Sunday, 21 September 2014

Doctor Who: Time Heist (Episode Review)

The last time we covered an episode of Who, the big problem was that it was a solid episode from the get-go let down by a sub-par conclusion, at least in my personal opinion. Well, amazingly Time Heist actually does the reverse. While these reviews don't go into spoilers for obvious reasons, the episode starts out fairly weakly, but gets progressively stronger as time goes by, without out-staying its welcome. While hardly perfect it's one well worth sitting through, it just could have been better.

The story this time is that the Doctor, Clara and two other criminals suddenly awaken in a dark room on an unknown planet. Holding onto worms which devour their memories (a nice call-back to The Snowmen) they soon learn that each of them has voluntarily lost parts of their history in order to accomplish a monolithic task: Break into the most heavily secure bank in the galaxy, find several items, and retrieve them for an unknown employer. A difficult job even for the best of professionals, but one which they must complete in the name of survival...

Like much of the previous era of Doctor Who, this one starts extremely fast and is trying to rely upon throwing as much at the audience as possible. Right from the beginning you see this happening, as soon as the cliff notes for the group's heist is covered they immediately have guards hammering down the door to their bolt-hole. As soon as they enter the bank, the big monster is introduced taking down some other poor sap, along with an establishing moment for the villain. It's trying to keep you engaged by never allowing you to be bored, and this both does and doesn't work.

The first way in which it works is that, with less than an hour to tell the story, the episode can't pull off a full Hustle or Ocean's Eleven plot as it might want to. As such it needs to keep the audience engaged by starting the pacing at a run and never slowing down. That's fine and it actually does work for the later sections, once they get past the first act this means that there's never a dull moment and you are always engaged in what's going on. The writers know how to spin this tale and keep viewers guessing as new elements are added, but they don't over-complicate things with too many superfluous additions.

The obvious issue which causes this problems is that it means the episode lacks a real set-up. Every good heist tale or bank robbery needs a plan, investigations and a real establishing moment in which it gets viewers to know the skills of every person, and the possible traps that they face. This is all skimmed over with bits added here and there to try and make up for this. However, while this causes problems we'll get into in a minute, one particular twist in the tale manages to make this work, largely excusing this fault and suddenly giving the story a far more coherent premise.

Furthermore, while little is really seen of the bank's security or even the more extensive checks you would expect for a planet, the big method of keeping people out is terrifying enough. The Teller, one of the most interesting new aliens of this era so far, puts a new spin upon the threat of telepathy had is unique enough of a design to truly keep the story going. Massive, alien and seemingly radiating menace, it has enough fear factor to really enforce the threat failure poses for the group. While even the additional security measures made by the bank are barely seen, this thing's potential and the bank's ruthless methods are enough to cement how powerful they truly are. There's also another twist relating to the creature and several figures around it, but all are quickly delivered in a way which feels satisfying rather than coming out of nowhere.

Perhaps most importantly however, the timey-wimey element of the story is in the title, but its exact nature is held back. You're kept guessing as to how this all plays out, but once it is introduced it explains just about everything behind the story. Better yet, it's also an establishing moment which leans more towards the darker nature of Capaldi's Doctor, displaying more of what was promised and pushing him in the direction of Sylvester McCoy's famed chess master incarnation. This is really the time-travel element done right and it's what the show needs more of, not so overly showy and complex that it causes problems, but intelligent enough to keep the audience enthralled.

Special props also needs to be given to director Douglas Mackinnon for his work on this tale, as he manages to balance the best elements of a heist's visual storytelling with everything you would want in science fiction. The normal kinetic and frantic shots you would expect are all there, along with the odd stylised transition at key points, but it also manages to home in on the money shots the BBC would want for dramatic reveals and trailers. This is especially clear with the Teller, and Mackinnon shows he knows how to let the advanced make-up and brilliant design of the monster do his work for him. That might sound like a back-handed insult, but it's a problem with certain directors in a lot of films - Some are given truly brilliant set-pieces to work with but they never know how to shoot it or let it shine through on its own.

Now, despite all this praise there are problems and Time Heist is far from perfect. The obvious problem is, as you might guess, a fairly weak opening act which, while having its moments, causes plenty of problems. Once again we have Clara and Danny's relationship slammed jarringly into the story and taking up the first few minutes. While thankfully ditched quite quickly, it's yet another unnecessary addition to a tale and ultimately adds nothing of real worth. Furthermore, there desperately needed to be a point set to properly explain things. Without any real establishing moment, the story does suffer and it lacks that build-up most heist stories have to truly get things moving and create a sense of anticipation. Without that, the tale really is suffering from the start and too much time is spent getting into the swing of things.

The story might break conventions in many respects, but they were also conventions established for a reason, and not enough is done in their place. While the specialists are introduced, the issue is that we barely know them. For all the importance the episode places upon Psi and Saibra, two additional specialists, it does little to flesh them out beyond their skills. While the actors' talents do offer a little dimension to them, their involvement lacked the real impact it needed. This definitely wasn't helped by the fact that, without properly establishing several big security problems for them to overcome, their skills eventually seemed needless. Okay, not entirely fair, there were points where they were needed but they go off without a hitch and they're brushed over so fast they might as well be blink-and-you'll-miss-it bits. That lack of classic complication only hurt the story and any reason the audience had to truly care about them.

Another distinctively irritating point, and the one issue which really holds back the Teller, is that the episode once more delves into territory which is becoming cliched. There is a whole sequence which reeks of the "don't blink" sort of trend we keep seeing done time and time again, which worked far better in Deep Breath in every possible way. Worse still, this leads to an unfortunate number of plot holes which the story immediately glosses over and opens no end of issues for one specific point in the tale. Add to that the same reliance upon brief nods to classic tales to distract old fans, and it's still relying upon bad habits the show seriously needs to kick as soon as the writers possibly can.

Ultimately, is Time Heist poignant and a monument to television? No, and it's not something you'll re-watch any time again soon. That said it does remain solidly entertaining for all its flaws, the episode focused purely upon telling a solid story and it ultimately accomplished that goal. It's still very much a mixed bag, and the story definitely needed another fifteen minutes and a few script edits to shape things up, but it's good for an entertaining Doctor Who episode. Plus, whatever else you might think of it, it's well worth it for one late scene with Capaldi who continues to take his role in stride. Keep your expectations grounded but don't judge this one too quickly.

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