‘Time Heist’, by Stephen Thompson and Steven Moffat, has a intriguing take on a bank heist but is more style than substance. Strong visuals and special effects, particularly in the design of the alien Teller, make this episode enjoyable, rather than the story itself.
Spoilers From Here On In!
Doctor Who rarely deals with heists, despite the fact that the Doctor stole the TARDIS and thus is thief (something that Idris points out in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’). Despite his roguish tendencies the Doctor usually keeps within the bounds of the law, as long as the law is just.
Just as ‘Robot of Sherwood’ placed the Doctor in a Robin Hood story here he is dropped in a bank heist tale. One moment he is in Clara’s flat, about to answer the TARDIS phone, the next he is holding a memory worm (last seen in ‘The Snowmen’), all knowledge of how he and his companion got there erased.
This is a great setup, as they are thrown into working with the cybernetically advanced hacker Psy, played by Jonathan Bailey, and mutant shape-shifter Saibra, played by Pippa Bennett-Warner, to break into the impregnable bank in the galaxy, the Bank of Karabraxos. Recorded messages assure them that they agreed to this.
This forces the main characters to take action, as security is already hot on their heels, having to put faith in that there must be plan to get them in. The Doctor is soon taking charge, directing them to use their various abilities to get past the various defences of the bank.
Where this faulters is that the best things about a heist is the formation and execution of clever plan. Here those details are kept from both the viewer and the participants. This removes much of the tension as the group simply stumble from area to area, hoping that the key to advancing will present itself.
This is a shame as it gives us little time to appreciate Psy and Saibra’s contribution. Once Saibra has shape shifted into a client of the bank to get them inside she has little else to do. Psy contributes more, having access to blueprints and being able to shut down security systems, but this shown to be more to do with the technology in his head than skill (or at least we are given little insight into what he is doing).
Clara’s presence is almost unneeded. The only thing she does is apologise for the Doctor and convince the others that they can trust him. Aside from that Clara serves only to be put in peril.
Despite its reputation the bank’s only really impressive security feature is the Teller, a straightjacketed alien used by the staff to sniff out guilt. The hammer headed design for this alien is great, as is its ability to liquefy a person’s brain leaving them with a concave head (reminiscent of the ‘spoon heads’ from ‘The Bells of Saint John’).
It is the Teller that is the most important element of the story. Its guilt sensing ability is the reason that the team of bank robbers have to wipe their memories and it provides much of the danger as it stalks them through the labyrinth of corridors. Its eye stalks, curved upwards, give it the appearance of having horns and the scenes where it hunts the intruders brings to mind the minotaur in ‘The God Complex.’
The human face of the threat posed to them is provided by Ms Delphox, played by Keeley Hawes. While the character is serviceable her no nonsense, all business attitude does little to differentiate her from Miss Kizlet from ‘The Bells of Saint John’. Presumably she has to be evil so that we don’t mind that our ‘heroes’ are stealing from her bank.
There is some effective drama to be had in the deaths of Psy and Saibra, choosing suicide by atomic disintegrator rather than have their brains turned to soup and put on display. Psy in particular gets a great scene of defiance as he lures the Teller away from Clara.
These scenes are slightly diminished for a later twist which reveals the atomic disintegrators were actually teleporters. Psy and Saibra return, disguised as guards, to help the Doctor and Clara escape and resume the heist.
Much of the draw for this story, other than seeing who survives, is based on the mysteries established at the start of the story. How did they come to be here? Who is the Architect who organised the heist? What did each individual hope to gain from taking part? Who is the mysterious owner of the bank, Karabraxos? The episode was only ever going to be enjoyable if the answers to those questions was satisfying.
The prizes that Psy and Saibra were obvious due to what little we knew of their character and felt like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ with each of Dorothy’s companions having something they want.
The revelation that Ms Delphox is a clone of the real Karabraxos was quite neat. Karabraxos disdain for her clones and willingness to despatch them made her most loathsome.
It also setup the best, if predictable, reveal that the Doctor was the Architect. Ever since we learnt the Architect was a time traveller it only made sense that the only plan the Doctor would follow was his own.
The reason, and the source of the phone call, was the most satisfying resolution of the mysteries. The Doctor provided Karabraxos with his phone number and at the end of her life she calls the earlier Doctor to say her greatest regret was what she had done to the Teller.
Unlocking the final vault reveals the Teller’s mate and the Doctor proudly announces that this was never a heist, this was a rescue mission. The triumph in the moment almost distracts from the fact that a solar flare has probably just killed everyone in the bank (which doesn’t seem to bother anyone present).
The best elements of this episode were the visuals. In addition to the already mentioned special effects there was some good set design, reusing corridors with effective lighting. This was most notable when the team split up, the colour of the light suggesting something about their character and situation. White light for the Doctor (divinity or purity), blue of Psy (depression and the machines he has fused with) and red for Clara (highlighting danger and the demonic appearance of the Teller). In other scenes we have gold lighting to remind us of the treasure they’ve come for and later green light when the Doctor has alienated himself from the group.
The editing and transitions were also very well done. From the opening POV inside a washing machine we can tell this is going to be something unusual. The sudden jump from the Doctor answering the phone to holding the memory worm is funny but also conveys the sense of dislocation and confusion. Subsequent transitions give the feel of a slick, fast paced action piece but were slightly overused by the end.
Overall a pleasing story that unfortunately pales in comparison to what has come before. Much as with Thompson’s previous episodes I feel that there are good ideas which were never fully developed.
One final thought; should we read anything into the fact that on two occasions the Teller honed in on Clara’s guilt out of the group of four?