Show of hands: Who else guessed the identity of the Architect as soon as the premise was thrown out there? It wasn’t that there were any particular clues, but with an episode that, per its title, involves time travel, and with X amount of characters on display early on, it seemed sort of obvious. But more detrimental to the perception of this episode is that it arrives on the heels of the groundbreaking “Listen,” which the internet quickly declared one of the best Doctor Who episodes, evah! (It was pretty brill.) Having said all of that, there’s plenty to dig about this episode, starting with Clara’s clothes dryer, and the Doctor being mesmerized by it, which strikes me as quite comical.
It’s that simple domesticity versus unimaginable adventures in time and space that fuels much of the Doctor/Clara dynamic right now. She’s perfectly happy at home, doing Clara things, such as going on a second date with Danny Pink. He’s bored traveling alone, enough so that staring into her dryer holds more revelations than visiting the Crab Nebula. So when the TARDIS phone rings and Clara hasn’t left for her date yet, of course he’ll answer it, at which point they’re instantly propelled into an adventure they know nothing about, alongside two people they do not recognize, Psi (Jonathan Bailey), a cyborg, and Saibra (Pippa Bennett -Warner), a shape-shifter whose look might be modeled on Grace Jones in A View to a Kill.
Ah, the return of the glorious memory worm, the Who spin on roofies, last seen in “The Snowmen.” These guys are one of those sweet little inventions the show will probably run into the ground someday, but for now they’re new and novel enough to believably propel this scenario. Recordings of each of their voices assure themselves that they agreed to the memory wipe, followed by the Architect explaining that robbing the most impenetrable bank in the galaxy is not only the right thing to do, but what they must do in order to survive. It’d be a great setup for an episode of almost anything.
Once inside the crowded lobby of the Bank of Karabraxos, “the most secure bank in the galaxy, a fortress for the super rich,” the quartet observe Ms. Delphox (Keeley Hawes), the head of security, and the Teller, a hulking alien beast that reads minds and melts brains, attempt to ferret out intruders, with horrifying results (if I were a kid, the caved in skull would’ve given me nightmares). No disrespect to Hawes, who’s a fine actress, but Delphox is cut from the same cloth as a long line of modern Who villainesses (Yvonne Hartman, Miss Foster, Miss Hartigan, Madame Kovarian, Miss Kizlet to name but some) that has worn out its welcome. Surely there must be more to female villainy than snippy vocal inflections and a pair of heels? (The jury is still out on Missy, who’s been curiously absent since “Into the Dalek.”) On the flip side, the Teller is an impressive creation on all counts. Was I alone in feeling that its confinement was reminiscent of the 456’s holding cell from Torchwood: Children of Earth?
Act II involves a great deal of running to and fro, and the dimensional shift bomb is convenient in every way possible (though not without some amount of wow factor). The seeming deaths of Saibra and Psi were effective enough on the first viewing, on a second they felt a bit more manipulative, though due credit given that their deaths really registered. The back stories given to each - Psi being forced to erase his own past, and Saibra’s inability to make physical contact with others - really fleshed them out efficiently. These are guest characters worth caring about. The whole “keep your mind clear” thing has been forever ruined by Ghostbusters, and I can’t be alone in thinking of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man every time I see a scene like this in a drama. And so it goes here.
Clara: “You OK?”
The Doctor: “No, I’m an amnesiac robbing a bank. Why would I be OK?”
Clara: Because Saibra—
The Doctor: “What? Saibra is dead. We’re alive. Prioritize if you want to stay that way.”
Psi: “Oh! Is that why you call yourself the Doctor? Professional detachment!”
The Doctor: “Listen, when we’re done here, by all means you go and find yourself a shoulder to cry on. You’ll probably need that. Until then what you need is ME!”
Last week I got a little high horsey and declared impatience with viewers not 100% on board the Capaldi bandwagon. In retrospect that was short-sighted, especially given that here we have a Doctor that’s specifically designed to not always be likable. For people largely familiar with only the new series, the Twelfth Doctor is an abrupt departure after all those years of the boyfriend Doctors. No, you shouldn’t be expected to immediately love him when he’s brought such a jarring shift to the more comfortable tones associated with Tennant and Smith. Eccleston could be just as hard, if not harder than Capaldi, but the series often showcased his sweet, sensitive side as well. So far, there hasn’t been much of that with this Doctor.
While my love of all things Capaldi predates by some years his tenure as the Doctor, the real reason I’m on board with this incarnation so enthusiastically is because I grew up on the classic series. The Tom Baker and William Hartnell Doctors started out with darker, more difficult personalities than they eventually evolved into. Baker actually came back around (one could almost say Full Circle) to difficult at the close of his lengthy tenure. But they both mellowed. Due to his firing and premature exit from the series, Colin Baker, the most difficult of them all, only got the chance to mellow out his Doctor years later on the Big Finish audio plays. The Capaldi Doctor is the first Doctor in the new series to not be designed as a lure for audiences. Moffat is acknowledging that the series now has this massive fanbase, and can afford to try something different for a while in the name of keeping things fresh. But good dramatic sense dictates that by the end of the season you’ll see this new Doctor differently than you see him now, so hang tight.
In the third act everything comes together, and all the explanations are given. Once the Doctor realizes he’s Architect, everything falls into place. Saibra and Psi aren’t dead after all, and show up to help save the day, and the Doctor respectively gives them the gene suppressant and memory giver, which were why they agreed to take part in the heist in the first place. And Delphox turns out to be a clone, with the original being Karabraxos herself. If you’ve read enough of my Who commentary over the years you know I have an aversion to clone storylines, and this revelation put me immediately on edge. A number of little things made me want to dislike the episode, and as a result I tried really hard to pick “Time Heist” apart, but the more I tried to do that, the less I was able to (the clone bit is almost an afterthought, and really, who can hate on Keeley Hawes?). Though there are issues here and there, by and large the whole thing pretty much works, and works well.
Much of the episode hinges on memory – the erasure of it from everyone’s minds, Psi’s desire to retrieve his own memories, and the aged Karabraxos’s regrets of her treatment of the Teller (and its mate). Indeed, if not for a dying Karabraxos placing a call to a time traveling Doctor, none of this would have happened. This new Doctor may have questionable methods, but it is seemingly always in the service of efficiency, and getting things done. In this case, it was all about saving the last two members of an honorable alien species, and you really can’t get much more Doctor-ish than that. “Robbing a bank. Robbing a whole bank! Beat that for a date!”
Odds and ends
- In the scene where Psi is soaking up the memories of all the prisoners, there’s a number of familiar faces, but you might have noticed one that looks like a pencil drawing. That was the comic book character Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer, and this is the first time the series has incorporated him into its continuity.
- With regard to the Doctor’s line, “What do you think of the new look? I was hoping for minimalism, but I think I came out with magician,” I highly suggest checking out this achingly funny appearance by Capaldi on his old friend Craig Ferguson’s show, from way back in 2009. Even without regard to that line you should check it out.