TV Review: Doctor Who – Time Heist (S8, E5)

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Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Screenwriters: Steve Thompson & Steven Moffat
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Keeley Hawes, Pippa Bennett-Warner & Jonathan Bailey

Though things seem to be moving in the right direction again, there’s a vacuum at the heart of the latest series of Doctor Who that not even the stellar performances of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman can fill. It isn’t just that the writing still feels a bit sloppy (though it is improving, albeit much too slowly), nor that Moffat’s worst tendencies still intrude on the natural flow of the stories; no, it’s more than that. There’s something missing – something fundamental to the show’s success – which I simply can’t put my finger on.

“Time Heist”, the fifth chapter in this twelve-episode series, plays out like a walkthrough guide to everything wrong with the show in its current incarnation. Combining the laziest storytelling of the RTD era with Moffat’s propensity towards blunt and narrow characterisation, this is an episode that tries to get by on nice ideas alone but, thanks to uninspired writing and, somewhat ironically, the constraints of time, said ideas are all underdeveloped and muddled. As such, it ends up being rather boring, despite the best efforts of Capaldi’s Doctor to inject his usual dark humour and cynicism into the proceedings.

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The plot of the episode goes as follows; the Doctor and Clara receive a phone call from an unknown figure who summons them to the most impenetrable bank in the whole universe – the Bank of Karabraxos – and coerces them into breaking in. Having been exposed to the memory worms that first appeared in “The Snowmen”, the Doctor and Clara have no idea why they’ve agreed to rob the bank but they go along with it anyway, as it appears to be their only means of escape. Aided by two other “volunteers” – Psi (Bailey) and Saibra (Bennett-Warner) – they break in, only to soon find themselves being hunted by an alien creature known as “The Teller”, who possesses the ability to detect guilt.

Written by Steve Thompson (with contributions from Moffat), the episode tries to replicate the atmosphere of a classic heist film – albeit one set in space – but it is unfortunately burdened by both an uneventful plot and a villain (Ms Delphox, played by Keeley Hawes) who is so stereotypical, what with her sharp suit, her stark lipstick and her sultry demeanour, that she almost feels like a parody. From the moment Ms Delphox appears on the screen, like a downmarket version of Faye Dunaway in Supergirl, the whole episode descends into a ridiculous charade of pompous, philosophical mumbo-jumbo and laughable, pantomime silliness. As such, whatever peril is suggested and promised in the episode’s earliest scenes is never delivered, although credit must go to Hawes, who does her very best with what little she is given.

The supporting characters, similarly, are no better. Saibra is a mutant lumbered with an “ability” to transform into an exact replica of anyone she touches, Psi is a half-computer, half-human who can wipe his own memories, and that is where any and all semblances of a personality begin and end. Both of them are defined by what, rather than who, they are, and it is thus all but impossible to care about them. That both characters’ sacrificial departures are later reversed anyway simply adds more water to some already damp characterisation. Even the Doctor and Clara, both of whom have been solidly developed and explored so far this series, feel like caricatures of their usual selves.

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“Time Heist” feels very much like a step in the wrong direction, though it does have its moments. Alas, it manages to be both too short and too long. The plot isn’t interesting enough to justify a 45 minute runtime, yet the ideas that drive it and the hints of characterisation that never develop into anything more than rough outlines could have done with a lot more exploration. The heist element of the story feels rushed, the Teller never feels like a genuine threat and Ms Delphox is a bit of a joke. Had more time been dedicated to either a proper exploration of the characters or to the heist itself then perhaps the episode might have worked, but as it stands neither of these elements is developed enough, and so it all sort of caves in on itself.

“Time Heist” isn’t bad in the way “Fear Her” or “The Beast Below” are bad, but it’s still utterly forgettable and derivative. It’s the worst episode of series 8 (so far) and I do hope it isn’t a sign of things to come…