It is one of the more amusing ironies of Doctor Who, a series about time travel, that it can hardly ever succeed in making a decent story with ‘Time’ in the title. Check out the official Doctor Who Magazine poll from earlier this year and the statistics are alarming: there is no ‘Time’ in the entire top 50, yet three of the bottom five bear the scars of the dreaded T-word. Even supposedly sure-fire hits, such as regeneration stories, become divisive when ‘Time’ intervenes.
Which is a roundabout way of saying: it had to happen sometime that Peter Capaldi would get a less than excellent adventure, so it may as well be some Time. Time Heist is a perfectly serviceable way to spend 50 minutes, but following four stories in which the show had been revitalised, it feels perfunctory and pedestrian.
While co-credited to Steven Moffat, the chief architect of Time Heist is Stephen Thompson, far from the leading light of current Who scribes. (His previous adventures, The Curse Of The Black Spot and Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS, both languish in the bottom quarter of the afore-mentioned fan survey, on reasonably justified grounds.) The problem, particularly evident here, is that Thompson isn’t actually a bad writer, just a very mechanical one, fulfilling the brief but never inspiring awe or fear in the way that the best Who does. He writes within the outline of the box, for a show that always aims to be bigger on the inside.
So Time Heist is exactly the script that a guy hired by Steven Moffat, who had carefully studied other scripts by Steven Moffat, would arrive at. Inevitably, just as the Doctor figures out that the mysterious ‘Architect’ has already broken into the bank he’s agreed to rob, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’ve been here before. A non-linear structure. A circular resolution. A ‘nice’ twist to offset the ‘nasty’ scares. When The Doctor urgently re-arranges consonants from one of modern Who’s great catchphrases so he can tell Clara “Don’t think!”, the first thought that might pop into your head is that this is catnip for anybody accusing Thompson of taking that exact same advice.
Without the residual weirdness that comes from a writer being willing to embrace the offbeat and the ridiculous, the result is so machine-tooled that there is little to inspire anybody else. Director Douglas MacKinnon, so lively in last week’s Listen, can respond only to the obvious reference points for pastiche (Ocean’s 11 and its BBC1 disciple, Hustle) and deals exclusively in sharp suits and slo-mo. The production designer gives up entirely, fashioning something utilitarian and generic. In fairness, it makes sense – this is a bank, after all – but it’s a little depressing when the story this most resembles visually is the one misfire of Christopher Eccleston’s brief reign, The Long Game.
That story, with its blunt but bracing satire of media manipulation, looks like a giant next to this, which seems perversely indifferent to the notion that it might be worth satirising the banking system. Even the story’s thematic interest in guilt offers only a glimmer of subtextual interest: this would have been far more interesting before The Doctor undid the Time War. The sole redeeming feature in terms of intellectual interest comes from the fascinating idea that, with his memory wiped, Capaldi’s Doctor instinctively assumes the worst and starts acting like the cold, calculating pragmatist everybody thinks he is. It’s only when he figures out what is going on that he assumes a more familiar, Doctor-ish persona, giving Capaldi opportunity enough to steal what little nuance the episode offers.
Doctor Who Season 8 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Want to keep Capaldi’s Doctor for longer? You can download Doctor Who on blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video, or on iTunes – where buying a season pass will also give you all of Doctor Who Extra.
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Photo: BBC/Adrian Rogers