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Doctor Who: Time Heist (Review)

Why? There’s no immediate threat?

Warning, intruder alert!

I should really stop saying things like that.

After the ambition of Listen, Time Heist feels like a return to the general narrative conservatism that marks the first half of the season. Introducing the Twelfth Doctor, the first six episodes of the season are all written by veteran writers. With the exception of Listen, they all play it relatively safe. Five episodes into the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, the approach is starting to grate just a little bit. The training wheels are still on, but there is a sense that the show is itching to remove them.

Indeed, without the ambition that tempers the many flaws with In the Forest of the Night, Time Heist is probably the weakest episode of the season. However, there is something to be said about that; Time Heist may not be a particularly memorable piece of television, but that alone is enough to mark it as much stronger than misfires like Fear Her or Night Terrors or Evolution of the Daleks

or Curse of the Black Spot.

... and they lived happily ever after...

… and they lived happily ever after…

One of the least-discussed aspects of the Moffat era has been the way that Steven Moffat has cultivated an informal writers’ room – a stable of talent that he will use again and again to fill holes in his seasons. Sure, the showrunner will recruit new writers like Neil Cross or Neil Gaiman or Richard Curtis from time-to-time, but he has a fairly reliable stable of writers he will use on the series. It is hard to believe that Russell T. Davies went two consecutive seasons without a script from Mark Gatiss, for example.

This approach has its strengths and its weaknesses. On the plus side, Moffat has the capacity to front-load a season like this with writers very experienced in the art of writing Doctor Who. The first six episodes of Peter Capaldi’s first season all come from writers with a lot of experience writing the show; Moffat is credited as a co-writer on five of them. This means that the season has a very familiar voice, which is essential for assuring viewers that everything is okay as they transition to a new Doctor.

Much vaulted security...

Much vaulted security…

The downside is that there is less room to be surprised, a bit less flavour and a firmer delineation between “full-time” writers and those drafted in to fill gaps in the schedule. Davies had a tendency to draw in a wider variety of writers over a greater stretch of time during his work on the show – recruiting Paul Cornell, Helen Raynor and Mark Gatiss to write two stories each across his entire run, and utilising writers like Rob Shearman, Toby Whithouse and Chris Chibnall only once.

The Moffat era’s tendency to draw the same names back in makes it easier to identify stylistic quirks and approaches. In many respects, Time Heist is the quintessential streamlined Steve Thompson script. It’s a high-concept run around packed with clever ideas that perhaps doesn’t have enough character or plot to work sustain itself. It is all about momentum, and Time Heist just about manages it. It is a functional – but not exceptional – episode of Doctor Who.

Twelve's Ocean... at least this week...

Twelve’s Ocean… at least this week…

Part of what is interesting about Time Heist is how casual that episode is doing things that would have been a big deal only five years earlier. Time Heist takes virtually every plot point for granted, offering a plot that would have been radical and ambitious and mind-bending before Matt Smith arrived, but feels fairly generic within the current framework of the show. It is easy to recognise all the sources of inspiration here, the ingredients that went into brewing the story.

The plot hinges on the “timey wimey” logic of the Moffat era. It is hard to describe the climactic revelations as “twists”, because they are pretty much standard operating procedure in the Moffat era. “I hate good wizards in fairy tales,” River Song quipped back in The Pandorica Opens, “they always turn out to be him.” She is quite right, which means that the reveal about the identity of “the Architect” is not really a surprise. It is a very obvious development, just like the idea that the heist is being organised from the future.

Banking on it...

Banking on it…

Then again, it feels like a disservice to describe it as a “twist.” The script and direction for Time Heist plays entirely fair with the audience. Everything is thoroughly and carefully signposted. “The Architect” cannot even properly distort his Scottish accent as he warns the team that “if you can afford your own star system, this is where you keep it.” Even the handily oversized air ducts provide easily of navigation are handily identified and clearly visible early in the episode. “No entry under any circumstances,” they tease. Of course our heroes will navigate them.

These “timey wimey” elements do not provide a shock twist ending. Time Heist wraps itself up into a relatively neat bow, but it is not meant to be a surprise. Had this episode aired in the first four seasons, when the show was less casual about its use of the mechanics of time travel, it would have been a bit out of left-field. It is hard to imagine Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant reacting to their own manipulations. However, in the context of the show as it presently exists, it is fair game.

