Doctor Who Finally Does a Heist Episode

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ironically ends up highlighting just how good Oceans Eleven was

When I saw the title of this episode a few months ago, I immediately pegged this episode as the one I was most excited about. There are very few sub-genres of TV or film that I enjoy more than heist episodes or movies — they merge the intellectual thrill of breaking apart and solving a puzzle with the visceral thrill of getting away with the prize right under the previous owner’s nose. And since most heists aren’t accomplished alone, they also serve as a great backdrop for an ensemble cast to play off of each other within a light hearted but propulsive plot. It’s why Oceans Eleven is one of my favorite movies1.

So when Doctor Who promised an episode that threw all of that together with the crazy intricate plots and paradoxes that happen with time travel, I was pretty confident that “Time Heist” was going to be quite the memorable episode. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t quite hit these high expectations, despite all the potential, but it manages to remain a fun watch.

Episode Thoughts

From the title credits on, “Time Heist” has a great “Oceans meets Mission Impossible” vibe established, giving the episode a great foundation to build upon. The thrust of the episode is structured similarly to a Mission Impossible movie, with the strange Architect giving the Doctor, Clara, and the two other members of the heist an impossible mission at the beginning of the episode. The episode is full of the reversals and twists common to that franchise. However, the editing, soundtrack and pace of the episode are directly influence by the Oceans franchise, whether it’s the clever cuts between scenes or the requisite flashback “twist” at the end of the episode.

It’s a very well crafted episode, just like the heist within it. In a clever take on the general heist, we the viewers, as well as the characters participating in the heist, actually don’t know the details of the plan beforehand, thanks to the bank’s secret weapon - an alien species held captive that can detect guilt. If the team doesn’t know the plan, they can’t really know what they are guilty of planning. So, while we lose the detailed planning stages that usually open heist adventures, and lose the tension of things not going as planned, we get to instead work through and realize the plan at the same time as the characters, providing some extra intellectual thrill. The tension of not actually knowing what’s coming next permeates through the episode as well.

Disappointingly, the heist doesn’t actually involve time travel2, beyond the fact that the heist was planned after it took place chronologically. If you were hoping for Back to the Future-esque timeline contortions or Prisoner of Azkaban-esque ontological paradoxes, you’re going to be disappointed.

The major flaw in this episode is that despite the fun heist and the surprise ending, the reason this episode doesn’t really stick is that it’s missing an important component of good TV in general - characterization. This episode is all plot. I get that it’s much shorter than Oceans Eleven, but part of what made that movie great was that despite the fact that we had never met any of the eleven members before, the movie deftly gave us a read on each of the characters to the point that we really felt like we knew them. While “Time Heist” has only four members of the heist and one antagonist, none of them are fleshed out beyond their capabilities in the heist, or, in the case of the Doctor and Clara, what we already know about them. It’s hard to care about the risk of a character’s demise when we don’t know anything about the character.

All in all, “Time Heist” was a fun watch, no more and no less. It’s not the finest work that Doctor Who has produced, but it’s definitely not up to par with the quality of this season so far. Watch it once, and move on. It’s not a bad episode, but I’m somewhat disappointed.

Season Arc Impact

Time Heist” doesn’t have a lot of connections to the Missy and Heaven season arc3, beyond a name-check when the TARDIS phone rings.

On the other hand, this episode does clear up a few aspects of the characterization of the Twelfth Doctor. He still hates himself, identifying himself as manipulative and overbearing. It’s unambiguous at this point that this Doctor is still kind hearted on the inside, despite his doubts, but on the outside this Doctor doesn’t seem to possess the emotional range of Ten or the mendacity of Eleven. He doesn’t cover up harsh truths nor sympathizes. A particularly cold quote, right after when it appears one member of the heist group has died:

Listen, when we’re done here, by all means, you go and find yourself a shoulder to cry on. You’ll probably need that. Till then, what you need is me!

The script likens this Doctor’s demeanor to that of an actual doctor4 - “detached professionalism”. It’s something which finally illuminated exactly why I love Capaldi’s Doctor - he reminds me of House5. With the dry wit, the lack of outwardly care, but with clear intentions to do good, and carrying a lot of guilt over past failures, this Doctor is definitely an iteration that has hardened into someone that loves to save people - so long as he doesn’t have to interact with the “pudding heads” themselves.

Stray Observations

  • Stephen Moffat seems to have an amazing talent for devising one-off monsters. He shares a co-writing credit here, but the Teller’s notable trick as informs a heist episode is classic Moffat.

  • Shuttity up up up” — did we finally get a reference to Malcolm Tucker? Guess he couldn’t actually say “fuckity bye” but I’ll take it.

  • One of the pictures of thieves that flashes by at one point in the episode is that of John Hart, of Torchwood notoriety. It excites me to know that the parent show still acknowledges Torchwood — I think this was the first clear shout outs since Matt Smith started as the Eleventh Doctor.

  • Yeah, I stole this section from AV Club, sue me.

Next week: The Doctor comes to Coal Hill Elementary, the school where Clara teaches, since presumably some monster threatens to destroy the world. This one appears to have some “School Reunion” vibes going for it, which excites me as that was a great episode6. Not sure whether it will surpass it, but mark me down as someone who cannot wait.


  1. If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you reading this for? Go watch it now. 

  2. The Doctor doesn’t even use his TARDIS at all. 

  3. Does anyone else feel that this is a strangely religious arc for Doctor Who to tackle? The concept of Hell (and the Doctor’s feelings about it) was touched upon in a great Tenth Doctor episode, but otherwise this isn’t a show that emphasizes religion too much. Aside from the Doctor as a great savior, of course. 

  4. Moffat loves to relate the Doctor to actual doctors. 

  5. I love Capaldi’s Doctor, but I’m still holding out for a Hugh Laurie take on the character. With Robert Sean Leonard playing the companion. 

  6. With the caveat that most of the awesomeness of that episode was the return of classic companion Sarah Jane Smith.