Doctor Who, Series 8, Episode 5, “Time Heist”
September 20, 2014, 7:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
One of the virtues of Doctor Who is that it can be anything from week to week: a comedy, a drama, a horror film or an action adventure. It can be set in the future, the past, or the present. It can hail from any genre, or mix them up and try to create something totally new. This is also one of the show’s vices, leading to its wild inconsistency across series, episodes, and sometimes even scenes. At its best, Doctor Who is thrillingly rife with possibilities. At its worst, the show is a runaway train that’s long since jumped the tracks, with a Madman in a box as its distracted conductor.
This, perhaps, explains how we can go from the deliberate, complex, beautifully understated dual character study that was “Listen” to something at almost the complete opposite end of the spectrum. “Time Heist” is a silly, simple action-delivery advice, a rollicking adventure that has characters mostly because it needs them to do something. This is an episode populated with single-quirk characters who are thinly veiled remixes of archetypes we’ve seen before. It isn’t going to give you much in the way of depth or resonance, but then, that just isn’t the engine this episode runs on. “Time Heist” isn’t “Listen,” but it is probably for the best that it isn’t even trying to be. This is just a straightforward heist film episode, and while it isn’t perfect, it is a lot of fun, an example of a radical shift in tone, intention, and execution that works. This is the kind of “pretty good” episode that we get when Doctor Who is firing on all cylinders, the sort of inconsequential filler that leaves you fairly satisfied nevertheless.
The heist itself doesn’t really hang together if you put too much thought into it, but it gives the episode a relentless forward momentum that lets it careen from set piece to set piece, from cool half-baked idea to cool half-baked idea, until suddenly we’ve reached a resolution. This is the sort of episode that gave classic Doctor Who its reputation as a show about people “running through corridors,” as in fact large swaths of the episode consist of the characters dashing down a small length of hallway re-dressed with different colored light gels. But Classic Who often managed to pull that trick off with a wry sense of humor about budget limitations and a propulsive energy to its stories that let you get just caught up enough in things to not care about little details like the set being exactly the same, even as the characters are ostensibly moving. “Time Heist” tries to use those gels to hide this core fact of its production, but it ends up highlighting them instead. I, for one, love a good corridor run (as I suspect most Doctor Who fans must to make it this far into the series), but it seems like director Douglas Mackinnon (who also helmed last week’s stellar “Listen” and appeared much more comfortable with that episode’s dream-like feel than with this more straightforward actioner) was doing his best to hide something fans of this show probably wouldn’t care about remotely. His best, at least in this regard, left a bit to be desired.
Mostly, this story works in a standard Doctor Who form: genre appropriation. This is a show that is constantly looking to tweak (or, often, just play out) various genres or subgenres of pop culture, to see what would happen if the TARDIS landed in the middle of a particular type of story. The heist film, with its need for prickly genius characters, its twist-based structure, and its quick plotting, is such a natural fit with the Who template, I’m honestly surprised the show hasn’t really done this before, especially given Moffat’s obsession with puzzle-box plotting. The “twists” this episode comes up with (The Doctor is The Architect, The Teller is not a monster but a victim of Karabraxos’ cold manipulation) are pretty standard fare for this series, but they are still serviceable conclusions for the story, even if not the knock-your-socks-off twists that the episode occasionally seems to be building to.
“Time Heist” is standard Doctor Who fare, but that also makes it an interesting lens through which to view this series, which will reach its halfway point next week. The measure of a series of Doctor Who is rarely its best episodes (every series has at least a few solid ones, and classics are bound to arise from time to time), nor its worst (there are always some duds in any collection of episodes). No, the best way to measure the success of a series is by looking at the quality of its average episodes, the ones that will be left out of the history books, the ones not good enough or bad enough to necessarily stick out unless you’re weighing the quality of a series in total. “Time Heist” is one such episode, and it bodes well for how series eight will play in hindsight, when all is said and done. It isn’t stellar, but its fleet, funny, and exciting enough to be a solid hour of television. If this is the middle of this season’s quality spectrum, I’d say we’re skewing towards an excellent series of Doctor Who. I can’t wait to see where we land next.
- Next week’s “The Caretaker” is a Gareth Roberts script, and if the trailer is any indication, it seems like he is returning to the format of his series five classic “The Lodger.” If so, color me very, very excited.
- “Why is your face all colored in?” This quote, and the next, are more examples of The Twelfth Doctor’s tendency to be make rude comments about Clara’s appearance, my least favorite runner of this season. That being said, these two are among the best of this trend, trading on The Doctor’s alien perspective and obliviousness rather than on Clara’s looks or The Doctor’s feelings about them.
- “Are you taller?” “Heels.” “What, do you have to reach a high shelf?” “Gotta go. Gonna be late.” “For a shelf?”
- “Good. This is a good day to be a bank robber.”
- “Question number one: robbing banks is easy if you have a TARDIS. So why am I not using it?” “Question two: where is the TARDIS?” “Ok, that probably should be question one.”
- “Don’t be so pessimistic. It’ll effect team morale.” “What, and getting us blown up won’t?” “Only very, very briefly.”
- “Still don’t understand why you’re in charge.” “Basically, it’s the eyebrows.”
- “Memory giver. All your yesterdays.”
- “Wanna see the new look? I was hoping for minimalism, but I think I came out with magician.”
“Time Heist” is a silly, simple action-delivery advice, a rollicking adventure that has characters mostly because it needs them to do something