Doctor Who reviews: Time Heist

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!”

Doctor Who Time Heist poster

“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 prevent 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.

Doctor Who Time Heist cast

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.

Doctor Who Time Heist Abslon Daak mug shot

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.

Steve Moore: 1949 to 2014

I was sorry to learn about the recent death of British comic book writer Steve Moore, who passed away at the age of 64 earlier this month.  Steve Moore was a longtime friend & associate of Alan Moore, so much so that they constantly had to remind people that they were not, in fact, related to each other.

Steve Moore was involved in the early days of the weekly sci-fi anthology series 2000 AD, penning several installments of “Tharg’s Future Shocks” in the late 1970s and early 80s.  In late 1979, he became one of the first writers for Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly for Marvel UK, penning a variety of back-up stories spotlighting the aliens & monsters of the television series.

With then up-and-coming artist Steve Dillon, Moore co-created two recurring characters in the comic book back-ups.  The first was Junior Cyberleader Kroton, introduced in “Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman,” published in Doctor Who Weekly #s 5-7 (1980).  Unlike the rest of the Cybermen, when he was converted into a cyborg Kroton somehow retained his human emotions, his capacity for empathy.  Struggling with his unexpected feelings, Kroton eventually sided with the human resistance on the Cyberman-occupied world of Mondaran, helping them to escape to the unoccupied jungles of their planet.  However, realizing he was neither fully Cyberman nor human, Kroton elected to blast off into outer space, where he shut himself down.

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The other character conceived by Moore and Dillon was Abslom Daak, the Dalek-Killer, originally featured in Doctor Who Weekly #s 17-20 (1980).  Although they shared a common enemy in the Daleks, Daak was the polar opposite of the Doctor.  Whereas the wandering Time Lord was eccentric, cultured, and sought to resolve conflicts with his intellect, Daak was a brutal career criminal, a cynic with a dark sense of humor and a death wish whose solution to any problem was violence.

On the opening page his debut Daak has been convicted of “23 charges of murder, pillage, piracy, massacre and other crimes too horrible to bring to the public attention.”  Given a capital sentence, Daak is offered a choice, “death by vaporization or Exile D-K.”  Dryly commenting that “vaporization doesn’t hurt,” Daak takes the second alternative.  Exile D-K involves sending an individual by matter transmitter into the heart of the Dalek Empire to wage a hopeless one-man guerilla war against the fascist mutants from Skaro.  This suits Daak just fine.  Armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, including his beloved chain-sword, he is teleported a thousand light years across the galaxy to the planet Mazam, newly invaded by the Daleks.  There Daak plans to go out in a blaze of glory, violently taking as many Daleks with him as possible in an orgy of destruction.

Upon his arrival, however, Daak ends up saving the life of the stunningly beautiful Princess Taiyin.  Daak is all ready to do a reenactment of the ending to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Taiyin realizes this brutish warrior might just be able to help her escape.  Knocking the Dalek-Killer out, she transports the two of them away from her palace via sky-sled.  Once again attacked by the Daleks, Daak reiterates his hopes of achieving a spectacularly violent demise.  Taiyin reluctantly points him in the direction of the Daleks’ command ship and, against impossible odds, the two manage to destroy it.  Taiyin, who has begun to fall for Daak, asks him to stay on and help rebuild Mazam.  Before Daak can answer, Taiyin is shot from behind by one of the surviving Daleks, and dies in the Dalek-Killer’s arms.

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Moore did an interesting job of developing Daak.  He starts out as a thoroughly unpleasant individual who is looking to cash his chips in.  Along the course of the story, Daak reluctantly comes to realize that he likes Taiyin, and perhaps he could have a future with her, a reason to go on living.  And then all that is cruelly yanked away from him in an instant with Taiyin’s death.  From that point on, Daak vows to “kill every damned stinking Dalek in the galaxy.”  Revenge and the almost impossible hope of somehow finding a way to revive Taiyin are Daak’s only reasons to go on living.  That final page is powerfully illustrated by Dillon.

Moore continued Abslom Daak’s story in “Star Tigers,” which ran in Doctor Who Weekly #s 27-30 and 44-46.  The Dalek-Killer gains a battleship, the Kill Wagon, and a crew made up of exiled Draconian prince Salander, the Ice Warrior mercenary Harma, and the human criminal strategist Vol Mercurious.  The first few installments were again drawn by Dillon, with a young David Lloyd assuming art duties on the later chapters.

(There is an excellent interview with Steve Moore concerning his Dalek-Killer stories online at Altered Vistas.  Check it out.)

Moore intended to write additional installments of“Star Tigers.”  But he was then switched over to the main feature in Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly, scripting the adventures of the Fourth Doctor.  Here he was paired with regular artist Dave Gibbons.  In the mid-1980s, Moore’s Doctor Who work was reprinted in color in the American comic book series, which is where I first had the opportunity to read his various stories.

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Moore also contributed numerous stories to the short-lived anthology series Warrior in the mid-1980s.  Among these were the adventures of the psychotic cyborg Axel Pressbutton and his sometimes-partner, the beautiful & deadly Laser Eraser.

Throughout the 1990s Moore worked as a writer and editor at Fortean Times, the British magazine of strange & esoteric phenomena.  He returned to the comic book field in the late 1990s, when he began writing “Tales of Telguth,” a  horror / fantasy anthology feature in 2000 AD with dark twist endings.  This allowed Moore to collaborate with a number of very talented artists such as Simon Davis, Greg Staples, Carl Critchlow, Dean Ormston, and Siku.

In the mid-2000s, Moore once again became associated with Alan Moore, working on several stories for Tom Strong, Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales and Tomorrow Stories from the America’s Best Comics imprint.  These were illustrated by an all-star line up that included Paul Gulacy, Jimmy Palmiotti, Alan Weiss, Arthur Adams and Eric Shanower.  In 2008, Steve Moore wrote Hercules: The Thracian Wars and Hercules: The Knives of Kush for Radical Comics.

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At the time of his death, Steve Moore was working with Alan Moore once again, this time on The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, to be released by Top Shelf.  Hopefully Alan will be able to complete the tome and it will see publication.

Steve Moore leaves behind a very impressive, offbeat, original body of work.  His two original characters from the Doctor Who comics, Abslom Daak and Kroton, became fan favorites.  Daak later encountered the Seventh Doctor, both in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and in prose fiction.  Kroton, after many years absence from print, reappeared to travel for a time with the Eighth Doctor.  So please raise a glass (or a chainsword) in his memory.