21 September 2014

TV: Time Heist

Time Heist was the first episode of Doctor Who whose first broadcast I've missed in years. I can't actually remember the last one, but I suspect it was probably in 2011. I don't know if this affected the impression I got of the episode, but I first watched it on iPlayer at about half past midnight on Sunday morning. This was because on the same day, I moved into my uni halls, and there was of course a welcome meeting 7.30 'til 8.20 - the exact time the show was on. Anyway, after this I got to know my flatmates a little better, so to speak, and once they were heading off out for a full night of it (one returned home at 4pm on Sunday) I headed to my room.

I thought this was pretty good. It was riddled with problems and niggles, but on the whole I thought it was a fun, enjoyable episode. With the benefit of hindsight, I think in that respect it's superior to Robot of Sherwood. To begin at the beginning, I thought the opening sequence worked really well. I assume the liquidy pool we get underneath the closing credits is now the standard time vortex, given the first shot of the story. I'd completely forgotten until I saw this but I do now seem to remember some kind of interview with director Douglas MacKinnon where he was talking about trying to make the inside of a washing machine look like a black hole, or a fish tank like a strange, menacing kingdom. 

I thought this was impression was conveyed as successfully as it could be. Very subtly, we learn things about Clara too - the art of misdirection is one of MacKinnon's strengths. For one thing, she leaves the washing on when she goes out - even if she'd not gone with the Doctor, the impression I got was that she was quite happy just to leave it, to go on her date. For another, she has fish. In the typical Clara vein though, she seems perfectly content to just leave them. Most pet owners would make sure they had enough food or whatever before they rushed off, but this could be because the Doctor seems able to pilot the TARDIS with pinpoint accuracy nowadays. Still, even an audible acknowledgement they exist wouldn't hurt. It's also difficult to tell whether this is the same flat we saw in The Time of the Doctor.

One directorial strength I have to pick up on is the way MacKinnon uses scene transitions. They might not always perfectly executed, but the ambition and creativity is certainly there. He seems to have the best handle on how the show should look and feel so far this year. He went to particular effort to shoot the TARDIS differently. Over the years, the interior has sometimes felt a bit cramped - especially in the classic series, where it was due to production limitations. But even in Matt Smith's designs, there's sometimes a lack of scope. I blame this partly on the shape and layout of the spaces, making it difficult to shoot at natural angles without being almost in the faces of the actors. Following Listen, MacKinnon commented on Twitter that he'd taken measures to remove one wall of the shell so that they might frame more interestingly. It pays off, reminding us that the TARDIS is no longer just bigger on the inside, it's huge!

The actual plot of this confused me a bit. From the Doctor's point of view, he enters the bank, the tunnels, and places all these mysterious objects (the bomb, the teleporters etc.) and then goes back, picks up Psi and Saibra, wipes all of their memories, and then we get them entering the bank again. Sorry, for him, would it not have been simpler to do exactly the same, just a little bit later, when the solar storm hit? Then the vault would seemingly have opened anyway... I don't know, it just seemed like a massive over-complication on his part. Don't get me wrong, it made for a better episode this way, it was just odd to me.

With this last point in mind, Psi and Saibra were kind of redundant. However, if we overlook this, then I can see why the Doctor chose to pick them up - although why and how he has a list of futuristic criminals in the TARDIS is unexplained. As the Time Lord himself comments when he learns Psi's true identity, he is the ideal candidate for this kind of job. I thought getting into the bank was achieved a little too easily (and in places, far too easily). The bomb that can then replace matter is extremely bloody useful! Why hasn't he ever used one of these before now? There's so many occasions when it could have been extremely helpful. I'm thinking of two particular examples: Frontier in Space when he's shipped between just about every prison cell in the known universe; and The Invasion of Time with the immortal "even the Sonic Screwdriver can't get me out of this one!" line. Now he has knowledge and access to these devices, it'd make sense for him to carry a stock with him given the amount he's locked up. Of course, he probably won't.

There didn't seem to be any sense of jeopardy in the scenes detailing the break in. Only when the Teller was released did the tension start to rise. There was no creeping around in fear of alerting guards - instead they were tearing through the place, clanging, shouting, marching. There's only a little bit of running, and as such the pace feels like it falls off dramatically. In places this works really well, such as when the Teller stalks Clara. but it did make the episode feel like it should be moving a bit quicker in parts. I think this is why some people have been saying that this should have been a two-parter. I disagree though, there wouldn't really be enough of a plot to stretch over 90 minutes. I think 50 would have done the trick. And I don't mean just in shooting; the story should have been structured like that from the start.

The middle portion of the episode, despite lacking in any real threat thanks to the Teller keeping being returned to hibernation (where it wasn't even hibernating) - imagine how much more scary it would've been if it had escaped, and been roaming through the corridors without anyone knowing where it was - was actually pretty good. As realised, the abilities of both Psi and Saibra were showcased to show us why they were there. It was essential that after being told of their specialities early in the episode we saw them being put to good use otherwise there wouldn't be any reason for their inclusion. I have to say I felt Saibra was the stronger of the pair, thanks to the subtleties of Pippa Bennet-Warner's performance. Dressed like Mayday from A View to a Kill, she could have been quite one-note and intimidating. Instead, she's likeable and personable. The idea of Psi was very good though, and the makeup job highly impressive. I just wasn't overly enamoured with the actor or the character's name; it's just too sci-fi (or is that Psi-fi?).

