Saturday, 20 September 2014

Time Heist written by Steven Thompson & Steven Moffat and directed by Douglas Mackinnon

Thus story in a nutshell: A bank heist in space?

Indefinable: God bless Peter Capaldi. He is once again the most thrilling thing about the entire story, single handedly trying to convince you that there is something going on beneath the surface of what you are watching. He's proving to be far more diverse a Doctor than I initially envisioned he would be, slipping into this stylish, high class environment as comfortably as he did the flesh creeping shadows last week. I thought the episode was extremely brave to allow the Doctor to give one of his friends the means to commit suicide. That moment quite took my breath away. Imagine my response when that was revealed to be a massive cheat? Don't pretend to take risks, somehow that is worse than not bothering at all. Capaldi walks through this story taking everything terribly seriously and waving a magic wand to bewitch the audience into thinking it was more than a run-around. To his credit, he almost succeeds. That's how good he is. It's the eyebrows, I think. Overbearing, manipulative, likes to think that he's very clever - is that what the Doctor really thinks of himself? Is that where all his self reflection has led him? There's another suggestion that his head is full of sinister memories, something that makes the Teller gawp and recoil when he has a look inside. Capaldi gnashes those teeth again when he commands the creature to show him how they got there. He can be bloody terrifying when he makes threatening commands. The last line is terribly unfortunate because it reveals that the Doctor is jealous of Clara spending time with Danny and kicks up suggestions that he is trying his hand at one-upmanship. Don't you dare let this turn romantic, Moffat.

Impossible Girl: Why does the Doctor keep picking Clara up? Didn't we deal with this  with season 7b and the Ponds not being able to settle down and leave the Doctor? I hate to be a prude but isn't it highly unprofessional for teachers to be lusting after each other at school and practically salivating at a near kiss in the classroom? Clara suggests she has a few memories that she could have deleted...really? There's something in her past that she is ashamed of? Can we have a glimpse at that please because all we are seeing of her these days is how she redefines perfection. I would welcome a peek at some of those flaws. I might be damning the character with faint praise by suggesting that Time Heist is the perfect Clara story. One where she has to look pretty, act brave and fire off one liners. That is her spec and that's all she's required to do here. It's when they try and pretend there is something more to this wafer thin personality that I have problem. There's no pretence of that here and as such she can walk free without criticism. Next weeks episode looks like a re-run of themes of The Power of Three. Clara is anywhere near as well defined as the Ponds (whether you like them or not) so it will interesting to see how they compare.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'It's very obvious that you've been with him for a while' 'Why?' 'Because you are really good with the excuses.'
'We're getting sanity judgement from the self-burner?'

The Good:
* The very nature of Doctor Who these days is that it will dump you in the middle of the story without practically any set up and Time Heist makes no apologies for that. The series is still capable of pulling off classic Who style exploration of a setting before the narrative kicks in but that is left to the two part stories that have the time mostly (The Silence in the Library is probably the closest example to having an old school style part one) but there is no time in Moffat's Hollywood Who to bother with such irrelevances as pacing and atmosphere. Time Heist makes a massive joke about plonking the Doctor and Clara straight in the midst of the action (from phone call to memory worm) and actually works in the mystery of how they find themselves plopped into the narrative. It's a smart way of cutting to the chase and like The Crimson Horror last year, Time Heist deals with the nuts and bolts of how they got to there in a truncated sequence later in the episode. At least they bothered, season 7b often had the Doctor and Clara walking out of the TARDIS and the Time Lord explaining at a rate of knots where they were and why. At least this was a quirky approach and it gets your attention. Time Heist simply could not have played out like a standard Doctor Who adventure or it would reveal every twist ahead of the game. I rather liked that just this once, how its the conundrums were built into the unusual structure of the episode.
* Once again Douglas Mackinnon is displaying formidable direction skills. Stunning scene transitions (I especially love the shattering glass), slow motion saunters through stylish locations, imaginative camera angles from every direction, swanky lighting that convinces that the bank is far bigger than you might think even when the director is re-using the same scenery, luxurious pans of some nicely designed sets. He's gone from one of the weakest directors of the new series to one of the most capable. Colour me impressed.
* In order to pull off a successful heist you need a smart and capable team to back you up and I was rather impressed by Psi and Saibra. Look at that, a Moffat episode where I was intrigued by the guest characters. It's not because there is anything especially substantial going on beneath the surface of these characters (because ultimately they wind up serving a purpose to the plot like most Moffat characters) but what impressed me was the performances (which were highly engaging and lively) and the interaction between them all. The chemistry between the four actors sparkled on screen and for the first time in the age I could see the potential of a four man TARDIS team. Frankly I would welcome Psi and Saibra on board just to take the limelight off of the architect of the Doctor (sorry, Clara) for a while. It's a damn shame they didn't die though, since those sacrifices would have made their participation in the episode mean something. The tidy endings they get instead gut those moments of any meaning but if they were going to take this teleportation over suicide approach then at least they got what they came for. I wouldn't mind catching up with these two again, just because I thought they were so well cast.

