Doctor Who Recap: How To Pull Off A Heist
It was this season's most old-school episode, but it fell a little flat.
The theory goes that there are only seven basic plots to every story ever: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyages and returns, can’t find my hat, let’s go out for tacos, and check out the talking apes. I’m going off memory here, but I’m pretty sure that’s right.
Genre television shows seem to have their own staples to fall back on, often to great effect. There’s the “B characters have their own story as the A characters have an unseen adventure”: ‘Lower Decks’ (Star Trek: The Next Generation), ‘The Zeppo’ (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and ‘Love & Monsters’ (Doctor Who).
There’s the “Wait, this fantastic world I live in is just a crazy dream I’ve had in an asylum!”: ‘Normal Again’ (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), ‘Brain Drain’ (Charmed), ‘Far Beyond The Stars’ (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).
And then there’s the heist episode, where the characters suddenly find themselves having to commit an elaborate jail/bank/casino break-in: ‘Badda-Bing Badda-Bang’ (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), ‘Ground State’ (Angel), ‘Ariel’ (Firefly) — and now ‘Time Heist’ (Doctor Who).
It’s extraordinary that Doctor Who is only now doing a heist story, given it seems like the perfect fit for the show. The Doctor regularly turns up places to overthrow a dictator/stop an invasion/free a prisoner/find his hat/go out for tacos: he is the ultimate disruptor. If Star Trek is about the utopian militarisation of the future, then Doctor Who is — and always has been — about the criminal rogue who does his own thing, authorities and rule-of-law be damned. How has it taken him fifty-one years to rob a bank?
‘Time Heist’ is possibly the most old-school Doctor Who episode so far this season. It feels as if it could fit right at home in the midst of Tom Baker’s period; production values aside, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to substitute the Twelfth Doctor and Clara for the Fourth Doctor and Leela/Romana.
The episode has a wonderful, exciting vibe to it, its director Douglas Mackinnon’s best work on the program to date. Although it’s a little risky using fantastic transitions between scenes in the midst of a science fiction story – “Wait, was that a cool dissolve, or did the room actually just dematerialise?” – there’s an awful lot of plot to get through, and Mackinnon keeps it moving without losing anything crucial.
But maybe that’s the problem. Crammed full of plot it may be, but this episode feels as if it should have had more. If you’re going to do a heist episode, you’ve got to adhere to a certain number of heist story elements: a series of clearly-defined obstacles, a group of people uniquely suited to overcome the challenges, and at least one unforeseen complication along the way. In this respect, Time Heist doesn’t quite live up to the possibilities of its premise. It contains only two additional members; their special skills are dispensed with in a fairly perfunctory way; and the complications, while certainly scary and disruptive, don’t really have that heart-stopping “holy shit!” quality.
So forget the heist aspect and focus on what works: ‘Time Heist’ is a rollicking adventure, featuring a lot of terrific gags, a mysterious set-up with an appropriate-if-familiar payoff, and some stunningly-staged set pieces. A solid, fun, gorgeous episode.
Questions to ponder:
- Is the Doctor’s self-hatred now so intense that it actually causes him to figure out the mystery? This hatred did make sense with the post-Time War iteration of the character, but given the events of ‘Day of the Doctor’, surely he could forgive himself just a little bit? The self-loathing worked with Matt Smith’s Doctor because he was such a bouncy puppy, but with Peter Capaldi it feels juxtaposed against so much more darkness.
- The Doctor is jealous of Clara dating? Only in the sense that he wants someone to go on adventures with. Nice, non-romantic spin.
- The “woman in the shop” is going to be the mysterious woman from the first two episodes, right? Or is that too obvious? Could it be the Rani? Yeah, it’s probably the Rani.
- Surely they could have filmed a scene with the newly-Scotsed Doctor taking credit for the result of the Scottish referendum, regardless of the outcome? Or would that have been in poor taste?
- Did you pause through the images of the universe’s worst criminals? There was Captain John Hart (‘Torchwood’), the Trickster (‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’), a Terileptil (1982’s ‘The Visitation’), the Gunslinger (2012’s ‘A Town Called Mercy’), an Ice Warrior, a Sea Devil and several others. But the most exciting inclusion? Abslom Daak, the notorious Dalek Killer from the comics. Sure, he makes a few appearances in the books, but let’s call it: this inclusion makes all of the comics canon. Next week: Frobisher the shape-shifting penguin teams up with cute homicidal fuzzball, Beep the Meep.
I did say that Time Heist could have slotted easily into the middle of Tom Baker’s run, so if you’re in the mood for a classic story, try 1979’s City of Death. The Doctor may not be the instigator of a heist, but he and Romana soon gets caught up in one when they land in modern-day (well, 1979) Paris.
Need more reasons? The villain is played by the brilliant Julian Glover (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Game of Thrones), it’s co-written (under a pseudonym) by the great Douglas Adams, it features a couple of amazing cameos I shan’t spoil for the uninitiated, and it is, in this writer’s opinion, quite possibly the finest Doctor Who story ever.