It was really easy just to get swept up in the story with this one though, the easiest in fact since Into the Dalek I thought. Maybe it was because I was a bit tired and things when I first watched it, but I found this just an easy watch. There was quite a lot of subtle commentary going on, and Douglas MacKinnon's direction was gorgeous for the most part. My favourite shot is the one from above when the foursome enter the banking square and the camera zooms down and left onto them. I don't know what it was about it, it just felt exciting. The lighting was absolutely exquisite, again the best since Into the Dalek in my opinion. The DoP (Suzie Lavelle) and lighting director/supervisor deserve much applause here. In fact, the entire art department ought to take a bow for Time Heist.

The Doctor's character in this one was somewhat stronger than it has been throughout Series 8. He was much more like the heroic figure we're used to. He was still flawed, of course - that's what makes him the Doctor - but was much more recognisable than in, say, Robot of Sherwood. Here, his stance is exactly the reverse of in Mark Gatiss' episode. Whereas there he was a bit of misery guts, here he actively defies and dissuades pessimism. Peter Capaldi continues to prove to be a revelation and is so easily the Doctor. He embodies the essence whilst playing it differently to any of his twelve predecessors, quite a feat. It struck me the other day that Capaldi may be the first actor since Patrick Troughton to actually give a performance as the Doctor. Whereas other actors mould the Doctor to themselves, Capaldi's incarnation is as much a performance as any other role he's played. You can see this in all the interviews he's given. He's actually a really amiable guy, and I'm thankful for that for the sake of his fellow cast and the crew.

I was glad to see Clara taking a bit of a back seat this week. Listen, Robot of Sherwood and Deep Breath (to a lesser extent) saw her in quite a prominent role. I think the kind of role Ms Oswald was afforded this week was one that suits her character much better. Don't misinterpret me, I'm not being chauvinistic and saying all female companions should be subservient to the Doctor, that's not what I think at all. What I'm saying is that for this particular character, she works best for me when given a plot to dive into, rather than the other way around. She was written with more credibility here, I thought, and was much more likeable. I warmed to her here more than any other episode yet this year, but she still has the major character flaw of barely ever being frightened. This was addressed with the Teller, but I would like to see more fallibility in the character. Jenna Coleman is a quality actress, and it's a delight to see her get a more manageable character to play. Though the fringe isn't doesn't do her any favours.

Steve Thompson doesn't have the greatest reputation within fandom, but I'm happy to go with the general consensus that this was his best episode yet. I do see more merit in his work than most, but I do concede that his episodes are generally quite flawed, rather than bad. The Curse of the Black Spot has some great ideas, but doesn't deliver on many levels, coming off as average in my book. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is superior in my view, but suffers significantly in the characterisation of the three brothers. Working with Steven Moffat seems to focus on his strengths. Setting the episode in the future helps eradicate the need for explanation and allows him to get on with his story. However, I did feel that there were a few too many similarities to one of Moffat's other episodes this year - Into the Dalek - particularly in the pair of supporting characters. Their sacrifices reminded me of Gretchen and Keith off Pramface especially. That's probably entirely co-incidental, but could it be co-incidence that there's no script editor credited for this episode (only a script supervisor)?

Like Listen, this seems to be a relatively arc free episode on first glance. There were of course the moments with Danny, but I think it's really significant that the 'woman in the shop' got another mention. Whilst it would probably be included in natural conversation, considering the relatively unnatural dialogue the Doctor and Clara are sometimes given, this feels deliberately placed. I can only surmise that we are to get an answer as to her identity before too long. I only hope the casual audience doesn't have to be reminded in this way too often. One thing I neglected to mention last week to do with the ongoing arc is that in Series 7 (or at least Neil Cross' episodes) the TARDIS actively dislikes Clara. In a DWM Production Notes a few months back, Moffat teased that it was all leading somewhere, followed by a "oh look, what am I writing now?"-style comment. In Listen, Clara connects herself with the old ship in a pretty big way. I think this will carry more weight in future weeks.

Due to a quirk of my headphones, I was lucky enough to be more exposed to the music this week for the first few minutes. I have to say though that it was generally of a higher quality than in the last few weeks for me. Nice one, MuGo.

I've seen a lot of reviews saying this was 'Hustle in space'. The BBC series, which ran for eight series of six episodes, happens to be one of my favourites - in fact, it's my second favourite completed series after Gavin and Stacey. It's true there have been a handful of episodes with robbery-style concepts (probably around five, from memory) but the vast, vast majority of stories dealt instead with 'traditional' long-con premises. I bloody love Hustle, and as good as Time Heist was, Hustle this ain't. It did follow more practised veins from films and shows like Ocean's Eleven but didn't structure itself strongly enough to be properly ranked alongside these productions.

Overall, I thought Time Heist was one of the stronger episodes of Series 8 so far, but didn't blow my socks off in any way. It was really enjoyable and would do well as light viewing if I feel like a bit of an adventure story. The fact that the Doctor was the Architect was something I thought was relatively obvious, and I did expect Saibra to disguise herself as someone the Doctor didn't expect at some point in the episode, but I didn't guess who it was when the time came. The direction in this episode was outstanding again, and I sincerely hope Suzie Lavelle worked on MacKinnon's upcoming Flatline. For the thrills, this was pretty good but the plot collapses until scrutiny somewhat. I know I'll get flack for rating this higher than Listen, but I enjoyed it more overall, but for completely different reasons. Moffat and Minchin seem determined to prove the flexibility of the show this year, and it's another success for the dynamic duo.

Shades Of: Into the Dalek, The Rings of Akhaten, Paradise Towers, The God Complex.
I'm afraid there's no Larry's Line at the moment. As mentioned above, I've moved out of my home and at time of writing, he hasn't seen the episode. I'll let you know if this changes though.

In a Nutshell: A satisfying runaround that is great on the surface and showcases another side of Peter Capaldi's Doctor.

Do check out Tom Newsom's great Almost Review here if you get time.

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