Over Doctor Who’s last couple of seasons, Steve Thompson has established himself as a specialist in producing harmless filler episodes. “Time Heist,” co-written with showrunner Steven Moffat, is another example, but it’s distinctly superior to Thompson’s previous efforts, avoiding both the overwrought melodrama of 2011’s “The Curse of the Black Spot” and the reset-button ending of last year’s “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.”
Not for a long while has there been an episode with so little connection to the ongoing season arc. Together with the complete absence of the fairy-tale tone that’s characterized the Moffat era, this gives the opening a very refreshing feel, as the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) are pitchforked straight into the adventure. Without warning they find themselves in a far-future environment, their memories of recent events erased. Along with a couple of new associates, cybernetically augmented Psi (Jonathan Bailey) and shapeshifter Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner), they’ve apparently willingly agreed to break into the ultra-secure Bank of Karabraxos, for reasons known only to the mysterious “Architect” who gives them their instructions.
The episode has fun indulging in all the usual tropes of caper movies and TV shows, like the ostentatious slow-motion shot of the team striding purposefully into the bank, accompanied by jazzy, uptempo music. The actual mechanics of the heist are sufficiently plausible, and interest is maintained by the fact that our heroes don’t know what their ultimate objective is, but have to keep moving forward to stay ahead of the bank’s security. The pace flags a little in the middle, with too much running up and down a series of bland corridors that are all too clearly the same set (which lighting entirely fails to disguise). But once the bank’s vault is penetrated, the mystery only deepens when it becomes obvious that the Architect is actually the Doctor himself.
For a story about a bank robbery to really be at home on Doctor Who, it needs a monstrous threat, which is provided by the bizarre-looking Teller, the bank’s principal defender. This massive creature, looking like a cross between a minotaur and a giant slug, with eyes at the ends of huge stalks at the sides of its head, is an excellent combination of costume and animatronics. Its deadly telepathic abilities are established in a long scene where the team witnesses it detect the guilty thoughts of another hapless visitor and liquefy the miscreant’s brain. But there’s a certain lugubrious quality to its appearance, too, which nicely defuses its menace once the Doctor discovers that the creature is acting under duress, with its mate imprisoned deep within the bank.
Guest star Keeley Hawes cleverly plays the story’s human antagonist—Ms. Delphox, the head of security—in a slightly over-emphasised style, the reason for which becomes clear with the revelation that she’s merely a subordinate clone of the bank’s director. Hawes adopts a much more natural manner for Madame Karabraxos, who’s hidden away in her private vault just like the reclusive billionaire Max Capricorn in 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned.” Once the Doctor’s team has arrived in her presence, the plot reaches a satisfying climax, as the Doctor gives Karabraxos the TARDIS phone number and his confrontation with the Teller turns into a flashback that fills in the missing memories and explains how he set up the heist. As with Celia Imrie in last year’s “The Bells of Saint John,” Hawes is most striking in her final scene as, many years later, the dying Karabraxos contacts the Doctor and starts the whole chain of events, motivated by her regret at having kept the Teller’s mate chained up. After the bank heist/rescue mission is concluded, the final sight of the two freed creatures lumbering off into the distance is rather amusing, but provides a sweet ending.
Clara is mostly stuck in generic companion mode this week; with no special abilities to bring to the team, she has nothing to do but tag along and ask questions. She does seem to form a connection of sorts with Psi, but it obviously can’t lead anywhere, given that this adventure is just a momentary interruption in her continuing relationship with Danny Pink. Compared to last week’s deep exploration of the Doctor, this episode is relatively superficial, though he once again stays firmly in charge throughout (as he says, “That’s my special power”), even when he doesn’t know it. There are some moments of eccentricity that are overplayed, particularly in the final confrontation: Bounding around the room, shouting, “I hate the Architect!,” would have been suited to the previous Doctor, but just looks odd with this one. On the whole, though, Capaldi’s Doctor has become steadily more impressive, especially when this episode, like “Listen,” allows him to show some warmth and charm. He may have overdone the dour, stern demeanour in his first couple of episodes, but by the end of “Time Heist,” as he’s relaxing and joking in the TARDIS with his friends, Capaldi is indubitably the Doctor.
Next Week: Clara’s two worlds collide, as the Doctor and Danny Pink finally meet, in “The Caretaker.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: 1988’s “The Happiness Patrol,” starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, also features a particularly manipulative Doctor—though in this case, bringing down a totalitarian regime rather than masterminding a bank robbery—with a female villain and a bizarre monster at the center of the story.
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