• 25th September 2014 • Review by Abigail Brady •
Maybe it was the name. Time Heist, I thought. That sounds exciting. Imagine the sort of stuff you could do with that. You could have a time-travel-based bank that can only be penetrated by equally sophisticated time travellers. You could have the Doctor criss-crossing all over his own timestream and that of the guards, in order to liberate whatever it is he has taken a fancy to. I think I was expecting Primer, or possibly “Doctor Who and the Braid”. It’s not that, and I was disappointed. But a rewatch or two shows that it is cleverer than I gave it credit for initially.
The BBC Serial Drama series rarely used the TARDIS (or other time travel) as anything other than a conveyance. The BBC Wales series, starting right in that first season, played with it as a story mechanic in its own right. Nine years into its run, we know this well enough they can play around with it. Last season’s “Angels of Manhattan” uses its predestination paradox as a framework to hang a story about spoilers. “Time Heist” finds another entry point, by removing our – and our character’s initial experiences of it, and winding us in gradually. This then is used to tell a story about motivation, and not the plotty knot that I had been hoping for.
“Time Heist” is a heist without a macguffin. To begin with, it seems like the contents of the vault were irrelevant (or, I thought for a bit, perhaps that’s where the TARDIS was). But that turns out nonsense – everything is laid bare. We know what all our characters want, and why they want it. Psi wants his memory back; Saibra wants her curse gone. Karabraxos wants the bank safe. Delphox wants to keep her skin as long as possible. The Teller wants its mate back, or, short of that, not dead. Clara wants to get back to her date.
The Doctor wants to save everyone. Not just the other Teller – that’s a bye – but to save Karabraxos herself. That’s why the flashbacks come at that point, not sooner.
It’s in then the voice on the telephone becomes fixed. It has been flagged well before that the Architect was the Doctor, but until that moment, he could very well have been the voice on the phone. No, it was Karabraxos. She made a deathbed prayer to the one agency that could save her: the Doctor.
And that’s why Capaldi’s Doctor is a good man. He didn’t need to do it like that. He could just as well have set things up the other way. And, though he seems vaguely willing to send Psi and Saibra to their deaths, he hates the architect for setting it up that way. Except he hadn’t. We didn’t get the scene of Missy appearing to Psi in the Promised Land. He’d set things up beforehand, and his trust in himself was justified. Psi and Saibra get what they want, although we never find out what that is. Both of them are straight out of the GURPS Cyberpunk sourcebook (check out the first syllables of both of those names!), but that’s not a sin in itself. Cyberpunk has been very scarcely competently and sympathetically dramatised, such that this, putting to one side the source material, feels fresh for BBC One in 2014. This is easily the most cyber episode since “The Long Game”.
Both Psi (Jonathan Bailey) and Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner) do what is required of them, including selling their emotional scenes – Psi’s lament about the friends and family he must have loved; and Saibra’s angst about not being able to touch people. Saibra quietly gets one of the darker satirical notes as she takes the form of a white guy in order to infiltrate the bank, after they’ve seen a customer (Junior Laniyan, who is black), have his mind sucked out by the Teller. Thompson still has a long way to go to repent for The Blind Banker (whose guest characters were thinner than this and racist stereotypes to boot) or “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”, but it’s a start. Hawes, despite the double role, is under-used. I still don’t quite understand the point of the business with the cloning. “How can you trust someone if they look back at you through your own eyes” is hardly a moral revelation, and the Doctor seems rather slow on the uptake regarding the Architect’s identity.
Productionwise the episode is gorgeous, bar one slightly dodgy comp job at the end. I don’t even know where the sets end and location use begins. The decision to use a physical monster works really well and provides us with a rare proper non-humaniform intelligence.
This is easily Stephen Thompson’s best episode of Doctor Who. And it’s the latest of several episodes which show that the series can keep finding new genres to crash into. I’m looking forward to seeing what Thompson does next, now he has this “writing for television” malarkey mostly sorted out.