13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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Ah, Time Heist. Or, as we like to think of it, Journey To The Centre Of The Bank.
The kindest thing we could think of to say about Steve Thompson’s previous two Doctor Who episodes, Curse Of The Black Spot and Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS, was “appalling”. The good news: Time Heist is a significant step up from either of those. The bad news: that’s still somewhat short of a ringing endorsement.
First come the Moffaty bits about Clara/The Doctor/Danny. Let’s deal with that now, shall we? It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the Doctor is deliberately competing for Clara’s attention, and at the end of this he spells it out: “Robbing a bank. Robbing a whole bank. Beat that for a date”. What this is about remains to be seen. Whether it’s just that he wants her to come on board fulltime or whether he has something against Danny because of the soldiering we’re not sure, although we’re betting against the latter. Clara hasn’t told him who she’s dating, and given that the Doctor has been denser than usual lately we see no reason to assume that he knows. We just hope they do something interesting with it, because we just did all that triangle stuff with Amy and Rory.
OK then, the actual episode. Wow! Slam-bang opener or what? Utterly surprising, and actually properly science fictiony for once! We were grinning like loons as the opening titles rolled.
And it keeps going in the same excellent vein. The heist aspect makes it not at all like the usual run of things, and for once, that’s in the good way. It’s not as if a heist is original, but it’s the first time we’ve seen it done in Doctor Who, so yippee! It’s more than overdue, in the world’s stretchiest format, that we actually saw something new.
The giant infodump at the beginning works perfectly in context, and we also get the wonderful line “Open up and you shall be humanely disposed of!”. The direction, with generous use of slomo, efficiently flashes up what’s actually not very interesting footage of a bunch of people walking. And Keeley Hawes as the compulsory dominatrix is clearly having the time of her life.
Then we meet the Teller. This is a powerful and particularly nasty set piece, especially when the guy’s brain starts leaking out his eyes. We’re not sure how he’s still managing to, you know, stand up, breathe and all that, but hey, what do we know about the Teller’s MO?
Up till now, the rest of the gang’s been going along with the Doctor because he seems to be making sense. When he wants to set a bomb off at their fingertips, however, they’re not so sure. It’s at this point that Peter Capaldi turns the tap and, without transition or visible effort, absolutely pours it on. In that moment, he is the Doctor in the way the Doctor has always been: able to command through the sheer force of his intellect and personality. This Doctor may have been more tentative, more self-questioning, than he has been previously, but this scene reassures us that the real Doctor is still definitely with us.
At this point, we’re about a third of the way in and it’s been a textbook heist story. At least, as far as we know, because we’re hardly experts. None of us are heist fans and we were hard pressed to come up with a single heisty thing any of us had sat through to the end. In fact, the total of our heist-based knowledge can be summed up by “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”. However, we’ve never let total ignorance of a subject get in the way before, and we’re not about to start now.
So. If we were writing a heist, we’d make it all plotty. The whole point of it, as far as we can see, is to dazzle the audience with clever twists and sneaky manoeuvres, right? This, we assume, is not the place for squishy old character development and the like. That’s why Time Heist up to this point has been so good. It’s plot, plot, plot, all the way down.
Unfortunately, however, it’s at this point that things take a sharp turn. What started as a fast-paced, tightly-plotted story starts to unspool into a series of heartstring-tugging vignettes about character. Or at least that’s what it looks like at first. Come with us down the rabbit hole.
What it actually turns out to be may not about character at all. At least not in the way it first appears. The characters are reasonably well-drawn given the constraints of less than 45 minutes, and their plights are touching, but take a second look and you can see that Psi, Saibra and the Teller are all in the same emotional situation. It’s not about developing them as people/aliens. Instead, they’re just illustrations for a series of lectures about loneliness bad, nearest and dearest good. Given that this is the most self-evident point in the universe, this may get the audience on the story’s side, but only at the price of being deeply tedious.
And that’s not the whole story, either. Because we think there’s a good case to be made that given that loneliness is each character’s leitmotif, they’re actually all here for one reason: to illustrate the Doctor’s situation. Yes, what looks like a more outward-looking episode for once may in fact be all about the Doctor. Again.
On we go. And in a Moffat speciality we’ve seen far too often, plot elements which were previously agreeably impactful are now ruined by overstretching and overuse. Through the most hilariously comfy and accessible vents ever, our gang of desperadoes find the Teller having a snooze. Wouldn’t you think, having seen it leave someone’s skull looking like a football that’s been left out in the garden all summer, that they’d back away sharpish? Apparently not, as they’re peering through the glass as if they’re on an away day to Whipsnade. And yet again the Doctor issues instructions as to how to avoid the depredations of the alien of the week. From don’t blink to don’t think. Are they taking the piss?
Even that might be okay once. But they’ve got one idea, and by God, they’re going to use it. So we get several more confrontations with the Teller, with diminishing returns every time, the last culminating in them changing the rules completely so that it’s merely rummaging helpfully in the Doctor’s brain. Why is he not souped? No idea. But we don't think "Because he's the Doctor" is good enough.
