Time Heist

Story No. 266 The Teller
Production Code Series 8, Episode 5
Dates September 20, 2014

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Stephen Thomson and Steven Moffat Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Bank of Karabraxos is impregnable. So of course the Doctor and Clara have to rob it.


Everything since has been erased from your mind by Hugh Sturgess 16/3/19

There is plenty of mediocre or even bad Doctor Who that gets better on second viewing. Time Heist, which I rather enjoyed first time around, gets worse. All the twists and revelations that keep the story moving are foreknown, and without the veil of suspense it is obvious that there is nothing there. The heist genre is a rich vein to mine, being a type of story Doctor Who has never told before and one that caters to Steven Moffat's taste for clever plotting. Simply the freshness of the concept is enough to endear Time Heist to me. However, Time Heist is Series 8's Under the Lake: what looks like a rushed job that keeps itself going with questions that are never answered and fails to grasp what makes its chosen genre interesting.

I like heist films and the related genre of hustles and capers (like the old TV series Hustle, for instance). They're crime films from the point of view of the criminals and are simply a huge amount of fun. The cleverness of the plan, the suspense at whether it comes off, the final bit of brilliant quick-thinking when it all goes wrong - it's hugely entertaining. For all that any heist film has endless scenes of the characters planning out their every move in intricate detail, the plan always goes wrong in crucial ways. The excitement and the suspense comes from seeing how the characters think on their feet to win out. It's hardly a surprising example, but the Clooney Ocean's 11 is a good one (Time Heist shares almost the same contrivance to shut down power to get into the vault at the crucial moment). It's a genre about wild improvisation. Moffat's Doctor Who is already a show about a wisecracking genius who thinks on his feet to save the day in milliseconds (the "consider the Doctor" scene in The Witch's Familiar, for instance). It seems like a natural fit, and an opportunity to show the Doctor and Clara at their most brilliant.

But Time Heist misses this completely, and that, more than anything else, kills it. The plan basically comes off without a hitch. There is no moment at which it looks as though the plan has simply failed. The closest is the failure to open the final vault lock, but soon enough the solar storm comes along to help them past this. The Doctor, Clara, Psi and Saibra do nothing but follow instructions. They are always reactive. This is, first of all, wildly out of keeping with the Doctor as a mercurial, demonstrative, rebellious figure, and it's also really boring to watch. They don't have to rely on their wits, because the Architect is always at hand to help them past any obstacle they may face. When the final lock fails to open, and the sonic screwdriver won't get them out of this one, the Doctor is so used to the helping hand that he declares that the Architect must have a trick up his sleeve - as though the idea that he might be relying on the Doctor's famous wits and wiles to help him out is too unlikely to even consider.

The Doctor robbing the most impregnable bank in the universe should be a titanic battle of wills between the bank and the Doctor. We know from the beginning of every heist film that the caper will succeed - that's what we came for. What we're watching for is how they succeed. What brilliant ingenuity and improvisation do they use to do what seems impossible? So the Doctor, the smartest man in the universe, is up against a bank with all the toys and tricks that science fiction allows. This is what the Architect's infomercial promises us: constant breath-based DNA testing, atomic lock on all valuables, constant sweeps of the bank and a guard dog that can sense guilt. What incredible tricks will the Doctor use to get past all this? It turns out he won't need to worry. The authors apparently decided that the problem with impregnable banks is that they are too difficult to get into. The Bank of Karabraxos, the most secure bank in the universe, is in practice eminently pregnable.

The Doctor is so absurdly overpowered in comparison that he has to wipe his own mind of the plan to even slightly even the odds. Arguably a "Doctor Who heist" should use time travel, but in Time Heist the ability to travel anywhere in time and space is the huge cheat it sounds like. The Doctor drops into the bank by TARDIS and leaves video-game-style supply packages to help him when he breaks in the old-fashioned way. Getting inside a bank is the easiest thing in the world for the Doctor, which makes it hard to invest much in the drama of the scenario.

The ability of "the Architect" to break into the bank easily is the central question of the episode, a bigger, more intriguing mystery than what is in the vault itself. Yet the episode never answers the question. Once it is revealed that the Doctor is the Architect and that he could fly in any time he pleased, the need to break in vanishes. All they need to do is get to the vault in time to sow the seed of regret in Ms. Karabraxos's mind so she'll call the Doctor at the end of her life and ask him to salve her conscience. If the TARDIS can't get into the vault because of the solar storm, then the teleports that they actually use to get themselves out of it would do (and surely the TARDIS can handle a solar storm better than a common-or-garden teleport?). Why all the palaver with the heist? Because, one assumes, Karabraxos told the Doctor that's what he did. The Doctor does all this just to fulfil Karabraxos's memory of his actions.

