The best part of tonight's episode was the beginning. I loved the heist setup: from the mysterious phone call, to everyone losing their memory, to the bank at Karabraxos. After that, it was a fairly standard runabout-by-numbers, with predictable reveals, a liberal dash of synapse-scrambling timey-wimeyness, and the occasionally wonky secondary character.
In its favour, it looked simply gorgeous. Douglas Mackinnon did a great job of replicating that heist movie feel, with the overhead photography, and slow-mo walks to camera. This was such a different looking episode to last week's 'Listen'. (Which Mackinnon also directed.) The guy's got variety, I'll give him that. And I loved the bulk of the plot. Yes, the future-self saving present-self story is getting a little old, but when done right can produce effective results, and I think they did a decent job tonight. It was the character stuff I found hard to warm to.
Psi deleted all memory of his friends and family from his mind. Why? Well, the reason he deleted his accomplices is self evident—to save them from punishment. Likewise, he deleted his family to protect them from incarceration. But why delete his friends? Because he panicked? It just felt like a bit of a non-answer. Obviously, Psi having nobody to flash before his eyes pre-death should have been a moment of profound sadness, but the setup was so sketchy, that it was hard to take seriously. To me, it felt like stretching credulity for the sake of pathos.
And although Saibra's affliction was admittedly inconvenient, it didn't have permanent consequences, as she was able to change back at will. So her question 'Could you trust someone who looked back at you out of your own eyes?', although creepy, was a little redundant, as it would never happen that way. All she'd have to do is stop touching them and change back. Admittedly, sex would be a bit weird, but this is why we have off switches on lights. Or on switches, if you're a narcissist who likes the idea of going to town on yourself. The Whoniverse is weird by default; there are far worse things than being an unwilling shape-shifter. We've had human trampolines, people turning into paving stones, and they all somehow managed to lead productive lives.
I don't want to focus too much on Saibra's hand not changing colour when she touched Clara, I think that was just a shooting error, and Saibra was generally a well drawn/acted character. They just went overboard trying to pull on our heartstrings. Saibra and Psi's loneliness didn't convince, because their back-stories didn't quite work, thus the emotional pay-off was zilch. In a similar vein, it was impossible to feel anything for the repentant Madame Karabraxos, because a lifetime of clone-killing generally makes for an unlikeable character.
Which really is the crux of the problem. There were some great ideas on offer, but they were undercut by a myriad of tiny character flaws. Everything felt too disjointed. A lot of the pieces were interesting in themselves, but together they just seemed messy. For the last couple of episodes I've been going on about being unable to imagine anyone else delivering Capaldi's lines; well tonight I could totally see Matt Smith in his place. There was nothing to distinguish Capaldi's Doctor tonight. The script wasn't even particularly quotable.
The monster of the week story was enjoyable, however. The Teller and his missus was a nice twist, and although Madame Karabraxos' deathbed turnaround didn't necessarily endear her to us, it did make me feel a lot more charitable towards the Teller. And my favourite Ashes to Ashes crush, Keeley Hawes, played a serviceable if conventional foe, with a history I once again guessed due to her 'my face fits' comment. I even guessed The Architect would be the Doctor. When do I ever get anything right? But everything was just so predictable. It's rare I see the bones of an episode (to be fair, I'm rarely on the lookout), but tonight virtually everyone was a walking skeleton.
I also guessed that the exit strategy would be benign. Damn it! I took the Doctor's laid-back attitude towards Psi and Saibra's deaths as evidence that he knew something we didn't. I was wrong, but the conclusion I drew from it was correct. Which raises all manner of intriguing questions about Twelve's empathy towards humans. He seemed willing to sacrifice everyone to complete the mission. The fact that they were all willing participants in the heist obviously gave him pause for thought, but it was still something of a leap of faith.
If there was any nestled season-arc continuity (apart from the 'woman in shop' reference at the beginning), I missed it. This felt like a solely stand-alone caper, with a generic monster (seemingly unrelated to cyborgs), some sumptuous visuals, occasionally clumsy exposition, and a plot which tied up neatly at the end. So why did it feel so flat? It wasn't a bad episode, in fact there was much to recommend it, it just never quite managed to emotionally engage. Appearing in the running order after 'Listen' and the three episodes which preceded it didn't help much, either.
—It's hard to make running down corridors look interesting, especially when it's been done so many times before. Even the Doctor looked distinctly fed-up with it.
—Wait! I say there was no continuity, but what about Psi? He was a cyborg. Coincidence? Perhaps he'll be back later in the season.
—A comparatively quiet week for Clara. She didn't do much beyond ask the right questions at the right time, and run around. Great outfit, though.
—Would Saibra have called the Doctor a 'good man' if she'd known how emotionlessly he'd react to her 'death'?—Is Clara making excuses for the Doctor or rightly defending him?
—More conveniently placed service tunnels, this time in a bank—of all places.
—The 'Shut up. Shutity-up-up-up' stuff I didn't enjoy at all. It just felt wrong coming out of Twelve's mouth.
—'Don't think' sounds awfully close to 'don't blink' which sounds awfully close to 'don't breathe'. What's next: don't exist?
Psi: 'I still don't understand why you're in charge.'
Doctor: 'Basically, it's the eyebrows.'
Doctor: 'We're getting sanity judgement from the self-burner.'
Doctor: 'Hello, big man. Peckish?'
Doctor: 'There are so many memories in here. Feast on them. Tuck in. Big scarf, bow tie, bit embarrassing. What do you think of the new look? I was hoping for minimalism, but I think I came up with magician!'