"Shut up. Everybody, just... just shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up -
shuttity up up up!"
I had a spinal operation on the morning of Sat 20th September. For weeks I’d anticipated the sheer relief of being back home, sat on my-very-own-sofa enjoying the comfort of watching my-favourite-thing-in-the-world safe in the knowledge that hallelujah-it’s-finally-over.
Thankfully, perhaps because of the opiates in my system (or because I was just so amazingly glad to be home), that wasn’t true here. I really enjoyed Time Heist. In fact, you might say that this episode was exactly what the Doctor ordered… Well, actually, the Doctor ordered me to urinate as soon as possible, which isn’t exactly easy after someone’s just fiddled with your spine like it’s made of Play-Doh. But you probably didn’t need to know that. What a wildly inappropriate thing to share publicly. Why I am still talking? Oh, look, a PICTURE.
Sure, there will be some who complain that The Teller “obviously” didn’t look real. These are the same kind of people who, at the back-end of the 90s, shifted the SFX consensus away from physical presence and design towards computer generated graphics. CGI certainly has its place, as New Who is keen on reminding us. (There’s no room for Luddites in the entertainment industry.) And, of course, there’s always the danger that in making this point, it’ll just sound like the mad ravings of an 80s boy. But there’s something to this and it’s worth going into. Please bear with me here.
What’s this got to do with Doctor Who? Simple. It’s very easy to have a go at DW’s special effects. Admittedly, sometimes DW makes it easy, but usually these grievances are entirely unfair. When the design team decide to make something like the Half-Man for real (cogworks and all), and when they choose to make The Teller for real (animatronics and all), we should remember [a] the ingenuity of these creations and [b] the fact that physicality will almost always trump scope. You can have huge stonking CGI space battles, complete with explosions and lasers and all sorts, but it will never beat the magic of seeing a life-size model of the millennium falcon. Why? Because it’s actually real. It exists in actual reality, and this lends it a weight and a presence that often improves an actor’s performance as well as the overall consistency of the scene. Doctor Who is right to champion prosthetics and physical effects even if it takes this new generation a little while to understand why.
(I’d certainly take The Teller over this nonsense any day.)
I know I'm not alone in saying that I really enjoyed these secondary characters. Their performances were generally very good, Jonathan Bailey as Psi especially. There was only one moment when I thought he fluffed his delivery: when he was describing his family to Clara and says, “I must have loved them”. I initially thought it bizarre that he said this without any hint of emotion, without averting his gaze, or even blinking. But of course in retrospect this makes perfect sense. He’s a cyborg. Of course his emotions are unfamiliar.
Pippa Bennett-Warner as Saibra was also good although she wasn’t given a chance to furnish her character’s motivations, seeing as she got dematerialised/transported about 15 minutes into the episode. That said, her being in the TARDIS at the end (sans hood and shapeshifter DNA) felt perfectly natural. In fact, the whole scene was great. All five of them eating chinese and chilling out. This was the most comfortable I’ve felt with secondary characters since Captain Jack in Series 1, or Jake and Mrs Moore in Tom McRae’s Cybermen two-parter in Series 2. To think that the Doctor is obviously robbing another bank with Psi as we speak is delightful. Let’s hope these two make a return.
Which is odd to some, perhaps, because Series 8 isn’t proving universally popular. I doubt I’d be alone, by any means, if I were to suggest that this is possibly the most consistently-good season of Doctor Who, at least since 2008. There really hasn’t been a dud yet. (If anyone tells you Robot of Sherwood wasn’t good, tell them to pay more attention.) And yet I’m hearing that Capaldi isn’t to everyone’s tastes. Which is absolutely fine; tastes differ. That's cool. But I’d really press those who happen to be of this school of thought to watch the episodes a second time, with full knowledge of what to expect. The dialogue has been consistently crisp and entertaining. Peter Capaldi’s ‘caledonianisms’ are regularly hilarious, even if Time Heist wasn’t quite as funny as the others, “Shuttity up” not withstanding. (As long as we’re clear about what Thompson was referencing.)
