Written by Stephen Moffat & Stephen Thompson
Directed by Douglas MacKinnon
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Keely Hawes (Ms. Delphox/Madam Karabraxos); Jonathan Bailey (Psi); Pippa Bennett-Warner (Saibra); Trevor Sellers (Mr. Porrima); Ross Mullan (The Teller); Junior Laniyan (The Suited Customer) & Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink)
Here There Be Spoilers.
Mr. Moffat has teamed up again with one of his regular writers, this time with Stephen Thompson (writer of the awful episode The Curse of The Black Spot and the far better Journey to the Center of the TARDIS) to create the fast-paced Time Heist. In fact, the episode is so fast-paced that there were times that the viewer was left seemingly in the dust; not only are some important plot points rushed through, but the very structure of the episode demands that few first-time viewers will have much of a handle on the proceedings until the episode’s final minutes. Thankfully (unlike so many other episodes from the Moffat-era), all the pieces seem to fit into place by the time the final credits roll.
We join the Doctor while he is trying (and failing) to persuade Clara to join him on a random fun trip, oblivious to the fact that she is preparing for a date with Danny. Suddenly, the TARDIS phone rings, an odd thing since no one in the universe (save Clara) could possibly know the Doctor’s number. Clara warns the Doctor not to answer it, believing that something bad will happen. The Doctor dismisses this as piffle and picks up the receiver… and suddenly the Doctor and Clara finds themselves in a strange room with two strangers and no memory of how they got there! The memory worms crawling in front of them solves the mystery of their forgetfulness, but all of them are shocked to hear a recording of their voices claiming to have touched the worms voluntarily. This is followed by another recording of someone who identifies himself as “the Architect” who gives them the barest of information: the four of them are currently sitting inside a chamber in the most secure bank in the universe – where the security kills anyone attempting any sort of funny business – and that they have been called upon to rob it. With a security force pounding at the door and no idea what it is they are supposed to steal, the quartet of merry safe-crackers have no alternative except to follow orders and pierce the strongest vault in history.
The jump cut that bridges the moment of the Doctor answering his phone to the moment after the gang have touched their memory worms is a jarring one to say the least; it plops us right down in the middle of the excitement without any buildup whatsoever. This is naturally exciting… and, on the first viewing, regrettably frustrating. We are just as disoriented as the Doctor and his companions are at this moment, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. First of all, there’s two rather odd-looking people sitting at the table and, although the memory worms were established in the episode The Snowmen, their appearance here is equally off-putting. There’s a hell of a lot of information imparted in this first minute of the heist and viewers, like myself, probably will miss half of it on the first viewing. Over a period of a few, chaotic minutes, we’re introduced to Psi, a man with a computer in his brain, and Saibra, a woman who can shape-shift into the likeness of anyone she touches. We are also introduced to Ms. Delphox, an immaculately dressed bank manager who dispenses death with a cheery smile. It’s all a little hard to take in; a second viewing is crucial to understanding the set up.
Thankfully, once the initial confusion is passed and our characters are allowed a moment to breathe, we start getting a sense of them and come to realize that they are three of the better-written supporting characters Doctor Who has had in quite a while. Pippa Bennett-Warner is wonderful as Saibra, whose genetic shape-shifting has left her separated from the rest of humanity, unable to touch anyone without taking on their image. Equally good is Jonathan Bailey’s Psi who, despite having a mainframe in his head, has a big heart (he criticizes the Doctor’s detached manner) and shows his concern for Clara’s safety by seemingly sacrificing himself for her. But best of all is Keely Hawes as Ms. Delphox (and later revealed to also be Madam Karabraxos, the bank director); the torture, humiliation and the death of those who try to cross her leave nary a wrinkle on her exquisite face. When she calmly watches as a well-dressed man who is apparently up to no good has his brain melted (in a moment of genuine shock for all of us watching at home), she quips that he’s ready for his “close-up,” which means that he’ll be cruelly put on display as a warning to others. Hawes is reminiscent of other corporate villains that we have seen in the past (Miss Kizlet from The Bells of St. John and Klineman Halpen from Planet of the Ood spring to mind), men and women who would send their grandchildren on a one-way trip to Hell if it meant keeping the shareholders happy. Hawes does it with such class that we almost forget to hate her; she lights up the screen almost every time she appears.
