Doctor Who series 8: Time Heist review

Peter Capaldi's Doctor has a bank heist to tackle in Time Heist. Here's our spoiler-filled review...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

8.5 Time Heist

“Basically, it’s the eyebrows”

For the first time in the current run of Doctor Who, Time Heist gives us an adventure where the Doctor is the lead character in it. The focus, to date, has seen Clara doing Doctor-y duties, frequently being the grown up who rolls her sleeves up and gets things sorted out. This time, though, Peter Capaldi gets a go. Turns out he’s really quite good at it.

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It’s coupled with a slight re-hardening of his take on the Doctor too. There have been little thawings around the edge of his portrayal here and there over the past couple of weeks, as he continues to work out and get used to his new identity. Here, the character’s a bit tougher, a big angrier (note his yelling “what you need is meeeee” half way through), and whilst we’ve avoided the comparison all series – as has he – there’s just a tinge of Malcolm Tucker bubbling a little closer to the surface (“shutity up up up”).

“It’s just a phone Clara, nothing happens when you answer the phone”

The setup of the episode is lovely. Clara’s been off by herself again, and there’s another date with Danny Pink. So naturally enough, the TARDIS lands in her house, the Doctor tries to tell her he has a day of activities mapped out, and the phone starts ringing. The TARDIS phone. The one that rarely rings.

This phone continues to hold an unresolved mystery, with another reference to the mysterious woman in the shop slipped in (no Missy this time again though). But it’s not her this time (or is it, given how the episode plays out?), and after taking an inordinate amount of time to answer the bloody thing, the Doctor and Clara are whisked elsewhere in time and space, to the beginning of a heist. There’s the return of memory worms, two strangers – Psi, an augmented human videogamer, and Saibra, a shape shifter – and a recording that says they’ve all agreed to have their memory wiped. Blimey.

It’s all the set up, for the most part at least, for Doctor Who‘s take on a heist movie. We don’t get many such caper episodes in Who, and off the back of Time Heist (and you can’t say the clue’s not in the title of this one), it’d be fun to see more.

For in true Mission: Impossible style, there’s a place to be broken into, that you, well, can’t ever break into. In this case, it’s a planet that houses the most secure bank in the cosmos (“if you can afford your own star system, this is where you keep it”). Steven Moffat’s previously given us a library planet, but here, security is up to maximum as he’s going after the money. A place where even your oxygen consumption is monitored, and your mere presence on the bank’s planet itself is “unauthorised”.

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And here’s where director Douglas Mackinnon has the most fun. The best capers always take their time to show you exactly what the protagonists are up against, and Mackinnon tips his hat to 60s and 70s television spy shows as he does just that. He takes his time with the setup, and clearly is having a ball doing so. How close they all came to including a line of the ilk of ‘this case will self-destruct in five seconds’ we’ll likely never know.

“I’m an amnesiac robbing a bank”

Still, there’s plenty in the script, from Steven Thompson and Steven Moffat, already. Their writing takes a few digs at the banking system, but perhaps most memorably, introduces one hell of a monster.

When we first clapped eyes on The Teller, we thought it’d escaped from Star Wars. But there’s a great idea and great execution underlying it. Less reliant on CG and instead a very practical piece of work, The Teller also works so well as there’s just one of him (well, until the end, when they find another one). Mackinnon only puts him in full frame when he has to as well, at one point shooting him from behind misted glass. Barely a shot is wasted.

He’s quite a sinister beast (The Teller, not Mackinnon), and the reason everyone’s had a memory wipe becomes clear when it’s revealed that The Teller’s special skill is detecting, almost pre-detecting, guilt. Thus, the mere thought that you’re there to rob the place will lead to a premature end. As an aside, you can’t help but enjoy the fact that the a guard who hunts guilt in the middle of a bank never points his antenna in the direction of those who work there and run the place. A little political dig there, perhaps?

Either way, The Teller is great, and at one stage after the Doctor has got into the vault, had us leaping of our seat. Again, Mackinnon proved he could give us the creeps last week with his horror-fused shooting of Listen. Time Heist is a lighter outing, but it’s further evidence that the man potentially has one hell of a horror movie in him.

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The guilt mechanic is an interesting one. It explains, clearly, the decision at the start to wipe brains, as the trick is to keep your mind utterly clear, in order to fool The Teller into thinking you’re not up to no good. Everyone who tries this seems to fail though, so if The Teller does make another appearance – and we dearly hope he does – that’s something for whoever faces him to bear in mind. In new Who tradition, The Teller does have motivation that makes him behave as he does. Most Doctor Who monsters now aren’t evil for the sake of it. That said, it’s only been a week since Listen, where explanations were far less explicit.

