The Fine Art of the Decompression Episode

As a writer watching writers, one of my favorite things to study is what I call the Decompression Episode.

I’ve talked about it before, but to elaborate: The Decompression Episode is a lighter episode of any given dramatic series. It usually follows an especially heavy episode, but doesn’t necessarily have to. It typically stands apart from any major story arcs, but may still at least hint at them. It exists to allow audiences (and sometimes the cast and crew) to recover from an especially heavy or eventful dramatic moment or arc.

The challenge of such an episode is to maintain a lighter tone than what the series usually offers, while still remaining true to the spirit of the story and characters. Not every series can pull it off. But when you do, you get something like The X-Files‘ “Bad Blood” (Vince Gilligan’s classic vampire comedy) or The Human Division‘s “The Dog King” (John Scalzi, man. John Scalzi…).

And even if you don’t reach those heights, you might still get something like Doctor Who‘s “Time Heist.”

There really isn’t much to say about the plot of this episode. It’s a heist movie with the Doctor. In fact, I can pretty easily imagine that being the entire pitch from Stephen Thompson and Steven Moffat: “It’s a heist movie… with the Doctor!”

The Obligatory Slow Motion Walk

And “Time Heist” (directed with flair by Douglas Mackinnon) has all the elements we’ve come to expect of the genre. A team of disparate individuals, led by a charismatic, dominating personality, forced to work together by a shadowy figure. A target so secure nobody has ever broken in and lived to tell about it (and the “Teller” who makes good on that threat is a fine addition to the show’s rogues gallery of monsters). A smooth, menacing antagonist. The moment when everything goes wrong. The twist at the end that reveals that said moment Has Been Prepared For. Even the obligatory slow-motion walk that serves no purpose but to show how cool our heroes are.

There’s none of the chills of “Listen.” None of the personal drama of “Deep Breath” or “Into the Dalek.” There’s just a toy box filled with tropes, and a cast and crew having fun with all of them.

It’s a little surprising to think that Doctor Who has never really attempted this kind of story before. But even though it seems like such a great idea in hindsight, I’m not sure it could have worked before. An episode like “Time Heist” needs an [anti]hero who’s smart, brash, witty, and far more confident in himself than the situation can justify. It needs an actor who can keep you guessing, not just about what’s going on around him, but about him. It needs a Doctor like Twelve, and an actor like Peter Capaldi.

But just like any good team, Capaldi’s not alone. The entire cast breezes through this episode with confidence and enthusiasm, from Jenna Coleman’s slightly bewildered Clara (there’s always a slightly bewildered right hand) to Jonathan Bailey’s amnesiac hacker (there’s always a tech guy) to Pippa Bennett-Warner’s shape-shifter (there’s always a master of disguise). And even though you know Keeley Hawes is playing a type we’ve seen too many times on the show (the “evil sexy librarian”), she’s so clearly enjoying herself that you just go with it.

That’s pretty much true for the entire episode. There’s no deeper meaning, although the Doctor does show traces of humanity that suggest he’s learning from the mistakes of “Into the Dalek.” You’ll guess the identity of “the Architect” long before the Doctor figures it out, but you’ll still enjoy the rant that reveals it. You may well forget everything that happens, but you’ll still come out of it with a smile on your face.

This is the kind of episode I’ve been hoping for since “The Day of the Doctor.” The kind of episode I’ve been hoping for since Capaldi was cast. The kind of episode that’s not afraid to just have a good time. And most importantly of all, the kind of episode that lets you in on the fun.

That’s really the best kind of Decompression Episode.

Thanks as always for following along – until next time…

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