Interestingly enough, Moffat and Thompson install a good, underlying theme in the episode that may explain the motivation of Madam Karabraxos’s call to the Doctor at the end of her life. Regular viewers will be well aware of the Doctor’s epic loneliness (the first thing we see him doing in this episode is trying to convince Clara to drop her plans and go off with him on an adventure), but this sense of loneliness is reinforced in the other characters: Saibra is unable to touch anyone and Psi was forced to delete some of his memories during an interrogation, leaving him without any sense of friends or family. Their rewards for taking part in the robbery are items that will cure their loneliness: a “cure” that will turn Saibra into a normal human and a device that will restore Psi’s memories. We also find out that the real mission that the gang was sent on was to cure another being’s loneliness: the creature known as the Teller (the thing that detects guilt and turns brains into mush) allows himself to be controlled by the bank because Madam Karabraxos has imprisoned the creature’s mate in the private vault. The robbery, as the Doctor says, was really a rescue mission and the reunion of the two creatures is the final act of hope for all the lonely souls in the episode.
This brings us to Madam Karabraxos, who lives in the private vault surrounded by her wealth, seemingly untroubled by her lack of human contact. We’re told very little about her; the only contact she has is with her clones, which she throws into the incinerator whenever they displease her. This is the woman who apparently calls the Doctor from her deathbed, noticeably NOT surrounded by loved ones praying for her. Is it too much of a stretch to surmise that, in her lonely last days, she realized that imprisoning the Teller’s mate in order to harness his power was an unforgivable sin? Sentencing herself to a life of solitude was her own choice; sentencing another creature to that same life is evil beyond words. Had the Doctor and his gang not arrived, the Teller and his mate would’ve died in the solar storm, never having found each other. Madam Karabraxos may not be able find companionship in her last hours, but at least she had the good sense to undo a great wrong in her life. Reuniting a creature with its mate has been done before rather recently on Doctor Who in the episode Hide, where the unnamed horror was revealed in the episode’s closing minute that it was missing it’s mate, stranded in a different plane of existence. There, it felt tacked on and confused, a further wrinkle to an already confused and convoluted story; here, it feels more organic to the plot and works far better, especially the reveal of the Teller’s mate wrapped in chains and the Doctor placing a hand on it to comfort it.
Of course, we all know that the Doctor, as the last Time Lord in the Universe (even with the knowledge that the other Time Lords are hidden in a pocket universe somewhere), is also the loneliest creature in the universe which is why he needs Clara around who, despite her acceptance of the Doctor’s new face and personality, seems to be pulling away from him more and more as her relationship with Danny becomes more serious. But as for Clara herself, after last week’s marvelous development of her character in Listen, this week finds Clara falling back into standard companion mode. There’s no real reason for the Doctor to have taken her to the bank; Saibra and Psi have special abilities that prove them necessary to the completion of the mission while Clara seems to be there only to be threatened by the Teller and rescued (twice) and to try to smooth over the Doctor’s abrasive personality and make excuses for him (something that even Psi points out). It’s kind of a shame that Moffat and Thompson couldn’t have found something more substantial for her to do (maybe she could have volunteered to have her mind scanned by the Teller in order to access her repressed memories or maybe could have at least made a comment about Madam Karabraxos preferring solitude and life amongst inanimate treasures to trigger her guilt and regret years later). Next week, it looks like we’ll have more of Clara, facing the comic turmoil of her double life and having to make room for the Doctor at the Coal Hill School; I hope that this will prove to be more of a character defining episode for the bright and shining character that is Clara Oswald. Only time will tell.
On the whole, Time Heist is exciting and thought-provoking, although its structure and initial pacing can confuse initial viewers (let me get this straight: the four robbers start in a room that is evidentially on the bank’s property but are later shown entering the bank? So where did they begin from? Details like this may not seem important, but any sort of confusion during such a chaotic opening can only lead to frustration). And to be truthful, it wasn’t too difficult to guess that the Architect was the Doctor himself long before the reveal. But there is also many moments to treasure in Time Heist: Psi’s speech before his apparent death, the post-robbery moment on the TARDIS where the four companions share Chinese takeaway and jokes, the Doctor falsely claiming that calories consumed on the TARDIS has no lasting effect (“Of course I’m kidding, it’s a time machine, not a miracle worker”) and the truly shocking effect of a man with his forehead collapsed inward after his brain has been turn to soup (how many kids scurried behind the sofa after that one?). While not the best this year – Listen still holds that honor – Time Heist takes an old premise and turns it on its head; the crooks are not after gold or fortune, but contact, companionship and, in the case of Madam Karabraxos, redemption.
P.S. – Lose the cheesy wipes; you’re better than that.