Guarding their secrets...

Guarding their secrets…

Similarly, the idea of the Doctor assembling a crack team of temporary mission-appropriate companions would have seemed very odd in the midst of the Davies era; after all, the Davies era considered travelling with the Doctor to be a full-time lifestyle choice. In contrast, coming off the Eleventh Doctor’s relationship with the Ponds and with Clara, it feels organic. As much as Time Heist is written in a style that feels in keeping with Thompson’s earlier work, it also borrows the structure of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and irons out some kinks.

In a way, Time Heist could be seen as one of the purest distillations of the classic “running through corridors” format – the way that the classic series would pad out episodes with chase sequences through the same sets, generating tension from little more than the forward momentum. Here, the characters seem to run back and forth through the same set of corridors for ten minutes, albeit lit slightly differently each time. Time Heist is quite aware of this, just as it is aware that even casual viewers will see the ending coming. That is part of the fun, after all.

The man with the plans...

The man with the plans…

The fact that there are three characters running through three identical corridors at the same time feels like an affectionate wink at the audience; the heavy coloured lighting actually draws the audience’s attention to the fact that the Doctor, Psi and Clara are all on the same set during that tense chase sequence. It isn’t quite as sly as the “perpetual TARDIS corridor” sequences from The Doctor’s Wife, but at least it is candid. Mood lighting only covers so much.

It is all very clean, all very efficient. Sure, there are plot holes. One wonders how “the Architect” left all those handy gimmicks around without getting caught by the Teller. The contrivance that “the one time the bank is vulnerable is the one time [they] can’t just land” feels forced, as does the revelation that “the Architect” put all those suitcases in place “by breaking into the bank in advance of breaking into the bank.” However, broadly speaking, Time Heist ticks over like clockwork to it. There’s a practised ease to it.

He's going to break the bank...

He’s going to break the bank…

Something that would have been unthinkable half a decade ago has become so casual that the show can practically sleepwalk through it. And that is the show’s biggest problem. Thompson is a writer who is good on big ideas, but who isn’t necessarily good at fitting characters and plot inside those big ideas. The idea of doing a bank robbery on Doctor Who is a great idea. After all, the show is brilliantly flexible, and has the ability to be just about any sort of story. Figuring out the right kind of story to collapse into Doctor Who is half the battle.

The concept of a time-travelling Ocean’s Eleven (or maybe Twelve) is enough to keep the episode entertaining and to help carry it off. The problem is that there’s little real substance underpinning that. This isn’t the first time that writer Steve Thompson has faced this particular problem. The Curse of the Black Spot was a similarly catchy hook, with a fairly flat execution. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS worked a lot better, albeit with the same sense that Thompson had a great central idea, but simply adequate execution.

Silence in the... er... bank...

Silence in the… er… bank…

Still, it is worth noting that Moffat has been working hard to develop and improve his writers. There is a very clear evolution in Chris Chibnall’s writing under Moffat’s tenure, for example. One of the benefits of bringing these writers back multiple times in fairly rapid succession is the sense that they genuinely get to grow and improve; they become stronger writers with more experience. Davies would (notoriously) simply re-write his writers’ scripts from the first page. So writers like Chibnall and Thompson have demonstrably grown during their time with the series.

This feels like a weird choice for the fifth story featuring Twelfth. We are still in the phase where the show is using established writers to define a new take on the character. Time Heist has a lot of potential to be an interesting story – the Doctor goes back to his fugitive roots, maybe throwing in some righteous anger and social justice. However, the problem is that the Twelfth Doctor spends most of the hour being reactive and responsive. He spends most of the show’s runtime doing something simply because he has been told he should.

A monster of a corporation...

A monster of a corporation…

“I don’t think we have a choice,” he tells his assembled team. “We’ve already agreed to.” When Psi has second-thoughts about his involvement, the Doctor tries to assure him that he would not have signed on to this mission without a reason. “You must have a very good reason. We all must have.” There’s something very passive about the Twelfth Doctor here, a sense that he is being led by the plot rather than driving it. The Doctor is the quintessential anti-authoritarian; however he spends most of Time Heist doing what he is told to do.

