“Time Heist” shares many of the same faults as co-writer Steve Thompson’s previous two Doctor Who scripts, the Matt Smith-starring entries “The Curse Of The Black Spot” and “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS.” On paper, the premises of all three stories are irresistible. The Doctor has a pirate adventure with a mythical being and a crashed starship! The Doctor and Clara learn the Time Lord’s most deeply buried secrets as they venture into the heart of a self-destructing TARDIS! An amnesiac Doctor and Clara find themselves teaming up with a shape-shifting mutant and a cyber-augmented hacker to rob the most impregnable bank in the universe! (All right, that last one is in its own category of fantastic, something we’ll get back to shortly. But you get the idea.) But as brilliant as these initial ideas are, the resulting episodes have a curiously inert quality to them. A bunch of cool stuff happens, yes, but none of it ever quite coheres into a story. Some of that is down to shaky characterization, and some of that is down to the fact that a wonderfully intriguing, boundary-stretching premise can be a double-edged sword. After all, the show has to fully realize the vast promise of that initial concept, and it’s got to pull it off on a relatively limited BBC budget. If nothing else, “The Curse Of The Black Spot” might have a bit more energy if it didn’t have to struggle quite so much to hide the fact that the ship is docked the entire time.

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But perhaps the overriding issue with all three stories is that they are just so unconcerned with introspection. Like any good heist caper, this episode is going to lead more with its plotting than with its characters; we’re in Ocean’s Eleven territory, where a core part of the appeal is that it’s just so damn cool to watch everything play out. But “Time Heist” sometimes takes that genre convention as license to elide character beats entirely, starting with the rather central question of whether the Doctor and Clara should be robbing a bank. The Doctor’s response that the two of them have already agreed to it—with the added incentive that security is already after them, so there’s no backing out—isn’t bad, but it feels like a departure from Doctors past; recall how his predecessor reacted in “The Impossible Astronaut” when he even suspected his friends were manipulating him.

The Doctor doesn’t always have to rebel against the slightest hint of authority, and this could just be a facet of this still new incarnation but it’s odd that he trusts the Architect so implicitly, considering he doesn’t work out his identity until very end. Unless this is a sign that the Doctor subconsciously knows who the Architect is, and… but this is really the point. The episode asks us to accept uncritically the Doctor’s—not to mention Clara’s—acquiescence to a plan for only the most abstract, fatalistic of reasons, when there’s far more interesting material to explore there. A similar point could be made for Saibra and Psi’s willingness to continue the mission even after they have got what they always wanted; I’m happy to chalk that up to them being genuinely good people, but it’s another moment of unnecessarily weak characterization.

Still, tonight’s Doctor Who episode is better than Thompson’s earlier efforts, in part because, yes, the central idea of “Time Heist” is so wonderful that it’s kind of impossible to screw up. The pre-credits sequence— which throws the memory-wiped Doctor and Clara into the middle of the chaos, their own voices assuring them that they submitted to this amnesia of their own free will—ranks as an all-time great hook for a Doctor Who story. “Time Heist” definitely isn’t the first science fiction story to start this way, but it’s achievement enough to do something without direct precedent in televised Doctor Who lore. This is also an instance where this particular Doctor’s more withdrawn, methodical disposition serves the story well; where his three new series predecessors might well have offered some pat one-liner to cut the tension and lead into the title music, here the Doctor appears as shocked and disturbed as everyone else. That dumbfounded look on Peter Capaldi’s face sells the gravity, perhaps even the novelty, of the situation. The Doctor is just as lost as anybody else.

