I love it when Doctor Who does something different, particularly when it crashes into another genre. Here, after a timey-wimey jump cut, the Doctor is forced to be the leader of a criminal gang robbing a bank, and he is provided with some standard clichés: a mystery backer, a hacker computer genius, and a female con artist. Clichés are not bad when they belong to a type of fiction that is being visited by Doctor Who: in fact they are essential to establishing the world in which Doctor Who is working this week.
When you have a heist movie, it has to be a mission impossible. The bank has to be deemed impregnable. There is always a flaw, and here that flaw is an over-reliance on the Teller for security. The basics have been forgotten because he is such a failsafe method of detecting criminals, so there is not much in the way of traditional security: patrols, cameras, alarms etc… which is pretty convenient.
The Teller is a fascinating creation, and entirely from the realms of fantasy rather than science-fiction. As soon as you get a creature that “feeds” on some aspect of human thought processes (in this case guilt) you know you are in magical territory. A physical manifestation of that feeding makes that even more overt. I was uneasy at the time of broadcast about the concave heads and I still don’t like them. It’s one of those things that seems to push things a bit too far for the children watching, and in an era that is increasingly forgetting its younger viewers that’s troubling. Body horror in Doctor Who needs to be approached with a great deal of care and attention, and a clear line has been crossed here. It’s not difficult to understand what that line might be. For example, to look at a successful example of body horror that is family friendly and in keeping with the Doctor Who demographic, take a look at the blank faces of The Idiot’s Lantern. The face is erased completely which is scary but completely within the realms of fantasy. It’s a safe form of fear for a child. Physical disfigurement as shown here is something that will seem a very real, unsafe fear for a child. Also, there are people with disabilities in real life that are not a million miles away from this in appearance, and they probably don’t particularly want to be demonized by Britain’s most successful genre show.
Apart from the effect it has on people, the Teller is a great creation, and continues the proud tradition of Doctor Who monsters that are more than just monsters, with real feelings of their own. We can forgive this being a straight rerun of Hide, because it works so well. This is an episode about redemption and nobody being purely evil for the sake of it. The revelation of the identity of the mystery person behind it all is perfect.
Unfortunately the characterisation of the Doctor is still all over the place. His portrayal in his first year as somebody who is cold and doesn’t understand human emotions is utter nonsense, making no sense whatsoever for somebody who has lived for two thousand years and had endless interactions with humans. He has had more friends than any human ever has, and proper, close friendships at that. He has had children. To see him behaving like an emotionally dysfunctional imbecile has been a bitter pill to swallow, after the fun of Eleventh Doctor era. Time Heist makes matters worse, because all that misunderstanding about emotions is shown to have been a fabrication. He gets jealous about Clara going on a date and is proud as Punch about competing with it:
Robbing a whole bank. Beat that for a date!
This comes out of nowhere, and is a bit creepy to say the least. I recently saw an episode of Ghosted where the nice guy is left standing on the pavement while a cool bloke in a flashy car picks up the girl. This happens again and again in television and films, and the thought struck me that this is the Doctor here. He has always been the nerd that gets left on the pavement, but not any more. The Twelfth Doctor is the irritating jock who turns up in an expensive car and steals the girl from the good guy. Worse still, he is getting his kicks by insulting Clara all the time, and the idea that this happens because he doesn’t understand human emotions just won’t wash, for reasons I stated above. He is actively constructing an abusive relationship that makes him superior and her dependent (especially as she is appallingly subservient to the Doctor here, taking little meaningful action herself within the plot), and one that is leading towards her addiction to seeing him when she knows she is stuck in something that is wrong in every way. So far he’s a version of the Doctor who is hard to like, and that’s a problem. RP
The view from across the pond:
Back in October, I discussed some of the links between Doctor Who and horror. And it’s actually very cool that Doctor Who is such a flexible show that it can give its own take on so many classics. You know what else is cool? Fezzes. And bow ties. Stetson’s are cool too. I’d argue that George Clooney is pretty cool as well. Doctor Who has mixed and matched all of the aforementioned items… well, except George Clooney. Or has it? Perhaps Time Heist could have been called Ocean’s 12? Wait, how about: Tardis 12! You’ve got the cool, sunglasses-wearing, grey-haired… Time Lord doing his best to rob a bank. But like the anti-hero that Clooney plays, the Doctor doesn’t steal! (Well, actually he steals all the time… the TARDIS, Bessie, his clothes…. Ok, the Doctor does steal!) But it seems like robbing a bank is a bit extreme for a guy who doesn’t use money. (Well, actually he does, sometimes: Planet of Fire, Dragonfire… ok the Doctor does carry money!) Ok, you can’t break this story down with just one movie comparison anyway! Let’s take it from the top. It’s an amazingly fun amalgam of so many movies that we can look to for inspiration. I’d go so far as to say that in 45 minutes, it does more for all of these than any one of them did on their own, but then, I’m a lifelong fan of Doctor Who, so maybe I’m biased!