In theory, there is a lot of potentially interesting character stuff here. Most obviously, the fact that this is the way that the Twelfth Doctor would rob a bank says a lot about him. “I hate him,” the Doctor admits of “the Architect.” Realising exactly who would do something like this, the Doctor remarks, “He’s over-bearing, he’s manipulative.” However, the reveal comes rather late in the episode and second-hand, foreshadowed by Karabraxos’ contempt towards her own clones. “She hates her own clones. She burns her own clones.”

Ear worm...

Ear worm…

There are other potentially interesting character commentaries in Psi and Saibra, who are less characters than broadly-defined archetypes who serve as effective (and – in Saibra’s case – literal) mirrors to the Doctor. Saibra is a woman who travels alone because she cannot imagine people who would like what they see when they look at her. Explaining why she travels alone, she asks the Doctor, “Could you trust someone who looked back at you out of your own eyes?” There is a clear sense that Thompson’s script is playing into the season’s larger arcs.

Of course, Sabra feels like a rather blatant homage to the character of Rogue from Uncanny X-Men. Indeed, explaining her abilities to the Doctor, she remarks, “Mutant gene. No one can touch me.” It is a very familiar piece of character angst, but one that worked so well that Rogue found herself as the central character in the first X-Men movie. As with a lot of Time Heist, there is a sense that Thompson has taken something that has worked quite well before and incorporated it into his episode.

Everything is canon...

Everything is canon…

Psi himself is a character who can literally reboot himself – he can wipe his own history and start again. In a way, he feels like an effective metaphor for the Doctor under Moffat’s tenure. The Day of the Doctor did explicitly identify the Eleventh Doctor as “the one who forgets.” Of course, despite the fresh start – comparable to the fresh start the Doctor just received – Psi ends the episode recovering his past. Considering how much of the Moffat era has been dedicated to recovering the past, that is a nice touch.

There are several problems. Most obviously, Psi and Saibra don’t feel real outside of the way that they reflect the Doctor, in the same way that Ms. Delphox and Ms. Karabraxos never seem real. It is very hard to believe that Ms. Karabraxos should ever feel true regret about her decision to enslave the Teller; even if she were incapable of living with all the guilt that she amassed, it feels weird that this would be the one sin she would regret above all others. She has been murdering employees (including clones) for quite some time.

Out of memory...

Out of memory…

However, the season’s reflections on the Doctor’s self-hatred and recrimination – as well as his moral ambiguity – are probably the weakest threads running through the season. With The Day of the Doctor, Steven Moffat reversed the genocide at the end of the Time War; it seems unlikely that he would jump right back into a morally compromised lead character. As with Into the Dalek, a lot of Time Heist feels like idle posturing – as if daring the audience to believe that the Doctor is capable of encouraging his two new companions to commit suicide.

At one point, it looks like Sabra has killed herself to protect her from the Teller. The Doctor stood by and allowed it to happen, actively encouraging her in a way more immediate and visceral than his sacrifice of Ross in Into the Dalek. Naturally, his team mates are less than thrilled. “Is that why you call yourself the Doctor?” Psi taunts. “The professional detachment?” The Doctor is dismissive, offering the same sort of rhetoric he has used in episodes like Deep Breath or Into the Dalek.

Dialling it back...

Dialling it back…

“Underneath it all, he isn’t really like that,” Clara assures Psi. “It’s very obvious that you’ve been with him for a while,” Psi responds. “Because you are really good at the excuses.” It is a very pointed barb, and a stinging remark that would feel appropriate after the death of Ross in Into the Dalek or the climax of The Water of Mars. However, Time Heist overplays its hand. It all feels too forced; the audience never believes that the Doctor would sacrifice team members so proactively.

The revelation that these are transporters rather than suicide capsules removes any weight from the confrontations. Psi and Sabra would be perfectly justified to be angry at the Doctor for lying to them, even in the guise of “the Architect.” However, this betrayal feels relatively minor when measured against the set-up established by the episode – what if the Doctor gave his companions suicide capsules? In is quite clear that Time Heist is unwilling to follow through on something that significant, which would justify that anger.

The shapeshifter of things to come?

The shapeshifter of things to come?

It is interesting to wonder whether the Teller is also intended as a sly mirror of the Doctor, and perhaps another wink at the season-long arc spanning the year. The Teller is a potentially monstrous creature of incredible power, introduced as “the last of his kind.” However, it is subsequently revealed that the Teller is not alone. “Not the last of its species. The last two.” The revelation that there are two creatures of this species, of opposite genders, provides a nice mirror to the plot developments in Dark Water and Death in Heaven.

