Warning: spoilers lie herein. If you don’t want to find out what happens, don’t read any further.
There’s a telling remark at the end of this week’s episode of Doctor Who. The titular time-travelling titan (try saying that with a memory worm in your ear) is in the TARDIS, laughing and joking with his erstwhile companions. “Cesare Borgia,” he says, “Mucho scary hombre, says to me ‘What do you think of our Leaning Tower of Pisa?’. I say – ” and here he leans to one side, eyes widening like an Adipose caught in headlights – “‘It looks OK to me!'”.
It’s one occasion when I don’t think we could accuse Moffat of fourth wall demolition, but the experience that was ‘Time Heist’ was a little like that. As a hand-crafted exercise in writing, I’ve seen better. It wasn’t particularly new, or innovative, or even very clever. But viewed from a slanted angle, with the subtitles on (because that distortion effect, whilst effective, was nonetheless impregnable) and taken with the sort of salt pinch only an Ice Warrior could manage, it was jaunty fun.
Yes, there is colossal self-borrowing. There is also an unimaginable amount of borrowing from other sources (and we’ll get to that). But in this sort of story it didn’t matter. There was also a liberal sprinkling of timey-wimey bollocks that turned out to be of integral importance to the plot (as well as the prime mover behind a colossally predictable plot twist). That Moffat and Thomson get away with it – just – is testament to the episode’s self-containment. In other words, this was not an important story, just as ‘Blink’ was (at least canonically) not an important story, even though stylistically it changed everything.
From the beginning, we’re duped, deluded and tricked, in much the same way that we are in Memento (which I think I’ve seen, although I now can’t remember). There are reasons for this, and while I have yet to examine the Gallifrey Base threads to see what the fans are saying, Moffat’s tracing paper approach remains: you only have to hold the intricate design up to the light to see all the holes. But there are holes in most heist movies as well – impossible hacks, unbelievably stupid security guards and stunts that defy the laws of physics (cars don’t explode when they crash, and it is impossible, under any circumstances whatsoever, to outrun a fireball.)
I’m rambling. It transpires, of course, that the bank robbery wasn’t a robbery at all: it was a time-hopping rescue. The first clue you get is the strait jacket that surrounds the colossal, Minotaur-like Teller, which is obviously there against its will. The love story at the core of this takes its cue from at least one other recent episode, and it really feels like it’s too soon to pull off this sort of trick again, but the creature itself is visually impressive and a Character Options action figure in waiting. The biceps on the thing could heft forklifts, but the Teller is designed to detect guilt. It does this by extracting memories and then hitting you over the head with an invisible iron bar.
If the design feels a little derivative, it’s already a familiar concept even before the Monster of the Week is unveiled for the first time. The references come thick and fast right from the outset. Clara has barely had time to dress for what is supposedly a date (but which we all know is secretly a Rat Pack tribute party) when the Doctor makes the mistake of answering the phone. Before we know it the pair are sitting in a room with a supporting character from a 2000 AD strip and an X-Men reject, and no one can remember how they got there or why. This is the sort of thing that happens all the time in Eastenders stag parties, so quite why it should be a major plot device here is anyone’s guess.
The bank itself consists of airy, high-ceilinged halls (part-CG , part Cardiff location scouting, ornate lifts and power station interiors for the grungy sub-levels. It’s how you would expect a hi-tech futuristic bank to look, right down to the security doors – the sort of place where just because you can’t see the locks, it doesn’t mean they’re not there. The vault itself – and the McGuffin of the week – is surrounded by a bunch of wide subterranean corridors, which provide convenient hiding places for the Doctor and Clara when they’re being stalked by the Teller. It’s a pity that Douglas Mackinnon’s direction, exemplary in ‘Listen’, is so utterly pedestrian here, with no real sense of tension to offset Psi’s hack, and far too many lingering close-ups of Clara’s head. Regular readers of this blog will know that I love Jenna Coleman and almost everything her character has finally been allowed to become, but even I have my limits.
