“Today is a good day to be a bank robber.”
One of the things I’ve been noticing about this season of Doctor Who is that there’s been very little unanimous like or dislike of any of the episodes. None have achieved the near-universal acclaim of Blink, or the near-universal derision of Fear Her. Even last week’s Listen, which was pretty widely acclaimed, has a number of fierce critics among my friends, either for its ambiguity or its deliberate slow pace.
This week’s episode, Time Heist, is unlikely to halt that trend of ‘Marmite episodes’ that people love or hate. For me though, it was a smartly executed version of a fairly lightweight standalone story, that effectively does exactly what it says on the tin. It was (amazingly enough) the tale of a heist. In which time travel was involved. The title is actually pretty cheesy, seemingly a current trend in a season that also includes episodes entitled Robots of Sherwood and Mummy on the Orient Express. The title Let’s Kill Hitler, my previous contender for most cringeworthy, has some serious competition.
Thankfully this story, for me at least, overcame its awful title to provide 45 minutes of fairly entertaining television. Even among those who love the show uncritically though, I doubt it’s liable to go down as a classic in anyone’s book. It’s a genre piece in an already overcrowded genre, with nothing new to add.
The crime caper story is as old as the hills, and in recent years we’ve had the whole Ocean’s Eleven series, not to mention eight seasons of Hustle and its accompanying spinoff The Real Hustle. Sci-fi has done plenty of pastiches of the genre, with caper stories in, for example, Star Trek Deep Space Nine and Warehouse 13. So for Time Heist to stand out, it would have to have done something unusual with the genre.
Generally though, it didn’t, making it fairly predictable as a story. It was enjoyable watching the tropes play out, but in many ways that felt like a checklist. Disparate group of individuals with distinct talents necessary for the caper? Check. Seemingly insurmountable security system which our heroes must circumvent? Check. The moment when the whole caper seems to have gone wrong, only to find that it was part of the plan all along? Check. A twist at the very end, revealing that the fabulous riches being sought are not what they seem? Check. It’s like someone put every crime caper movie ever into a blender.
Within those clichés though was some engaging writing and playing. A 45 minute TV episode doesn’t have the time to establish a nefarious gang as large as those of The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven, so Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat’s script sensibly kept the gang down to four – our usual heroes and two guest characters. Both guest characters were given a fair bit of depth, especially impressive given the constraint that they had amnesia courtesy of those pesky memory worms.
So, we had Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner), an X-Men style mutant with shapeshifting powers – useful when access to the bank requires DNA identification; and Psi (Jonathan Bailey, my eye candy for the week), a cybernetically augmented human able to directly interface with the bank’s security systems. Both were given backstories of seeking different kinds of redemption, which were gradually revealed as the caper progressed. And both became very likeable, giving their heroic deaths some dramatic weight. Which was then sort of undercut by the (not entirely unexpected) revelation that they weren’t dead at all. That kind of unexpected twist is in keeping with a lightweight crime caper, but it was hard not to see it as part of the trend in Moffat-scripted episodes that death, for the sympathetic characters at least, is rarely permanent.
For a good crime caper story to work, it needs a good villain to stand as the human representative of the institution being ripped off. Keeley Hawes deployed her usual cut-glass enunciation as not one but two such villains, to good effect. Those of a scientific bent may well have a problem with the (not unexpected) revelation that Miss Delphox was no more than a clone of Director Karabraxos, given that they were the same age. But then this show has already given us Kilbracken clones, instant ‘photocopies’ matching the originals’ age and memories, and the Sontaran clone of Martha, which was also the same age as the original when formed.
Insofar as there was a novel twist to the story, it was that the caper was being carried out by a team of amnesiacs with no knowledge of what the plan was, or why it was being implemented (though even that was reminiscent of Total Recall). That the Doctor turned out to be the mysterious ‘Architect’ guiding the plan along came as no surprise; I’m only surprised that it took him so long to work it out.