What’s more, the plot is also unravelling in other directions. It’s a great setup, but as ever it’s far more difficult to bring it home, and that’s just the trouble here. For it all to work, the audience can’t realise that the Doctor is the Architect or that the death-dealing injection things are actually teleporters. Unfortunately, it’s blazingly obvious from the beginning that the Doctor is the Architect. First, it just is. But also, they ram it home by having the Doctor say “I hate him”. When does he ever say that about anybody? He won’t even admit he hates the Daleks. The only person he would ever say that about, particularly in this breast-beating season, is himself. And then we find out the Architect’s a time traveller. Diiinnnngg!
As for the teleporters, they’re stuffed either way. If you’ve ever seen any other SF, and we mean ever ever, you’re going to instantly recognise the effect they use as being a teleporter. Which is going to make the big reveal a bit of a fizzer. But if you don’t get it, the thing is no better off: in that situation, you have the sad and touching deaths of two characters we’ve grown to like, including a selfless sacrifice, plus a scolding for the Doctor for his unemotional reaction and a matching excoriation for Clara for making excuses for the Doctor being such a heartless bastard. Followed by the unintentionally bathetic oh, they were just in the other room. Not only is this a massive anticlimax, it makes the Doctor look like a complete idiot. Whoops.
And they drop the plot ball in other ways, too. To have time for heartstring-tugging, they have to slow the plot pace right down. Leading us to wonder what kind of useless guards this bank has, given that they seem to be looking for intruders in every place except where the money is.
They also have to cheat. Obviously, it would be slightly inconvenient to the franchise if the Doctor and Clara had their brains sucked out with a straw. Therefore, despite asking the Doctor and Clara if they’re ready for their closeup, Ms Delphox inexplicably puts the Teller back in hibernation and hands them over to the humans instead.
The worst plot goof of all is the giant hole at the centre of the story. The solar storm means this is “the only time the bank is vulnerable”, during which the TARDIS can’t land. Let’s leave aside the question of why in God’s name a solar storm would affect something travelling within the time-space continuum. More importantly, they never explain why during all the many, many moments when there isn’t a solar storm raging, the Doctor can’t just land the TARDIS in the private vault, jimmy the door with the sonic screwdriver, scoop up the Teller’s mate and leg it. Making the entire plot an utter waste of time. And come to think of it, that's not the worst plot hole. The entire plot depends on the Doctor giving Madame Calamari his phone number, which depends on her phoning him. PARADOX WHOOP WHOOP PULL UP PULL UP.
So there’s all of that. What we’re most mystified by, however, is the ending. They give us so very many clues that it’s obvious what the story is. They’re really not trying to be subtle. As well as the Architect and teleporter stuff, they telegraph the fate of fired employees with massive clunkiness (“We’ll be fired. With pain.” “When people get fired here, it’s messy.”) Even the clone thing is clear as soon as Ms Delphox says “My face fits”. So with that and the Doctor spelling it all out when he begs Madame Calzoni to give him a ring, our jaws dropped when they actually dramatised it all. Everything. What for? They’d already explained the whole enchilada. After they stage it, the Doctor goes through it all over again. And then they cap it off with the Teller and Mrs Teller literally walking hand in hand into the sunset. We know Doctor Who is for an all-ages audience, so we’re really, really trying to be tolerant, but oh, God.
It’s far from being all bad. Like we said, this is a lot better than either of Steve Thompson’s first two Doctor Who episodes, so we’re grateful for that. It’s so skiffy, for a start, which is always going to get a big tick from us. Timey-wimey's good, too. It’s even set somewhere other than Earth. Be still our hearts.
As with all the other episodes this season, the scale is perfect. And the heist idea is lovely. Something new, but it still fits within the Doctor’s universe. Speaking of the Doctor, we also like the way the plot illustrates who the Doctor is. When he’s in the grip of logic he may seem a touch icy to us humans, but underneath all that is still the man who will go to great and complex lengths to save the oppressed. And that’s good to know.
YOU’RE NOT GOING OUT IN THAT
It’s a shame Moffat’s snappy dialogue about the high shelf follows Listen in which Clara wears high heels all the way through. And the “why is your face all coloured in” sits rather oddly with the Doctor thinking she’s taken her makeup off when she hasn’t in Listen as well.
TAKE MY BREATH AWAY
We like using exhaled breath to collect DNA. It’s even scientifically feasible-ish.
I’M GLAD YOU ASKED ME THAT
‘“You can replicate their clothes, too.” “I wear a hologram shell.”’ Nice to see some attention to detail. Clearly they were expecting letters.
Saibra says she’s alone because “How could you trust someone who looked back at you out of your own eyes?” Um, what does that mean? Exactly?
HE’S GOT A TINFOIL PAL AND A PEDAL BIN
We’re not crazy about the Doctor and “Shut up” (possibly the least catchy catchphrase ever). And we’re even less crazy about “Shutity up”, in which the spectre of Malcolm Tucker starts to materialise in front of our very eyes. We’ll fight anyone who says they love Malcolm more than us, but let’s keep the cross-breeding to a minimum, OK?
Madame Calamine says about Ms Delphox’s impending incineration “And yet she doesn’t even protest”. We think you’ll find she does, dearie.