Doctor Who Review: 'Time Heist'

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Hello Whovians and DAPs-devotees, and welcome back to the Doctor Who Review. What do you do when you find yourself locked in a room with strangers and no memories of the past few days, and your only guidance came from a pre-recorded message instructing you to rob a bank? Stranger yet, what would you do if you had willingly given your memories up for an unknown reason? It’s time travel meets Ocean’s Eleven, with mysterious motivation and danger around every corner in the form of a guilt-sensing, mind-melting alien. So, let me ask you one question: do you feel guilty, punk? Warning, spoilers ahead!

The Episode:

An amnesiac Doctor and Clara find themselves with a cyber-augmented hacker, a shape-shifter, and a message from someone known only as “The Architect” instructing them  to rob the most secure bank in the galaxy; even for our tried-and-true time travelers, this is a new one! Between security “politely” wielding lethal force and some of the most impregnable fail-safes in existence, they have enough to worry about. Having to think on their feet to avoid being “humanely” destroyed or getting their brains turned to soup by the guilt-sensing alien known as “the Teller,” the gang must find what lies deep beneath the bank, and what they were willing to give up their memories for.

The Analysis:

‘Time Heist’ is a fantastically fun idea on paper whose execution fell just short of perfection. Unfortunately, this isn’t anything new for the collaborations of Steven Moffat and co-writer Steve Thompson (who previously wrote the episodes ‘The Curse of the Black Spot‘ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS‘). Thompson has the wonderful talent of thinking of unique adventures for the Doctor, which is a testament to his creativity writing for a show over fifty years old. However, it seems that his brilliant ideas don’t translate well into forty-five minute stints, as his stories fall into typical plot points and diverse characters give into tropes and stereotypes. This isn’t to say that the episode is any less entertaining or memorable, but rather that Thompson’s creative mind needs to be paired with a more nuts-and-bolts sort of writer who can take the lofty ideas and turn them into complex stories.

Like last week, this episode is also reminiscent of Series 7’s ‘Hide,’ though more to its detriment as it reads like a generic copy of the latter’s plot: the Doctor and Clara meet people with unique talents to uncover the secrets of a renown building, encountering a seemingly malevolent entity only to later discover that it only wants its mate. While it’s a very broad connection, it’s still noticeable and in some cases distracting from an otherwise very creative premise.

This repetitive feeling also affects Capaldi’s performance, whose gruff take on the titular character is starting to lose that new-Who flair. This isn’t to say that Capaldi isn’t a powerhouse of a Doctor; his steely mind, erratic nature, and physicality à la Matt Smith (snapping fingers and spinning on his heel) is still vivacious and captivating. It is the cold, uncaring nature of the Doctor that has gone from new and edgy to uncomfortable and foreign, as he continues to show little to no remorse for the supposed death of his comrades in arms; while it’s later revealed that they’re fine, it doesn’t erase the fact that the Doctor, who used to feel the weight and responsibility of every life, is now brushing them off like flies. Seeing a once kind and caring Doctor finally break and transform into a more accepting, grim-faced shadow of his former self is still a great concept. Seeing it in every episode, shoved in the faces of the audience, is gratuitous and wearing thin. Capaldi is still wonderful to watch and can lead a scene, but if you were expecting him to bring another dimension to the character (as he did briefly in ‘Into the Dalek‘), then lower your expectations.

This is also the first episode that Clara’s character has taken a step backwards in terms of character development, serving no real purpose in the plot aside from being the voice of sympathy and reason before becoming a Damsel in Distress. It’s through no fault of Jenna Louise Coleman’s, who brings as much of her depth and endearing nature as she possibly can; she is simply not given much to do in this episode other than to bounce back stories off of and cause a secondary character to leap to her rescue. It’s not entirely worrying, as this sort of thing is becoming the exception rather than the rule so far this season, and next week appears to be a very Clara-centric storyline. One merely hopes that she won’t fall back into the old ways of Doctor Who Series 7 and become a plot device for other characters to bounce off of.

The strongest force in this episode is surprisingly the secondary characters of Psi (Jonathan Bailey), the cyber-augmented hacker, and Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner), the shape-shifting mutant who uncontrollably to imitate whoever’s touching her. Not only are they compelling characters with unique talents and good motivations for aiding in the heist, but they bring something we haven’t really seen yet in Series 8: relatable heroism. The Doctor has saved ships and species, but his aggressive nature obscures and even hurts the audience’s ability to appreciate it; in the same secondary character vein, Robin Hood proves to be a legend larger than life, making him fun to watch but unable to sympathize with. Yet we can relate with Saibra’s loneliness and Psi’s willingness to sacrifice everything for those he loves; it’s simple but sturdy character motivation that the audience can easily identify. It’s especially appreciated in contrast to the Doctor’s latest incarnation, which helps temper the overall mood of the episode. Lastly, the icy Ms. Delphox (Keeley Hawes) and her secret weapon, The Teller, are generic but solid antagonists: one is in power and control, and the other is a force to be reckoned with but misunderstood. While nothing new, they provide exactly what the episode needs: the cold, calculating woman and the misunderstood monster; like the Smith Doctor once said…

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The Verdict:

I truly want to like this episode more than I do; it is a fun, creative romp with a few good characters and a plot twist and a feel-good ending. However, I cannot shake the sense of déjà vu that I get when watching it, as Doctor Who TV tropes run rampant and characters fall into a development rut. While the concept is unique and rife with promising idea, the actual implementation falls just short of being great. It’s still a solid episode that I recommend to any true-blue Who, but it just leaves me wanting more, and not in a good way.

 

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