A Familiar Architect, Doctor Who: Time Heist, Reviews, 21/09/2014

Is Clara the Clooney, the Damon, or the Cheadle?
Because she's definitely not the Julia Roberts.
I don’t think this review will end up running quite as long as my previous encounters with this season of Doctor Who, simply because I’m not sure that there’s very much to say. It’s strange, yet strangely appropriate, for an episode so jam-packed with interesting sci-fi ideas. However, I’m going to have to say 


from the very beginning, since so much of my discussion will depend upon the plot. Unlike much of Doctor Who so far this season, Time Heist actually consists almost entirely of plot. Aside from the regulars, none of the characters exist much beyond sympathetic plot-functional entities, and the episode basically plays out Doctor Who by the numbers. 

Now, given the immense complexity of Doctor Who as a 51 year multimedia text with thousands of different authors, there isn’t really literally such a thing as ordinary Doctor Who. Within a given creative era of Doctor Who, however, there is. While the thematic concerns of the Steven Moffat playbook are particularly wide, every time you revisit those themes, you should have a slight variation on them to prevent repetition and keep the text creative. There are many ways to express a single idea because expression, even of simple ideas, can be infinitely and infinitesimally complex.

I got the feeling that the palette of strong primary colours
throughout the corridor-running sequences of Time Heist
were supposed to have some deeper set of symbolic
meanings. No idea what they could be, though.
Much of the success of Time Heist’s central narrative conceit — Doctor Who crashes into a heist movie — must rest in its direction, as the modern heist film is defined by the visual panache of its slick cinematography and snappy editing. Yet aside from a few striking shots designed in homage to the Soderbergh Oceans films, Douglas McKinnon doesn’t really do much other than film the actors running through the same corridor set lit in different colours.

So the story is left to rest on its ideas, of which there are many. But, like the characterization and story, their treatment remains superficial.

The plot itself is a conceit typical of the Moffat era: a giant MacGuffin covering up an ethical motivation. The insanely wealthy Karabraxos, dying of old age in hospital and filled with regret, calls the Doctor to assign him to rob her own bank when she’s in middle age. The purpose is to free the enslaved Teller creatures, security guards whose powerful telepathic abilities are easily weaponized to mind-wipe fatally anyone suspected of stealing from her bank. 

The middle-aged Karabraxos is precisely the type of cold-hearted rich person as to keep an enslaved telepath as a lethal security system, as she regularly cycles through clones of herself to fill her own bank’s upper management positions. She also feels no remorse about incinerating her own clones when they fail performance reviews or make unacceptable mistakes. In this sense, she makes for a brilliant critique of the current regime of bankers and financiers. However, the story never lingers on the details of Karabraxos' evil long enough or in sufficient detail to make the political critique of our own society anything more than a sketchy reflection, a hazy image.

The apparent villain that's really a sort of victim is another
aspect of the revisionist conception of the monster in Doctor
Who that has become a common trope of the current creative
era. But even the revision is growing old.
The guest characters are charming and ethically kind enough to be sympathetic rogues of the sort common to most non-moralizing crime fiction. There’s a man who’s part-computer, allowing him literally to plug himself into computer systems. There’s a woman who can shape-shift into anyone from whom she has a cell sample. The entire heist itself has been pre-arranged, as if someone has travelled back in time from the future to place the necessary tools where they should be for the team to carry on its task.

In case you’re at all unsure as to who this mysterious time-traveller is who has pointedly manipulated all the protagonists of the episode into doing exactly what he wants them to do, the Doctor identifies the mysterious “Architect” as just such a manipulative, callous, man who thinks he’s entirely too clever. As the Doctor says, “I hate the Architect!” 

By this point, of course, he’s figured out that he’s the one who set up the details of the entire heist, then mind-wiped himself, Clara, and the rest of his team to protect them from the Teller. The Doctor’s self-loathing is yet another regular Moffat era trope. No longer having the excuse of the Time War’s trauma to make the Doctor hate himself, his self-hatred now only comes from the convenience of a writer falling back on tired story tropes. 

Wait, no, I mean the Doctor’s self-hatred is rooted in a more general disdain for the ethically worse elements of his own personality. We all share this in some way, because any reasonable amount of self-reflection and self-assessment reveals that our own personalities rarely measure up to our ideals. We want to be fair, but we sometimes act bitter and mean. We want to be kind, but we’re sometimes too irritated with unrelated concerns to listen with empathy to the problems of those we care about. We’re sometimes too sharp or too callous, and say things that we later wish we hadn’t. 

The Doctor may be holding a worm to erase his memory,
but he isn't really all that worm-like himself, no matter what
he may think when he feels bad about himself.
But these problems aren’t enough to motivate the kind of powerful self-hatred this script had the Doctor express. He isn’t guilty of genocide anymore; the Doctor doesn’t have to carry around the kind of psychological weight appropriate to that terror. Yet it flows from Stephen Thompson’s keyboard because that’s how, in the Moffat era, the Doctor expresses his regretful feelings. 

Phil Sandifer described Bob Baker and Dave Martin, a long-term writing team in the classic series, as having written some brilliant scripts filled with fantastic ideas to explore. The problem was that by the end of their tenure on Doctor Who, their wildly inventive scripts were just throwing ideas at the screen with little point or direction. There was a lot being said, but there was nothing left to say. 

If Thompson’s script reveals anything about Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who at the start of the Capaldi era, it may be that the show’s current production period is beginning to approach its point of creative repetition and the accompanying diminishing returns. If the best writers ever deliver such repetitious, creatively empty scripts, then we'll know it's time for a production changeover. Right now, it's only the middle-of-the-road writers like Thompson who deliver this kind of product. But when your reliable workhorses can't really hold it together, then the time for a change might be coming.


  1. Annoyingly, I just found this blog, and so am commenting on a post from September near the end of December. But if you read this, I'd just like to suggest that the Doctor's hatred of the Architect doesn't stem from self-loathing but from anger at being manipulated by someone who knows more than he does and can plan for every eventuality. Although less emotional than Capaldi's Doctor, the Seventh Doctor was visibly in "Battlefield" by how he was being manipulated by cryptic clues left behind by a future incarnation even though he must have realized that said future incarnation would have known he could save the day with the limited information contained in those clues. Honestly, most of the Doctors would have probably hated dealing with someone else with identical character traits. All the Doctors would, I think, have hated interacting with mirror-images of themselves that were bent on manipulating them for an unknown and possibly evil purpose.

    1. I like your interpretation, Alan, and I'm glad to hear from a new reader. Wander around the archives. I've made a lot of them already.

      This post describes my own reaction to the story. Although you're right that the Doctor generally dislikes interacting with other people similar to himself (especially when it's himself, as the mutual irritation scene is always an initial part of a multi-Doctor story), or being manipulated by cryptic clues from himself or a similar enemy.

      But the dominant mode of the Doctor's self-hatred expressions throughout the new series has been, in almost every case, rooted in Time War guilt, the ethical contradiction at the heart of his character since the revival that our hero was a genocidaire. The gravity and frequency of that expression makes it the default mode of the Doctor's self-hatred. And Capaldi doesn't just say he's irritated with "the Architect," as McCoy was with his future self in Battlefield. "I HATE the Architect." He hates that terrible pragmatism in his more manipulative nature that would sacrifice people for a greater good, the most horrifying articulation of which was the destruction of Gallifrey. It exerts a gravity over Doctor Who in the modern era that drowns out more nuanced accounts of these feelings in the character like yours.