“Time Heist” continues season eight’s not quite alternation between light and dark episodes, further exploring the lightness and darkness of the Doctor’s character and the often unusual relationship between the two. It’s interesting that in the more ostensibly lighthearted episodes, like “Robot of Sherwood” and “Time Heist,” we find the Doctor working against the tone, at his prickliest and most difficult, whereas in the darker episodes such as “Listen” we see the Doctor more vulnerable and sympathetic. He’s always funny, he’s always unpredictable and alien, but we’re constantly reminded that the Doctor is unknowable. Especially when you have an actor like Capaldi who, I’m sure, likes to zig when the script says zag.
To wit we get “Time Heist,” which is really, when it comes down to it, a fun caper in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, or Inception. The title says it all, calling out the fact that this week is Doctor Who does a heist movie (with the rather unfortunately spoilery time element thrown in, as well). It’s a fun romp: The Doctor, Clara, and a couple of professional criminals rob the most secure bank in the universe. The supporting characters of Psi and Saibra are clear and recognizable, and reasonably well-drawn. It’s a nice twist on the traditions of the genre, where each character contributes a specific skill towards achieving the crime. The computer genius, the master of disguise, the technical guru. In weird Doctor Who world, these are of course wacky enhanced sci-fi concepts. Saibra is a mutant who transforms to resemble anyone at the slightest touch. Like Rogue in the X-Men universe, she of course sees this as a curse rather than a gift. Psi is the resident gamer/hacker, although his skills are literally kept in his physical brain. The fact of his erased memories (there’s Moffat’s obsession with memory again) to protect his family gives the character a nice back-story and nuance, and his relationship with Clara is engaging and sweet.
As usual, all of these genre tropes and cliches done with a Doctor Who spin are fun and charming. After a week of farcical comedy followed by a more introverted psychological piece, “Time Heist” is a welcome jolt of energy and corridor-running. Starting with the Doctor coercing the reluctant Clara into the adventure with him, the moment when the Doctor’s phone instantly transforms into the memory worm catapulting the characters and the action of the episode lacking any information and context stands as a great synecdoche for the entire episode. It gives no room for pause or reflection or even really thought, but barrels ahead at a ridiculous pace. This is the kind of breakneck pace that started to get a little trying in season seven, but after the first part of the season which slowed down the action considerably and took its time a bit more the episode feels refreshing rather than frustrating. I enjoy this style of nutty action-based episode much more when it’s just one of the show’s bag of tricks rather than the norm.
What keeps the episode from being completely surface and shallow is the information withheld from the audience and the characters and the late-blooming realization of what the story is really about. Though not quite as gonzo and wonderful, there is a similarity to last season’s “Hide” which pulled an awesome bait and switch, starting as a ghost story and ending as a romantic reunion between two monsters. Throughout “Time Heist” we’re teased with the notion of the Architect, the shadowy mastermind behind the mission. The reveal that he is the Doctor works well: It doesn’t become too obvious too early, but by the time we catch on it is completely obvious. “What’s the one thing I’ve always known about the Architect?” the Doctor asks. “I hate him! He’s overbearing, he manipulative, he thinks he’s very clever.” We all know there’s only one character that describes, and of course the Doctor hates him (“There’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do”). There’s a constant sense of questioning the Doctor’s authority and intentions. Being in charge is his special power, as he tells Saibra. Later he qualifies this: “Basically it’s the eyebrows.” Much as we love and trust him, we’re invited to question whether his intelligence and bossiness are really what his authority is based on. Again, there’s the tension between his being a good man (as Saibra says and as he worried to Clara a few episodes ago) and his worrying “professional detachment” which Psi calls out.
Clara: Underneath it all he isn’t really like that.
Psi: You must have been with him for a while… Cause you are really good at the excuses.
It’s an interesting question, harking back to “Deep Breath”: Where do the faces come from? Who is the real Doctor underneath all the theatrics? Does Clara still see the Capaldi persona as just a mask, with her beloved Smith Doctor buried underneath? Or maybe it’s the other way around, as Vastra posited: Perhaps the Smith persona was an affable front hiding the more cynical Capaldi the whole time.
There’s an interesting comparison here between the Doctor and Saibra. It’s significant that the two of them bond while Psi and Clara make a connection. Like the Doctor, Saibra is blessed with the ability to transform and change but also lacks control over the process, isolating her from others. Perhaps this is why she understands the Doctor better than Psi. She understands that fear and self-hatred don’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Sometimes, if you’re very wise, it can make you kind.
In the end, the episode affirms the Doctor. Yes, he is inevitably the clever and manipulative Architect. He’s always the puppet master. But, he is kind. He is saved by his good intentions. The whole episode turns out to be a rescue mission, a reunion of the last two Tellers in the universe. The shot of the two strange beasts striding off into the happily ever after sunset is glorious, and totally encapsulates the joy of the Doctor and his show (as is the fabulous bit of the TARDIS flying around while they all eat Chinese food in the console room). For all that this Doctor is a realist – forcing Clara on even as they’re being taken out one by one – he retains his Doctorish hope. “It will kill you,” Clara warns when he takes on the Teller. “What have I told you about pessimism?” he counters. He blunders on with his good faith that it will all work itself out, his only plan that “a thing will happen soon.” Sure enough, when they walk around the corner and discover a briefcase conveniently waiting for them, he exclaims “Thing time!” The mix between his overarching manipulativeness exemplified by the Architect and the constantly improvising Doctor is intriguing. In a way, what he trusts is himself and his faith in his own ability to come up with something. If this seems like a dangerous and arrogant attitude, you’re probably right, but it’s worth noting that it consistently works. He is, in fact, orchestrating the entire plot from the future. Great when that works out, but it does make you wonder whether that attitude will lead to some sort of screw-up.
In closing, let’s just note that the whole “there will be no flirting with Capaldi’s Doctor” thing is bollocks. The sexual tension between the Doctor and Clara is definitely, and rightly, dialed back, but the Doctor clearly still treats his companion with the same jealousy as always. “Robbing a bank. Robbing a whole bank,” he mutters to himself. “Beat that for a date.” Clara, similarly, instructs him not to rob any banks without her. Though she maintains the balance between real life and Doctor life more so than any previous companion, the gravitational pull towards Doctor life is starting to take effect. Considering that tonight’s episode features the Doctor invading her real life, and coming face to face with his rival Danny Pink, we should see these issues get real, real soon. Should be fun.