* As my good friend Paul mentioned there was something very McCoy era about this story (which means technically I should have been coming out in hives) and I thought that was true when it extended to the location. Stories like Paradise Towers and Ghost Light derived their stories from the setting, from the characters unveiling the secrets of where they are and Time Heist follows that same approach. There's even mention of a mysterious architect. And what a glorious setting this story had. Conceptually interesting, visually striking and gloriously other worldly, it felt like Doctor Who was visiting exciting alien locations once again and making no apology for it (as it often did during the Russell T. Davies era). The zoom in on the bank of Karabraxos unveils some formidable CGI, an impressive cityscape with a towering pagoda at its heart adorned with gold.
* A host of lovely ideas and images; the memory worm makes a re-appearance, Saibra touching living cells and being able to replicate the owner (a shape shifter would be the ultimate tool in a bank heist), the Teller with his phallic eyes wibbling together and sucking out the content of peoples brains, the vomit inducing shot of the man and his deflated head (the sense of wrongness about that repulsed me), the bomb which melts away the floor and paints over the gaping maw afterwards, a gamer who is half computer, a solar storm battering at the bank, the Doctor coming face to face with the Teller in a shock moment (that took me by surprise and made me laugh in response), the cut to Karabraxos sitting amongst her art treasures listening to classical music - the female Braxiatel in all but name (and gender), murdering her own clones for letting her down.
* If Paradise Towers had been a few seasons later you just know that the Doctor would have wound up being the Great Architect. He was the orchestrator of most of his adventures in season 26. It's nice to see that idea brought to fruition, even if it is with another Doctor altogether.

The Bad:

* Looking like a cut price creature from Star Wars, I don't rate the design of the Teller very much. This is a monster that should have been designed to terrify but I thought its facade was a rather sympathetic one, all forlorn eyes and bound in chains. Despite its ability to suck out your brains and leave your head as fat as a pancake I never felt a sense of anxiety about the creature, just that it was doing what it was told. To make the twist that it is working under duress a more palpable one it should have been restrained with invisible shackles and designed to be far more petrifying. Something demonic and salivating, looking like it was enjoying itself. It plods towards Clara at one point and I wanted her to go up to it and shake it by the eyes on stalks and pat it on the head. Poor lumbering victim. A big fuss is made about its appearance (a lengthy slow motion march) but it never really amounts to anything frightening when I think perhaps it should. It seems that every year we have to learn the lesson that because something is big and ugly it isn't a monster (The Beast Below, Vincent and the Doctor, The God Complex, A Town Called Mercy, Hide) which is a valuable lesson to learn but for once I would just like a fuck-off scary monster and not one that croons and purrs at the audience and asks you to weep for it. People that criticise that the Moffat era isn't as scary as other periods of the show might just have a point in this respect.
* What a waste of an actress like Keeley Hawes. For the most part playing a clone that is barely infused with any character (beyond a sense of self assuredness that matches Clara for smugness...maybe the two of them should have had a smug-off at one point?), Hawes only really comes into her own when she gets to play the real Karabraxos and that is left to the last possible moment where the plot is wrapping itself up. To maintain that surprise we only get a glimpse at this potentially very interesting character (Hawes saves all the off-the-wall quirks for the real character) and instead are treated to her sterile clone for the most part. Given the fuss that was made about her appearance (the publicity machine likes making fusses these days) I was tricked into thinking this might be the ultimate 'bad aunt' (as David Fisher might put it) of NuWho but Ms Delphox doesn't even come close. Cassandra she aint and my favourite villainess of the last seven series is still Ms Foster ('Oh it's a beautifully fat country.').
* Psi is ultimate Moffat character - part robot, part plot device, a man who has deleted anything that might make him feel or connect with the audience (his friends and family) and thus can serve as nothing more than a narrative appliance. He even comes back from the dead at the end of the episode. This is Moffat's approach to characterisation in a nutshell.
* Just when I thought this episode was trying to do something completely original (in style and tone there has never been anything like this before) it jettisons the heist story at the last minute and turns into a replica of Hide. A bizarre choice. It worked as much as it did in Hide, as an idiosyncratic twist that confidently switches genres but it perverts any attempt to make the monster of the week scary. It's the ultimate Hollywood approach though, a happy ending and a love story. Bleaugh.
* The destination rather spoils the journey. The centrepiece nightmare creature is just a mourning lover trying to be reunited with a mate. The intriguing setting isn't holding anything substantially interesting like it suggests. The poignant self sacrifice of two characters is undone and renders those moments false drama. The villainess of the piece has set the whole thing up because she is guilt ridden at the end of the her life. The Doctor turns out to be the architect of this whole affair, necessitating the use of the memory worm, a cheating device without which there would be no story and no mystery. And a solar storm that comes from nowhere without any set up but proves to be essential to the plot. None of these twists are especially pleasing or satisfying. A shame because the expedition to get to them is rather enjoyable. The only twist that worked for me was the reveal of the second creature - propagating a near extinct species is worth far more than all the gold on the planet. Bestill my bleeding heart. I remember saying to Paul that this needed to lead to somewhere important for the Doctor for it to have a real impact and make the struggle in getting to the vault worthwhile (in fact it would have been a great place to link into this seasons heaven arc, perhaps offering a glimpse at the people who have been saved from the previous adventures). Ultimately I was left thinking what was all the fuss about if it was just going to lead to love? It needed something substantial to make it more than just a throwaway bank heist story, which ultimately it is.