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Indeed, beyond the sheer, giddy thrill of letting Doctor Who play bank robbery for a week, the overriding secret to this episode’s qualified success is its cast. Peter Capaldi is in fine form, turning in what might be his most Doctor-ish performance to date. For those quite rightly pointing out that that’s a meaningless statement, there’s a balance here between the darkness and the light that we haven’t quite seen in previous episodes; the Doctor gets to take charge here, just as he did in “Into The Dalek,” but here he’s unencumbered by the mutual dislike between him and the soldiers. His rallying of the troops in the bank antechamber feels so specific to this incarnation, as he offers no soaring speech or appeal to higher virtue; he simply reminds them of the cold calculation that they all must have made before agreeing to a mind wipe in the first place. If “Time Heist” manages one enduring contribution to the Doctor Who mythos, it’s Psi’s suggestion of yet another reason the Doctor chose his name: professional detachment. It’s a harsh assessment, though not inaccurate in the immediate context. Yet for all those cold moments, this is also probably this Doctor’s funniest episode. There’s the terrific bit where he chastises Clara for unnecessary pessimism in the face of a bomb, and he gets in some great jokes as he gives Madam Karabraxos his phone number. There again, we see a recurring truth of this Doctor: His best one-liners are also threats.

Steve Thompson’s previous stories have suffered from some rather weak guest casts, which is decidedly not a problem for “Time Heist.” Psi and Saibra are comfortably the two best-realized, best-acted characters in any of his stories; I mentioned previously that a couple moments in this story only work if we assume that the pair are genuinely good people, but then it’s not as though the Doctor would recruit anyone else, would he? Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Walker both put up hard shells around their characters in the early going, but it’s never terribly difficult to tell that these are just shells. After being at least the coequal lead in the first four episodes of the season, Clara doesn’t get much to do here, fulfilling the generic companion role that she was relegated to for much of last season. As such, we don’t really get much Clara-specific insight from her conservation with Psi, in which the pair discuss the deletion of memory, but that’s the kind of well-worn little scene between companion and guest character that helps us better understand who Psi is. A little characterization can go a long way, particularly when the episode has assembled a central quartet of performers that work so well together; I realize this is as fundamentally meaningless an assessment as “Doctor-ish,” but both Psi and Saibra comes across as honorary companions by the end of the episode, and that general good feeling helps compensate for shortcomings elsewhere.

“Time Heist” must contend with a particular variant of the law of conservation of characters: The episode has two mysterious unseen characters, the Architect and Director Karabraxos, and the only way the reveal of either character can have any impact is if it’s someone we already know. In a story with only five characters—well, five humanoid characters—that really doesn’t leave many potential candidates, and the Doctor’s deep-seated self-loathing is so well-documented that his surprisingly forthright declaration that he hates the Architect feels like a dead giveaway. After all, the Doctor meets all manner of terrible monsters and villains in his travels, and he is frequently disgusted, repulsed, sickened, or even moved to pity. But those are all passive, reactive emotions. The Doctor reserves his active hatred for those who truly deserve it, and—as “Into The Dalek” so forcefully reminded us—that list basically just comprises the Daleks and himself. Perhaps the twist would work better if there were other viable candidates for the Architect’s identity; the Doctor does mention that mysterious woman in the shop, who may or may not be the equally mysterious Missy, but that thread is dropped before the opening credits.

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The Karabraxos reveal works better, and a lot of that is down to how Keeley Hawes differentiates the security-minded Ms. Delphox and the absurdly greedy Madam Karabraxos. Both are over-the-top creations, the latest examples of that great Doctor Who tradition of bringing in a well-respected television star to come in and chew as much scenery as possible, all while sporting not one but two gloriously ridiculous hairdos. At first glance, Ms. Delphox is a standard Doctor Who villain, boring by virtue of her sheer familiarity: sadistic, businesslike, and imperious. But once the show introduces the original, the clone takes on new dimensions; there’s a sadness, a sense of resignation and defeat to Ms. Delphox that is wholly lacking in Madam Karabraxos, a fact that the latter even comments upon. Ms. Delphox is a villain because it’s her job, because it’s what she was created to be. She derives enjoyment from it only to the extent that to do otherwise would be to court despair. Madam Karabraxos, on the other hand, is evil just because it’s too damn fun not to be, and the contrast is evident primarily through Hawes’ performances; the distinctions are subtle but unmistakable. What could have been another cookie-cutter piece of storytelling becomes something more interesting, if not exactly crucial.

