After the heavy darkness of last week, “Time Heist” is exactly what we need: a fun, frenzied caper.
“It’s just a phone, Clara. Nothing happens when you answer the phone.”
All of the material advertising Doctor Who’s (revived) eighth season promised a darker, more alien Doctor. In that vein, we’ve had some excellent early episodes (I’d grade all of them except “Robot of Sherwood” as good or better), but it’s nice to see that this Doctor can cut loose and deliver the fun, too. That’s what we got this week in “Time Heist.” It would be rude to describe it as a throwaway episode, but there’s no big story arc here. Missy isn’t lurking in a corner somewhere. Instead, we’re treated to a classic Doctor Who alien world adventure, and we get to see Peter Capaldi’s Doctor take the driver’s seat for the first time. Most surprising of all, the clever, labyrinthine episode actually makes logical sense once all the chips are placed on the table.
This season, Clara hasn’t traveled with the Doctor as much as he’s popped into her life to collect her when it’s time for an adventure. So, of course, the Doctor drops into Clara’s flat at an inconvenient time, just as she’s about to leave for a date with Danny. Things seem to have been heating up between the two teachers while he’s been away, and the Doctor remains adorably inept at understanding the delicate nuance of relationships and sex appeal (“Are you taller?” Clara reveals she’s wearing some very tall high heels. “What, do you have to reach a high shelf?”). She’s jetting out the door when the phone on the TARDIS, the rarely heard Bells of Saint John, rings unexpectedly. Clara’s hesitant to answer, but the Doctor can’t help himself. “It’s just a phone, Clara. Nothing happen when you answer the phone,” he says. Famous last words.
Director Douglas Mackinnon executes a beautiful match cut, taking us from Clara’s flat with a phone to the Doctor’s ear one moment, to a strange new place with a memory-erasing worm in his hand the next. The Doctor, Clara, a DNA-shifting woman named Saibra (think Mystique from X-Men), and a half-human/half-walking hard drive named Psi are all in this room together. Each has a message stating that they agreed to have their memory wiped, and none of them know where they are or why they’re there. A mysterious man calling himself “The Architect” appears on a screen and tells the group that they’ve all agreed to help rob the Bank of Karabraxos, the most secure bank in the universe. The security is considered impregnable, controlled by both high tech security systems and DNA-linked locks. If that wasn’t bad enough, no one has any idea where the TARDIS is. Wouldn’t it be easier to just land the TARDIS in the vault and take what they need? What follows is a little bit Minority Report, a little bit Inception, and a big chunk of an Ocean’s series/Mission Impossible caper. The game is afoot!
Supplementing the security system is one of the revived Who’s best looking monsters: The Teller. It’s an obvious reference to a bank teller, and also points to his strategic importance: he can tell who’s going to try to rob the bank by sensing their guilt. Clara, the Doctor, and the crew see the Teller in action when it confronts another bank visitor in the lobby and scans him for guilty thoughts. It’s an inescapable problem. Remember when Joseph Gordon-Levitt tells Ken Wantanabe not to think of elephants in Inception? What does he immediately think of? Elephants. It’s basically impossible not to think of something when you try. The Teller can prevent a robbery before it happens by sensing the impending guilt of the thief and melting their brain into soup. It’s the kind of thing that would make me think twice before attempting a robbery. No wonder the bank of Karabraxos has never been raided. Who would even try?
The Teller looks great. Much like the updated take on the clockwork automatons in the season 8 premiere, “Deep Breath,” Doctor Who’s increased budget allows them to pull off a pretty impressive prosthetic and CGI combination. The Teller’s eyes on the end of two curved appendages (think of a hammerhead shark, but covered in brown reptilian flesh) look a bit like horns. With that head on an otherwise humanoid body, it’s an image that invokes the look of the Minotaur – probably intentionally, since the Teller spends much of the episode chasing our bank robbers through a maze of corridors and vaults. He isn’t a mindless security drone, though. The Teller is actually a prisoner, the last of his species, a being bought, imprisoned, and forced to work for the bank as a “telepathic sniffing dog.” His controller is Ms. Delphox (Keeley Hawes), the bank manager, who comes off as cold and efficient, more than purely evil.
