The Doctor is trying to convince Clara to break her date with Danny and travel with him. The TARDIS phone rings and as soon as The Doctor answers he and Clara find themselves in a strange room with cyborg hacker Psi and shape-shifting mutant Saibra. A voice recording from the mysterious ‘Architect’ tells them that they have agreed to rob the impenetrable Bank of Karabraxos and to their memories being erased. With the help of a mole, they enter the bank but witness a creature guarding the bank called The Teller sensing a customer’s guilty thoughts and destroying his brain.
Helped by more of the Architect’s briefcases, The Doctor, Clara, Psi and Saibra head to the vaults, which holds coveted items for each of them. Psi and Saibra sacrifice themselves with disintegrators to avoid the wrath of The Teller. The Doctor realises time travel is being used to rob the bank. On reaching Madame Karabaroxos, The Doctor gives her the TARDIS number as she escapes a solar apocalypse. Psi and Saibra had just been teleported and the heist was a mission planned by Karabaxos and The Doctor (Architect) in the future to rescue The Teller and his wife from extinction.
Doctor Who has always enjoyed riffing on popular genres – westerns, epics, swashbucklers – and so it was about time the series got around to doing a variation on the heist movie. The premise is unbeatable and, though not executed to its full potential, it remains one of the most distinctive episodes of the season. All the genre pleasures are there – assembling the crew, elaborate plans, the getaway – but it’s not clear what exactly the time travel element adds to the mix, except an excuse to pad out the thin story with out-of-sequence narration. In fact, time travel gets in the way.
All the supporting characters fit into the storyline like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, with just enough room left for empathy. Instead it’s The Doctor and Clara who get lost in the episode. It’s partly because everything they do is in service to the plot but there’s nothing that wouldn’t turn out the same with another Doctor and companion or, aside from owning a TARDIS, an entirely different pair of heroes. In some ways, it’s a welcome breather from the intense psychologising of ‘Listen’ and darker characterisations of ‘Into the Dalek’ but The Doctor and Clara are written too broadly.
Apart from a reference back to ‘a women in the shop’ that brought The Doctor and Clara together (who may or may not be Missy!) and with Danny at the fringes of the episode, there’s not much story or character development in ‘Time Heist’. All storytelling is focused on the heist itself and beyond the suggestion of The Doctor’s jealousy of Clara and Danny’s relationship in the closing moments, nothing changes or is revealed about the characters. It’s all very superficial and self-contained, as are many heist movies, and is proof that Doctor Who has basically become an anthology series.
It’s difficult to see where ‘Time Heist’ fits into Doctor Who more broadly. It’s one of those gimmicky concept episodes, like Steve Thompson’s season 7 episode ‘Journey to The Centre of The TARDIS’, that nonetheless rests on some familiar faces and ideas from the series, like the memory worms or the extinction motif reminding us The Doctor is the last of his kind. Thompson is Moffat’s protégé so it’s no surprise that their collaboration would be full of the jarring time-jumps we see in the showrunner’s episodes, but unlike those here they serve the episode and not longer-term story arcs.
The episode is a very successful marrying of Doctor Who and heist movies, but little else besides. The writers do a great job of adapting the imagery of heist capers for science-fiction using aliens, robots and strange planets but they didn’t really consider how time travel could be integrated with the conventions of the genre. It’s highly entertaining but could have been even more so if it had owned its style-over-substance more proudly, rather than attempting to be profound and complex with the plot twist. The good work done in developing the supporting characters more than usual actually ends up dwarfing the leads, who remain very anonymous throughout. With little relevance to the rest of the season or series, ‘Time Heist’ is an episode that seems ready to be forgotten, just like The Doctor’s memory of planning the robbery. It’s still a diverting episode, if not necessarily worth visiting again.