky Atlantic show ‘Britannia’.

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time – Director Rachel Talalay (middle) with Mark Gatiss, David Bradley and Peter Capaldi (c) BBC

Rachel Talalay

American director Rachel Talalay has been a constant throughout Peter Capaldi’s three series as the Twelfth Doctor. She was the first of the female Doctor Who directors to be at the helm for a series finale. Talalay directed all three of the Twelfth Doctor’s series finales beginning with ‘Dark Water/Death in Heaven‘ in 2014. She would also return the following year to direct ‘Heaven Sent/Hell Bent‘. The first instalment of the Series 9 finale is one of the most critically acclaimed episodes of Doctor Who with Peter Capaldi’s performance the centrepiece. Together Capaldi and Talalay managed to deliver an episode that was nominated for another Hugo Award and became the first Doctor Who story to be submitted for consideration for an Emmy Award nomination.

Last year the director returned to the show to helm the trio of stories ‘World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls/Twice Upon a Time‘ which would see the Peter Capaldi’s Doctor depart the TARDIS on a high. With the 2017 Christmas Special Talalay also became the first female director of the now prestigious festive addition. Talalay’s career has also included the milestones of directing cult classic ‘Tank Girl’ and the sixth film of the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ franchise.

This list of female Doctor Who directors will likely be added to with the incoming Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker. Doctor Who has provided an opportunity for these directors to showcase their skills on what can be a challenging and complex programme to bring to screen. Hopefully the percentage of female Doctor Who directors will steadily grow over the next 50 years.


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