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Right, so, circumstances mean I can get this review up very quickly, and I’m taking the temperature of the fans who rated it on GallifreyBase within ten minutes of it airing. Two hundred and sixty-one raters, 55.55% of which are rating 8-10. Another 22.22% at a 7. About an hour later, and it’s still running right around there. For comparison, that puts it roughly in line with where the polls on Journey to the Center of the TARDIS and The Bells of St. John settled down, which suggests this one is going to be somewhat harshly remembered (although Rings of Akhaten got something more like 35% 8-10, so it’s merely a rough ride, not a drubbing). I politely disagree – I rather liked it. Although I can see the faults, on the whole, they were not unduly distracting for me.
Still, it’s notable that this is by one of the less popular recurring writers. If Steve Thompson can be said to have one defining stylistic tic, it is that he is prone to creating elaborate plots and then populating them with thin cartoons of actual characters. The cynic might accuse Moffat of the same thing, although I obviously disagree, and certainly think Time Heist illustrates the difference. Which is to say that Sai is everyone’s first Shadowrun character, and Sabra is blatantly Rogue from the X-Men with the serial numbers filed off and a less sensible superpower, and it’s clear very little thought has gone into either of them past picking where to nick them from, in a way that just flatly isn’t true of… really any Moffat character who gets as many lines as either of them do, but let’s say Clara, just to really make the point. Although in this case, there’s barely any characterization of Clara or the Doctor either – it’s pretty much a straight shot high-paced thriller.
This isn’t, of course, inherently a problem, or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. It’s perfectly possible to have the elaborate plot be interesting enough to carry the story, and Time Heist illustrates this. Its central plot dynamic is terribly clever, in that it allows for exposition and plot twists to happen organically at more or less any moment. The heist itself provides a continual forward momentum, but all the key plot revelations concern things that have already happened, which makes for a neat structure that keeps things moving.
There are, of course, some proper plot holes. (How exactly did the Doctor seed the bank with all of those cases without triggering the Teller?) But they’re proper refrigerator logic plot holes – ones that you don’t notice them until you sit down and think about it later. (See also the descendants of the murdered Viking settlers in The Curse of Fenric, which took me decades and Tat Wood to notice. Which is to say, plot holes like the days of old.) For the most part, this is a story to just sit down and enjoy. It’s not that it doesn’t hold up to rewatching – between watching for the Slate podcast (see bullet points) and this, I’ve seen it three times now, and I enjoyed it each time. But it very much puts it all on the screen, as it were.
All of which said, I find myself wanting to knock the production a little bit – specifically the tedious overuse of colored lighting. On a hunch, I went and snagged the leaked workprint of this, and as I kind of suspected, it looks far better in black and white, simply because the bank actually feels stately and monolithic. By attempting to redress whatever location provided the tunnels with lighting gels, they only ended up highlighting the degree to which this episode is almost entirely comprised of corridor runs, and, worse, corridor runs through frightfully drab corridors, in a story where the entire point is how posh the setting is. I mean, yes, a corridor run is the heart and soul of Doctor Who, but Time Heist seems slightly embarrassed by the preponderance of corridors, and embarrassed in a way that makes them slightly embarrassing.
On the brighter side is the Teller, which is one of the best alien designs in a while – one that actually feels properly alien. After making magic out of a monster that never appears last episode, this time they really show the degree to which Doctor Who uses its special effects well. It’s not that the Teller is “realistic,” a word I don’t even know how to apply to it, but rather that the Teller looks like good CGI. The moment it appears, you recognize it as a CGI monster, but it’s impressive as an object of design, as opposed to as an illusion. And Doctor Who has learned to go for that approach in a satisfying way. (Edit: Apparently it wasn’t CGI, so that’s an amusing error, although my point about focusing on design over realism stands, I think, regardless of the physical construction.)
Beyond that, the story works in the way that a lot of good Doctor Who stories work, which is by finding a genre Doctor Who hasn’t actually crashed into yet, but that’s a natural fit for Doctor Who. The intrinsically anarchic aesthetic of Doctor Who is a natural fit for the heist film. The long tradition of bank robbers (and criminals in general) as heroes is one that, while it might not be entirely accurate to say that Doctor Who fits into it every week, it at least fits into often enough for this to be an incredibly natural pairing. And yet it’s one that Doctor Who has never really done, although I suppose you could try to argue for Dinosaurs on a Spaceship having the same basic plot structure.
On top of that, it finds two very specifically Doctor Who twists on it. The first, of course, is the addition of time travel to the heist structure, which we’ve already discussed in terms of its benefits for the speed of plot advancement. The second is the late turn from being a heist to being a rescue mission, with the revelation that the Teller is not, in fact, a monster but a sympathetic victim of the bank’s abuses – a move that fits into Moffat’s general aversion towards straightforward villains. Both are solid, and the decision to leave them until relatively late in the episode means that they work as twists (although there’s a case to be made that the first one is excessively given away by the title), allowing the episode to first milk the “Doctor Who bank robbery” angle straightforwardly, and then to successively add its clever tricks. It’s not a classic, but is yet another instance where the meat and potatoes episodes are coming off well, with almost all their tricks working.
Which puts us nearly half a season in, and still, for my money at least, without any turkeys. The two credits that were perhaps most nerve-wracking are now past, and worked. One can’t imagine Gareth Roberts screwing up too badly, although I suppose the one exception to that is the other time he was rewritten. There’s the three new boys, who are all unknowns for Doctor Who (and, more frustratingly, boys), but at this point we’re starting to get to the point where we can say with some confidence that this is a solid season. Certainly it’s the strongest opening five episodes we’ve seen in the new series.
- I see a lot of criticism of the Doctor’s regularly insulting Clara, which is I suppose understandable, but seems to me a misreading of the situation. The point isn’t that the Doctor is insulting Clara – it’s that he’s humorously bad at giving compliments because he doesn’t actually understand humans or human form. Take last episode – “you’ve taken your make up off,” he says, clearly wrongly, and then, when that’s pointed out, he attempts to soften the accidental insult with “you probably just missed a bit,” rather spectacularly deepening the hole. The “insulting Clara” jokes are the same as his “you’re taller… do you have to reach a high shelf” joke this episode, ultimately.
- The Abslom Daak appearance is, of course, doubly sweet when you realize this episode was filming right around when Steve Moore died, and that it was likely a conscious tribute. Also, the other images are almost as good – I love the Sensorite.
- This is the last of the episodes that leaked in advance, so there’s a sense in which we’re moving into “Phase Two” of the season – a sense that’s heightened by the shift to new writers coming after next week, and the shift in transmission time coming next week.
- Fun counterfactual – how would this episode have been changed by yes winning the independence referendum? For that matter, how was it changed by no winning?
- As mentioned, I’m a guest on Slate’s Doctor Who podcast, which, as I understand it, will post at this link for Slate Plus members after US transmission this evening. You can join Slate Plus on a two-week trial to grab it and check it out. I had fun with it, certainly.
- Deep Breath
- Time Heist
- Into the Dalek
- Robot of Sherwood