Series 8 of Doctor Who continues to progress at a leisurely rate with “Time Heist”, an episode that’s co-written by showrunner Steven Moffat and guest writer Stephen Thompson. Mr. Thompson previously penned “The Curse Of The Black Spot” in Series 6 and “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” in Series 7, and a few of his favorite writing tropes do turn up again in this episode when it comes to the supporting cast. Likewise, you can easily recognize Steven Moffat’s influence on this story, because it’s full of fun, snappy dialogue that’s become a signature of his work over the years.
Since Doctor Who is a show that can basically reinvent itself every week, it loves to emulate different genres of movies. In every season, there’s at least one episode that spoofs a different film genre: like a haunted house episode, a western episode, a pirate episode, a murder mystery episode, a base under siege episode, a monster hunting episode, etc. With “Time Heist”, the show decides to tackle heist movies, when the Doctor and Clara suddenly find themselves drafted into a mission to rob the biggest bank in the universe. Like “Robot Of Sherwood” before it, “Time Heist” is a fun, fast-paced romp that serves a nice palette cleanser in-between the character drama of both “Listen” and “The Caretaker”. The script is filled with several twists and turns that are all foreshadowed well in advance, so it’s a rewarding story to rewatch. And while it functions perfectly well as a standalone story, “Time Heist” also does a nice job of developing the Doctor and Clara’s character arcs this season, by addressing some of the more worrying and unhealthy behavioral patterns that they’re starting to fall into as of late – bad habits that will need to be addressed, sooner or later.
In “Time Heist”, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his best friend Clara lose several hours of their memories and are subsequently drafted into a small group of people who’ve been assigned to rob the biggest bank in the universe, receiving orders from an anonymous ‘architect’. “Time Heist” paints a pretty complicated portrait of the Twelfth Doctor, by building on what “Into The Dalek” already established about his brusque, no-nonsense personality and his ruthless pragmatism. Once the heist is underway, the Doctor goes into full wartime general mode. He appoints himself leader of their little gang, assesses everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and then deploys them to handle certain jobs that fit their area of expertise when the time is right. He repeatedly encourages them to risk their lives for the mission, and he tends to get very snippy when they keep questioning his orders and his wisdom.
About halfway through this episode, “Time Heist” takes a rather dark turn when the Doctor hands his co-conspirators, Psi and Saibra, some ‘atomic shredders’ they’ve been given, which are basically the futuristic equivalent of cyanide pills. Both of them wind up using them, because it’s better for them to die on their own terms than to be killed by the enemy. The shredders turn out to be teleporters later on, a last-ditch escape plan for them if they’re cornered by the Teller, but the Doctor didn’t know that at the time. He accepted that the best thing he could do for these people was give them a more humane death and basically helped them to commit suicide, and that’s bleak. The Doctor moves right along afterwards, so he can try to focus on the big picture, displaying the same clinical detachment that he previously had in “Into The Dalek”. However, Peter Capaldi’s subtle, conflicted reactions make it clear that the Doctor is more saddened and rattled by their apparent deaths than he lets on, especially after Saibra’s ‘demise’.
Throughout the hour, the Doctor grows increasingly frustrated that they have to keep blindly trusting some shadowy puppetmaster who’s playing recklessly with all of their lives, and keep blindly following his orders to the word, especially after his scheming seems to get two people needlessly killed. He also grows increasingly frustrated with himself because he can’t figure out the masked man’s identity. During the climax, everything finally clicks for him, and we’re given a reveal not unlike the one in “Amy’s Choice“, where the Doctor is able to recognize his own handiwork precisely because of how much he really doesn’t like himself (which is still rather concerning).
After “Time Heist” meticulously picked apart the Twelfth Doctor’s moral code and called his character into question multiple times, the climax reassures us that the Doctor wouldn’t ask the others to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself, when he puts his own life at risk to get the answers that they need from the Teller. The reason they went on this grand bank heist turns out to be rather heartwarming in retrospect: the Doctor wanted to do a kindness to the last two members of an endangered species of aliens and give them back their freedom after they had been abused by humans for years. Everything goes back to normal afterwards (with some rather sweet scenes of the gang parting ways amicably) and the Doctor and Clara return to their usual lives, but not before the Doctor implies he’s quite happy that their bank heist wound up upstaging her date with Danny. Even though it was the Doctor’s decision to declare them just friends back in “Deep Breath“, it would seem that he still has feelings for Clara, and he’s starting to get a bit jealous that there’s someone new in her life, catching her eye.
In “Time Heist”, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is forced to put her next big date with Danny on hold to help the Doctor with his mission. From there, she spends most of the hour following the Doctor around, feeling completely out of her depth, since unlike the other members of their little gang, she doesn’t have any special skills to contribute to their efforts. She quickly becomes friends with Psi and feels plenty of sympathy for him for what he’s recently lost, so she’s devastated when he seemingly dies saving her life. Previous episodes like “Cold War“, “Hide“, “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” and “Listen” have all explored how frightened Clara can get when things slip well and truly out of her control. And now, lightyears away from her home, Clara’s fears could easily get her killed, since she’s being hunted by a mind-reading alien that seeks out fear.