Indeed, while the angst around the teleporters feels a little forced, it provides another thematic link across the season. Time Heist teases the audience with death that isn’t really death. While other characters are teleported to “the promised land”, here the characters are teleported to safety. Still, it feels like a deliberate attempt to echo Missy’s “recovery” of those who died. As with the Doctor’s rescue of Marion in Robot of Sherwood or the salvation of Journey Blue in Into the Dalek, it seems like the show is consciously comparing the Doctor to Missy.

A sound investment?

A sound investment?

There some other nice recurring motifs to be found. Once again, the show draws attention to the mysterious person in the shop who drew the Doctor and Clara together. “We still don’t know who that was,” the Doctor reflects, seguing rather clumsily into the conversation. Still, Time Heist avoids too many obvious shout-outs to the season’s big mystery, instead concentrating on its own story. Which is nice. As opposed to repeating words and phrases, the Moffat era tends to throw out a host of different hints here and there.

There is a sense that the writers are getting a firmer grip on the Twelfth Doctor. Even outside of the teleporter fakeouts, Time Heist touches on some of the callousness that caught the audience off-guard in Into the Dalek. When the Teller attacks a man in the bank lobby, Clara insists, “We’ve got to help him.” The Doctor matter-of-factly replies, “He’s gone already.” When the heist requires one member of the team to put themselves at risk, the Doctor informs Psi, “I’m waiting for you to volunteer.”

Seeing eye-to-eye...

Seeing eye-to-eye…

In both cases, the Doctor is making a very calculated (and arguably justifiable) decision. It isn’t pleasant, and it isn’t nice; but this is not the Doctor being a jerk for the sake of it. The Twelfth Doctor does not outwardly angst over inevitable tragedies in the same way that his two predecessors would. There’s a directness to the character that give him a bit of edge, a sense that this is a Doctor who accepts that terrible things happen and expressing his own angst and anger will change nothing.

Time Heist also focuses on the Doctor as something of a working-class poser. He accompanies the team of bank robbers into danger, even as he masterminds the plot itself. When it comes to getting into the bank itself, the Doctor uses the service access. “The floor below is service corridors,” he tells his assembled crew. “The veins and arteries of the bank.” There is a sense that that the Twelfth Doctor views himself as a subversive working-class hero, even if the reality is somewhat more complex; his anger with “the Architect” is really hatred at a certain side of himself.

Hm. A plot hole...?

Hm. A plot hole…?

Time Heist is not an exceptional piece of television or Doctor Who, but it is light enough on its feet and enjoyable on its own terms. It’s a rather insubstantial episode, but it’s interesting to reflect on how far the show has come that all these concepts can combine to feel so casual and so relaxed.

You might enjoy our other reviews from Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who:

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6 Responses

  1. I must admit, I enjoyed this episode. It wasn’t anything special, but it was enjoyable enough for what it was. And sometimes that’s enough.

    • Yep, we’re at Capaldi’s fifth story, and nothing as questionable as Aliens of London/World War III, Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel or Victory of the Daleks. I’m not madly in love with Robot of Sherwood or Time Heist, but that’s a pretty great run.

  2. You are wondering how a man with a tardis breached security to leave brief cases about? Or did you forget that it wasn’t until later that the tardis wouldn’t work?

    • It’s a story, things happen because the writer wants them to.

      But it just seemed contrived that the Doctor land the TARDIS and leave all those briefcases about without triggering any alarms, alerting any surveillance or provoking the Teller. If that was the case, why not TARDIS the team into the point where he left the last briefcase and just have them wait it out until the storm hit? (The same reason the show had them wipe their memories before the heist; because it makes for more exciting television, even if there are some plot gymnastics required to justify it.)

      • The longer they are there the more likely they are to be found by the teller. Think about it as trying to hide on a large property guarded by a hound dog vs stepping on the property for a few minutes.

      • No, I get it in theory, but if your bank is not secure enough to notice a bunch of suitcases where they shouldn’t be (and have been there for quite some time) or a giant blue box materialising to deliver said suitcases, then it’s hard to feel like this back robbery is a big deal. I’m not complaining about not following the plotting, I’m finding the plotting contrived and clumsy.

        It’s not a fatal flaw with the episode to be sure, but it does feel like the kind of thing that could have been tighter and could have felt less contrived or less clumsy.

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