He’s been played by many actors, but I like this new version a lot. He looks smart in that tailored black coat. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and has difficulty understanding human emotions. He has a razor sharp intellect, puts his companions through hell and can stare down any adversary. Yes, it’s always a treat to sit down to a new episode of Sherlock. (See what I did there? Of course you did. It’s the most obvious opening imaginable but still I couldn’t resist it.)
I bloody love Sherlock, which I think of as Doctor Who’s sexy younger cousin. Recently I’ve been catching up with series 3 of it (yes, I know, give me a break. I usually only have time for ABC Kids and a weekly Random Who), and it always impresses. And watching Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance brought to mind the latest version of our Time Lord friend played with blistering style by Peter Capaldi. Given that both have sprung from the imagination of showrunner Steven Moffat, it’s surely not to big a leap to suggest one’s an influence on the other.
But it’s not just the lead characters which look alike. Time Heist, a kind of Doctor Who does Ocean’s Eleven, has a Sherlocky feel which suggests that the shows themselves are starting to adopt a common aesthetic. It’s co-written by Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat, collaborators on Sherlock. And like Sherlock it’s a puzzle box, full of mysteries, clues, narrative trickery and misdirection. And while in Time Heist it’s the Doctor and his gang who are committing the crime, he’s also simultaneously solving a mystery in idiosyncratic style. It’s not too hard to imagine a Sherlock episode with Time Heist‘s plot. Minus the big silent alien badass desperately trying to reunite with his mate, natch. (That’s different to the big silent alien badass desperately trying to reunite with his mate from Hide, right?)
The other thing going on in this episode in duplication; everyone seems to have a mirror image. Delphox (Keeley Hawes) turns out to be the clone of Karabraxos (also Keeley Hawes). There’s not just one Teller (Ross Mullan), but two. Saibra’s (Pippa Bennett-Walker) special power is to duplicate. And most significantly, the Doctor is also the Architect of the whole scheme. This echoes this season’s central theme of whether or not the new Doctor is a good man.
Ultimately, it’s never really in question though. The Doctor’s end is always to perform good, it’s only his means which are questionable. And sometimes shockingly harsh; in both Into the Dalek and Mummy on the Orient Express he leads people frightened for their lives to wrongly believe he can save them, in order to press an advantage. We can see this brutal pragmatism in Sherlock‘s version of Holmes, a man prepared to fool a woman into a relationship with him to access an office or to drug his family to steal a laptop.
What does having an anti-hero as your leading man mean? It is, I think a balancing act, and one which Sherlock gets a little bit more right than Doctor Who. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is insufferable, but somehow irresistible. He’s allowed, certainly in Season Three, to be funny, charming and occasionally fallible. Capaldi’s Doctor, on the other hand, is too much anti, not enough hero. There’s a twinkle in Cumberbatch’s eye which lets the audience warm to him. Capaldi’s cold hard exterior is still a little too impenetrable. I’ll be surprised if over the course of his next few seasons he’s not softened a little.
Funny thing is, anti-heroes are common to caper films. The leading men (always men) have to be charming, because they’re basically criminals. Think of Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, where Leonardo Di Caprio’s character pulls off a massive fraud but you can’t help but root for him. Michael Caine in The Italian Job or George Clooney in Ocean’s Various Numbers, loveable rogues all.
But back to Time Heist itself. It also shares Sherlock‘s tendency to not play entirely fair with its audience. I don’t try to solve Sherlock‘s mysteries anymore because I’m not smart enough. But also because it pulls a few sly tricks. A character’s killed, for instance. Definitely dead. Definitely them. Oh wait a minute, no, they’re alive! Scant explanation and move on. But I forgive it because it’s all so stylish. And I’m trying to keep up because, you know, not smart enough.
But the numerous twists in Time Heist feel like they change the episode’s premise too much and unfairly late in the game. It’s a bank heist, it’s a bank heist, it’s a bank heist, no, it’s a prison break. The monster’s just misunderstood. Karabraxos is the one who started it all. They all feel like conclusions no audience member could be expected to anticipate. They don’t come across as intriguing surprises. More like artificial devices to misfoot the audience. Perhaps it sounds sulky, but Time Heist breaks a deal with its audience to play by the rules it sets up. It’s a promise Sherlock just about manages to stay on the right side of.
Just a quick word about Clara, played as ever with poise by Jenna Coleman. She’s dragged along on this jaunt unwillingly when the Doctor says he needs her help. Frankly, he needn’t have bothered. While the other members of the miscellaneous gang all have their parts to play in the heist, Clara adds precisely nothing. Nothing, except getting attacked by the alien and stalked down some corridors. A depressing return to the bad old days for companions, and a rare misstep for new Who. And a counterpoint to a point of view I’ve heard expressed that this season has concentrated too much on Clara. Certainly not this episode, it hasn’t.
Still, her presence allows for a closing conversation with the Doctor which offers us an opportunity for some audience participation:
CLARA: See you. Don’t rob any banks.
AUDIENCE: You didn’t this time. Remember? That was the big twist. Well, one of them.
DOCTOR: Don’t rob any banks what?
AUDIENCE: You didn’t rob the bank!
CLARA: Without me.
AUDIENCE: Well, to be honest, you didn’t actually help much this time.
DOCTOR: Robbing a bank.
AUDIENCE: No you didn’t.
DOCTOR: Robbing a whole bank.
AUDIENCE: No you sodding didn’t! You were the one who pointed that out!
DOCTOR: Beat that for a date.
AUDIENCE: Oh, bugger this. When’s Sherlock back?
LINK to The Daleks… Both partially set in subterranean complexes.
NEXT TIME… Let’s pay a visit to Think Tank. We can ask them to demonstrate Kettlewell’s Robot.
It does sometimes seem like Steven Moffat’s greatest fear is that anyone will predict or even anticipate how a story will end. As a storytelling technique, I fear it has diminishing returns because it focuses the viewer on the writer’s skill rather than the story itself.
And you’re right, given the season arc (and the need to double-bank) they could have easily done this without Clara, especially as the Doctor has two extra ‘companions’ to play with anyway. Shown us what the Doctor gets up to when Clara’s in school.
Thanks for commenting again, Paul. Keep ’em coming!
The Moff may well live in fear of being predictable. I have a theory about this. He’s clearly a very clever man. I’d hate to be the person who has to constantly entertain and surprise him. Luckily the person who has to do that 24 hours a day is… himself.
So he seems to write stories to try and engage and surprise his own mighty mind, in the expectation that if he manages it, it will probably engage and surprise the audience too. And I think he’s generally right.
That’s why I think his storylines are so twisty turny, to coin a Moffatesque phrase. Because he’s trying to stay one step ahead of himself.
I think also we shouldn’t underestimate how hard it must be to come up with genuinely new ideas for Doctor Who. I mean the thing’s been going for 52 years, five of them under Moffat’s stewardship. 9 times out of 10 ideas must hit the wastepaper basket with a exasperated cry of “we’ve done it already”. So the twisty turny may also be a way of keeping things fresh.
I have always thought that this episode would have worked much better in between Kill The Moon and Orient Express, with Clara absent except for a scene at the end where she phones the Doctor for that “final fling.”