The Shallow Bit: Once again Jenna Coleman is put in a costume that makes her look like sex on legs. Is there anything that this woman cannot pull off? Something about Psi kept drawing my eye. It could be Jonathan Bailey's charisma, it could be his looks. Those are some piercing eyes.

Result: Doctor Who's current obsession with Hollywood continues. We've had Jurassic Park in Victorian London, Fantastic Voyage in side a Dalek, Robin Hood with robots and now we are treated to Ocean's Eleven with time travel. On my first viewing I was glued to the screen because I was tricked into thinking that this was leading somewhere spectacular, something I haven't been lulled in to for some time. It's been an age since I last watched a Doctor Who episode where I didn't know what was going on and was simply enjoying the ride so much. The destination is nowhere near as enjoyable as the journey, that's unfortunate but this is still a thrilling first watch, one that ultimately spoils repeated viewings because of its questionable twists towards the conclusion. As usual it could have done with an extra fifteen minutes (the structure of the story would be completely different if it had that luxury) to allow the story time to breathe (this one is sprinting all the way through) and flesh out the characters (Keeley Hawes isn't given a character, she plays standard smug villainess number eighty four) but the fluidic nature of the storytelling and the breathless pace convince you whilst you are watching that it is the perfect length. It is only when you think about things afterwards that the cracks appear. Typical Moffat then. Still it is sporting some delicious visuals, terrific interaction between the actors, some acerbic lines and wonderful ideas. I cannot come down too hard on an episode that gets all those things right. Not only that but it is a Doctor Who story set on an alien world with exotic characters on display and that is something I can always get caught up in. Despite the wealth of faults which I have explored above, I found myself seduced by this one. It wasn't anywhere near as clever is it was trying to convince you that it was but this is a story that by its very nature is designed to be all style and no substance and boy did it deliver some style. Farscape sported a very similar episode to this (a bank heist on an alien world) on what must have been double the budget and with twice the perversion and imagination (more dumbed down for a family audience?) and as such this is a pale shadow of that, but in Doctor Who terms this was pretty classy stuff. I rather liked how sexy it all was but I can understand why some people were turned off: 7/10


Kory Stephens said...

That makes two of us on the 7/10 having just posted my review over an hour ago.

At last, a Steve Thompson script that didn't make me whip out a facepalm for a change.

Ed Azad said...

Five more episodes to go...sigh. I cannot wait to see the back of you, Coleman.

Anonymous said...

I don't like this Clara living her life and the Doctor picking her up, maybe I'm too classic minded but I prefered when companions lived in the TARDIS

Also, focusing on Clara's love life and dating and boyfriending (i'm speaking about the dating in Listen stuff) it's boring! I prefer leave all this boyfriending stuff to sopas and sit coms, I like Doctor Who for what makes it unique: A time travelling alien and his friends visiting places in time and space

If you want to see people kissing and dating you have thousands of stuff out there

On the other hand, I adore Capaldi dark Doctor, I liked his crankiness in the Robin Hoos episode and it makes a refreshing change from flirting Matt Smith (and I liked Smith very much)

Mica said...

I loved this episode. It was for sure the one I liked the most this season. I even liked Clara this episode. To me everything was almost perfect.
I didn't like the way they wasted Keeley Hawes talent. Now they burnt the actress in a totally forgetful character (not even a proper villain).
I also had mixed feelings about the not so dead companions. I was a lot more scared and anguished in this episode than on Listen, and I couldn't even believe the Doctor let the two die. It was so brave. But at the same time I liked Psi and Saibra so much that I couldn't not be happy with them being alive, because now we can have them again someday. I have to confess I thought these three companions were a lot more fun than only Clara or the others they have been meeting.
I'm also not so happy with Clara and Danny but that's not because the romance on the show, but because they don't have any chemistry. I like Danny, but when he's with Clara it doesn't fit.
But I liked the end and the alien couple. I was so sure the Teller was not a bad guy that the twist wasn't really a twist, it was what I was expecting. But I honestly don't understand why Karabraxos called the TARDIS. Why did she feel the need?

Otter d'Arc said...

Oh, fuck off, if you need damn 9000 soap opera relatives and shit to connect to character/companion, how do you even bloody endured classics?

Joe Ford said...

What a brilliant name you have. As for your comment, you expose the paucity of your argument by being so offensive. Get some perspective.

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David Pirtle said...

Capaldi's Doctor and Coleman's Clara are both terrific in this. The story itself is a bit lacking, but, like you say, it's glamorous and fun to watch. I totally agree about this one being very Seventh Doctor, with him manipulating the whole plot, including his own actions, before the story even starts. I'm with you at being disappointed that everyone surviving was a cop-out, but I try to remember that this is an all-ages show, after all.