‘Doctor Who’ Manages to Make an Episode Titled “Time Heist” One of the Least Fun of All Time

By  · Published on September 21st, 2014

‘Doctor Who’ Manages to Make an Episode Titled “Time Heist” One of the Least Fun of All Time


One of the coolest things about the premise of Doctor Who is that it can dip into so many different genres. Sometimes, as in the case with this week’s episode, “Time Heist,” you get a mash-up of a few. Obviously we got a heist story here, and that was combined with the amnesiac thriller and the superhero team-up. Guest good guys Psi (Jonathan Bailey) and Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner), who join up with the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) on their latest adventure, are respectively reminiscent specifically of Marvel mutants Cable and Rogue. And who wouldn’t want a heroine called The Impossible Girl in a group tasked with such a mission: impossible as robbing the most secure bank in the universe?

So how did “Time Heist” wind up being one of the least exciting and imaginative episodes in years? The set-up was great, not necessarily the part where again we’re having a trip disrupt date night for Clara and Danny (Samuel Anderson) but the mysterious phone call and the sudden loss of memory and introduction of the new super-friends. Even the Karabraxos bank manager, Ms. Delphox (Keeley Hawes), has a delicious cartoonish villainy about her, all the way through the end in fact. There were some decent scenes, too, like the one where Delphox and her alien “Teller” wipe the brain of an accused customer and the guy’s skull collapses like a basketball that’s been popped. But that’s actually one of the many moments in this episode that are directed poorly by Douglas Mackinnon, who disappoints tremendously after helming last week’s clever and quite lively episode, “Listen.”

While Mackinnon is enough at fault, particularly for how he fails to give us a good feel for Karabraxos and the overall world this episode takes place in, as well as any sort of suspense you’d want from a heist plot, a lot of the blame can also go to writer Steve Thompson, who previously wrote one of the most boring Doctor Who episodes in the modern run, last year’s “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.” Along with showrunner Steven Moffat, he’s now penned a terribly transparent story involving two of the most easily predictable types of reveals in a Doctor Who script: anytime the Doctor seems to be a pawn in a plan conceived by some mystery man, with a name like “The Architect,” there’s a great chance that mystery man is himself; and anytime there’s an “evil” alien being locked up by a big boss and its the last of its kind, obviously the mission is to rescue it.

Anyone who wasn’t constantly five steps ahead of the plot while watching “Time Heist” hasn’t been watching enough of this show. The “it was the Doctor all along” thing was most memorably (frustratingly) done in 2010’s “Amy’s Choice,” while the Doctor’s sympathy for the Teller, shockingly late as it came, recalls his feelings about the also-telepathic, also-enslaved Ood and also other last-of-their-kind beings (whom the Doctor easily relates to), such as the Star Whale of “The Beast Below.”

I will admit to not seeing at least one thing coming: I figured the sacrificial deaths of Psi and Saibra were actually that, given the suicide theme so far this season (I expected them both to turn up in Missy’s garden, but the series still has yet to return to that curious background character and place). Their reappearance was a surprise, but not exactly a joyous one, because they’d been uninteresting characters whose disposal had little affect. Roles like theirs, when still allies by the end of the episode and especially when there’s goodbyes that indicate they’ll see each other again, should be likable enough that we want to see more of them later on, too. Like a Jack Harkness or even a Harriet Jones.

Of course, those were from Russell T. Davies’s reign as showrunner. And while Moffat created River Song, he does have less of a knack for originating memorable Doctor Who supporting characters outside of companion figures. And speaking of memorable aspects of this show, another issue to be had with this episode, as with the Capaldi incarnation of the Doctor in general so far, is the put-downs of previous Doctors. At least he wasn’t too mean to Clara this time (his reaction to her date outfit and makeup wasn’t as mean-spirited as he’s been before), but he (and the writers) went for the same tired self-mockery jokes referencing the Fourth Doctor’s scarf and the Eleventh’s bow tie, which he calls “a bit embarrassing.” No, that kind of lazy reflexive humor is embarrassing. And the remark about the new look isn’t funny nor helpful.

Perhaps Moffat and company need to stick to just one simple genre for each episode from now on, preferably one we’re used to from the show, because the closest thing to a legitimate heist plot this week was in how we were robbed of a better heist plot. Next week we get lots of rom-com, hopefully without too much more thrown into the mix. We may as well focus on Clara and Danny now, since we can’t get an episode without reference to their courtship anyway.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.