TV Decades from now when Doctor Who Magazine has a few pages to fill between the interview with Christopher Eccleston on the occasion of him finally agreeing to record for Big Finish and The Time Team’s review of Alien Bodies (because there’s no stopping them), a successor to Steve Lyons will be tasked with trying to explain the ingredients for what makes a middling episode or clutch of episodes. Having scanned through the franchise’s seventy five year history, no mean task considering by then, hopefully, television and everything else is all treated on equal footing, the author, pushing a deadline will start to make a list of episodes which don’t quite come off, which are nice ideas, pretty well executed without the wow factor then begin their analysis.
Creating such a list won’t be easy because as we all know, Doctor Who is amazing even when it’s rubbish or as is the case for the purposes of this article being crafted in the future, middling. There’s a general consensus about amazing episodes and stories. There’s a similar consensus about utter rubbish. Our hack in the future will no doubt have a recent poll available in order to help filter those out. It’s to the middle of the table he’ll be glancing, to the stories which are just sort of there, which tend to find themselves watched by fans who’re working their way through everything in order but no one bothers to watch out of choice. Perhaps within the next twenty odd years there’ll be a fair few more middling adventures. Perhaps and let’s finally get to this, Time Heist is so middling, so inoffensive, so bland that it simply gets overlooked.
At the risk of pre-empting the task of this journobot, let’s try and break down exactly what constitutes a middling episode (and for the purpose of this I’m going to use “episode” even though I agree that it’s incredibly annoying when its done in relation to the classic series – but this isn’t the classic series). In short, a middling episode is one which has all of the elements of a Doctor Who story (Time Lord, companion, hijinks) but leaves you feeling nothing at the end and not quite knowing why. Amazing episodes make you want to punch the air. Rubbish episodes make you angry and not a little bit appalled. Middling episode make you think, "oh is that it". But I thought... Oh, nope, that’s it. Which in it’s own way is also appalling but because you can see that someone was at least trying you can’t be too angry.
Which is where I was as the Doctor wandered his empty TARDIS in the final scene having just dropped everyone off. Due to dematerialisation montage, I was expecting something else, some extra twist in which it turned out he’d found something else in the private vault, something which made the whole thing more worthwhile than what the actors apparently describe as a Moffat loop but then we’re into next time, a Matt Smith lookalike in a staff room, Capaldi wearing Tennant’s brown coat and no inadvertent Eccleston reference at all. “Oh. is that it?” I wondered out loud as I sighed and went off to the kitchen to fill the water reservoir on my Tassimo machine. How am I going to review that? As I loaded the Kenco coffee pod into the top, a mug underneath and pressed the button on the front, I thought, what would Graham Kibble-White do? Then realised I had no idea what.
Presumably you’re expecting me to give examples of other middling episodes. In the classic series, it’s The Savages. It’s The Dominators. It’s The Mutants. It’s Meglos, Terminus, The Mark of the Rani and nothing in the McCoy era because everything is either amazing or rubbish. In nuWho terms, it’s The Long Game, 42 and Night Terrors. Of course the problem with this process in relation to older episodes is that we’ve probably passed through them enough times to be able to set aside the flaws in favour of the gems (even The Mutants – “It’s…..”) so it’s easy to forget the initial reaction of the shrug, the “oh well that was, wasn’t it” and “well they can’t all be as good as…” and “could have been worse, could have been Fear Her…” The Doctor Who fan, probably Frank Skinner, equivalent of justifying a goalless draw.
How in the case of Time Heist do we get to “oh, is that it?” Genuinely, I think, in this case, a large proportion of it, ooh 60% at least, is because the twists aren’t strong enough. The notion of the Architect gives every impression of being some higher power, so even though from the opening scene he’s already our default notion, because we’re watching a show that’s generally clever than that, we’re expecting something less obvious, that the Doctor’s chain being yanked by some higher power ala The Scream of the Shalka and for their identity to be left dangling at the end, presumably to be revealed as being Missy or some such. When the Doctor realises that he’s giving himself instructions from the future it's incredibly disappointing. It’s another Moffat loop. It’s The Big Bang (amongst many other things). Again.
It’s a rescue mission rather than a bank heist. Fair enough, that was a surprise, but is it good enough? The idea of monsters being nothing of the sort and simply wanting to be free really is getting old, isn’t it? We’ve had one nearly every season in the Moffat era, from the congregation of limbs in Hide to the Minotaur in The God Complex. The surprise here would have been if the Doctor’s been hoodwinked into freeing the two of them and they decided to go on a murderous rampage anyway as revenge for their captivity. Plus The Teller (everyone is a definitive article in this episode) is an example of a mono-trope monster who offers more questions than answers about their phylogeny. As they head off to repopulate their species, what exactly do they eat without memories and brains of others to feast on?
Same the reveal that Ms Delphox is a clone of her own boss. Well of course she is. You don’t hire Keeley Hawes under these circumstances to play the lackey. It’s the Doctor Who equivalent of a murder mystery series having a pretty decent actor in amongst a bunch of unknowns. The surprise here would have been if Karabraxos had turned out to be played by someone else or a recognisable character under an assumed name. As the scene began, I thought as I always do that it’d be Davros. Then, with Absolom Dark glimpsed earlier in the episode for about three seconds as they entered the private vault I even thought it would turn out to be an annex of the Braxiatel Collection and we’d find Jenna’s Titanic co-star Miles Richardson sitting in the chair. Instead I was in the criminal position of being disappointed to see Keeley Hawes. Again.
