The recent Doctor Who episode “Time Heist” written by Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat reminded me, both structurally and stylistically, of the preceding installment, “Listen.” Both were very unconventional, with non-linear plot structures. Both involved some wibbly wobbly timey wimey paradoxes. And on each episode, early on, my thoughts alternated between “this really makes no sense” and “this isn’t very good,” yet by the end of each I was saying to myself, “Wow! That came together brilliantly! What a great episode!”
“Time Heist” opens as Clara (Jenna Coleman) is getting ready to go out on a date with fellow Coal Hill teacher, and new boyfriend, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson)… cue a flashback as they sneak a quick snog in the classroom! The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is vainly attempting to convince Clara to take a trip with him instead, when suddenly the TARDIS phone rings. Despite Clara warning him not to answer, the Doctor picks it up… and suddenly the two of them find themselves in a strange room, accompanied by the cyborg hacker Psi (Jonathan Bailey) and the shape-shifter Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner). All four of them have had their memories of the immediate past erased. But via a pre-recorded video message from a shadowy figure calling himself “The Architect” they learn that, somehow or another, they have agreed to break into the Bank of Karabraxos, the largest bank in the galaxy.
Not surprisingly, the Bank of Karabraxos possesses an incredibly formidable security system, making the task of the Doctor & Co extremely difficult. One of the Bank’s most remarkable & dangerous deterrents against theft and fraud is “The Teller.” A strange alien who is kept in a straightjacket & chains by the Bank staff, The Teller is a telepath who can detect “guilty” thought patterns, and who can feed on a person’s mind, literally sucking their skull dry. The Doctor realized that this is the reason why The Architect arranged for them to have their memories wiped, to lessen their chances of being sensed by The Teller.
“Time Heist” is simultaneously a bank heist story with multiple sci-fi twists and a mystery, as the Doctor, Clara, Psi and Saibra each attempt to figure out why exactly they would have volunteered to commit this dangerous crime. In the process, the viewers learn quite a bit about Psi and Saibra. Psi, when he was previously arrested, deliberately erased all his memories of his friends & family to protect the authorities from learning about them. Now that he is once again free, Psi very much wants to recover those memories so that he will no longer be alone. Saiba is also seeking to overcome her solitude. Her shape-shifting power hinges upon physical contact, meaning that she will transform into a duplicate of anyone she touches. Understandably enough, that prevents her from ever becoming close to anyone, to having any sort of romantic relationship with another being. Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner both do excellent work playing these two characters, and you do feel like you get to know them quite well before the end of the episode.
So, spoilers… we eventually learn that The Architect is none other than the Doctor himself. He has used his knowledge of time to determine the exact point in history when the heist will succeed, and to set the groundwork for himself, Clara, Psi and Saibra to break in. And the reason why he has arranged all this is that the person who is calling him is none other than the Bank president Ms. Karabraxos (Keeley Hawes) many years in the future, dying and full of regrets about the myriad crimes she committed during her life. She asks the Doctor to go back along her timeline and rescue The Teller and its mate, which she holds hostage, from her captivity. The Doctor does just that, in the process handing the much younger Ms. Karabraxos a note with the TARDIS phone number written down on it. He tells her to give him a call some time, and Karabraxos responds “You’ll be dead.” To which the Doctor replies “Yeah, and you’ll be old. We’ll get on famously. You’ll be old and full of regret for the things you can’t change.” This episode was an interesting twist on the notion of the Doctor as a manipulative figure, as this time he is even influencing his own actions from behind the scenes.
Certainly the most compelling aspect of “Time Heist” is Peter Capaldi. Even early on, when I wasn’t sure about the writing, his performance was superb. I love watching his Doctor working on a mystery. You can almost literally see the wheels in his head turning. And his irreverent eccentricity is just brilliantly mad. When everything begins to come together at the end, his Doctor has this manic “A-hah!” quality about him, and we see him almost literally bouncing about the room as he connects the dots. Yep, I love his Doctor. It was just brilliant casting Capaldi in the role.
It was certainly intriguing that the Doctor’s anger at The Architect turned out to be a projection of his own self-loathing for his worst qualities. And it is that which leads the Doctor to finally figure out exactly what was going on. “I hate him! He’s overbearing, he’s manipulative, likes to think that he’s very clever. I hate him! Clara, don’t you see? I hate the Architect!” It is a very well written, revealing piece of dialogue that is expertly performed by Capaldi.
I also continue to enjoy the Doctor’s oddball interactions with Clara. At the beginning of the episode, when she’s getting ready for her date, the Doctor asks “Are you taller?” Clara shows him that she’s wearing a pair of heels, to which the Doctor obliviously inquires “What, do you have to reach a high shelf?” At the episode’s conclusion, the Doctor drops Clara off right after their departure, just in time for her date with Danny. After she’s left the TARDIS, the Doctor smugly comments to himself “Robbin’ a bank. Robbin’ a whole bank. Beat that for a date.”
Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat did good work on this episode. Certainly this is a significant improvement over the two previous Doctor Who stories that Thompson wrote on his own, “The Curse of the Black Spot” and “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.” As with the previous week’s episode, “Listen,” I think that “Time Heist” is a story that will gain much from successive viewings, so that you can more clearly see the twists & turns of the plot unfolding.
Easter egg time: at one point when Clara is being pursued by The Teller, it is lured away from her by Psi. He accesses his data banks and brings up all of the criminals he has on file. “Come and find me. Every thief and villain in one big cocktail. I am so guilty! Every famous burglar in history is hiding in this bank right now in one body.” A number of “mug shot” images rapidly flicker across the screen. Among them I spotted a Sensorite, a Terileptil, the Gunslinger from “A Town Called Mercy,” a Slitheen… and, very surprisingly, Abslom Daak: Dalek-Killer. Yes, that’s right, the infamous chain-sword wielding anti-hero created by Steve Moore & Steve Dillon in pages of the Doctor Who Weekly. That’s Dillon’s artwork from the comic strip on display. The whole of Doctor Who fandom must now be pondering whether Daak will ever appear on the show in person and, if so, who will play him.
I know that some viewers were no doubt turned off by the unconventional nature of both “Listen” and “Time Heist.” But, honestly, one of the major strengths of Doctor Who has been its flexibility. Having the Doctor regenerate every few years, revealing his background as a Time Lord, exiling the Doctor to Earth for several years, sending him on a season-long quest for the Key To Time, destroying Gallifrey, making Doctor-lite episodes like “Blink” and “Turn Left,” having the Doctor in a non-chronological romance with River Song, revealing the existence of the War Doctor… the series has repeatedly experimented with different story structures and made significant changes to its main character. Really, the only two constants in Doctor Who are change, and that fans of the show will never manage to agree with one another about those changes!
“Time Heist” is certainly an interesting installment of Doctor Who. I look forward to re-visiting it in the near future and seeing what I make of it the second time around.