Although I haven’t discussed the soundtrack yet in any of my reviews so far, it should be said that it too has been consistently fantastic. Murray Gold is a genius, in my opinion, but he’s rightly been criticised for laying it on a little thick. Some way through Tennant’s era you could barely hear the characters speak for all of Gold’s bombastic sensibilities. Here, however, that seems to have changed. (Even though the 11th Doctor’s theme has made a bizarre reappearance in the ’Next Time’ sections of the last two episodes.) In fact, Gold seems to have learned a lesson from the classic series. He’s employing quiet, unassuming pieces which rise to the occasion when necessary, often with the kind of staccato percussion that matches Capaldi’s dread and eccentricity perfectly.
The show really is amazing at the moment. Better than it’s been in years, in fact. Don’t let this pass you by just because your expectations have been moulded by the Smith or latter-Tennant years. Again, watch S8 a second time without these expectations and I imagine it'll improve your opinion of these episodes. In fact, watch Ecclestone again, and then come back to Series 8. You’ll see what I mean…!
BUT there’s a difference between subtle allusion or fan-service, and unstated imitation of very recent history.
That’s what we get here. Thompson seems to really like Neil Cross. It’s quite uncomfortable actually. Both of Cross’ episodes can be found in Series 7. Both of them aired no more than 18 months ago. Consider The Rings of Akhaten for example - in which a monster ‘feeds’ on the memories and thoughts of weaker beings, culminating in the Doctor’s invitation to be similarly treated so as to save the day. Now recall Hide - in which the big plot twist of an otherwise tense story is that the Big Bad is in fact trying to save his lover, lost beyond his reach. When the Doctor realises this, he offers his help, reuniting the two lovers and, again, saving the day.
Thompson even apes his own episodes. Stuart Ian Burns has pointed out that both of Thompson’s previous episodes finished with the revelation that characters thought to be deceased are in fact actually alive. (Black Pearl - surprise! The pirates aren’t dead! Journey - surprise! The salvage crew aren’t dead! Time Heist - surprise! Saibra and Psi aren’t dead!)
This was disappointing. As was the editing and some aspects of the set design. A good example of both is when they transitioned from the hallway (seen again and again just lit differently) into the room where The Teller was kept. They go through a vent (again: overused), but clearly these are two entirely different sets. To compensate, the editor did a kind of ‘Star Wars Wipe’ that flashed across the scene. It was probably meant to be cool. Unfortunately, it came off a little cheap.
Don’t get me wrong: Doctor Who can have a message. But this is about the genre more than it is about the setting - Thompson has explicitly said as much. His interest was to combine sci-fi themes with Heist conventions. That it’s set in a bank is, of course, essential to this genre and therefore this episode - but no one watched Ocean’s Twelve and thought it a ‘rebuke’ of Vegas.
If there is a deeper theme here, beyond Thompson’s interest in the genre, then it’s surely about the Doctor himself. I’m not the only one to have enjoyed the fact that the Doctor was literally the Architect of this whole adventure. He was the one in control - not Karabraxos, not Clara, not The Teller. It was great to see the Doctor once again holding the reigns.
Actually, that’s the point here. Five episodes in to this series, and we’re given a meditation on the Twelfth Doctor. No longer is he a young man. At multiple points in this episode we see him suffering as a result of his aged body. He struggles to keep up with the rest of the gang, eventually catching up entirely out of breath. (Contrast this with earlier Doctors who seemed capable of running several marathons in one afternoon.) At one point, when getting out of a vent, he holds his back in pain like any man over 50 would. And then later, when Saibra hits him on the arm, he literally has to rub it better.
Perhaps more disturbing, he’s also no longer an outwardly compassionate man. Now he’s the Doctor of Detachment, as Psi points out. In fact, when Psi hacks into the computer to save Clara from the Teller and makes a little speech (“Come and find me! Every thief and villain in one big cocktail, I am SO guilty”), it felt like we were hearing Matt Smith again. It was a very Eleventh Doctor kind-of-thing to do, and the speech was a very Eleventh Doctor kind-of-thing to say. It was as if the coldness of the Twelfth Doctor was being contrasted with the considerably warmer personality of the Eleventh.
Again, that was kind of the point. We’re just under half-way through Series 8. Primarily, it was Thompson’s intention to have fun and play with certain tropes and clichés. But, clearly, it was also his purpose to deliver another opportunity to reconsider Number 12.
He’s old. He’s smart. He’s eccentric. And he’s detached.
Matt Smith this ain’t.
Having been asked to give the Doctor a chance in Deep Breath (“Is that the Doctor?”), now we’re being provoked to respond.
Or, in the words of #12 - “De-Shut up”