Back in the day, a season of Doctor Who would only have about a half dozen stories, comprised of multiple episodes. Though slow-paced and drawn-out to modern audiences, at the time this was a more efficient use of time and resources, spreading out the cost of sets, costumes and cast over several weeks, rather than having to start from scratch every Saturday. It also meant that a run of adventures would have more consistency. If a season of six serials consisted of one all-time classic, two pretty great runarounds, two lots of regular fair and one stinker, the one bad story would have less of an impact on the overall reception of the run. Season 15 is remembered for the gripping “Horror of Fang Rock” and not the turgid “Underworld”. But then again, neither is it much associated with “Image of the Fendahl”, which is perfectly serviceable, but apart from the giant slug monster fades quickly from memory.
Doctor Who in the 21st century has the same problem but in reverse. The run of episodes is more limited but with a higher budget per installment. Combined with the quicker attention spans of viewers used to internet content and it makes more sense to have each episode be it’s own standalone adventure, with the occasional two-parter as a nod to the cliffhanger-driven Doctor Who of old. The benefits of this format means less filler in stories, with the usual Episode One ‘wandering around looking for the plot’ and Episode Three ‘running down corridors and getting captured and re-captured’ almost entirely stripped away in favour of cutting to the chase, with the TARDIS usually arriving right in the thick of it.
The obvious downside, however, is that their are now more chances per season of producing more duds versus hits, which overall risks bringing down the perceived quality of the series as a whole. The higher the number of individual stories, the less important to the overall lore of the show each becomes. Season 8 can boast canon-expanding tales like “Listen” and a “Death in Heaven”, but also ultimately disposable fare like the “The Caretaker” and “In the Forest of the Night”.
“Time Heist” is one of those perfectly serviceable New Series standalones, penned by Stephen Thompson, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ fellow writer on Sherlock. Given the high profile and much-vaunted quality of that series, it’s curious that Thompson has had a very hit and miss record with his three Doctor Who stories to date. In 2011’s “The Curse of the Black Spot”, the promising Pirate-set story was squandered on a (no-pun intended) damp stock storyline of a crashed spaceship causing strange phenomena. His second episode, 2013’s “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”, was again an interesting idea largely scuttled by poor characterization and some truly baffling ‘twists’. So obviously there was some trepidation when it was announced he would be penning a another episode for the Twelfth Doctor’s inaugural season, again a genre piece. However, whereas his previous efforts were held back by their genre, “Time Heist”, which he co-wrote with Moffat, uses it and flips it on it’s head to surprisingly solid effect.
Clara’s budding romance with Danny Pink is once again interrupted when the TARDIS phone rings, a strange occurrence seeing how few people possess it’s number. Seeing no harm in answering it, the Doctor does so, only to find himself in a dark room with two strangers clutching a memory worm, having forgotten how he came to be there. On the orders of the mysterious ‘Architect’, the Doctor and Clara, along with shape-shifting mutant Saibra and augmented cyborg Psi, are tasked with breaking into the impregnable Bank of Karabraxos, an impregnable fortress for the ultra-rich of the cosmos. What follows is what you’d expect from a ‘Doctor Who does Ocean’s 11′ story, with enough escapes through vents, booby-traps and outwitting complex locks to justify the setup
Where “Time Heist” truly shines is it’s supporting cast. Saibra and Psi in particular are given intriguing and tragic backstories- Psi wiped his memory of his family, he assumes to protect them, and as a mutant Saibra can’t touch someone without taking there appearance. Line of Duty’s Keeley Hawes lends her talents to the role of Miss Delphox, the bank’s ruthless head of security. Delphox keeps a very interesting pet, the last of a race of telepathic creatures called the Teller, an arresting-looking elephant-like monster. In a season dominated largely by robots (i.e. men in silver suits), the Teller is a well-realised marriage of make-up, animatronics and special effects, much like the Fisher King in the next years “Before the Flood”, although the former creature gets more screen time.
Peter Capaldi continues to shine as the Doctor, bringing his usual rudeness and snark to the character, along with an added dimension of confusion and self-loathing.By this point of his era, the Twelfth Doctor’s primary character trait of self-doubt has fully crystallized. He doubts if he is a hero, or even a good man, despite reassurances from Saibra. The standout scene of the story is when the Doctor seemingly talks Saibra into suicide in order to prevent the Teller consuming all there minds- a gloriously gruesome fate shown in an earlier scene, in which a would be thief had his head caved in like a deflated football. The Doctor is clearly distraught when Saibra, and later Psi, are both disintegrated, so when it turns out they were merely teleported, he flounders for words, and is later reduced to the Malcolm Tucker-ism ‘shut up’ for almost a minute as he grasps the situation.
As it turns out after multiple twists and turns, this was no ordinary bank heist, as if it ever would be. It transpires that Delphox is simply one of multiple clones of the Bank’s owner, Karabraxos, who is preparing to flee the planet as a solar storm races in. The Doctor then figures out the identity of the Architect, the mysterious, manipulative, clever individual whom he hates. Him. It turns out that Karabraxos had one regret above all others- the Teller was infact not alone, but had a mate chained up in her bunker. The Doctor gives her his phone number as she escapes, so as an old woman lying in hospital she contacts the Doctor and asks him to rescue the Teller. The Doctor then spends a large amount of time planting the various briefcases and gadgets they’ll need in the bank itself, gather’s together Psi and Saibra, records himself wearing a hoodie and uses voice manipulation to create the Architect, and finally used the memory worms to wipe all four’s memories, including his own. This is a perfect example of a ‘Moffat Loop’, a trope that’s fast becoming a televisual trademark- a narrative that forms a gigantic mobius strip with itself, the beginning and the end intertwined.
With the Teller’s walk of into the sunset for what I assume was a fantastic night of fun, the Doctor, Clara, Psi and Saibra travel on, get a takeaway, and finally go their separate ways, the Doctor giving them the memory restorer and gene stabilizer he had promised them in order to recruit them to begin with. In the course of the episode, the four of them show great chemistry, and in another world probably would have made a good ‘crowded TARDIS’. But leave Psi and Saibra do, and the Doctor finally gets Clara to her date, but as he contemplates in the TARDIS, how can a date compete with robbing a bank?
“Time Heist” is undoubtedly a filler episode, but it is a filler with some nobility, even if it fails to linger in the mind. So often in modern Doctor Who, stories that aren’t the pacy opener, the big historical story, the returning monster two-parter or the finale, or otherwise don’t directly link into the season arc, can turn out forgettable or uninteresting. “Time Heist” knows what it is, and so uses it’s scale to it’s advantage, telling a story with interesting characters, a unique setting, and a great deal of style for something ultimately created to fill up a slot in the season. If you come away with nothing else from “Time Heist”, spare a thought for the filler episodes, the mid-season Atlases which prop up the big blockbuster stories everyone remembers on their shoulders.