Also no surprise was that the ultimate object of the plan. The moment the ‘Teller’ (nice reinterpretation of the old name for a bank clerk) shuffled manacled onto the screen, you could tell he was acting under duress. The creature design was a good mix of scary but possibly sympathetic, the eye stalks slightly creepy, but the wide mouth melancholy and sad. I’ve seen him compared to the minotaur-like creature from The God Complex, but my first thought on seeing him was of the (rather less convincing) Garm from Terminus.
As it turned out, he was probably closer to the unnamed creature from Hide, with which he shared a motivation – to be with his mate. That happy ending, though, where it was implied that the couple would, Adam and Eve like, repopulate their species, ignored the fairly obvious fact that one pair of creatures can’t do that without introducing masses of genetic defects due to inbreeding. Still, as pointed out earlier, science has never been the show’s strong point.
What was a strong point was the direction. In the director’s chair for the second episode in a row, Douglas MacKinnon gave the ep so much visual flair I could almost call it a triumph of style over substance. Lifting plenty of tricks from high-budget heist movies, he gave us a neat pastiche of their usual style; especially fun was the standard slo-mo entrance of the gang into the bank. Murray Gold’s own pastiche of a typical heist score helped, though it was hard to dismiss the thought that the gang’s entrance should have been accompanied by ‘Little Green Bag’ a la Reservoir Dogs. There was so much visual style on display here it almost disguised the fact that the Karabraxos bank was very obviously the same location as the main hall from Silence in the Library.
That wasn’t a specific callback, but as so frequently recently, the show’s past got plenty of nods. Fans of Tom Baker and Troughton/Smith may have been disgruntled to hear their heroes’ trademark scarf and bow tie dismissed as looking “stupid”, but this abrasive new Doctor was every bit as willing to have a lampshade hanging pop at his own attire; “I was aiming for ‘minimalist’ but got closer to ‘magician’.”
And of course there was that montage of ‘notorious criminals’ on the screen as Psi courageously tried to distract the Teller from turning Clara’s brain to soup. Alongside the famous likes of Captain John Hart from Torchwood and Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer from the DWM comic strips were various familiar races, including, improbably, a Sensorite. Perhaps he was the actual villain from their one and only story. For a fuller list and screen caps, have a look here.
There’s a school of thought that the frequent references to the show’s past are a very bad idea; that it’s a sign of a series looking backward rather than forward, which is failing to come up with new ideas. It’s certainly reminiscent of John Nathan-Turner’s frequent continuity references, though the show was not yet ‘in decline’ by the time of, say, Earthshock. In this case, I don’t find the references to the past a problem; they’re not integral to the story, nor do they distract from it if you’re not a hardcore fan. Nonetheless, those critics do have a point, and with one such fan running the show and another starring in it, I do hope they can rein in their desire to go down that path.
I’m not sure what order the season was recorded in, but Peter Capaldi seemed very settled in the part here. His uncomprehending jibes about Clara’s appearance are obviously going to be a running gag; I find them quite funny, but I’m sure a lot of people will find them equally objectionable. Humour is subjective, of course.
Of more substance was Psi’s withering putdown to Clara that she’d obviously been with the Doctor for a long time, since she was so good at making excuses for him. If you’re not taking to the more remote figure of Capaldi’s Doctor, you might take that as a validation of your views. But it’s worth remembering how frequently the companion has had to make excuses for the Doctor over the show’s history – I’d say it started with Susan in the very first episode. And besides, Clara didn’t have a great deal else to do this week, even though Jenna Coleman did as good a job as usual. I don’t think she’ll be reduced a cardboard cypher like so many other companions though – her ongoing courtship of Danny (present but not credited) should ensure that.
For me, Time Heist was an enjoyable way to pass 45 minutes – ultimately a forgettable story, but enlivened by some stylish direction and engaging performances. There were some gaping plot holes – did the galaxy’s richest bank not consider the possibility of being wiped out by solar flares when building there? If the Doctor couldn’t use the TARDIS because of the solar storms, why not just materialise inside the Vault at some earlier point in time?
Still, I found those forgiveable enough given the premise and the light, frothy style. And the supporting characters were well-written and likeable enough for me to half hope they put in a return appearance. Doctor Who has never been shy about pastiching (or ‘ripping off’) classic genre stories, and as a genre piece, Time Heist was fun without being particularly memorable.