After the floor disintegration, the bonding with
Rogue Saibra and the moment when you realise that the characters have genuinely been sent back in time to the moment a ferocious and unanticipated storm strikes an important place, the puzzle suddenly starts to make sense. It’s the sort of ontological paradox Moffat does to death, but it’s far more effective in single episodes than it is over an entire series, as both ‘Blink’ and the entirety of series six proved, for the best and worst reasons respectively. I have complained before that Doctor Who has basically become a programme that is about time travel, rather than a programme in which time travel is the thing that enables you to get to a time and place where you can tell an interesting story, but I can excuse the wibbly wobbliness of episodes like this when they keep you hooked. Little clues are dropped in throughout the dialogue, so even before the memory gaps are filled in, we know that something is up (and if you think I’m being unfair when I describe the reveal as ‘predictable’, bear in mind that my cognitive abilities are generally quite substandard, so when a plot twist is so lame that even I figure it out before the end, we really are in trouble).
What’s disturbing is that this is the third week in a row where we haven’t seen an obvious reference to Missy’s soul quest, which has left me wondering about the disintegration ampoules. With both supporting cast members dead halfway through, it looks like a long night for Clara, at least until two minutes later when they both show up, miraculously alive and with no real information as to how they got back down so quickly from the escape ship, never mind where / how they got the guard uniforms. Heads were scratched all round in our living room, but the more I think about it the more it really does feel like one of those ‘clues’ we’re supposed to come back to at the end of the series, when it’s revealed that Missy isn’t collecting the souls of the dead, but the not-quite-dead bodies of the about-to-die. It would feel very ‘Wedding of River Song’, somehow – although the idea of atomic disintegrators that actually turn out to be teleportation devices is hardly a new thing.
As an aside – and conveniently ignoring the fact that ‘Bad Wolf’ also opens with the Doctor and his companions waking up in a strange place with no idea how they got there – when you think about it, a teleportation device is exactly the same thing as an atomic disintegrator; it’s just that it has a mirror device at the other end that works in reverse. It destroys the body, saves the pattern and then re-establishes an exact physical copy at the other end. Star Trek has touched on the ethical ramifications of this – particularly the consideration of the soul – more than once, and it’s surprising that Doctor Who never has. Perhaps we’re about to, but I suspect the truth may be depressingly pedestrian. And will probably involve River Song.
But ignore all of that, because the story in itself works fine, with nods to crime flicks and sci-fi and beyond (Mackinnon says that he has “watched virtually every heist movie there’s ever been”, and boy does it show). Not everything works, of course. If Ocean’s Eleven was (at least in its remake form) a film about robbing a casino chiefly because its owner was an arsehole, ‘Time Heist’ should, at least, have a decent antagonist watching the CCTV screens – and this is sadly the episode’s biggest disappointment. Keeley Hawes, so dazzling to watch in the likes of Ashes To Ashes, is reduced to a power-dressing dominatrix type with Deirdre Barlow spectacles and no real trace of personality. While it turns out there is a reason for this, even the glammed-up, ‘alternate’ Keeley we meet in the final reel is no more engaging, leaving the under-developed Ms Delphox looking rather like a clone (pun intended) of Miss Foster from ‘Partners in Crime’, only rather less interesting.
But Hawes is the weak link in an otherwise rigorous chain. ‘Time Heist’ is a story of a gang of misfits who break into a bank and get away with it, and just as Psi and Saibra escape not only intact but renewed, so too does the series feel fresher and funnier after this week. There are problems, and some truly shocking dialogue, but whereas ‘Listen’ failed because it tried to be inappropriately profound, ‘Time Heist’ is smart enough to recognise its own limitations. We needed a light-hearted episode of Doctor Who that wasn’t written by Mark Gatiss, and on that level, at least, Moffat and Thompson have come up with the goods. Just remember to keep your head slanted.