Contains spoilers for the aired episode.
At last, an episode of Doctor Who series 8 that isn’t going to take a long, detailed treatise to review but can instead be covered succinctly and concisely in just a few paragraphs. That’s because “Time Heist”, the fifth outing for Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, foregoes the usual series arc connections and deep psychological insights and instead delivers purely and simply what it promises in the title: a rollicking bank heist adventure story, delivered with the appropriate timey-wimey layer of shenanigans to make the whole thing authentically Who.
For reasons unknown even to himself, the Doctor and Clara (Jenna Coleman) have agreed to participate in a raid on the most secure bank in the universe along with two other individuals with unique talents, shapeshifter Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner) and tech-augmented hacker Psi (Broadchurch’s Jonathan Bailey). They’re pitted against the bank’s merciless director of security Miss Delphox (Line of Duty’s Keeley Hawes in deliciously icy villainess mode) who has at her disposal the services of The Teller, an alien telepath who can hunt down any guilty thoughts and then administer a quite shockingly gruesome punishment when called for. But the Doctor and his team themselves have help from someone who seems able to know exactly what tools to give them at any given moment in order to succeed…
The time travel twists aren’t anything near the fiendish complexity of Steven Moffat’s past brain-melting season arc efforts, but instead deliver just the right level of spice to the proceedings while not being too difficult to unravel with a little thought. No one’s going to be too surprised by the identity of the Architect of the bank robbery, but there are still some nice additional kinks regarding Director Karabraxos and the contents of the private vault. What’s particularly nice about this standalone episode (co-written by Moffat and Sherlock’s Steve Thompson) is that the plan is delicately constructed to make complete sense – everything drops into place even when you think back over it, so that there’s even a good answer to why the team can’t just use the Tardis (because of solar flares in the vicinity) and why they can’t just choose another time to carry out the plan (the solar flares play a crucial role in opening the vault, in much the same way that the presence of the FBI is not only welcome but required in Die Hard). The Teller (a beautifully realised display of state of the art creature prosthetics) is no mere mindless monster, while the team needing to disguise their feelings of guilt about the heist are what require them to use the mind worms previously featured as a comedy accent in “The Snowmen” to wipe their memories which facilitates the amnesia needed to make the script work in the first place.
All in all it’s huge fun and tremendously satisfying. A couple of weeks ago I used the term ‘entertaining romp’ in a slightly disparaging and dismissive description of “Robot of Sherwood”, but here is an example of where the term is equally applicable that is also entirely positive. This isn’t a ground-breaking episode by any means and will probably be quickly (and unfairly) forgotten as a ‘middle ranking’ bottle episode but that’s to overlook its clever plotting and slyly insightful dialogue that continues to build up our picture of the Doctor and Clara. Perhaps the best thing of all is that this is the closest the series has got in quite a while to doing a ‘classic’ Doctor Who story without some of Moffat’s or NuWho’s distinctive modern stylistic quirks; and that means it suddenly becomes easier to see the Doctor’s new character and compare him against his predecessors. It’s a comparison that Capaldi comes out of entirely positively, by the way. Clara similarly is largely reset into the more familiar role of the traditional companion than she’s been before either as season 7’s impossible girl, or in her more recent role as virtual co-lead so far in season 8 – but that’s good too, because again we can see just how well the character stands by comparison with those who have gone before.
If there’s quibbles then I’d say that the Bank of Karabraxos doesn’t really live up to advance billing: once the team uses a clever dimensional-shift bomb to break in from the bank’s public floor it seems that it takes just a quick amble through a gasworks and down some spartan corridors via a remarkable number of conveniently placed and absolutely huge ‘ventilation ducts’ to get to the safe itself. That’s either a knowing hommage to the series history of running down corridors and crawling through air shafts or else it’s down to there being only 45 minutes and a BBC-sized budget to play with. Either way, director Douglas Mackinnon certainly does as much as anyone could possibly ask of him in the circumstances to keep the wheels on the visual look and feel.
I was also rather dismayed when Saibra and Psi appeared to meet premature demises, as both had managed to establish themselves very quickly as likeable and layered characters and it was rather irksome to see them simply written out as inconsequential cannon fodder before the halfway point of the proceedings. Fortunately this proved to be just one of the numerous Hustle-style feints and not the case at all, and while I don’t think they’ll become recurring characters in the style of the Paternoster Gang (although the ending of the episode hinted otherwise) it was nice to have one-off guest characters that felt sufficiently well-realised that you did actually want to see them again.
All in all then I’d describe “Time Heist” as quite delightful, perhaps the most flat-out enjoyable episode of the season so far if perhaps not actually artistically and creatively the most ambitious. And that really is no bad thing: once upon a time back in the original run of Doctor Who the very best that the show would ever really aim for was to be ‘enjoyable’ without any greater pretentions and aspirations, and when the classic stories achieved that status then they were among the best stories to be broadcast. “Time Heist” draws on that tradition and executes it very well, and as a result I for one have no complaints whatsoever this week.
Carry on, Doctor.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings, with episodes repeated on Sundays and Fridays on BBC Three and also available on demand on BBC iPlayer. A ten minutes ‘behind the scenes’ feature is also available on the iPlayer and on the red button. Series 8 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 17 2014, and series opener “Deep Breath” is now available as a standalone release on DVD and Blu-ray.