Imitation, flattery. It’s almost possible to believe that Stephen Thompson doesn’t actually exist – he’s simply a pen name for Moffat. The former’s three scripts thus far – Curse of the Black Spot, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS and Time Heist – have been marinaded in Steven Moffat, so much so that in this latest installment we saw an analogue of Moffat’s most identifiable trope: don’t *.
In identifying this relatable device – try doing something that is instinctively impossible – Moffat has created scary, understandable, impersonatable terrors that can turn the everyday into the horrifying: If you blink, you die; if you breathe, you die; if you forget, you die. This latest iteration is, in isolation, a cracker too. If you think of anything, you die. Where next for this notion where to do something that is instinctive and impossible to resist equals death? Don’t wee?
Of course, this was done 30 years ago in Ghostbusters but Moffat has shown no inclination to avoid past glories this season, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that we’re fairly openly lifting ideas from other genre material.
Thing is, like much of Thompson’s work, it feels too late to the party to be particularly successful. In The One With The Pirates we got a Moffatian technology-gone-wrong swerve; in The One With The TARDIS we got a Moffatian pre-destination paradox; in The One With The Soup we get a Moffatian ‘Don’t *’.
Time Heist – like Robot of Sherwood and arguably Deep Breath – owes a lot to the BBC’s favourite-bottom-drawer of reliable genre television too. With Deep Breath we take a trip back to Victorian / Edwardian Britain (The Mill, Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street); in Robot of Sherwood we head back to Merrie / Medieval England (Robin Hood, Merlin). In Time Heist we get to see Doctor Who Does Hustle.
Viewers may welcome this as what I referred to as televisual shorthand in my article on Mark Gatiss’s effort – a recognisable setting and tone that means we don’t need 15 minutes setting up the narrative, assisted further by Murray Gold’s sledgehammer incidental music. But it also makes this series of Doctor Who hard to pin down tonally – from broad comedy to deep horror and flashy nothing, Series 8 is bemusing. Again, this feels like a series running of out creative steam: why else throw the Doctor Who ingredients into such cookie-cutter shapes?
This is a problem for Peter Capaldi. In my view he remains fascinating to watch, but who on Earth is the 12th Doctor? Perhaps this goes some way to re-introducing some mystery to the character but actually I find myself with the impression that the Doctor’s characteristics are coming pretty much entirely from the lead actor’s playing of the character. There are suggestions that there’s something going on here – why the compulsion to avoid physical contact? – but the series’ skittishness in nailing its colours to the mast makes it hard to get and maintain a grip on it.
As an episode I found Time Heist to be perhaps the least engaging yet. I’ve attempted to watch it twice and found myself just doing something else after 30 minutes or so – as a result I can’t really explain exactly what happened in the end. I liked the monster and the direction caught the eye a few times. Other than that I struggle to recall much, barring how many recurring Doctor Who motifs we saw here. Time travel yada-yada, a severe lady villainness (cf. Miss Hartigan, Ms Foster, Madam Kovarian, Miss Kizlet, Missy – see a trend?), monsters that aren’t really monsters, Clara back to being a dependable blank canvas.
All of this is kind of OK, because episodes such as Time Heist and Robot of Sherwood are pretty much designed to wash over you, the way a warm bath might. Pleasant enough for a while, but I’d suggest you’re unlikely to remember too many specifics about said bath in 12 months. In this regard it probably fulfilled its function and is likely destined to moulder away in the bottom 50 of Doctor Who Magazine reader polls in years to come.
Episodes like this are something to be vaguely admired for their efficiency and promptly forgotten. Don’t expect brilliance, don’t expect originality and, just like Time Heist’s protagonists, don’t think.