Monday 29 September 2014

Doctor Who - Time Heist

In just a few episodes, Series 8 of Doctor Who has delivered a wide variety of styles. The fifth episode of the series, “Time Heist” by Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat continues the trend by presenting a somewhat convoluted bank-robbing adventure tale. Overall, it's a fairly fun story, but tries to be a little too clever for its own good. While it's reasonably entertaining and certainly much better than Thompson's last offering, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”, it's also ultimately kind of forgettable—which is oddly fitting for a story where amnesia plays a pivotal role in the plot.


I've been very impressed with most of the characterization in this series of Doctor Who. I've felt that characterization, particularly of guest characters (though regulars, too), has suffered in the last few years, but with the exception of the Pater Noster Gang in “Deep Breath” and the characters in “Robot of Sherwood”, both the regulars and guest casts have really shined this year. “Time Heist” introduces us to two guest characters, an augmented human named Psi and a mutant human named Saibra. In just a few short minutes, the episode breathes life into these two, and we quickly learn to empathize with them, and to understand their actions and motivations. When their apparent deaths come along (Saibra's quite quickly in the episode), we actually feel for them, and we can rejoice when they turn out not to be dead.

I'm really not fond of the way Steven Moffat frequently undoes death in his stories, and I'm often mystified when people list him alongside George R. R. Martin as someone who kills all your favourite characters, because he doesn't—or rather, he doesn't leave them dead. He brings them back to life shortly afterwards. Permanent death has actually been very rare in Steven Moffat's time as showrunner, and that just helps remove both suspense and consequence from actions. However, all that said, I'm not bothered by the fake deaths of Psi and Saibra in this story. Partially, that's because this season has seen several actual deaths (although I do worry a bit that they've all been secretly saved by Missy), and partially because they never truly die and thus don't really come back from the dead. Moffat's resurrections generally involve actual deaths and literal resurrections (though sometimes, as in River Song's case, only of the mind). Moffat has been doing well with pleasantly surprising me this year.

Unfortunately, the strength of characterization of Psi and Saibra does not get carried over to the villains of the story, Karabraxos and her clone Ms Delphox. Ms Delphox's need to narrate her motivations to her underlings (If we don't do this, we'll be fired), is a pretty clear example of how unrelatable she is. It doesn't help that she gets some pretty bad dialogue as well. Karabraxos is similarly unrelatable. The Doctor tells her that one day, she'll regret her actions, but it's not at all clear how he figures this out since he hasn't yet regained his memories of the elderly Karabraxos calling him, and she hasn't done anything to indicate that she is likely to one day feel remorse. Indeed, she does nothing afterwards to indicate that either, and so when we get to see her elderly self call the Doctor, we're left wondering why. We never know her as a character—even her implied greed (from living in her vault) is never really demonstrated—and thus we can't understand her future actions.

It's interesting that Karabraxos and Ms Delphox are literally clones as they are pretty much (figurative) clones of virtually every other female villain Moffat has written. They even have the same dress sense (see here for a comparison).

Apart from the two villain clones, though, I like the characters of “Time Heist”. I also like the visual style, which is wonderfully reminiscent of various heist movies, particularly the overhead shots. Some of the slow-motion moments early on are a bit much, but they do add to the feel.

Where “Time Heist” is lacking though is in the plot. It's yet another time loop plot. Not only have they become too common in the last few years, but this makes two episodes in a row (and the first of the two is far superior) to make use of the trope. In my review of “Listen”, I talked about how time loop plots have a danger of removing characters' agencies, something “Listen” skilfully avoids. Yet there's another problem with time loop plots as well: overcomplicating them in an attempt to be “clever”. The resolution of “Time Heist” is convoluted to the point of leaving a lot of inconsistencies. It appears that the Doctor places all the various devices in the bank before he records the lines of the “Architect” and gives everyone amnesia, yet placing these devices requires advance knowledge of exactly where everyone will go, so maybe he places them at the end after regaining his memory. It's not really clear. To place the various brief cases throughout the bank, he presumably uses the TARDIS, going back in time far enough to avoid the rather convenient (and never-before-mentioned, probably never-to-be-mentioned-again) inability of the TARDIS to land during heavy solar activity. Do no employees or security devices ever notice them in the time between them being left there and the Doctor's bank robbing team arriving? For that matter, why doesn't the Doctor just “rob” the bank at the time when he drops everything off? He can just take the TARDIS straight into the vault well before the solar flares. Yes, it's mentioned that Ms Delphox's link to the Teller would alert her right away (thus why she needed to be gotten out of the way first), but he could just spirit the Teller and its mate away in the TARDIS and deposit them on a planet far enough away that Ms Delphox will never find them. Then there's the aforementioned convenience of Karabraxos eventually feeling remorse for her actions and starting everything in motion in the first place—without ever giving us a reason for why she feels remorse at all.

The bank also has incredibly ineffective security. Not only do they not notice briefcases sometimes sitting in plain sight, they apparently don't have security cameras (or some sort of futuristic detection equipment) anywhere except in the prison cells. At the beginning, we're shown examples of flame throwers incinerating would-be thieves, yet the Doctor and company never encounter anything even remotely similar. Instead, they pretty much waltz through the bank with little opposition, except for the Teller. And when Ms Delphox actually captures the Doctor and Clara, with the Teller present, instead of letting the Teller drain them (which was the whole point of bringing the Teller out in the first place), she inexplicably tells her guards (who are conveniently Psi and Saibra in disguise) to take care of them and takes the Teller away, providing the perfect opportunity for escape. She has no reason to do that other than the plot needs her to. Finally, the supposedly most secure bank in the galaxy is surprisingly vulnerable to solar activity. I can accept that maybe they can't perfectly predict solar activity even in this futuristic time, but they must be aware that solar activity of that magnitude is possible. They would either have defences against it or they would build the bank on another planet where the danger isn't present. Instead, they build a bank that can be unexpectedly blown up by a random solar flare. Why would anyone ever deposit their valuables there? It's not always necessary to fill in every plothole, but “Time Heist” just has too many of them.

There are a number of little touches in “Time Heist” that I really like, though. When Psi is scanning the details of all the greatest criminals, we briefly see pictures of Captain John from Torchwood and Abslom Daak—making this comic book character now an actual part of the series. I also love the Doctor's line, “Shuttity up up!”—a nice little nod to his famous line from The Thick of It: “Fuckity bye bye.”

In the end, “Time Heist” is a bit of a mixed bag. The strength of its characters (except the villains) make it watchable and enjoyable, but in the long run, it's not that memorable an episode.

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