Time Heist Review
Clint Hassell gives his verdict on the fifth episode of Series 8.
“The soufflé isn’t the soufflé; the soufflé is the recipe.”
– Clara Oswald, “The Name of the Doctor”
Despite having all of the ingredients for a perfect Doctor Who adventure – a caring, clever Doctor; a fantastically realized monster; a time-twisted premise – “Time Heist” is about as satisfying as one of Oswin’s soufflés. While not unpalatable, the narrative center of the episode collapses under the weight of overused tropes and a poorly written companion. The thin script is undercooked, lacking the necessary meat to be a truly satisfying meal. The resulting dish lacks the flavor of surprise, and has the distinct aftertaste of a Series 7 episode.
Many times, elements of the plot both helped and hindered the narrative. For example, the security systems inside the Bank of Karabraxos are shown to “authenticate DNA” from breath samples, incinerate would-be intruders, and to have “atomically sealed” locks that are unbreakable even to the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver – all technical-sounding gibberish that establishes the bank as futuristic and alien, and reinforces the impossibility of the mission. However, here, the science fiction aspects of Doctor Who actually work against the show. Since the bank’s security systems are so unknowable to our modern-day science, it is difficult to stay ahead of the characters as they work their way through the mission. While this is not necessarily a bad thing – the structure of the episode actually works to reveal information to the audience and the characters at the same time, allowing the audience to better identify with the Doctor and his companions – the resulting episode forces the viewer to be spoon-fed plot advancement, rather than emotionally engaged.
Further, with “Time Heist” designed as a scavenger hunt – each briefcase holding the exact item needed to access the next briefcase, and so forth – the solutions for some of the unforeseen problems seem especially crafted on the fly by the writers. This is never a good thing. A particularly unsavory example is the solar storms that are first mentioned 28 minutes into the 45-minute episode. These storms come as no surprise to Miss Delphox or her guards, who describe them as “getting worse,” yet, they are not referenced until the exact moment their interference is necessary to the plot.
Unfortunately, the unique narrative structure of “Time Heist” provides the episode’s only surprises. After meeting “the Curator,” and spending multiple episodes examining “The Name of the Doctor,” was anyone surprised that “the Architect” was, in fact, the Doctor himself? Director Karabraxos’ identity was readily apparent, too, especially with the character remaining unseen until almost 35 minutes into the episode.
Part of the reason “Time Heist” lacks freshness is that it rehashes stale tropes from heist movies. Slow-motion shots of the cast in stride, a team comprised of specialists, Clara dressed like a Reservoir Dogs cast member; though not as pervasive as in “A Town Called Mercy,” the clichés still abound, making “Time Heist” feel like a reheated leftover from the different-genre-each-week Series 7.
Further, Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat’s script thieves elements from previous episodes of Doctor Who. To evade the Teller’s telepathic probing, the Doctor and his companions try to not think of their current plans to break into the Bank of Karabraxos. “Don’t think” is a step too close to “don’t blink,” especially coming a mere four episodes after an adventure centered around “don’t breathe.” While all are universally relatable – who hasn’t challenged a friend to a staring contest, or to see who could hold one’s breath the longest? – the concept has become overused.
Another recurring trend that has worn out its welcome: female characters dressed like naughty schoolmarms or sexy librarians. Miss Delphox joins a line of characters – including Madame Kovarian, Tasha Lem, and Missy – where wardrobe serves as Moffat’s narrative shorthand for “I’m not really going to flesh her out as a character, but, basically, she’s in charge, and she’s evil.”
The problem with Miss Delphox being so underdeveloped is that her actions don’t withstand scrutiny. The idea that a would-be criminal can be found guilty and punished before actually committing a crime – and further, that one’s family will then also be punished – seems barbaric, like something out of the Middle Ages, and anathema to modern law. While it is logical to assume that customers agree to these security protocols when they establish accounts with the Bank of Karabraxos, one wonders whether the practice would actually be defensible in court. Can the veracity of the Teller be established as infallible? Otherwise, the bank opens itself to all forms of lawsuits – the type that would kill any corporation. Who would do business with this bank? Miss Delphox passes judgment on intent and not action (which, in fairness, does have legal precedent), but states, “Never mind, we’ll establish the details later.” Law doesn’t work like that in civilized societies. While the point may be that the Bank of Karabraxos is not civilized, to function as a business, the bank has to draw clients and work within empires that are, and it’s doubtful that those prospective clients would put up with this lack of due process for long.
Fairing worse than Miss Delphox is Clara, who has never been written more poorly than in this episode. Examine Clara’s role:
- She expresses horror at the cruel “soupification” of the untried criminal.
- She conveys sorrow at the “death” of Saibra.
- She makes excuses for the Doctor’s behavior.
- She runs from the Teller, gets herself trapped, and must be rescued – seemingly at the expense of Psi’s life, for which she then shows remorse.
- And, uh, . . . she carries the information card containing the security box location, from the last case into the vault? Does that really count?
Truly, in “Time Heist,” Clara is reduced to the definition of stock companion character, in no way furthering the action aside from needing to be rescued. She literally nods in agreement when the Doctor says that he’s in charge because of his eyebrows! Clara is of such little importance to the plot that, while every other character finds something of value inside the bank’s vault, she is completely ignored by the narrative.
Better served are Psi and Saibra, who contribute this episode’s deepest moments. The tragedy of Psi inadvertently erasing the memories of his own family and friends is novel, and is followed by the revelation that Saibra’s “gift” robs her of everyday physical contact, not to mention intimacy. While neither character is as developed as recent potential-companion Journey Blue, “Time Heist” gives both characters special consideration, a purpose, compelling dialogue, and a fitting exit – which makes this episode’s treatment of Clara stick out even more. Perhaps a better solution would be a companion-lite episode, where Clara is present in the teaser, but not in the bank, leaving the Doctor (and the audience) wondering if she is being held hostage to ensure the Doctor’s cooperation.
Throughout Series 6 and 7, recurring guest stars (the Paternoster Gang), one-off companions (Canton Delaware III, Nefertiti and Riddell), and recurring not-quite-companions (River Song, Craig) seemed to indicate Moffat’s desire to broaden the definition of a “companion.” Moffat has made his mark on the brand in this way before, obscuring the Doctor’s age. However, it’s becoming questionable whether Moffat has any idea how to write the standard Doctor/female companion relationship in a way that is interesting, different, and relatable. Maybe, this is a good thing. It’s definitely time for a full-time companion (or two, or three); “Listen” makes a point of this. Perhaps, with Moffat realizing that the standard set-up isn’t his forte, Series 9 will bring something unique.