As always, Clara puts her full trust in the Doctor and his methods, since she knows he’s easily the most qualified person to get them out of the bank alive. She encourages the others to do the same as well and insists that he knows what he’s doing, but there’s a sense that she’s trying to fully convince herself of that just as much as everyone else. Psi calls her out on it later and accuses her of making excuses for her friend’s bad behavior when he’s being needlessly callous, and he’s not exactly wrong. Clara is in danger of becoming a yes man or an enabler, and considering the companions are meant to be a second, external conscience for the Doctor in this show (who are willing to put their foot down when he steps out of line), that’s the one thing they can never be. Sooner or later, Twelve’s cold, aloof behavior and his belligerent attitude will become too big of a problem for even Clara to brush off, and she’ll have to confront it head on. Sooner than she thinks actually, in the following three episodes, “The Caretaker“, “Kill The Moon” and “Mummy On The Orient Express”.
In all three of the stories that Stephen Thompson has penned for Doctor Who, he seems to really like having the Doctor and his friends team up with some rather sketchy characters. In “The Curse Of Black Spot”, it was Captain Avery and his crew of pirates. In “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS”, it was the Van Baalen brothers’ salvage team. And in “Time Heist”, it’s Psi and Saibra, two lovable rogues with hearts of gold. Psi is a professional bank robber, the type of character that we usually not asked to root for in this show, but since his targets are all shown to be greedy, amoral and corrupt people, he remains a sympathetic figure – especially since this heist in particular has a good cause behind it: putting a stop to animal cruelty.
Psi is half-human and half-machine, and at some point, he erased his memories of his past to protect his friends and family. They would be safe from paying the price for his crimes, so long as he remained anonymous, and now he wants to find a way to get those memories back. Saibra is a mutant who’s saddled with shape-shifting powers that she can’t control, and as a result, she’s shunned as a freak and made into an outcast. Both of them agreed to rob the most secure bank in the universe because there was something precious in it for them: whether it’s knowledge of their past or control over their own life. Psi is quite a rebel and hates having to reluctantly answer to the Doctor’s orders, so he keeps pushing back against the time lord’s self-appointed authority more often than anyone else in the group, while Saibra likes to keep to herself and fade into the background more often than not. Ultimately, after risking their lives for the cause, both of these characters get the sense of closure they sought after, and both of them part ways with our heroes on good terms.
Stephen Thompson and Steven Moffat clearly have a lot of fun with the world-building details of this episode, since “Time Heist” is filled with some suitably alien and disturbing concepts. The high-class setting of this episode is easily the most amoral and dystopian future that we’ve visited in Doctor Who since Sardicktown in “A Christmas Carol“. In that episode, it was apparently completely legal to cryogenically freeze human beings, store them away as personal property, and use them as collateral in business deals. In this episode, bank employees are fully authorized to act as judge, jury and executioner over anyone who steps foot inside of their place of business. If they deem someone guilty, not only will they instantly sentence them to death, but they’ll also hunt down their friends and families and exact vengeance on them too, so they can make an example out of them.
The Doctor, Clara, Psi and Saibra have to wipe their memories of their plan ahead of time, to protect themselves, since the bank employees rely heavily on the Teller, a telepathic security guard who also doubles as their own personal attack dog. The Teller can read people’s thoughts and sense any feelings of guilt they might be concealing, and once he’s done so, he doesn’t waste any time melting their brains inside their heads – which is shown through a legitimately horrific scene early on, where the Teller is ordered to kill some redshirt character who had been caught sticking his fingers inside the proverbial cookie jar. Throughout the hour, the Doctor and his friends have to try to keep their minds blank to stay one step out of the Teller’s grasp, which is something that’s almost impossible to do in practice. The threat that the Teller presents follows the usual formula for a Steven Moffat monster in this show: don’t blink, don’t look away, don’t breathe, and don’t think, unless you want to die.
Miss Delphox, the head of the bank’s security team, is an icy, merciless woman who’s completely unmoved by the public executions that she regularly carries out. She only cares about doing her job quickly and efficiently day after day, and she lives in fear of disappointing her boss, because she knows full well what would happen if she did. Miss Delphox makes for a good antagonist, if a bit familiar, since we just saw a similar character last season, with Miss Kizlet in “The Bells Of Saint John“. During the final act, it’s revealed that Miss Delphox is actually a clone of the bank’s secretive owner, Madame Karabraxos, giving her actress a chance to play a double role. While she was fairly restrained in her turn as Miss Delphox, Keely Hawes gets to have a lot more fun with Karabraxos, a saucy, confident, campy diva who you love to hate.
