MUMMY ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
The Orient Express….in space! And not just in space. With a mummy! Sounds appalling, right? But for once this season, the surprise here is a nice one. While it’s got its problems, Mummy On The Orient Express is head and shoulders above every other episode we’ve seen so far this season.
We’re now in the half of the season where they’re trotting out the scripts by new-to-Who writers. This, admittedly, didn’t help much in Kill The Moon, but when we found out that this episode was written by Jamie Mathieson, we were excited. Well, not excited. Not this season. But cautiously hopeful, because he’s also written for Dirk Gently. This series was slain in its cradle by the BBC due to budget cuts, but while it lasted it was original, intelligent, clever, funny, beautifully plotted and brilliantly acted. Sigh.
And our cautious optimism was justified. Big chunks of this are pretty good.
We start with a Downton-approved flapperganza and the death of someone so snobby she makes the Dowager Duchess look like a socialist. Inexplicably and magnificently, they manage to drag the mummy doing the deal-dealing over the line from hokey to scary. Good start.
And then the Doctor and Clara arrive, spiffed up to the nines (Clara in particular, with that dress and hair, looks stunning). It’s a bit jarring at first that they’re getting on so well, but all is soon explained when much to the Doctor’s discomfort, Clara insists on having The Conversation. The Doctor then has a debate with himself in which he produces an absolutely dead-on Tom Baker impersonation: bravo, and we can’t say we were immune to enjoying the Pyramids of Mars ref, either.
By now, we’re getting a decidedly classic Who feeling. And that only gets stronger. We know we’ve said we’re not fans of constant shout-outs to old episodes, but c’mon, that cigarette case with the jelly babies? We had to pause in order to squee at length. It’s enchanting.
Yep, it’s all there. The TARDIS team being (more or less) dropped into the action instead of spending the time in angsty navel-gazing. The Doctor and companion splitting up. The Doctor being suspected of being Behind It All.
“Classic Who” doesn’t necessarily mean “better Who”. Sure, we love the old stuff, but some of our favourite episodes are from the new series, so we’re not going to be whining on about how it was all so great in the olden days. (Not to mention that we remember the rubbish bits all too vividly.) But here they’ve borrowed from some of the things that made us fall in love with Doctor Who in the first place, and it really works.
On we go. The direction of this is very nice indeed - we love the liberal use of light coming through grilles - and there’s some very funny writing. (We particularly like the mystery shopper and the Doctor’s “I could do with an extra pillow and I’m very disappointed with your breakfast bar and all the dying”.) Deaths, deaths, Rent-A-Boffins, more deaths, the Doctor tries to figure out what’s going on and eventually succeeds. Job done. Just like the days of yore, right? Well, not quite. While the episode wears, shall we say, the bandages of the classic style, what you get when you unwrap it looks quite different.
Because it’s not really about the mummy, who lurches in, does its shtick, then is ridiculously easily dismissed. Some this is about the limited time available, but we think that’s secondary. Why the mummy, after its elaborate introduction, is got rid of so simply is that just like Skovox Blitzer in The Caretaker, it’s actually a McGuffin. The episode’s really about two other things, both of which should have an eerily familiar ring: the soldier issue, and the Doctor’s relationship with Clara.
The soldier issue has been pursuing us throughout the season, and this episode is no exception. There’s the train’s captain, who was wounded in battle and is now suffering from PTSD. There’s the Doctor, who addresses GUS thus: “Are you going to step out from behind the curtain and give us our orders?”.
And, of course, there’s the mummy itself, which turns out to be an ancient soldier. How the Doctor manages to work this out by assuming the scroll is a flag and taking it from there we’re not sure about: it’s too wild a leap for us. Nor can we follow the logic that has the Doctor surrendering to the mummy, thereby making the Doctor its prisoner of war (we guess), immediately followed by the mummy saluting the Doctor as if he was its superior officer. And the icing on the cake is the Doctor then telling the mummy, also as if he was its superior officer, “You’re relieved, soldier” and the mummy obediently disintegrating. Clearly the two of them have entered into some sort of military folie a deux, which fits the season’s theme of the Doctor being an officer splendidly but lags behind on the sense front. Oh, well. Don’t think about it too hard. It looks nice.