The crew seeks out the interiors of the vaults using Psi’s technological abilities (storing information about the bank’s systems and floor plans), and Saibra’s DNA morphing ability. Like any good heist movie about a team constructed under mysterious circumstances, “Time Heist” waits until the action is underway to reveal too much about the robbery plans and the people involved. Both Psi and Saibra’s abilities make them tailor-made for the difficult heist, but each views their respective talent as a curse. Being part computer, Psi deleted his memories of his family and friends in order to keep them safe when he was interrogated in prison. Saibra’s morphing ability forces her to replicate the appearance of anyone touching her, which makes romance impossible. The Doctor also reveals the only weapon The Architect gave them for the burglary: vaporizing weapons to kill themselves if the situation becomes too dire. It’s a quick death instead of a brain melting at the hands of the Teller.
Cornered by the Teller, both Saibra and Psi end up using the vaporizers. Neither lives to see the true reveal of the episode: the planet is soon hit by solar flares from a nearby star, which disables the bank’s security doors. It’s as though the crew was meant to be at the bank at this one moment, the single moment in time that the near-impenetrable vaults would be accessible. That when the reality of the situation (and the episode’s title) dawn on the Doctor. The crew actually went back in time to the day of the solar flare for the express purpose of pulling off the robbery. The Doctor also notes that the TARDIS would have been unable to land during the solar flare, explaining why it wasn’t used.
The episode’s final reveals aren’t really that shocking. I would bet that I wasn’t the only one who predicted that The Architect was actually the Doctor in disguise. Furthermore, I doubt that I wasn’t the only one unsurprised to discover that the vaporizers were just teleporters that ferried Psi and Saibra to safety. Even Moffat’s “darker” new Who tends to prefer saving as many characters as it can. The vault also contains technology to restore Psi’s memories and an elixir to cure Saibra’s shape shifting. Just this once, everybody lives! (Again).
That’s not to say this wasn’t an enjoyable episode. It’s a fun hour of television, taking a typical wacky Doctor Who scenario and making it surprisingly meaningful when the Doctor discovers that both Delphox and the Teller are really just minions (and, in Delphox’s case, a clone) of the bank’s owner. Freeing the Teller from his indentured slavery and reuniting him with his lost love (he wasn’t the last of his kind, just one of the last two) is the kind of loving, thoughtful thing that makes the Doctor who he is. It harkens back to classic revived series episodes like “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” where the Doctor avoids his enemies, not because he’s scared, but because he cares for them and doesn’t want to have to destroy them. In the end he even offers Madame Karabraxos a lifeline, giving her his phone number in case she one day finds herself an old woman full of regret (very Inception!) for the pain she’s inflicted in her life, and wishing for a second chance to make things right. The Doctor is a time traveler, after all. Obviously, she’s the source of the phone call that set the whole episode into motion.
“Time Heist” is really Capaldi’s first chance to jump in the front seat as the Doctor — Clara has been the driving force of the previous episodes so far. It turns out that Capaldi is great in classic Doctor Who caper mode. You can see a lot of people really starting to embrace his take on the Doctor around the internet. It all flies by pretty quickly, maybe leaving you feeling like you’re reaching out for a foothold a little bit, but I don’t think it’s enough to ruin the episode. People always claim they want the dark, brooding masterpieces, but “Time Heist” makes the case that the fun, zippy episodes can be just as satisfying. I don’t grade individual episodes, but I’d say “Robot of Sherwood” remains the only disappointment of the season so far. That’ll do, Doctor. That’ll do.
-We’ve only heard the TARDIS phone ring once before, and that was Clara calling. She remains unsure of exactly who gave her the number. Now, there’s at least one other person in the world with that number (Madame Karabraxos). I wonder if that features into the narrative down the line.
-I’ve thought for a while that Capaldi would turn out to be a masterstroke. Glad to see the rest of the blogosphere coming around. He continues to have so many great lines — the ones about being in charge being his super power and his eyebrows being the source of his leadership were standouts this week.
-The Doctor’s references to his past wardrobe while the Teller was searching his brain were also wonderful. “Big scarf. Bow tie. Bit Embarrassing.”
-This episode was a relief for everyone who saw it was co-written by Stephen Thompson, who also wrote the universally hated “Curse of the Black Spot” and the not wholly loved “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.” This is a much better effort than both of those.
That’ll do it for me this week. See you all down the line in time and space!