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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Doctor Who - "Time Heist"

If you've been listening to our Doctor Who discussions on the GeekRex podcast lately, you may remember our brief talk about show runner Steven Moffat's desire to have each episode of the show be a part of a different genre.  We saw this more with Matt Smith's Doctor having horror, pirates, and even westerns creep into his stories, but, thus far, Peter Capaldi's Doctor had not really seen too much of this.  Sure, "Listen" and "Robot of Sherwood" had moments which placed themselves firmly in genres we had seen before, but they did not feel burdened by the tropes of said genres.  That all changes this week with Series 8's fifth episode, "Time Heist," but perhaps that's not a bad idea....from time to time.

"Time Heist" sees the Doctor and Clara finding themselves in the midst of an adventure with two new companions and no idea how any of them got there (thanks to some memory worms).  The action quickly gets set in motion, however, as the four individuals find themselves at the behest of a person known as the Architect.  This mastermind has placed our heroes in the middle of the galaxy's most fortified bank with one simple job: rob the bank.

As mentioned, this episode returns Doctor Who to Moffat's belief that the series can put its own spin on any film genre out there.  This time around we, obviously, get to see how the Doctor would handle himself in the heist genre.  A heist with the Doctor in tow goes pretty much about how one would expect, although with much less use of the sonic screwdriver than initially anticipated.  Initially, it is a bit easy to become concerned that the episode finds itself too beholden to the tropes of the heist narrative.  This bank robber cannot simply be done by just the Doctor and Clara, but they must be joined by a hacker and a master of disguise...the Doctor's A-Team, if you will.  Where writers Steven Moffat and Stephen Thompson put the twist on the genre, however, is in that, unlike most bank heists, our robbers have to figure out how to get to their goal as they go.  A small change, but one that affects the story in a way to keep up interest.  The Bank of Karabraxos also comes with some interesting security features that feel very in line with the world of Doctor Who.

This episode features perhaps the best villain we have seen thus far this season: The Teller.  Though not really a villain so much as an enforcer, the Teller is an alien being with the ability to read minds, specifically to locate guilt.  Used as a method of weeding out would be robbers, the Teller is intimidating in terms of size and power.  But it is not this that makes this villain so great.  The Teller is easily one of the best designed creatures of Moffat's tenure on this series.  Make-up and seemingly some CGI are blended together to create a creature with just as much life and character to it as any of its human counterparts.  Visually, the alien looks like something one may find in a Guillermo del Toro production, which speaks to the quality of the effects.  A last minute twist with this creature helps to make it all the more endearing.  In a season that has made many of us here worry that Moffat was simply resorting to his usual bag of tricks, the Teller is a nice change of pace.

Where this episode perhaps feels a little lacking is in its character development.  The Doctor and Clara have a few inches of development in this episode, but nothing significant by any means.   This is not necessarily a huge negative as stand alone, entertaining episodes such as this one are sometimes preferable to the over-arching narrative of a season.  That being said, though, this episode features the Doctor doing something we do not see him doing that often: committing a crime.  Capaldi's Doctor definitely comes with the darker traits we were promised.  Where Smith or Tennant's Doctors may have had to contemplate the morality of robbing a bank, Capaldi launches head first into the situation no questions asked.  We get to see more of this Doctor's seeming lack of empathy for humanity once again.  Twelve is becoming very apathetic about anyone but Clara, seeing everyone else as expendable.  This seems to be one of the many themes of this season and one wonders if Danny Pink's eventual arrival on the TARDIS will cause this to come to the forefront.  

When it comes to Clara...it feels like we don't get much for her in this episode except for her to provide sympathy when the Doctor doesn't.  Although I do find myself getting a bit tired of Clara always being unable to do things like everyone else.  First, she cannot hold her breath very well, and, now, she has trouble clearing her head.  I believe the time has well passed for Clara to be a frail character, incapable of standing up for herself.  Sure, it helps to add tension to a situation, but the constant use of Clara as the weakest of the bunch in these situations is starting to become problematic.  Hopefully this changes before the end of the season.

As for our side characters, they're nice, but mostly decoration.  In an episode where the fear of heist tropes taking over was prevalent, we more see the trope of boring Doctor Who side characters pervade.  Psi, the hacker of the group, is played adequately by Jonathan Bailey, but this character holds no interest whatsoever.  Thompson and Moffat try to develop him slightly, giving him the sad backstory of having to delete his memories, but then he plugs a USB cord into his temple and you kind of forget to care.  Pippa Bennett-Warner's shape shifting Saibra is a bit better, but her only truly intriguing moment is the resurgence of another theme for this season: is the Doctor a good man?  Saibra's answer seems to be yes, but perhaps this answer came too late for the Doctor.  Keeley Hawes' Ms. Delphox/Madame Karabraxos are the worst of the bunch.  An utterly forgettable pair of characters that are the most Moffaty of the side characters in the episode.

Overall, "Time Heist" is not a bad episode by any means.  It is an entertaining hour of television that proves that, yes, Doctor Who can really tackle any genre.  Enough twists are given on the heist narrative to keep the episode from becoming boring and formulaic.  Features of some (mostly) interesting set pieces with one of the best creature designs in the series' history help the episode significantly.  Is it the best of the season thus far?  Not really, but it ranks perhaps somewhere in the middle of the bunch ("Listen" and "Into the Dalek" being at the top).  A nice bit of breathing room from the arc for this season.

Things to ponder:

-We haven't seen Missy since "Into the Dalek," which is a bit surprising.

-Some die-hard fan is going to slow down those pictures of criminals Psi goes through so quickly (and it seems some fans have already started and discovered some neat cameos).

-Twelve continues to separate himself from the other Doctors, this time seemingly regretting the constant use of the bow tie by Eleven.  Probably not something that will be explored too in depth, but an interesting character trait considering the new regeneration cycle.

-Am I the only one noticing that Twelve doesn't open the sonic screwdriver like Eleven did?  

-The Doctor has an interesting line at the end of this episode where he says robbing a bank is a better date than whatever Danny has planned for Clara.  This seems to go back on what the Doctor firmly told Clara in "Deep Breath," but perhaps he is just becoming jealous that his companion does not want to spend all her time with him.  Such questions will not need to go unanswered for long as next week's "The Caretaker" seems to be tackling many of them.

-Capaldi is still awesome as the Doctor.

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