It’s strange experience when you have an expectation of an episode of a television programme only for it to be something totally different. “Time Heist” is one of those episodes as the pre-publicity sold it as “Doctor Who meets Ocean’s 11″… or in this case “Doctor’s 4”. What we got instead was a fascinating episode which uses the time travel premise of Doctor Who’s remit and a reminder of who the Doctor actually is, and I don’t just mean the grumpy old man of Time and Space.
The episode starts unusually with an apparent domestic beginning with the Doctor and Clara bantering about her latest date, only for it to cut to the story proper thanks with our heroes, along with two apparent criminals – Psi and Saibra, being informed that they have had their minds wiped (Psi – an augmented human who can download information directly into his brain wiping it – through the use of technology, whilst Saibra – a woman who has the ability to change her form to match other organic lifeforms, the Doctor and Clara uses Memory Worms (last seen in the 2012 Christmas Special “The Snowmen”) to wipe their respective memories.
Under threat of having their mind wiped by the mysterious Teller, a being who can sense guilt, the foursome break into the Bank of Karabraxos on the instructions of the mysterious “Architect” for items that the Architect knows that they all want.
Whilst the “Heist” itself is a clever plot as we, along with the Doctor and his team, are guided along by the Architect’s plan using their abilities such as Saibra’s genetic morphing condition, Psi’s ability to download information and personalities into his brain, Clara’s humanity and the Doctor’s ability to use information and build plans “on the hoof”, until we find out why they all volunteered to rob the bank, who the mysterious Director Karabraxos is and whether they will all survive unscathed, this is a deceptively cleverer story than the “wibbly wobbly timey wimey” premise than even the Doctor realises as he breaks into the vault.
As we see the Architect’s plan play out – and through the episode as a whole, we are treated to a character study of who the Doctor is – both on the surface and underneath. Some of it is very much the Doctor that we know – the man who champions the underdog (when he realises why he has been given this bank job, thanks to his memory being restored by the Teller), the man who wants days where “everybody lives” (through his use of the “Shredders” that are actually teleporters) and, despite apparent evidence to the contrary (namely Psi’s reaction), that the Doctor gives a damn about people – especially his reaction to Saibra’s apparent death by “Shredder” once the Teller locks on to her guilt. He also carries some of the Doctor’s flirty nature where Clara is concerned at the end of the episode when he challenges Clara to top robbing a bank for a date.
He also shows the darker aspects of his character – not only as the Doctor, but when it is finally revealed that he is the “Architect”. He is a clever tactician, very much in the mould of the Seventh Doctor portrayed by Sylvester McCoy, maneuvering himself and his team (unwittingly due to his mindwipe) to succeed in the mission by laying breadcrumbs along the way. “Twelve” definitely has a Game Face which makes him unreadable and cold not only to the opposition but to his friends as well. This comes to the fore when Psi confronts the Doctor on the selection of his title. Rather than the man who makes people better, this is a man who has his armour on show. None of the touchy-feely stuff for this Doctor. Doctors Nine, Ten and Eleven have all been accused of being the man who can’t look back because of the damage he does. Messrs. Thompson, Moffat and Capaldi bring together a Doctor where you can genuinely believe that he has to keep his emotions buttoned up and bulletproof.
But the most telling aspect of this Doctor is that even though he has to be this darker, more confrontational and more strategic persona, he hates it. Why? It comes in two passages – the first when Saibra tells the Doctor about the fact that she can tell that the Doctor is lying because she can see it in the way he behaves due to her knowledge of people and the second when he states that he hates the game playing, controlling, callous and ego-maniacal behaviour displayed the Architect. He’s guessed that it’s he who has set all this up the plan, but he waits for the evidence of the Teller’s mind scan to confirm it – but even so, he knows that he hates the Architect who came up with this plan and it’ll be interesting to see how this progresses as the series moves on.
The direction by Douglas Mackinnon is, yet again, top notch with jump cuts and scene changes moving at a rapid pace appropriate to the script.
For such a grandiose plot, the main cast is very small and intimate, making for a great character study.
Keeley Hawes creates a clever “villain” in the twin roles of Ms. Delphox and Director Karabraxos. Delphox/Karabraxos counterpoints the Doctor’s deceptive nature with a character who has to be totally truthful because Delphox can’t lie to Karabraxos – the very reason that she uses clones. But, it’s wrong to call Delphox and Karabraxos as true villain. They both simply wish to maintain the security of the bank, whilst Karabraxos has some level of decency within her by, in effect, arranging for the Doctor to plan a robbery so that he can release the Teller’s mate along with the Neophyte Circuit to restore Psi’s memory and the Gene Suppressant for Saibra. It’s to Ms. Hawes’ credit that, despite these revelations, she can still make the characters cold hearted enough to make them both unlikeable.
Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner are great in the roles of Psi and Saibra respectively. It’s a mark of their acting ability, along with the script, that they make these two thieves sympathetic to the audience. Both characters carry some level of damage in their wake with Psi losing the memories of his loved ones whilst Saibra cannot make physical contact. It’s little wonder that the Doctor wants to include them in his band of robbers as they are reflections of him. On the inside, he is Psi, a man who has to make the choice to forget loved ones whilst, on the outside, he is Saibra in that he knows that he can’t allow emotional contact because of the damage that follows in his wake. I really enjoyed Psi and Saibra with both becoming potential companion material if the time was right.
Jenna Coleman continues to challenge in the role of Clara as she continues to be the Doctor’s “carer”, not only being the Doctor’s emotional buffer to people for his actions but his fiercest advocate, even though he appears callous to the point of being ruthless. Clara believes that she knows the Doctor’s methods, after all, she’s seen multiple aspects of him, but he really throws a curve ball by openly displaying a disregard to Saibra’s apparent death by Shredder even though we as the viewer see him agonise with this decision. Jenna really sells the emotion that although the Doctor is apparently cold and detached, she knows what he’s really like and defends him to the hilt.
But it’s Peter Capaldi who has the best character progression in this story. He has to sell multiple and conflicting attitudes within the Doctor’s portrayal in this story. On the one hand, the Doctor is ice cold – callous, gameplaying and detached to the point of being unlikeable and I’m talking pre “The Edge of Destruction” First Doctor nasty. On the other, this cold and callous nature is done for a purpose – to protect his friends in the process of a robbery that isn’t for gold or money, but for the altruistic reasons of returning a person’s treasured memories, or allowing contact for the first time or saving the last two members of a race – something that surely serves as a parallel to his own predicament as the Not Quite Last of the Timelords.
In the hands of a less skilled actor, this portrayal of the Doctor could come across as unlikeable, but Capaldi manages to balance the light and dark of this incarnation so that he manages to shock and surprise without coming across as a Doctor who you wouldn’t want to travel with, but the synopses from the rest of the series makes that as something to be seen.
“Time Heist” is a story that works on multiple levels. On the face of it, it’s a crime caper that moves at a rate of knots. Underneath, you get a great character study of the leading man in this series. It’ll be interesting to see how “Twelve” progresses going forward given the apparently darker path he is looking to tread later in the series.