Of course they’re not dead we don’t care enough about them yet. Even for Doctor Who, Psi and Saibra’s characters are so minimalist, the script notes for them must have been written in haiku. Well I call shenanigans. I bet when the Pixley special’s published, we’ll discover that each of them had originally been gifted with an extra introductory scene, which went south either in the filming or editing. True, it’s a trope of the heist genre (and placing the Doctor in this kind of story is an idea so good Big Finish have their version discounted this weekend) that some of the protagonists are reduced to their ability (safe cracker, explosives expert), but as was also the case in Voyage of the Damned, when you try and force functional characters into the structure of a series which tends to be richer in that regard it never works. Compare this to The God Complex. Now imagine The God Complex with all of the character’s introductory scenes left out.
Which means that after their ten or twenty minutes of screen time when Saibra’s “killed off” despite the Doctor’s reaction, and to be fair all of the other actors really try to sell it, we’re not convinced she’s dead. She’s simply not had enough screen time. Same Psi when he makes his sacrifice. The surprise would have been if indeed they’d stayed dead, but the tone of the piece, however much it was trying to be Hustle with the lights off, doesn’t allow for it. When the Doctor and Clara are finding their rewards in the vault that just confirms it because there’s no particular reason why they should expending so much screen time over the search unless the items will turn out to be important later and the only reason they could be important later is if the people they’re meant to be for are going to be around to use them.
All which looks, very, well, very in hindsight and a lot of me trying to suggest how clever I am for working all of this out ahead of time, but the point about this is, I didn’t work all of this out ahead of time. The point about these twists is that none of them are especially surprising even though the suggestion is that they’re supposed to be. In his DWM editorial this month, Tom Spilsbury bemoans the fact that the media previews of these episodes contain “a big friendly notice” which ironically contains the very spoiler that they don’t want to the previewer to mention before the episode goes out. As he says, “it’s like being hit over the head with an irony stick”. You can imagine what these spoilery spoiler warnings are for the first four episodes. Whatever it is for Time Heist, it really can’t be anything like as good.
What of the other 40%? That’s the little things. The niggles. Like having the Doctor and his companion watch as The Teller kills someone for the purposes of showing how The Teller kills someone even though it’s entirely out of character. Well, we say it’s out of character. The obvious argument against is that this new Doctor’s a bit, dark and dangerous so won’t step in because it’ll break his cover, but don’t for a second think Clara wouldn’t and that she didn’t diminishes her character. There are other ways of achieving this. Other episodes have shown this sort of death outside of their field of reference with the Doctor then knowing the methodology anyway later. Even as it stands, I’m sure it would have been possible to produce a version in which the Doctor or Clara save the guy and are still able to carry on.
That scene also includes a weird piece of direction in which The Teller walks in slow motion (abetted by the soundtrack) while the other characters are standing and talking in normal speed. If they too hadn’t also walked into the room in slow motion for no reason other than because Hustle (again) we might have imagined this was going to be part of The Teller’s physical presence within the space and that for the rest of the episode every shot of him would be slow motion which needn’t look as silly as its sounds done carefully. Indeed, it could have been that is disappeared when he was reunited with his kin. That would have been an exciting way to go. But as Michael Bay fans know dramatic walking in slow motion is just dramatic walking in slow motion unless it has a point and when it doesn’t it’s the very definition of middling.
None of this is as easy as saying, well, it’s a Steve Thompson episode, what do you expect? Both his previous episodes were middling too and also, now that I come to think of it had “they’re not really dead” twists of one form or another. One of them had a Moffat loop too. But it’s co-written to some degree by Steven Moffat who, it’s clear from the Phil Ford interview in DWM had a pretty hands on role in rewriting the scripts for this opening six episodes in a way that Russell T Davies did during his entire era. With that regard until we see a similar explanation from him we can’t entirely level the middlingness with Thompson this time. It’s Moffat’s own middling The Beast Below which offered the notion of the hero having their memory wiped.
When, in the future we look back at Time Heist because it’s on the blu-ray between Listen and The Caretaker, what will stop us from simply skipping it? Capaldi’s really in his stride now and the same director who brought us slow walking, still knows exactly how to make him fill that space, with his face distorted by domestic appliances, an entirely alien presence in that house in comparison to his predecessor who was completely at home in a kitchen. Jenna Coleman’s predictably good even if she’s given less to do this week and does her very best to justify her position in the aforementioned scene even if both hers and Capaldi’s lines sound as though they’ve been recorded later and stuck on because the production team have noticed that there’s a hitch.
Indeed all of the performers are treating it as the best job they’ve ever had, and if we have any empathy for Psi and especially Saibra its because of Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner’s instant likeability. Hawes is called upon for panto and that’s exactly what she offers us though the approach to the character in and of itself is very obvious, very middling. Compare her to Ms. Foster in Partners in Crime or Diana Goddard in Dalek for examples of how not to be obvious or middling. Because both of those had a drop of humanity their ultimate fates, negative and positive had weight. Keeley is predictably proficient, but because Karabraxos is effectively a new character in that final scene, then having us care about her regrets is a really, really hard sell.
Where does this leave the journobot of the future? Pretty dissonant. Beyond “oh, is that it?”, middling episodes don’t really have transferable rules, for the same reason that amazing episodes can still have rubbish monsters (magma beast) and rubbish episodes can have amazing performances (Maurice Denham). It’s intangible, a feeling, a sense, it’s “oh, is that it?” The journobot will probably have no choice except to contact the editorbot and suggest something about androids, Thirteen Doctor Romola Garai or the current state of the omnirumour instead. At which point I’ve probably stretched the whole “sending the idea for an article from the future into the past” review idea well in excesses of being interesting (assuming it ever was) causing this whole blog post to be pretty middling too. Sorry about that.