That describes a lot of “Time Heist,” really. A lot of intriguing elements are here, and I’ll zero in on two: Saibra’s shape-changing ability and the Teller’s ability to detect guilt. Now, to the episode’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from the horror of either of these scenarios. Saibra makes no secret of how her inability to touch anyone without assuming that person’s form has made it impossible for her to built trust, leaving her an excellent judge of character but also heartbreakingly alone. Pippa Bennett-Warner plays Saibra as someone who has been hardened by experience but desperately doesn’t want to be, and it’s touching to see how much she brightens over the course of her adventure with her new friends, even before the Doctor gives her the cure. As for the Teller, his ability to turn people’s brains into soup makes for one of the most horrific visuals the show has given us in some time. What lends this horror more weight is the reappearance of the victim later in the episode; his living death is no longer just a matter of shock value or a quick way to raise the narrative stake for the more important characters. It’s a real tragedy that the bank robbers take at least a little time to engage with, punctuated by Psi asking the Doctor to promise he won’t let him end up like that.

But what’s the ultimate purpose of both of these elements? Saibra does get to do some highly strategic shape-shifting, yes, but her exchange with the Doctor about not being able to trust someone who looks back at you with your own eyes pays off with the Time Lord realizing the true identity of the Architect. As for the Teller, this is a monster that detects guilt facing off against a character whose Brobdingnagian guilt formed the emotional cornerstone of the show’s 50th anniversary special, and the episode never really does anything with this. Admittedly, a major point of “The Day Of The Doctor” was that the Doctor was finally able to let go of his guilt, but even the Doctor’s potential newfound lack of guilt could drive one hell of an intriguing confrontation with the Teller.

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Now, let me be clear: I don’t object to “Time Heist” because it didn’t play out the way I wanted it to. That’s not a fair criticism in and of itself. But, not unlike “The Curse Of The Black Spot” and “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS,” this episode too often makes a plot-centered narrative choice when it could have made a character-centered one. In theory, the most powerful emotional beat of this episode is the aged Madam Karabraxos finally recognizing the error of her ways and reaching out to the one person who can save her from her regret, but the structure of the episode makes that a footnote to a footnote. “Time Heist” is a lot of fun, buoyed along by five strong performances and an irresistibly cool central premise. This is the kind of episode that can still be pretty damn good even without coming close to living up to its full potential. I’m honestly not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but, yeah, that’s very Doctor Who.

Stray observations:

  • Necessary disclaimer: I’ve talked a lot in this review about Steve Thompson as the central creative force of the episode. I realize this is something of a conceit; beyond the fact that he officially co-wrote this episode with Steven Moffat, it’s probably a mistake to think of anything that happens in a collaborative medium like television in such individualistic terms. So think of my comments less as a referendum on a specific writer and more a commentary on how the creative issues in this episode recall those of the other two episodes that share his byline.
  • Psi’s trawl through the archive of the universe’s worst criminals is a treasure trove of old Doctor Who characters. I’ll leave someone more eagle-eyed and/or better-equipped with a pause button to give the complete rundown, but I spotted a Sensorite and the Gunslinger. Of course, given Patrick Troughton’s cameo in the Robin Hood archive in “Robot Of Sherwood,” I’ll be very disappointed if the Salamander isn’t featured.
  • So many great quotes from this episode! I think I’ll leave them to the gallery this week, but I will note that the Doctor’s various recitations of “shut up” did feature an homage, intentional or otherwise, to one of Malcolm Tucker’s most famous lines. Given how much people were hoping against hope the Doctor would somehow throw away all pretense of being a family-friendly character and say the line, I’d like to think “shuttity up” was a gift to all of us unreasonable loons.

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