But back to the plot. As with many caper movies and TV shows, the set-up tends to be more fun than the execution, and there’s a degree of that here. The middle doesn’t hold up quite as well, and Time Heist is a notably corridor-driven episode at times, with different angles and lighting not hiding the fact that everyone appears to be belting it around the same place. Furthermore, there are a couple of twists that seemed quite spottable some way off for us.

The most obvious was that The Doctor himself would turn out to be The Architect who sets the whole caper up at the start. Anyone hoping for a Matrix-sequel architect would clearly be disappointed that this particular one spouted relatively understandable sense, but when the cloak was pulled down, we’d wager most would have expected Capaldi’s mush underneath it.

The other twist related to the main guest star in the episode, Keeley Hawes. Less outright intimidating than her wonderful, wonderful work in Line Of Duty earlier this year, here she plays banker in chief, Miss Delphox. Well, Miss Delphox and a clone of Miss Delphox as it turns out, the latter of whom heads up security. Hawes plays it unflustered (it felt at one stage that she could be part of The Happiness Patrol), going for a calm demeanour rather than a sinister one. But then, that ties again into the subtle digs at the banking system. That people are doing unpleasant things with a smile on their face. It’s her turn this week to be let at the aging make-up, incidentally.

Elsewhere in the guest cast, a quick salute too to Pippa Bennett-Warner. It’s hard to make too much of an impression amongst an ensemble-driven episode of Doctor Who, but her work as Saibra was impressive. Jonathan Bailey’s malfunctioning gamer too was good fun, although we didn’t get quite as much time with him. 

“Is that why you call yourself The Doctor? Professional detachment?”

Looking broader, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of recurring themes here, but one that we’re not always comfortable with is the Doctor’s continuing criticism of Clara’s appearance. Is this just us? This week was a little toned down, going for her choice of footwear, but it seems there’s a little dig every week. Is this leading somewhere we wonder? It feels like it should do, else why keep including it?

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More interestingly, there’s Psi’s challenge to Clara regarding her loyalty to the Doctor. As Clara tries to excuse the Doctor’s curt approach, Psi puts to her that he can tell she’s been travelling with him for so long, by the excuses she makes for him. True that.

Oh, and one potentially big thing to note, though – at least outside of Danny and Clara’s latest frolic – and that’s that we know someone else who has the TARDIS’ phone number now.

“You’ll be old and full of regret for the things you can’t change”

Just wrapping up the caper itself, then. The time heist idea makes the caper unique to Doctor Who, and it also allows get outs that the old Mission: Impossible team never had. A particle gadget, for instance, allows the quartet of robbers to escape a secure room. The apparent suicide pill that Saibra takes, the ‘shredder’ turns out to be teleport, prompting her reappearance towards the end of the episode. More pertinent  to the plot itself though, there’s only one point in time when the bank is vulnerable, and thus the reason for the pre-credits stuff is explained and clear. In good time, too. A big solar storm is why the Doctor and Clara have had to travel sans TARDIS, and it’s a logical explanation that they have to break through the bank’s security at one specific moment in time. It was almost Die Hard-esque in that regard, that a collection of events that made sense was required to open the vault.

Furthermore, the fact that everyone’s had to wipe their memories to get past security also neatly explains why nobody knows the exact reason for their attempted heist at this particular time. “There must be some logic”, the Doctor says at one point. Turns out, Time Heist has plenty of it.

As you’d expect, it’s only when we get to the contents of the vault though that the real reason for the mission becomes clear, and again, it all makes sense. So at first, it’s a  circuit, that can reboot any system and recover lost data for Psi. There’s a gene suppressant for Saibre. And in the private vault for the Doctor? Well, the reason for the mission in the first place. The chance to save a species, and to give the ageing version of Keeley Hawes the chance to do the right thing.

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Will the circuit come back into play later in the series? Or that gene supressant? And perhaps more importantly, now that Keeley has the TARDIS’ phone number, is that the only time she’s going to use it? Food for thought there.

“Big scarf. Bow tie. Bit embarrassing”

A solid, fun episode of Who this was, then. Not the best, but enjoyable. It came together well, perhaps lagged a little in the middle, but had enough in the tank to keep us happily entertained for 45 minutes. Whisper it, but this run of Doctor Who continues to be the most confident and consistent for some time.

Next week? We get the The Caretaker, from Gareth Roberts, which also takes us back to Coal Hill School. It’s 8.30pm start time makes it the latest Doctor Who has ever debuted an episode. Best get a nice cup of cocoa ready, then….

Our review of last week’s episode is here.

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