Doctor Who: “Time Heist” Recap

Doctor Who has the special condition that it can tell any kind of story that it wants to. The Doctor is not bound by time or space, so neither are the writers. Sometimes this kind of freedom can lead to clever and imaginative episodes. Sometimes the writers reach can exceed their grasp.

“Time Heist” represents the kind of Doctor Who Episode where the premise and hook are outstanding, but the execution feels lacking. Bear in mind that a lacking episode of Doctor Who can still be excellent, it’s just that after last week’s stellar work in “Listen,” this new episode feels flat.

“Time Heist” is the Doctor Who staff doing their best Ocean’s Eleven impression, replete with a team of specially talented misfits, an impregnable bank, and slow motion walking.

Rendered amnesiacs of their own free will, The Doctor and Clara join up with Psi (a cyborg) and Saibra (a shapeshifter) to rob the bank of Karabraxos. Why? They don’t know. How? Not sure of that either. What are they after? Still hazy, though The Doctor posits that they must be after what each of them want most in the universe. They are all guided by the mysterious and hooded Architect every step of the way.

Not far behind them is the Teller, possibly the best new monster in ages. The creature liquefies the brains of the guilty, and the Doctor’s crew is oh-so-guilty of breaking and entering. The Teller manages to be menacing despite always appearing in a straight jacket. Or perhaps because of that fact.

The plotting of “Time Heist” is pitch perfect. It moves along at a tremendous pace with each important plot point organically set up and paid off. Where “Time Heist” stumbles is its new characters. The plotting is so well done and the focus is so centered on the coolness of the premise, or the tension of the scene, that when we are asked to feel for newcomers Psi or Saibra, it seems out of place.

At this point Capaldi is firmly situated and defined as the Doctor. We mostly know who Twelve is, at least how he reacts in a crisis. Doctor Who has a tradition of the Doctor’s episodic teammates sacrificing themselves to save him and his companions. “Time Heist” relies on this, as did “Into the Dalek.” It often works; certainly it’s an effective way to raise the stakes, except for the fact that Capaldi’s Doctor is quite detached. He comes off as pragmatic and a bit cold in these scenes. Even if these losses do affect him, we as the audience are the ones left to empathize with these characters we barely know. When a character isn’t well defined within the short time that we get to know them, then this kind of scene doesn’t work as well as it wants to.

I do think there’s a case to be made that Capaldi is playing The Doctor’s reaction in a far more subtle way than we’re used to. In fact, this whole season so far has been playing with the notion of subtlety in a way that the series never has before. I think you could argue that Twelve’s apparent detachment is indicative of how much these losses have hurt him. He maintains a cold exterior to mask how hard this has become. This season seems to be playing a long game, so it will take time to see where we wind up.

All in all “Time Heist” is, at its best, cool and fun. It embraces this but it wants to have the emotional beats of a different story. One thing it didn’t learn from Ocean’s Eleven is to eschew emotion for pure style. But if it did, it wouldn’t have been Doctor Who, would it?