So there’s all of that. Even more important to the episode, though, is the way it’s scaffolded by Clara’s changing attitude to the Doctor.
It’s clear at the beginning that Clara’s line in the sand drawn at the end of the previous episode has become a bit scuffed and fuzzy since then. It’s the last time, but hoo boy, is she regretting that. As Maisie rather clunkily points out, you don’t always like the people you’re supposed to like, and disapprove of the Doctor as she might, Clara can’t help herself: she likes him and his time jumpin’ ways. She just does.
That all turns a bit sour, of course, when yet again we see the Doctor impassive as people are offed right and left. Clara? Not keen. And on the face of it, she’s got good reason, because he’s spectacularly cold. Nothing he says is actually incorrect: he’s right, for example, that they don’t have time to stand around and wring their hands when someone dies, but he’s utterly tone deaf to the human misery surrounding him. Because he isn’t human.
But did we say impassive? Because that’s really not fair. Look at the Doctor’s face as he surveys the corpses of the kitchen staff bobbing around outside like a particularly gruelling episode of Hell’s Kitchen. At first we thought he showed absolutely nothing, but we were wrong: the Doctor’s agony is subtle, but it’s there. And that’s good enough for us.
We’ve had many discussions about the way they’re portraying the Doctor this season. We have no problem with a dark Doctor. In fact, they’ve all had their dark sides in one way or another, and it’s only strengthened them as characters. What’s more, some of the more overtly dark ones are way up there as far as we’re concerned. Probably the Doctor closest to this one in apparent callousness is the Sixth Doctor, but we’ve always contended that anyone looking at the Sixth Doctor and seeing him indifferent to suffering isn’t looking anywhere near hard enough. Yes, he’s arrogant, but it’s always laced with compassion.
And that’s the thing. The Doctor can - and should - have a dark side, but if that’s all there is, then he’s not the Doctor any more.
They’ve clearly been working up to the final scene in Mummy On The Orient Express for quite a few episodes now. We’re seen the Doctor looking apparently unmoved by suffering, and Clara being disgusted by that, all through the season. Personally, we prefer the bits where you can work out for yourself what the Doctor’s really feeling, but obviously they felt this had become too big an issue to leave it in any doubt, so fair enough. Unsurprisingly, Peter Capaldi’s performance is so nuanced that any taint of Hold Still While We Explain This To You is banished anyway. As with everything else he does here, it’s…what’s the word…yep, perfect. Despite all the pretty costumes and the scary monster and all, it’s his performance that’s far and away the highlight of the episode.
So now the troubled look Clara had in The Caretaker after Danny commanded her to tell him everything has paid off. She didn’t like it then, and she’s ignoring him now. And not just ignoring him. Lying to him. This cannot end well.
We’d rather not absolutely everything was about The Doctor and Clara, or about the Doctor and soldiers for that matter. But they’ve done a good enough job with those bits, and wrapped them into a good enough story, for it to work far better than anything else they’ve attempted this season. A little way into the episode, one of us said “I can’t believe I’m not hating it!”. “Still plenty of time,” we reassured her. But at the end, her verdict was: “At least I haven’t got to the credits wondering why I’m still watching Doctor Who”. And that about sums it up. Score!
Why does the Doctor keep rubbing his arm?
DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM PART ONE
Viewers outside the UK: you must have wondered why Perkins got so much screen time, especially when it didn’t pay off into anything like him turning out to be GUS or whatever. The reason for those lingering shots is that Frank Skinner is a marquee name in the UK.
DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM PART TWO
Much as we like the Doctor in this, his line “One minute with me and this thing, it would be over” seems out of place. It’s not the first time they’ve flung one line into an episode to indicate this Doctor’s arrogance, but it always sits awkwardly. He’s arrogant all right, just not in that Sixth Doctorly boasty way.
A SMALL PHYSICAL PRESENCE
A hard light hologram, eh? So who’s the Red Dwarf fan on this show, anyway?
JUST A PHASE
There is, we suspect, an unfortunately large hole in the logic of the solution. The victims can see the mummy because it’s taken them out of phase: if we’ve got this right, that would mean that for everybody else they too would disappear at that point.