As it turns out, Karabraxos herself was the one who gave our heroes their mission. During the final few years of her life, she had many regrets about the way she wasted her youth, and her abuse of the Teller was one of them. She turned the Teller into her own personal lap dog by kidnapping his mate and using her against him, so she sent the Doctor back into her past to make things right. Thanks to our heroes’ efforts, the abused animal is given a happy ending when he and his mate are relocated to a different planet that’s safe and secluded. All things considered, it’s a pretty neat and tidy ending, though it is a bit unfortunate that this is the second episode in a row (after “Listen”) where the Doctor and Clara spend forty-five minutes trying to solve a mystery, only to discover that the answer is a bootstrap paradox, which makes the climax of “Time Heist” feel a bit too redundant. The same thing will later happen in Series 9 with “The Witch’s Familiar” and “Before The Flood”, two back-to-back stories where a bootstrap paradox plays a large role in wrapping everything up.
“Time Heist” is helmed by Douglas MacKinnon, who once again shows a lot of improvement as a director with the confident and ambitious way he handles this episode. There are noticeably a lot of trippy, psychedelic choices when it comes to the scene transitions he uses: like shattering glass effects, split screen effects, dissolving effects, and some animation of the time vortex morphing into a shot of Twelve’s face reflected in a washing machine. “Time Heist” is one of those episodes like “42“, “Cold War”, “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” and “Nightmare In Silver” that was clearly shot with a number of different filters to create a series of clashing color schemes throughout the hour (a filming technique that I always appreciate). There are deep blues, sickly greens, fiery reds, and ominous yellows clashing with each other from scene to scene, to highlight the danger and uneasy atmosphere that can be found in each area of the bank.
All the money that the show just saved up with “Listen” (one of the season’s low-budget episodes) clearly went towards this episode, which features a lot of flashy location shooting in Cardiff University, Bute Park, Ronald Dahl Plas (the same area “Boom Town” was filmed in, back in Series 1), the Uskmouth power station, and several other locations. The show’s costume and make-up department does an admirable job of bringing the Teller to life: a giant, humanoid slug that towers over the other characters in an alien and imposing fashion, but still has enough humanity in its features to be pitiable at times as well. Lastly, Murray Gold’s electronic score is pleasant to the ears this week with ambient tracks like “The Architect“, “Rob The Bank“, “Account Closed” and “Open Up“, as well as some new arrangements of the Twelfth Doctor’s theme, “A Good Man?“.
All in all, “Time Heist” is a fun romp episode that successfully puts a sci-fi spin on your usual bank heist movie, while also giving us some further insight into the Doctor and Clara’s personalities as they get down to work on a case (something Series 8 is remarkably good at across the board).
* Even though she doesn’t make her proper debut until “Dark Water”, I do like how almost every episode of Series 8 reminds us that Missy’s still out there somewhere, plotting. Whether it’s her brief cameos, the frequent mentions of the ‘promised land’, or the Doctor and Clara musing that they still don’t know who that ‘woman in the shop’ was from “The Bells Of Saint John”.
* “It’s just a phone, Clara. Nothing happens when you answer the phone” Oh, Doctor, you sweet summer child.
* The memory worms from “The Snowmen” make their return as a plot device here, as a neat little callback to one of Clara’s earliest appearances last season.
* “The director will blame us. We’ll be fired. Fired with pain” The last part of that line sounds so goofy, it’s hilarious.
* “Oh, don’t be so pessimistic. It’ll affect team morale” “What, and getting us blown up won’t?” “Well, only very, very briefly”.
* “I still don’t understand why you’re in charge” “Basically, it’s the eyebrows”.
* “How could you delete your family?” “I don’t know. I guess I must have loved them”.
* “I am alone” “Why?” “Could you trust someone who looked back at you out of your own eyes?”
* “Now, this says place to hide!” And then in the very next scene, he leads them right to where the Teller is sleeping. Nice work, Doctor. Very well done.
* “A good man. I left it late to meet one of those”.
* “Clara? For what it’s worth, and it might not be worth much, when your whole life flashes in front of you, you see people you love and people missing you. Well, I see no one“.
* “How can you force it to obey?” “Oh, everything has a price tag, I think you’ll find”.
* “If you don’t like your boss, why stay?” “…My face fits”.
* It is funny to see the Doctor be the one who’s rendered speechless for once when Psi and Saibra show up again, while Clara just immediately goes in for a hug.
* “Clever old Architect” “Very clever” “I still hate him” “Me too”.
* “My clone. And yet she doesn’t even protest. Pale imitation, really. Ha! I should sue”.
* “She hates her own clones. She burns her own clones. Frankly, you’re a career break for the right therapist”.
* “Shut up. Just shut up, shut up, shut up, shutitty-up-up-up!” Moffat has always liked having his characters tell each other to shut up, and that habit really reaches its peak in this episode.
* “What in the name of sanity is going on in this room right now?” “We’re getting sanity judgment from the self-burner!”
* “Big scarf, bow tie, bit embarrassing” Well, I guess we know the Doctor considers his bow tie wearing phase to be his cringe phase now. That hurts.
* “What exactly are we doing here? That thing killed people!” “Well so might you do, to protect everything you loved!”
* “Don’t worry. Calories consumed on the TARDIS have no lasting effect” “What? Are you kidding?” “Of course I’m kidding. It’s a time machine, not a miracle worker”.