The opening is completely reminiscent of Total Recall with its memory wiped opening, followed by a bit of Pulp Fiction when the brief case opens with a glowing interior. Perhaps the latter is more of a subtle homage, but the former is right out of Total Recall. Then there’s the master of disguise in the form of some X-Men-esque Metahuman shapeshifter. Had she been called Mystique, I would have lived with that, but to the best of my knowledge, they were all earth-bound. There’s a computer hacker (and safe cracker) in Psi, an augmented human that hails from any of dozens of SF movies. Know what? He even glitches like Max Headroom! (I know, right? Max Headroom! There’s a blast from the past that many modern viewers won’t even know about!) The Doctor plays both mastermind and pawn. Clara is … well, Clara actually is what Face was to the A-Team; she gives the audience something to look at, provides some context… And even if the Doctor can’t tell, she does look great! (When doesn’t she?) Of note, the cuts between scenes are done like an action movie too. Let’s face it, Clooney would have been right at home here. Oh, and don’t forget… slo-mo walking scenes! YES!! Reservoir Dogs, eat your hearts out! Don’t we all just love slo-mo walking scenes? I want to walk into a place with my entourage and just walk in slow mo… (I’d need an entourage first, then plan a cool place to walk into… a mall just wouldn’t cut it!) Doctor Who takes these tropes, mixes them together, and what comes out rises like a soufflé that even Oswin Oswald could be happy with!
The Shapeshifter is, as Roger recently said of Kamelion and Frobisher, a great tool that is grossly underutilized in Doctor Who. It’s nice to see Saibra as a flawed but good person, regardless of what she’s gotten herself into. She’s not the typical metamorph villain which is so easy to do in science fiction. Clara asks this gem: “You can replicate their clothing too?” (About time! I’ve wondered that for ages!) “I wear a hologram shell.” Duh! Of course you do! But it’s actually been addressed and explained in what, 2 seconds of dialogue! That’s all I ever ask for! Just acknowledge it! In Day of the Doctor, how easy would it be for the Doctor to tell Queen Elizabeth to just take off some of her clothing? (Get your mind out of the gutters! I mean, when there’s a shapeshifting Zygon in the room and you don’t know who is who, you ask one to disrobe a bit! He isn’t wearing any hologram shell! Mystery solved and I’m not even a Time Lord.)
To add to that soufflé, let’s not forget the big bad of the episode. He is introduced with the same unnerving pomp and ceremony as Hannibal Lecter, brought out in chains and feared by all. The telepathic Teller seeks out guilt and crushes it. But, like any good character, there’s more to it than meets the eye. And that’s when the episode really drives home its brilliance. This isn’t a bank heist, it’s a time heist; a plan created in the future because of events in the past. Picard, get ready to tell Q, you figured it out! The woman from the future calls the Doctor in the past and sets events in motion that couldn’t have happened if he were not in the past to give the woman his number for her future. Oh, do I love a good paradox!
Capaldi’s first season was pretty strong although my complaint was that the character was not depicted well. He is often seen as uncaring, which is a terrible trait for the hero (although it might help me when I get around to looking at Audience Identification in his era). His second season painted him in a better light (but lost out on good stories in the process.) But Time Heist is a strong victory for this season of Doctor Who. There’s humor (“I was aiming for minimalist. I think I got magician!”), continuity with things we’ve learned (memory worms), and a happy ending for all! Yes, even the big bad of the episode is more than a two-dimensional monster. In fact, his motivations paint him as an extraordinarily normal being once the big reveal comes. But I’ll leave that to the viewer to watch and learn.
Oh, and is it me, or is Karabraxos an awesome name? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Caretaker