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Last night on 'Doctor Who,' two parts 'Ocean's Eleven' to one part time travel

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"I’m an amnesiac robbing a bank. Why would I be okay?"

The Doctor: "Question one: robbing banks is easy if you've got a TARDIS. So why am I not using it?"

Clara: "Question two: where is the TARDIS?"

The Doctor: "Okay, that probably should've been question one."

For this season of Doctor Who, Ross Miller and Kwame Opam will be sounding off on each episode in a series of emails we'll be publishing on the site. This week it's "Time Heist" (warning: spoilers ahead). Check out our previous recaps: "Deep Breath," "Into the Dalek," "Robots of Sherwood," and "Listen."

Ross

I'm here to do three things. In order:

  1. Revisit last week's episode — one of its best ever
  2. Talk about this week's episode, "Time Heist"
  3. Derail this conversation completely

Okay, so after reading other people's thoughts on "Listen," last week's great episode, I'm starting to believe that yes, there was an actual monster in little Danny Pink's bed. And, related to that, the Doctor might have in fact seen something out that airlock — he never did answer, letting Clara's interruption move the conversation along. That being said, as a standalone episode I think "Listen" works great agnostic of whether there's a monster or it's all in your head.

My favorite episodes of Doctor Who are ones where time travel plays an integral part of the plot (as opposed to, "let's use the TARDIS to go to place / time X" and then run around with a sonic screwdriver). The TARDIS receives a telephone call — surprisingly rare for a big blue phone box — and before you know it The Doctor, Clara, and two not-quite-human-companions-for-the-week (cyborg Psi and and mutant shapeshifter Saibra, spelling according to the BBC's subtitles) are forced by a mysterious "Architect" to rob the bank for purposes unknown. Everyone's memory was wiped ahead of time, by their own choice. (I had a guess who the Architect was early on, because who else would the Doctor trust in such a situation? By his own volition? No one can threaten the Doctor and get away with it except the Doctor himself — and maybe Clara, but she just wanted to go on a nice, earth-based date.)

The reasons why their brains were wiped, and why The Doctor doesn't just use the TARDIS, become clear as the episode goes. It's convoluted in an absolute sense, but relative to Doctor Who episodes it's quite sensical. The most secure bank ever created has a beast ("The Teller") that can read thoughts, detect bad intentions, and then turn that person's brain to "soup." He obeys the bank's director because at any time she could kill the Teller's partner, who's locked up in a private vault. Sometime in the future, on the director's death bed, she asks the Doctor if he could travel back in time to rescue these two creatures and set them free before a solar storm destroys the bank and anyone who didn't escape. (How did the bank's director get the phone number to call the Doctor? The Doctor gave it to her near the end of the adventure that happened because of the phone call. It's an ontological "bootstrap" paradox, which is to say "wibbly wobbly timey wimey," or "the TARDIS has it under control people, relax."). So the Doctor can do it one of two ways:

  1. Use the TARDIS. Jump into the bank, grab both creatures, set them free
  2. Use the TARDIS. Leave important tools and treasure chests at various key moments. Recruit a team of four to rob a bank. Wipe all their memories to save them from the Teller. Wind up at the final entrance at the moment of a solar storm. Confront the bank director, give her a phone number, and then risk your own memory to get everyone on the same page.

Which one is way more fun to watch? Or rather, will fill up 44 minutes and be told in a somewhat nonlinear fashion?

I would definitely say this is one of the better episodes of the season. Again, it's Capaldi clearly comfortable with his role. Again, it's Clara with a better dynamic trying to juggle a real life without the Doctor and adventures with the Doctor. Again, it's standalone — if there was a reference to the Promised Land I missed it and don't care. Just solid fun.

Actually, I had a lot to say here, so I'm not gonna derail the conversation. But this would've been my transition to talk Beyonce.

Finally, a female Doctor.

Kwame

The Doctor's team

Would that we could have Beyoncé as our new Doctor. Not that it would make any real sense. I just think it'd be fun. More fun than her turn in Dreamgirls, anyway.

This episode was just plain fun. Sure, it was convoluted, but in a way that makes sense for Doctor Who. It basically amounted to a sci-fi Ocean's Eleven, but with higher stakes (read: time travel and memory wipes) and just slightly fewer opportunities to crack wise. But I also think this is the Doctor for the first time all season really coming out from under a rather long existential crisis, questioning his being a hero, legend, good man, etc.

You're right in saying some of the best Who stories use time travel in inventive ways, and this was a prime example of that. The Doctor gets a call from a former enemy from the distant past (who he actually told to call him) and is instructed to conduct an elaborate heist/rescue mission. He recruits two new companions. He takes on the guise of The Architect. He has them all voluntarily wipe their minds. And the plan goes off without a hitch. Why? Because he's the Doctor. It's actually rather flawless from start to finish, even if it's absolutely insane. Even his manipulating Miss Karabraxos into manipulating him was kind of brilliant in a closed-loop, timey-wimey paradox sort of way.

But what's especially interesting to me is who he chooses to go along for the ride. Psi and Saibra are basically broken people. Psi wiped his own memories to protect his family. Saibra, as a consequence of her power, can't get close to people. In their way, they're going through similar "Who/What am I?" existential crises that the Doctor has been going through for four episodes. But by the end, through Capaldi's machinations, they're fixed. Good as new. And everyone is the better for it. If we can take anything from the end of this episode, it's that the Doctor is getting to be more sure of himself. No more waffling. He may not be at the height of his powers, but he's now willing to risk turning his brain to soup because he knows, somewhere inside, that he'll come out alright.

Ross

The Doctor is a fixer — or represents a fixer, at least - but of course, that doesn't mean he's fixed, himself. I'm sure that'll be revisited before the season's over. I'm sure we still have one more broad declarative, where he stands indignant in the face of some Big Bad, and declares himself the Doctor... and then lists whatever poignant and powerful thing that he means by that. Dramatic television, yo.

It's at this point that I am re-watching the "On The Run" concert and am distracted by Beyonce performing "Run The World (Girls)." Mostly because it samples Major Lazer's "Pon de Floor" but also it's Beyonce. And Les Twins (her superstar backup dancers that are, well, twins) have some insane moves during this song.

Kwame

You got me, I'm finally watching it. Hearing "Move That Dope" over what might as well be Bey and Jay's take on a art house Bonnie and Clyde flick is a little jarring.

I have to say, if I'm craving anything, it's for the plot to finally get to why the Big Bad is significant in some meaningful way. I'm sure we'll get someone say "We planted these clues through all of your adventures so far" at some point, but I want this heaven, hell, and death business to finally resolve itself. Which we probably won't get judging from the previews. The Doctor is going back to school? Come on now.