This is not the only time the Capaldi era explains away plot points with this logic. Before the Flood justifies most of what happens in that episode as needing to happen because the Doctor knew that it happened. Why did he program his hologram to release the ghosts, potentially killing Clara? Because she told him that's what the hologram did. Sleep No More explains its mysteries as arbitrary plot devices created by the villain to sustain the viewers' interest. Before either of them, Time Heist explains its central question - why are they meant to break into the bank? - as just wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey nonsense: they have to because that's the way it happened. This is like the Doctor and Romana acting out the scene in the chronic hysteresis, just as the main plot point and done straight. This kind of storytelling validates the biggest criticism of Moffat's timey-wimey techniques, that it means that nothing matters. Three stories in two seasons that boil down to "because I said so" is way too many. It is so common that it's a strong candidate for the biggest weakness of the Capaldi era.

So much of the story can be explained by an appeal to the conservation of history, to ensuring that what the Doctor does matches Karabraxos's memory of events. Why get Psi and Saibra to join the heist? Because Karabraxos remembered them being there. Why give them teleports but make them look like suicide devices? Because she said so. Because because because.

Even as half of a heist film, it doesn't sparkle. In any other heist or caper story, we would see him track down and trick the client Saibra impersonates, but here it's offloaded to a flashback. All well and good, but there should be some feat of skill and wit to hold our interest. The most likely candidate for the true identity of the Architect all along is the Doctor himself (it's that kind of story), which doesn't hurt in itself. Why the Doctor would get himself to break into a bank is an intriguing question. The rewards Psi and Saibra have promised, combined with Karabraxos's guilt and the Doctor's own ongoing debate as to whether he is truly a good man, seem to point in the direction that maybe this was never about the heist but about redeeming the participants, and demonstrating to Clara that he can be kind. That would take the weight off the lame heist narrative, but that's not what the episode decides in the end.

Once you know how the story ends, most of it is dead air. Nothing hides the fundamental lack of jeopardy (never mind DNA testing in every room, where are the security guards?) or the way that the big dramatic moments (the bomb, the "deaths" of Saibra and Psi) come from scriptwriters' sleight of hand rather than actual stakes. That Karabraxos is Delphox (after a fashion) is, like the Architect's identity, the obvious choice. A good piece of drama should reward or at least withstand multiple viewings, not only work the first time around.

Frankly, this looks like a decision to accept being second best. Like Robot of Sherwood (and, in another similarity, Under the Lake/Before the Flood), it's a script commissioned from someone Moffat regards as a reliable hand who was (one assumes) mostly left to his own devices, despite the Moffat co-credit. It comes early in the season, when Moffat is making sure the opening episode lands properly and the three untested writers in the second half of the season settle in. Something that's merely fine rather than good or great is acceptable in those circumstances.

The whole production has that "not quite as good as it could be" feel to it. Despite occasional stylish moments like the slow-motion "hero walk" through the forecourt, Douglas MacKinnon's direction is most notable for its showy scene transitions, which add nothing and look like the work of someone who's just discovered what you can do with PowerPoint. The greatest bank in the universe is a forecourt, a room and some industrial tunnels and pipes. Using the same concrete corridor multiple times and tinting it different colours in an attempt to disguise the fact is actively damaging to the intended effect. It is obviously just the same corridor lit differently, whereas owning the fact and having it look the same for every intended corridor would have the virtue of being the kind of identical architecture you would expect in a bank.

The extensive use of ventilation shafts is an almost too perfect synecdoche for the story as a whole. Ventilation shafts, the lazy writer's best friend, cliche of cliches, so old an authorial artifice that the grandchildren of those who saw them in (to pick a Whoish example) The Tenth Planet could have rolled their eyes at them this episode. For goodness sake, why would an ultra-secure bank (or even a slack bank with a single sleepy security guard) have huge, man-sized air ducts leading into the vault? Ventilation shafts are built for air, not to accommodate nor support a full-growth human being. Yet they continue to crop up in scripts written by authors who couldn't think of anything better. Back in the old days, Doctor Who used to fall back on the old routine of being captured and escaping, and it's deplorable that it still finds itself falling for these old tricks. Like the episode as a whole, the ventilation shaft is a case of the author knowing that it isn't very good but accepting it anyway.

It succeeds, just about, on first viewing, when the central mystery of the story is outstanding and there is the novelty of seeing the new Doctor in a genuinely new situation. Keeley Hawes is suitably cold and smug as Delphox/Karabraxos, though she's not done any favours by a character that is little more than a cipher scribbled in and based on every queen-bitch cliche around. The Teller is a brilliant idea with a clever name, and making it a practical prop gives it that indefinable realness that CGI, however good, lacks. But all that potential is left almost entirely idle. The story never pushes it that inch further and produces something excellent. The opening stretch of Series 8 is really quite shaky, which, given that this is when the series is meant to draw in new viewers, is a bit of a problem.