Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Time Heist

There are two kinds of heist stories: noirs and capers. The Noirs, befitting a genre about the darkness of the human soul, are generally focused on the consequences. The heist itself happens no later than the two-thirds point; in Payback, it happens in the first reel. The point is to show how the thieves attempt to not get caught afterwards… and not kill each other. Noir Heists end in betrayals, tragedies, and a pile of bodies; even if some of the thieves get away, they had to travel a painful and bloody road to get there. Rififi set the standard back in 1955, and still holds it, but it’s got a number of fantastic contenders. The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Reservoir Dogs, Ronin, the aforementioned Payback, and Inception are other genre classics.

Then there are the capers; these are lighter, and generally focus on more sympathetic characters than the violent antiheroes of the Noirs. Capers usually put the heist at the end as the big finale, since we’re cheering for the thieves to get away, and they do. The Hot Rock, The Great Train Robbery, Sneakers, The Ocean’s 11 Trilogy, The Italian Job, and Mission Impossible IV are top examples here. (The first Mission: Impossible sort of splits the difference between Noir and Caper, to very cool effect.)

Both are fun, though I prefer the Noirs myself. (I’m a big fan of Donald Westlake’s Parker series of novels, amongst others.) Capers usually feel like they’re missing the last act to me, though I do still enjoy a good one. Either way, though, a heist movie is really built around and depends on two chief pleasures: a colorful cast of characters with compelling stories, and a clever heist. The former is the more important piece (Reservoir Dogs showed everything except the heist), since they carry you through. The heist itself should be solid too, though; it’s a mixture of puzzle-solving, teamwork, patience, and, when everything goes wrong (and what good heist doesn’t eventually go wrong?), improvisation.

All of which is a long way of saying that Doctor Who’s take on the genre, Time Heist, isn’t a very good heist yarn, despite mixing time travel into the cocktail.

To be fair, the cold open rocks, what with the jump-cut from the sitcom-y present day to the bunker and the memory worm and the “I have agreed to this of my own free will” recordings. The assignment coming from the low-budget version of the guy from that surprisingly not-weird Japanese game show sketches the plot and motivations for the robbery efficiently. Even here, the hole start to show - the briefing takes place inside some room in the bank, and the guards show up as soon as it finishes, but leave one of the two possible exits open. That’s… 

I generally hesitate to call silliness in this show dumb, but that’s pretty dumb. Everything about the set-up and resolution is senseless, trying to build excitement without building appropriate tension, preferring to throw something new at you before you get a chance to care. And it’s where the episode operates. It’s an action show, with no plot and not time for character development. Both Psi and Saibra are one-dimensional characters with only the most minimal personalities. The Doctor and Clara are both in okay form, but neither excels here. Nor do they particularly get to do anything interesting.

That leaves the set-pieces. But, like the twist about being in the bank at the beginning, the guards rushing in, and the guards conveniently not noticing one of the exits, the set-ups are bland (in fact, it’s mostly running through bland corridors), it doesn’t bother to build suspense, and doesn’t pay off in interesting ways.

It also goes directly from “You have to break into the bank” to “breaking into the bank”. Again, it isn’t able to build or set-up anything in advance, just sprinting to the next flat set-piece. Basically, there’s no story, just action, and the action isn’t exciting. Even the two big twists - the nature of the exit strategy and the identity of the Architect - are obvious almost as soon as they’re introduced, taking away even that genre pleasure.
Gee, I wonder what's going on here.

So it’s a Heist Caper that doesn’t have fun characters or an interesting heist. And, with the exception of one element, it’s barely even a Doctor Who story, preferring instead to be just generic TV heist done uninterestingly.

Outside of some minor last-minute time travel shenanigans, the monster - the Teller - is the one thing that makes this a Doctor Who episode. And, in all fairness, it’s a fantastic one. The practical effects are truly astonishing and its powers are horrifying. The final twist, revealed in the climax, does finally make this a good Doctor Who story somewhere in the depths of its architecture, and also an actual story. Unfortunately, it comes so close to the credits that it feels like an afterthought; again, no actual tension was built along these lines, so there’s no release.

And… that’s about it. There’s some funny lines here and there (“We do not wish to hurt you before we incinerate you.”), but nothing classic. It’s the one outright failure of this season, and I think the blame has to lie squarely at Moffat’s feet. Douglas Mackinnon just came off Listen, and went on to do Flatline, and excelled with both. I don’t think he makes any particularly egregious mistakes here; he doesn’t spin silk out of thin air, but he puts it all together competently enough, and captures the air of a modern techno-heist well.

Moffat also co-wrote it with Stephen Thompson, and his previous two stories (Curse of the Black Spot and Journey to the Center of the TARDIS) had similar problems. However, since his script was cowritten with Moffat and his last two contributions to Sherlock (one of them similarly cowritten) were superlative, I’m going to blame Moffat for this. I’ve been praising him pretty highly recently, and I’m going to praise him some more in the near future, so it seems perfectly fair to reveal the chinks in the armor. Yes, after Listen, he gets a little credit, but he doesn’t have to blow it all at once. Still, every writer has an off day, and jammed between a masterpiece in Listen and a pretty great episode in The Caretaker (not to tip my hand too much), I find it hard to be particularly upset.

All that gets me just over a thousand words with little else to say, and I’m pretty sure I could call it a day and get on with The Caretaker. But I didn’t address the villains of the piece, Keeley Hawes’ Ms. Delphox and Madame Karabraxos. On the surface, it’s basically just Hawes playing a fairly straightforward scenery-chewing villain and her subtly terrified subordinate and foil. They’re really more interesting for Hawes’ all-in performance than anything they actually do, but Hawes deserves a lot of credit here. Still, there’s a thread to be pulled here, and it goes back to both Noir and Moffat criticism; so, on Thursday, instead of The Caretaker, I’ll be writing about Moffat’s portrayals of women, sexuality, and especially Femme Fatales.

As for Time Heist itself, though? Cool monster, lame heist, dull characters, no story, but fast and flashy. For some people, I suppose that’s enough, but for me, this is the low point of an otherwise excellent season.

Gotta admit, though, Clara rocks that suit.


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  • Okay, I did really like this bit: 
“Still don’t understand why you’re in charge.”
“Basically, it’s the eyebrows.”

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