Why are the Doctor and Clara attempting to rob the most secure bank in time and space? What are they trying to steal? And who is the mysterious Architect pulling the strings in the background?
A mystery wrapped in a bank robbery
You agreed to rob the most impregnable bank in history. You must have had a very good reason. We all must have.
After the insubstantial slapstick that was Robot of Sherwood a fortnight ago, this is how you produce a lightweight but enjoyable caper, as Doctor Who takes on heist movie classics such as Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job and Snatch. (If only they’d brought Mr (Danny) Pink with them, they could have done Reservoir Dogs …) As a condensed 44-minute, Saturday tea-time take on the genre, writers Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat do a pretty good job of it.
The episode cuts straight to the chase, skipping the traditional sequences showing how the team is assembled and the convoluted plan required to carry off a seemingly impossible robbery in favour of presenting the Doctor, Clara, augmented human Psi and shape-shifting mutant Saibra with a set of mysteries to slowly unravel along with the viewer.
What memories have been erased and why? Who is the Architect and how has he left a trail of helpful devices and clues along the way? Why has each member of the team agreed to carry out the robbery? What are they trying to steal? Why no TARDIS? How does Ms Delphox (a deliciously icy turn from guest star Keeley Hawes) maintain control over the Teller?
The team’s progress to the vault is perhaps a little too easy given that they are in a supposedly impregnable bank. Aside from the Teller (a beautifully designed new creature), there’s a bank’s security measures seem quite sparse. Indeed, other than a super-secure vault – a heist movie staple – and the Teller himself, the quartet spend much of the episode running down corridors – a Who staple – largely unassailed. There’s so much else happening in the episode that it would have been nigh on impossible to make this part of the story more complex, but it does rather undermine the bank’s reputation.
Characters in three dimensions
This wasn’t a bank heist. It never was. It was a rescue mission for a whole species.
Where the episode does score highly is in its treatment of the secondary characters. Saibra and the Doctor discuss how her inability to prevent herself taking on the appearance of whoever she touches means she can never get close to another person. Psi explains to Clara the sense of loss he experiences as a result of deleting all memories of his friends and family to protect them when he was in jail.
They’re small moments, but they’re enough to bring them to life so that when they apparently meet their deaths there’s a real sense of loss – they’re not just disposable one-shot plot devices. And when it is revealed that they are in fact still alive and receive their rewards – gene suppressant to render Saibra normal and a neophyte circuit to restore Psi’s lost memories – there is consequently a real sense of fulfilment.
Even the Teller is well drawn. What could otherwise have been a one-note, speechless killer who sucks out people’s memories, reduces their brains to soup and leaves them with caved-in skulls – a simple but gruesome image – becomes a sympathetic hostage at the end of the episode, one of two remaining survivors of a species who the Doctor is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to rescue. For all the fun we have with the show’s many irredeemably evil villains, Who really shines when it occasionally allows some shades of grey to mingle between the black and white, as it does here.
Most one-off characters shine brightly but briefly and are soon forgotten. Psi and Saibra were made interesting enough for me that I’d happily see them again. Who knows, maybe we will later in the season?
The player of games
Come on then, Team Not Dead.
The episode also plays on the Doctor’s inability to say no to a game or mystery, a trait evident in most of his previous incarnations. Here he needs little excuse to accept the challenge of robbing the bank. He displays obvious glee when he discovers the dimensional shift bomb. And he cannot resist showing off in Karabraxos’s private vault, pacing the room Columbo-style as he unravels the final mystery of his own motivation for being there as he rails against himself (as the Architect):
He’s overbearing. He’s manipulative. He likes to think that he’s very clever. I hate him!
The whole adventure is a game to him – one big adrenalin rush. He loves it.
Overall, this was a fun, rollercoaster adventure that more than fulfils the requirement for a midseason episode: to entertain without the baggage of the ongoing story arcs. It’s a decent story that puts a Who twist on a familiar tale, married to good characterisation and mixing lots of quotable lines with a smattering of dramatic heft and timey-wimey. Taken in conjunction with last week’s Listen, it’s a reminder that Doctor Who is a show which can easily jump from one genre to another from episode to episode. And it’s all the better for that.
Fun stuff, references & quotables
- The TARDIS’s external phone has been used more frequently during Clara’s travels with the Doctor than at any time during the show’s history. In addition to this episode, it has featured in The Bells of Saint John, The Day of the Doctor, The Time of the Doctor and Deep Breath (in flashback to TTotD).
- The memory worms were previously seen in the 2012 Christmas special The Snowmen.
- Does the Doctor have a food obsession? In Into the Dalek, before being miniaturised he advised Clara, “Don’t be lasagne.” Here he likens the end-result of the Teller invading people’s minds as “soup”. What’s next, tiramisu?
- Is someone a Pokémon fan? Keeley Hawes’ character’s name is Ms Delphox. Delphox is also the name of a fox-like Pokémon character.
- “Don’t be so pessimistic. It’ll affect team morale.”
- Psi: “I still don’t understand why you’re in charge.” The Doctor: “Basically, it’s the eyebrows.”
- “There’s no immediate threat … [alarm sounds] … I should stop saying things like that.”
- “Don’t think!” A call-back to Blink for the second week in a row?
- The Doctor mentions that he’s only ever seen a neophyte circuit once before. If he’s referring to a previous story, I have no idea which one it is.
- The shredders being transporters rather than suicide devices is reminiscent of the disintegrators from Bad Wolf, which turned out to be disguised transmats.
- “So many memories in here … big scarf, bow-tie – bit embarrassing. What do you think of the new look?”
- The Doctor tells a joke involving Cesare Borgia and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Borgia was educated in Pisa, so historically this meeting could have taken place.
- “It’s a time machine, not a miracle worker!”