Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 5 “Time Heist”
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Written by Stephen Thompson and Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Keely Hawes, Jonathan Bailey, Pippa Bennett-Warner
Air Date: Saturday, September 20th, 2014
We live in a paranoid world. Cameras are everywhere. Identification is regularly scrutinized. Computers in a room somewhere are potentially checking and cross-checking our every move. Some of us are guilty and should be punished swiftly for the benefit of the community by some mysterious organ of the state. We cannot trust anyone, possibly including ourselves. This is the post-9/11 reality that Stephen Thompson and Steven Moffat wish to examine this week on Doctor Who in the episode “Time Heist.”
The result is more a detailed sketch of a great Doctor Who episode than a fully realized work. The premise is interesting. The narrative logic generally holds. The performances are solid. It’s all fine, but nuance is missing. We, the viewers, are given just barely enough at every point to make it all hang together. Greatness is more than the sum of its parts and here things only just barely add up.
Doctor Who has examined dystopian societies before, usually as a reflection of some unease about what’s in the news. There is the Sylvester McCoy serial “The Happiness Patrol” in which happiness is compulsory (enforced by secret police), the world is full of bright pastels and candy colors, and cheerful music throbs everywhere. This is thought by some to be a critique of the rave culture emerging in Britain in the late ’80s, along with the increased public persona of homosexuals due to the AIDS crisis.
Further back, there is “The Sun Makers” where Tom Baker and Louise Jameson find the human race living on the planet Pluto, working day and night to pay the taxes they owe to a mysterious alien called The Collector. That was a fully effective satire by Robert Holmes of a 1970s Britain with taxes so high that the Rolling Stones and others had to live abroad as tax exiles. In both cases, the Doctor aids the oppressed and helps foment revolution by exposing and ending to the existing political order.
Here, we ostensibly have a bank and a heist. This is not something the Doctor usually does, but Thompson and Moffat give us memory worms once again and a good-sized gap in the narrative to fill in as if to say “it’s OK that they’re playing criminal because this is not the normal Doctor and Clara.” What results is not revolution, but historical inevitability. A heist film like Die Hard uses law enforcement itself to help the criminals get the MacGuffin in the vault, a novel twist, and the hero actively foils the scheme despite that. Here, the dystopian bank is destroyed through the natural course of events, and the MacGuffin ultimately turns out to be the realization by the banks architects that they were wrong. It’s a novel premise, but a weak one because the George W. Bushes and the Dick Cheneys and the Tony Blairs of this world rarely seem to feel any regret for their choices. It’s more like Richard Nixon, who died still trying to rehabilitate himself by proving the correctness of his cause.
Along the way, we are given the bank as a chessboard and a small number of characters to move as pieces through the endgame. The Doctor and Clara are given two accomplices in the heist, Psi (a Johnny Mnemonic-like cyborg) and Saibra (a meta-morph), played by Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner. This band of four is given two nemeses in the form of Ms. Delphox (the head of security) and Madame Karabraxos (the owner), both played by Keely Hawes, who have a CGI alien to help keep things interesting. The fleshing out of these characters could be kindly called economical, because we are only told just enough to keep driving the plot forward with few if any holes. The goal was probably kinetic tension, and any meaningful digression for texture was seen as a distraction from the main thrust of the plot.
Well, I refuse to be particularly kind to this episode. Digression is generally what makes a criminal adventure story, of which heists are a big part, work. Look at two classics of the genre, The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid both starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and it is the accumulation of facts and experiences from the digressions that ultimately give each film any punch… because few, if any, heists are ever so extraordinarily interesting that we want to see them solely for themselves. The problem with this episode is summarized in the title, because a time heist is generically what it is, no more, no less.
Beyond that, it pretty much works. The performances are generally solid. We are treated to some interesting twists and turns. The plot generates some legitimate suspense here and there. The CGI alien is suitably creepy and would fit in well in the Mos Eisley cantina sequence in Star Wars. There is even some clever surprise as the MacGuffin is revealed.
It only goes about 80 percent of the way there, though. A great episode would give us a narrative richness that makes repeated viewing possible and desirable to discover the nuances that we didn’t fully appreciate along the way. Here, those nuances are few and far between. When we’re done, we only want to say “meh” though we knew we had fun.