After last week’s clever psychological thriller Listen scared the bejesus out of every Doctor Who fan who ever feared something may be lurking beneath their bed, Time Heist provides a light-hearted breather from all the darkness and existential plot twists as the Doctor turns bank robber to raid the most secure bank in all of time a space in an episode that is a lot of fun if little else.
The episode opens with a fascinating set-up as the Doctor and Clara wake up in a dark bunker along with two apparent strangers, augmented-human hacker Psi and lonely shapeshifter Saibra. None of them have any idea how they got there or why (they have some grossly slimy memory worms to thank for that) and their only instruction comes via a recording of a cloaked figure known only as the Architect who order them to rob the impenetrable bank of Karabraxos.
At first Time Heist takes the form of a rollicking sci-fi caper in an unmistakeable nod to heist movies such as Ocean’s 11 and The Italian Job. With a snappy script from co-writers Steve Thompson (Journey to the Centre of the Tardis) and Steven Moffat, the plot races along at a breathless pace as the Doctor and his crew worm their way through the bank’s many security systems and start to unravel the mystery behind their high risk mission.
Things then make an unexpected, though no less enjoyable, shift into suspenseful sci-fi horror mode, creating an Alien-esque vibe as the gang are stalked through the bank by The Teller, a threatening extra-terrestrial creature that can detect guilt and use that same power to turn intruders’ brains into soup. The writers and director cannily wring every last ounce of tension from these scenes, recalling Clara’s encounter with the clockwork droids in Deep Breath in the way it utilises suffocating close-ups and alarming mood lighting as Clara desperately tries to clear her mind and escape the Teller undetected.
While all of this is immensely thrilling and hugely entertaining, it’s hard to escape the knowledge that Time Heist is clearly a standalone story and ultimately pointless in the context of series eight. This is not necessarily a bad thing – some of the best Doctor Who episodes have been standalone stories – but by coming so soon after Robot of Sherwood this feels like a wasted opportunity.
There’s no progression of the series arc – in fact, it’s been weeks since we last glimpsed Missy in the Promised Land – and save for a throwaway remark about the Doctor being a good man, there’s very little character development for the Doctor and Clara.
The supporting cast is similarly given short shrift with Jonathan Bailey (Broadchurch) and Pippa Bennett-Warner handed thinly sketched characters in Psi and Saibra, who serve no purpose other than to get bumped-off by the Teller in order to raise the threat levels and sense of dread.
Keeley Hawes is also wasted here as the bank’s icy head of security Ms Delphox. Hawes may give Delphox a suitably cold, matter-of-fact tone, cracking wise immediately after having a perceived intruder killed, but her character is completely without nuance and depth until a final twist reveals her to be a clone and the instigator of the heist, which comes far too late in the game to have any impact.
In many ways Time Heist represents everything fans love about Doctor Who: an exhilarating, pacey plot that adroitly blends silliness and scares, featuring a fearsome alien foe and with a timey-wimey plot twist thrown in for good measure. But it is also so obviously lacking in purpose and depth that it is impossible to view it as anything more than an entertaining throwaway that feels like a wasted opportunity.
Next week on Doctor Who… Clara struggles to keep the two men in her life separate when the Doctor takes the position of caretaker at Coal Hill School. With a scary-looking robot and the potential for an oddly-comic love triangle this could be a welcome return to form for the Doctor.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Time Heist on BBC iPlayer